Putin: His Life and Times
Author: Philip Short
Publisher: Henry Holt
In the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Moscow suddenly felt different. My wife and I were overwhelmed by expressions of sympathy and solidarity. Russians we had never met faxed condolence letters. A teary-eyed stranger stopped me on the street brandishing a picture of herself at the World Trade Centre from a trip years earlier. The outside of the American Embassy was carpeted with flowers, icons, crosses, candles and a note that said, “We were together at the Elbe, we will be together again.”
A young master of the Kremlin named Vladimir Putin seemed to take that to heart, pledging steadfast support for the United States. For a heady moment, it seemed as if the planet’s two dominant nuclear powers would rekindle the World War II alliance that led Russian and American troops to meet at Germany’s Elbe River in 1945. But now as then, it would not last. The sense of goodwill soon evaporated, and the illusion that Putin was a Western-oriented moderniser was shattered. Two decades later, Russia and America are facing off in a twilight struggle in Ukraine arguably as dangerous as the Cold War.
Was that Putin’s fault or ours? Was it inevitable that Putin would come to see himself as a latter-day Peter the Great seeking to re-establish the czarist empire or could we have done more to anchor a post-Soviet Russia in the community of nations? Now weighing into the debate is the British journalist Philip Short, with his expansive new biography, which sees the rift between East and West largely through the eyes of its protagonist.
Short’s account is both perfectly and unfortunately timed, arriving just when we most need to understand Putin, yet missing the chapter that may yet define his place in history. The invasion of Ukraine does not take place until Page 656 of a 672-page text, having erupted just as Short was completing eight years of research and composition.
But if the story is unavoidably incomplete, Short’s version nonetheless offers a compelling, impressive and methodically researched account of Putin’s life so far. He plumbs an array of sources, including his own interviews, to reconstruct the tale of a street brawler from a bleak communal apartment in postwar Leningrad who embarks on a mediocre career as a mid-level KGB officer in East Germany only to make a stunning leap to power in Moscow following the chaos of 1990s post-Soviet Russia.
Short, a former journalist with the BBC, The Economist, and The Times of London, adds to the library of insightful books about the Russian autocrat. But unlike those Russia specialists, he comes to his subject as a chronicler of some of history’s biggest villains, having written biographies of Pol Pot and Mao Zedong.
As critics observed about those volumes, Short’s determination to present a fully realised portrait of Putin may strike some as excessively sympathetic. “The purpose of this book is neither to demonize Putin — he is more than capable of doing that himself — nor to absolve him of his crimes,” Short writes, “but to explore his personality, to understand what motivates him and how he has become the leader that he is.”
In fact, he does absolve Putin of several crimes. Short opens with an extended examination of the never-solved apartment bombings of 1999 that were blamed on Chechen terrorists but suspected of being a government conspiracy to cement Putin’s path to power. Short exonerates Putin. It is a curious way to start a book about an autocrat who is currently bombing plenty of other apartments in Ukraine.
Yet Short’s book is no hagiography. He extensively covers the dark moments of Putin’s career — the levelling of Grozny during the second Chechen war, the reckless handling of the Moscow theatre siege, the cynical exploitation of the terrorist attack on a school in Beslan to consolidate power, the crackdown on dissent at home, including the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei A Navalny. The Putin of Short’s book is not someone you would invite to dinner; he is crude and cold, arrogant and heartless. He is unmoved when his wife is in a serious car accident or when his dog is run over. His wife, a believer in astrology, once said he must have been born under the sign of the vampire. She is now, not surprisingly, his ex-wife.
There are small errors — Short writes, for example, that Start II was “still unratified by the U.S. Congress” in 2010 when the treaty was ratified in 1996 — but these invariably slip into any work of this size and scope. More debatable may be some of his conclusions. Every Russian outrage is likened to some Western perfidy.
Short advances the Russian argument that America betrayed a “promise” by Secretary of State James A Baker III in 1990 that NATO jurisdiction would not move “one inch to the east.” In fact, Baker floated the idea during negotiations over reunification of Germany but later walked it back, and no such commitment was included in the resulting treaty that did extend NATO to East Germany with Moscow’s assent. By contrast, Short makes no mention of an actual promise Russia made in a 1994 agreement guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty and forswearing the use of force against it, an accord Putin has obviously broken.
It may be that the moments of Russian-American friendship were all exceptions to a generational struggle destined to be waged for decades to come. Putin seems to think so. Short recounts Putin’s memory of his meeting with Vice President Joe Biden in 2011.
“Don’t be under any illusion,” he told the future president. “We only look like you. … Russians and Americans resemble each other physically. But inside we have very different values.” Certainly, Biden would agree with that today.