Steven Lee Myers, former Bureau Chief in Russia for the New York Times, has written what is probably the best biography of Putin so far. It is not only a detailed chronology of his rise to power but also an examination of how he maintains an unassailable position as Russian leader.
- Steven Lee Myers.
Starting with a poverty-stricken childhood in Leningrad, we follow him through school and on to Leningrad University from where he was recruited into the KGB. Joining the KGB had always been his goal and before going to university he made a naive attempt to join the organisation which was rebuffed. Maybe he was not so naive after all! Within the service he appeared to find the order and security which he believed the State should provide for its citizens. He also acquired a reputation as a reliable, honest and hard-working officer who refused to be involved in the corruption, intrigue and back-stabbing that was accepted as the norm. For this and his unswerving loyalty, he was plucked from obscurity and nominated by Yeltsin to be his successor. Putin's first act as President was to sign a decree exonerating Yeltsin from any wrongdoing.
Amidst the chaos of this period Putin sought to bring order for the millions of Russians whose only experience of the nascent democracy was the continuation of poverty, disorder and an increase in outright criminality. His reforms, tax cuts, increasing property rights and the re-establishment of order were welcomed by the vast majority. However, it is too easy to credit these early reforms to the memories of his childhood poverty and his early adulthood where the certainties and stability provided by belonging to the KGB were swept aside by "Glasnost" and the rapid break-up of the Soviet Union. Rather, these were the actions of a very astute politician intent on securing a wide base of support within the general population.
What rapidly followed these early reforms was the re-establishment of the State's authority with Putin at the centre in in complete control of all the levers of power. Democracy was merely an illusion with all political parties subject to state oversight and their leaders in thrall to Putin. Friends were put into positions of power and given opportunities to make vast fortunes provided that they remained loyal to their benefactor. Those who went against him were ruthlessly crushed, losing all their money, imprisoned or exiled. Far worse sanctions were applied to those who were openly critical or represented a real threat. The journalist, Anna Politkovkaya and the former KSB officer, Alexander Litvinenko, were murdered and Victor Yuschenko was extremely lucky to survive being poisoned.
Putin's international and foreign policy aspirations seemed to revolve around restoring Russia to its former great power status and relied on guile, threats and direct action (sometimes disguised).
What is obvious is that Putin has changed since coming to power and is now a cool and calculating leader with tremendous personal and international ambition and very few scruples. With his position virtually unassailable until 2024 and a high level of popular support, the rest of the world has been left to play catch-up with a reinvigorated Russia that is intent on securing a place in the new world order. It is essential to understand what drives Putin, where his true goals lie and what can be done to accommodate or thwart him.
With this, his first book, Steven Lee Myers has not only given us an opportunity to achieve a greater understanding of Putin but has also sounded alarm bells that we ignore at our peril.