This book pieces together the life of Vladimir Putin with the recent history of Russia, covering events up to 2015. When Putin was born 1n 1952 Russia was part of a larger USSR still ruled by Joseph Stalin.
The USSR suffered badly during WW2 when it made a critical contribution to victory against Nazi Germany. The communist propaganda used WW2 to create the myth of the “Great Patriotic War” conveniently forgetting, though, that Stalin had carried a significant responsibility for this war as he had initially allied himself with Hitler and jointly invaded Poland.
By the time Putin entered politics, the USSR had fragmented into 15 separate states and had lost control over the six countries in Eastern Europe which had been part of the Warsaw Pact. Russian revanchism features prominently in Putin’s politics.
Putin as an unlikely politician
Putin started his career in the secret services (known as KGB) in 1975. One of his friends made this prescient observation: “He has a fault which is objectively bad for the special services: he takes risks. One should be more cautious, and he is not”.
In 1990 Putin became an appointed administrator, first in St Petersburg and then in Moscow, and was subsequently appointed as head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) that had replaced the KGB.
Unexpectedly, in 1999 Yeltsin appointed Putin as Prime Minister: Putin had never taken part in any election, and many thought he would not last.
Putin’s premiership started with his decision to send Russian soldiers in Chechnya, in what became known as the Second Chechen War. This coincided with terrorist attacks in Russia attributed to extremists linked to Chechnya. However, some sources have suggested that the 1999 bombings might have been a false flag attack coordinated by the Russian security service in order to win support for the war in Chechnya, which also boosted the popularity of Vladimir Putin.
From democracy to dictatorship
Seven months after his appointment as Prime Minister, Putin stood into the Presidential Elections in March 2000. Putin refused to participate in any debates, speeches, or rallies. He did not need to, as he had control on the output from state television networks. According to Myers, this was the last election in Russia that could be vaguely called democratic.
From that point onward, elections were rigged, whilst independent media and the opposition were suppressed.
Viktor Yushchenko was a victim of poisoning in 2004, when he challenged the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine’s presidential elections. Yushchenko survived the poisoning but lost the elections due to flagrant fraud. What followed became known as Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, which forced a repeat election in which Yushchenko won.
Another victim of poisoning was Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the secret services who had become a critic of Russian autocracy and had fled to London. In 2006, after accusing Putin of ordering the assassination of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Litvinenko was poisoned. In a statement, dictated whilst dying, Litvinenko said: “You have shown you have no respect for life, liberty or any civilised value …you may succeed in silencing one man, but a howl of protests from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life”.
A number of Putin’s critics have been poisoned. This could be a way to eliminate opponents through a mysterious illness.
Myers provides evidence of widespread corruption in Putin’s Russia.
The story of Valery Morozov says it all. Morozov was asked to pay a bribe to win a public building contract and decided to report this to the police. A sting operation was arranged to record the payment of the bribe, but no further action was taken.
Mr Morozov went public, but this resulted in the prosecutors opening an investigation on him. The lesson was clear: if you kick a fuss you are punished. In the end, Mr Morozov fled to Britain where he applied for political asylum.
Morozov was luckier than Sergei Magnitsky, who paid with his life for reporting corruption. Magnitsky had worked for William Browder, who had invested in Russia but had subsequently been banned from visiting the country. Browder’s companies were then reregistered under new owners, all of whom with a criminal history, who involved these firms in a large-scale tax fraud.
Browder untangled the convoluted fraud scheme with the help of an accountant, Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky identified the Interior Ministry officers, judges and tax inspectors involved in the fraud. As a consequence of having exposed this fraud, Magnitsky was arrested. He died in a prison cell after a severe beating on 16 November 2009.
At the time of Magnitsky’s killing the Russian President was Dmitry Medvedev, but only in name. Putin could not serve more than two consecutive terms; thus, he had allowed Medvedev to become President for one term, whilst still retaining full control.
Medvedev arranged an investigation, which concluded that Magnitsky arrest had been unlawful, his death a crime and the previous investigation a cover-up. However, the Ministry of Internal Affairs dismissed this report and the prosecutor’s office opened a new investigation against Magnitsky.
Myers describes this sorry story as Kafkaesque. Not even during the worst Stalinist trials had the authorities put an innocent dead man on trial.
Browder made the Magnitsky case an international cause célèbre. The US passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012 that enforced sanctions against 18 Russian officers. When, in 2020, the EU introduced legislation to freeze assets and impose travel bans on individuals involved in serious human rights abuses, this was called the European Magnitsky Law.
Myers describes corruption as a key component of Putin’s authoritarian state: “Anyone could be prosecuted when necessary, because almost everyone was complicit … The threat of corruption hovered over anyone and thus tamed everyone”.
The last chapter in this book describes how the Ukrainian war started.
The pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych became President of Ukraine in 2010, in elections marked by a regional divide. Yanukovych had received stronger support by the Russian-speaking east and south, whereas the Ukrainian-speaking west had voted for Tymoshenko. In 2013, a wave of pro-European Union protests erupted in response to Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement, which had been approved by the Ukrainian parliament. There was also discontent aimed at the corruption of Yanukovych’s regime.
Yanukovych tried to suppress the protests with violence and the death toll exceeded one hundred. A compromise mediated by three European foreign ministers envisaged an amnesty and new elections but was opposed by Putin. It ended with Yanukovych fleeing and Russia invading Crimea in February 2014.
The invasion of Crimea was an act of aggression, but at least it was a relatively “clean” with only six reported deaths. Russia tried to legitimise the annexation of Crimea with a referendum. It is possible that the Russian-speaking majority in Crimea might have voted to join Russia, but a referendum under an hostile occupation force has no democratic credentials.
What followed was even worse. Russia stoked Russian nationalism in Eastern Ukraine, where there are significant numbers of ethnic Russians but not a Russian majority. Russia fomented a secessionist war with disinformation, arms, and with large numbers of irregular Russian combatants as well as regular Russian soldiers. The 2014-2015 conflict resulted in large numbers of deaths and refugees.
This book ends with the events of early 2015. It did not get better after that.
Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015 with indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets. Russia also interfered with elections in the West, including possibly the 2016 Brexit referendum and, without doubt, the 2016 US presidential elections. The list of Russian war crimes got longer with the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
On the domestic front we have seen the poisoning of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny and sweeping constitutional changes which will allow Putin to run for two more six-year presidential terms and gave him immunity from prosecution or investigation for any crimes.
Putin, as suggested by this book’s title, has become the new czar. Russia has walked from a communist dictatorship into a new type of totalitarianism, which some have called Putinism.
One important consideration is that totalitarian regimes do not depend on just one individual. Putinism could outlive Putin: we need to make sure this is not the case.