The preparation and writing of biography are truly an art form which Philip Short the author of works on Pol Pot and Mao Zedong has mastered. In his latest effort, PUTIN; HIS LIFE AND TIMES he has written another important biography of his subject based on intensive research drawing on almost two hundred interviews conducted over eight years in Russia, the United States and Europe and on source material in over a dozen languages. The publication of PUTIN: HIS LIFE AND TIMES comes at a propitious moment in history with the events that are transpiring in Ukraine as the Russian autocrat has placed the world on edge with his illegal invasion that has played havoc with the world price of energy and supply of grain and other foodstuffs, in addition to the destruction and casualties inflicted on Ukraine. At the present moment this war of attrition does not appear to be anywhere near a conclusion as Putin is adamant that Ukraine is not a country and is part of what he hopes to be a reconstituted Russian Empire. Short has done a service for anyone trying to understand Putin’s actions as he delves deeply into his personal life, career, how he rose to power, why he pursues the policies that affect the Russian people in addition to those living outside of Russia and evaluating what the reign of this autocrat will be like in the future.
Short’s work builds on Steven Lee Myers THE NEW TSAR: THE RISE AND REIGN OF VLADIMIR PUTIN published in 2015 in addition to the works of Masha Gessen, Fiona Hill, Robert Service, Catherine Belton, among others. Short’s work is the most important biography of the Russian autocrat written to this point and presents a comprehensive picture of Russia during Putin’s life in addition to integrating the roles of prominent figures such as Boris Yeltsin, Anatoly Sobchak, Alexei Navalny, a host of Russian oligarchs, and Russian politicians and military personalities. As the narrative gains steam it is clear that Short believes that the United States is in large part responsible for what Russia has become and how Putin has evolved into an autocrat who controls all the levers of power in the Kremlin.
The biography begins with a discussion of the political situation in Russia in 1999. Boris Yeltsin who has survived two heart attacks and surgery was under attack for corruption and a myriad of other fraudulent actions. With the presidential election set for March 2000, Short speculates whether the FSB launched a series of false flag terrorist attacks in Russia which were blamed on Chechen terrorists to deflect criticism away from Yeltsin. After careful analysis, Short concludes it was Chechens and not the FSB. The prologue that Short sets forth has implications later as Putin is a candidate for the presidency and attacks continue with Putin’s opponents questioning a possible role for the FSB. In addition, once Putin is in office, the tactics used by the FSB will be questioned in Chechen terrorist attacks at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow that killed 125 Russians, and the Breslan School massacre that resulted in 335 dead hostages, 186 of which were children. These attacks and the FSB response received great media coverage which Putin disdained leading to a crackdown on the media and eventual state control of television and newspapers in Russia shortly thereafter.
What separates Short’s work from others is that he tackles many of the myths associated with Putin – as it is hard to discern myth from reality. He mentions alternatives, then what appears to be the truth. For example, the death of Putin’s brother during infancy in Leningrad during World War II, the role of possible FSB attacks in 1999 to create support for Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s enormous wealth, reasons behind Russian aggression against Ukraine etc.
Short’s presentation of Putin’s childhood is important as he does so without the psychobabble that a number of writer’s conjecture. Putin had attention issues in school and was a very aggressive child who would never back off from a fight. Putin was home schooled for his early education and had difficulty adapting to formal schooling once enrolled. It is important to remember that Putin was raised in Leningrad, a city that suffered over 750,000 deaths at the hands of the Nazis who starved the city resulting in extreme cannibalism as the city was blockaded for over two and a half years. You do not have to be a practitioner of psychology to understand the impact of growing up in an environment that was still in recovery in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This approach is part of Short’s attempt to place Putin’s life story in the context of Russian history. Putin’s early teen years witnessed the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the deposing of Nikita Khrushchev, replaced by Leonid Brezhnev and the impact on his life should not be discounted.
As a boy Putin always wanted to be different and when not behaving as a hooligan he seemed to be an introvert, keeping his distance and thoughts to himself. These traits come to the fore later when he assumes certain roles in Russian politics, governmental positions, head of the FSB, and then President of Russia. He would learn to be social when needed, but this was not his forte.
Putin was always enamored with the life of a spy as he was a risk taker by nature and would try to volunteer for the KGB as a teenager. His path was clear as KGB minders had their eye on him and he was offered a position in 1975 as a Junior Lieutenant. At the time Yuri Andropov was the head of the KGB and believed in “stamping out dissent,” who wanted to derail the west’s ability to weaken the Soviet Union – a mantra Putin would follow his entire career. Short’s description of how Putin was recruited, trained, and integrated into Russian counterintelligence was indicative of the author’s point of view and how he had unearthed essential details that contributed to his narrative. Short raises an important question – did the KGB create Putin or were his character traits already in place before he was recruited? His character fit the kind of work the KGB did. He liked to stay in the background and observe others, and not attract attention to himself. He was disciplined and pragmatic and was able to concentrate on whatever the priority was at the moment, and never let his emotions dictate his behavior or thought pattern.
The watershed moment for Putin as he has stated many times was his KGB posting in Dresden and watching helplessly as the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989 with no guidance from Moscow. This would create a formative memory that proved to Putin the overriding importance of maintaining a strong state and the dangers that an angry population could pose to a previously entrenched regime.
The most important figure in Putin’s rise to power was Anatoly Sobchak, a former law Professor at Leningrad State University, a liberal reformer in parliament, who became mayor of the second largest city in Russia. In 1990, Putin was assigned by the KGB assigned to surveil Sobchak as an assistant vice-rector at the university. As Putin gained Sobach’s trust he was placed in charge of trade negotiations which were highlighted by barter deals that allowed him to enrich his KGB colleagues and set a pattern as to how Putin would operate in the future. Most importantly, Putin’s relationship with the KGB and organized crime in the city was a training ground and a source of compatriots when he himself assumed power later on. During this time period the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev that saw Boris Yeltsin emerge as a hero, according to Short, saw Putin’s as playing a “none role” in these events. But Putin had learned how to make himself indispensable which is a major reason for his success.
A key chapter that Short offers is entitled, “The Gray Cardinal” which delineates the corruption and crime that was endemic in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. The borderline between the criminal world and legitimate business was tenuous at best. To conduct business bribery was a standard practice and it was a situation that benefited Putin greatly based on his position, though in an ode to objectivity Short argues that many anecdotes of Putin accepting bribes are fabricated. In this, among many other cases Short gives Putin the benefit of the doubt. Putin learned a great deal from Sobchak, and it provided him with an education for him to apply later.
apho via Getty Images)
The concept of “Near Abroad” was key for Putin’s foreign policy ideology developed while being in charge of foreign affairs under Sobchak. He began thinking about the former Soviet republics, particularly Ukraine, the key to “Near Abroad” which he felt precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union when it declared its independence. He could not accept that Crimea, the home of the Black Sea fleet, was gone, 1.8 million Russians lived in Crimea, in addition to the massive debt that Ukraine owed Moscow gnawed at him. These beliefs would stay with Putin, and we can see the results today with the current war of attrition. While serving in St. Petersburg Putin’s ideas about NATO, relations with the west, Russia as a bridge between Europe and Asia, the need for a strong centralized government which would unify the country were all reinforced. By the time he assumed the presidency in 2000 his mantra was set.
Putin’s assumption of the presidency is spelled out by luck, skill, and the ability to ingratiate himself after Sobchak’s political career ended with Boris Yeltsin. Short dives deeply into this process and in the end Putin provided a need that Yeltsin craved, loyalty to Yeltsin as well as his family. Putin would rise in importance in Yeltsin’s eyes over a five year period culminating in his appointment as the head of the FSB and shortly thereafter as Prime Minister. Once he was head of the FSB in 1998 he would purge the organization and bring in his cronies from St. Petersburg. When Yeltsin decided not to run for president in 2000 he chose Putin as the candidate to replace him. Yeltsin decided not to run because the war in Chechnya was not going well, charges of corruption abounded, and he knew Putin would protect him. What Short does not discuss was how the Yeltsin family was caught up in the corruption and how Putin’s perceived loyalty would protect them.
Once in power Putin had to deal with Chechnya which he did in a way we have come accustomed to as we watch events in Ukraine. He would botch the Kursk submarine disaster as well as terrorist attacks within Russia. He would learn that public information needed to be regulated leading to state seizure of media and television. Putin would learn from his errors to a point but his overriding beliefs that anything that made Russia look weak was a boon for the west.
In presenting Putin, Short tries in most cases to see events from Putin’s viewpoint. He is correct that the arrival of the Bush administration in Washington presented an excellent opportunity to improve post-Cold War relations with the United States. It is clear that Short believes that Bush blew an important opportunity particularly after 9/11 with the policies he chose.
Short is very careful to juxtapose Putin’s points of view on a myriad of topics relating to the Bush’s foreign policy between 2000-2004. At first Putin offered a number of fig leaves to the Bush administration and in return Bush made his “look into his soul” remark that many thought went overboard. After 9/11 Putin threw his support behind the United States by sharing intelligence, military over flights, and bases in Central Asia. Putin saw the US as an ally in the war on terror but felt his overtures were not being reciprocated as Bush canceled the ABM treaty which Putin abhorred; the US invaded Iraq when Russian intelligence which had a decades long relationship with Saddam knew better than the CIA that WMD no longer existed in Iraq. Issues of NATO expansion, anger that the US and the west did not see the war on terror extending to Chechnya, and hawks in Washington carrying on as if the Cold War was total victory. Further the US insisted on military bases in Poland and the Czech Republic and in 2008 the west recognized the independence of Kosovo.
By Bush’s second administration relations deteriorated even further as Gazeprom cut energy deliveries to Ukraine, the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London, and the Bush Doctrine which states that America can treat all countries that support terrorists against the U.S. as enemies. It also asserted the right that the U.S. can take preemptive action against nations that it felt might pose terrorist threats. Russia’s response was clear in Putin’s message at the Munich Security Conference as he railed against American unilateralism and the pursuit of global domination. Russia’s position economically improved as oil prices had increased markedly allowing Moscow to pay off its foreign debt depriving the west of leverage resulting in Putin’s popularity rising to 70% – it is no wonder that from this point on Putin felt the US was his enemy and became increasingly aggressive leading to the 2008 invasion of Georgia.
Putin admitted Russia lost the Cold War and resented the Americans lording it over them. Events in Ukraine, particularly the Orange Revolution where Putin believed the west prevented Kremlin-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych from stealing the Ukrainian presidency and made possible the election of his reformist rival, Viktor Yushchenko angered the Russian autocrat. Further, Putin was exorcised over American interference in Gazprom’s attempt to take over Yuganskneftegaz, the main production complex for the Yukos oil company which he believed showed how far American tentacles could reach. What was clear was that by 2008 the rift between Russia and the US was too deep to heal.
Short is clear that Putin’s mindset is fraught with errors and lies, but it is important for him to criticize Putin further and not blame the US and the west for many of the choices Putin made. Short does present the American viewpoint surrounding violations of human rights and support for anti-democratic regimes abroad as well as in Moscow, the clampdown on the Russian media, the failure to curb corruption, and atrocities in Chechnya, and the American defeat of the Taliban, a gain for Russian security. However, one gets the feeling that no matter what course of action Putin pursued it was the fault of the West for the deterioration of relations with Russia.
At times Short goes overboard in trying to attain objectivity. He argues that “Russia was no longer trying to export its ideology and value system. Instead, America was.” Perhaps, but Short should examine Russian actions toward Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Ukraine as a whole before he makes such statements. According to Short, the expansion of NATO by the west is responsible for Putin’s aggressive foreign policy in large part because of broken promises in the first Bush administration. However, it is clear from Putin’s own words that the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and his goal is to restore the Russian imperial system – this is Putin’s ideology and that has led to the invasions chronicled above.
Even in discussing the source and amount of Putin’s wealth, Short takes his objectivity a bit too far as he cannot accept any evidence like the Panama Papers or Paradise Papers that document the scale of multibillion dollar corruption that exists in Russia. Despite the fact that Putin oversees a system whereby Russian oligarchs hold large sums of money with strong connections to Putin, in addition to billions in offshore accounts reserved for the Russian autocrat, Short refuses to believe any evidence that is contrary to his own mindset.
Short commentary on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not as well developed as his narrative was completed as the war was beginning. I agree with Angela Stent’s comments in her Washington Post review that “Short correctly identifies two of Putin’s major mistakes when he invaded Ukraine. First was his failure to understand that Ukrainians and Russians are distinct Slavic nations, both with a powerful sense of national identity, and that people defending their homeland have an advantage over those seeking to conquer it. His second mistake was to overestimate the capabilities of the Russian military, which was unable to take Kyiv in the first days of the war. Perhaps because he concluded this book before the full scope of Russian atrocities was known, he implies that Russia is acting differently in Ukraine than it did in Chechnya or Syria, where it destroyed Grozny and Aleppo. So far Russia has leveled Mariupol, Severodonetsk and parts of other cities, turning them to rubble, and has indiscriminately targeted civilians.”*
Despite Short’s approach to historical objectivity which seems to lean against the West and the United States and accepting Putin’s rationale for certain actions he has authored an important book that should be read carefully and dissected by the reader. But we should remember what New York Times reporter Peter Baker states that Short absolves Putin of several crimes especially, his explanation for his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.** I wonder whether he is watching the same war that plays out on the news each evening as I am.
*Angela Stent, “A Biography that Gives Vladimir Putin the Benefit of the Doubt,” Washington Post, July 22, 2022.
** Peter Baker, “Who is Vladimir Putin,” New York Times, August 1, 2022.