From the bookshelf: ‘Putin: his life and times’
4 Oct 2022|

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been called the most dangerous man in the world.

How did he manage to rise from a communal apartment in suburban Leningrad and a mediocre early career in the KGB to become Russia’s all-powerful president, who after more than two decades in power might remain in office until 2036? And what has driven this former spy, who was once described as so forgettable that he ‘disappeared into the wallpaper’, to launch a war on Ukraine that has sparked a global energy and food crisis and taken Russia and its adversaries to the brink of a nuclear war?

Philip Short has written acclaimed biographies of the Chinese tyrant Mao Zedong, the Khmer Rouge despot Pol Pot, and the charismatic French president Francois Mitterrand. In Putin: his life and times, Short has surpassed himself with a biography that is both meticulously researched and wonderfully readable. Eight years in the making, and based on wide-ranging documentary sources and nearly 200 interviews, Short’s book stands head and shoulders above other recent Putin biographies.

Short anchors Putin’s life firmly in the sweep of Russian history. Starting from the ‘Great Patriotic War’, in which Putin’s father was wounded, the book takes the reader through the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation’s early years under President Boris Yeltsin, and Putin’s rise to power at the turn of the millennium. It concludes with his attack on Ukraine early this year.

Short is at pains to paint a balanced picture of a leader who is both strategically skilled and dangerously flawed. Despite suggestions that Putin is under severe stress, Short reminds us that he keeps his emotions in check, weighs decisions carefully and is highly disciplined, starting the day with a rigorous workout, laps in his Olympic-sized pool and a plate of kasha (buckwheat porridge).

Leaders who have met Putin describe him as well briefed, direct and action-oriented, but also as introverted, manipulative and frequently ill at ease. At school, he was rebellious and trouble-prone. While on a KGB training program, he broke his arm in a fight and was labelled as having ‘a lowered sense of danger’. His middling performance gained him a backwater assignment in Dresden, East Germany’s second largest city, rather than a plum posting in a Western capital.

On returning to Saint Petersburg, he shifted into high gear, first rising to become deputy mayor and then moving to Moscow, where an impressed Boris Yeltsin anointed Putin as his successor. As president, Putin consolidated his power by reining in the media and oligarchs. The media mogul Boris Berezovsky fled to London, and was later found dead, while Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the head of the oil giant Yukos, was consigned to Siberia.

Putin gradually replaced the oligarchs with his cronies from Saint Petersburg and the former KGB. However, he was never interested in real reform and Russia’s economy remains underdeveloped and deeply corrupt.

According to Short, Putin is driven by two concerns: his desire to restore Russia to its former glory and his disillusionment with an American-led world order. Putin frequently calls the collapse of the Soviet Union ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century’. He is particularly bitter about Russia’s loss of its ‘near abroad’, the former Soviet republics; the ‘colour revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine; and NATO’s expansion.

Initially, Putin tried to build relations with the West, but once the political utility of Russia’s natural gas reserves became clear, the muscle-flexing began. Putin is convinced of Russia’s exceptionality and in 2011 told Vice President Joe Biden that while Russians and Americans resemble each other physically, ‘inside we have very different values’.

Short’s narrative is peppered with anecdotes. On a state visit to the United Kingdom, Putin complained to his aides about the pomp and ceremony, including having to wear tails to dinner with the queen. When Prime Minister Tony Blair was showing him the cabinet’s secure crisis meeting facilities, Putin noted: ‘You know how we deal with Islamic terrorists? We kill them.’

Short details the many political murders that have taken place during Putin’s time in office, from the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky to the former spy Aleksander Litvinenko and journalist Anna Politkovskaya. After an attempt to poison him failed, Putin’s principal rival Alexei Navalny is now languishing in jail.

Putin has moved to entrench himself in two stages. In 2008, Dmitry Medvedev, who was keeping the presidential seat warm for Putin after his first two terms, initiated a constitutional amendment extending the presidential term to six years. That allowed Putin to be re-elected until 2024. In 2020, a further amendment was approved removing the word ‘consecutive’ from the two-term limit and specifying that previous terms would not be counted. This allows Putin to be re-elected in 2024 and again in 2030.

Internationally cornered and with domestic support beginning to crumble, Putin’s next moves are a major concern. Short provides valuable insights into the mindset of Russia’s autocratic leader.