Now is the best time and the worst time to publish a comprehensive biography of President Vladimir Putin. The best because of much-intensified interest in Putin’s motivations and character following his shattering decision to invade Ukraine. The worst because the war has provoked profound emotional and political resistance towards adopting a nuanced and rational assessment of his life and career.
Putin’s adventurist attack on Ukraine has contradicted his erstwhile reputation as a cool, calculating and pragmatic politician. Yet, as biographer Philip Short reports, even as a child Putin was attracted to risk and motivated by a desire to be and to do something different from everyone else. As a youth judo champion, he was fond of making unexpected moves to throw his opponents off balance — the essence of skilful judo.
“Readers expecting to find a distillation of the turpitudes of the Russian regime will be disappointed,” warns the author of this riveting biography. “The purpose of this book is neither to demonise Putin nor to absolve him of his crimes, but to explore his personality, to understand what motivates him and how he has become the leader he is.”
While there are hundreds of books about Putin, hardly any are biographies. Short has also written acclaimed biographies of Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung and Francois Mitterrand and he is sure-footed in guiding the reader through the maze of myth and misinformation surrounding the Russian president. Indeed, if there is one book about Putin everyone should read, this is it.
Short begins by demolishing the progenitor of Putin-related conspiracy theories — that in 1999 Russian Intelligence planted bombs in apartment buildings to kill hundreds of people and, thus, generate an atmosphere of crisis to propel Putin into power as Russia’s president, successor to Boris Yeltsin.
There is no evidence that Putin was responsible for these bombings, and the same is true of most other allegations of his malfeasance. Of his many prominent opponents who have been murdered or who have died in suspicious circumstances, Short identifies only one — former intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko — as someone whose death can be firmly laid at Putin’s feet.
Short does not exonerate Putin since it is his regime that has normalised political violence. He may not have given the orders, but he has personally allowed others to get away with murder by turning a blind eye to less-than-rigorous criminal investigations. While Short discounts various claims that Putin has amassed fabulous wealth, he has allowed others in his entourage to enrich themselves. “While not a criminal or blatantly corrupt himself,” says Short, “he could live with those who were”.
Short provides an absorbing account of Putin’s tough childhood in 1950s Leningrad, his years as a law student and his service as a KGB intelligence officer. The KGB was Putin’s career choice — as a child, he fantasised about being a Russian James Bond — and he later served as chief of the KGB’s successor organisation, the FSB, but he was never one of the organisation’s high-flyers.
As a German speaker, Putin served in communist East Germany and witnessed the mass demonstrations that breached the Berlin Wall in 1989. He entered politics in the early 1990s when the USSR was on the verge of collapse and spent five years working for the liberal mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak. It’s possible he joined Sobchak’s office as a KGB spy, but he soon won lots of plaudits as the mayor’s right-hand man — the go-to person who could be trusted to get things done.
In 1996, Putin moved to Moscow to work for Yeltsin, becoming FSB head in 1997 and prime minister in 1998. On January 1st, 2000, he became acting president and won handsomely in the presidential election a few months later. He served two four-year terms and then shifted to being prime minister while his long-time friend, Dmitry Medvedev, occupied the presidency. Putin returned to the top office in 2012 and was re-elected in 2018. His popularity among the electorate has rarely dipped below 60 per cent and his current approval rating is about 80 per cent.
Importantly, Short provides a narrative arc to help us understand how the originally pro-western, liberal-leaning and democratically-inclined Putin came to preside over an increasingly authoritarian regime.
Putin’s initial aim was to establish Russia as a normal, democratic society with a market economy and democratic politics. But the political chaos of the Yeltsin era convinced him Russia needed to retain a strong state: “The state must be there as much as necessary, freedom should be there as much as required,” he said in an early interview. “The stronger the state, the freer the individual,” he told the voters.
He supported competitive multiparty politics but also believed parties should be held accountable to the state. Citizens could think and say what they liked, but the state should frame public opinion by controlling the mass media, while the robber-baron oligarchs who’d made fortunes in the wild 1990s could keep their money as long as they stayed out of politics.
During Putin’s first decade in power the state expanded its control of the political sphere but Russia remained a pluralistic regime, with citizens able to exercise a considerable degree of individual freedom. His second decade in power, however, has been marked by a pronounced conservative turn. He has rejected western liberalism and its identity politics. He is striving to restore traditional Christian and family values. He insists that Russia’s historians should focus on good stories about their country, above all the great victory over Nazi Germany. He has clamped down on foreign funding of Russian NGOs, marginalised liberal elements in his own administration and authorised direct repression of outspoken political opponents such as Alexei Navalny.
His anti-western, authoritarian turn has accelerated since the launch of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Putin’s domestic politics have always been intimately connected to his foreign policy, as Short points out: “It has been a constant of Russian politics for at least the last century that a less adversarial relationship with the West translates into greater freedoms at home.”
Until recently, Putin had always said Russia was primarily a European power, a state whose destiny was bound up with Europe’s, a country whose security could be assured by integration with the West, albeit on the basis of equality, respect and acceptance of cultural and political differences.
By invading Ukraine, Putin has signalled his determination to stop by force Nato’s expansion towards Russia’s borders and to crush what he perceives as the threat of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism. But even more important is his willingness to break with Europe and, if necessary, to isolate Russia from the West. How he seeks to achieve a new role and identity for Russia in world politics may well become the next important chapter in his biography.
Short’s fine book shows Putin to be an immensely able politician with a surprising depth of intellect. He may well have over-reached by deciding to resolve his Ukraine problem by brute force but both friends and enemies would be well-advised not to underestimate him.
- Geoffrey Roberts is emeritus professor of history at UCC and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. His latest book is Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books.