Putin Biography Lets ‘The New Tsar’ Off Scot-Free

Rising Russian Power Contrasts with Corruption, Forgotten Rights

Given Vladimir Putin’s longstanding position at the helm of Russia, not without his share of controversy, he deserves his share of scrutiny. Steven Lee Myers has come to the party with The New Tsar (2014, 592 pages), and sought to connect the dots with a particular focus on Russian history from 1990 on, when Putin entered the political arena. The book is written in an engaging style and conveys information in a concise fashion.

the-new-tsarA potential criticism is that the book is fairly descriptive: not coming across as more than mildly critical of Putin and his impact on Russian life. Myers concludes by giving weight to the view that Putin’s dominance is largely due to the nature of the Russian country, which has tended to be ruled by various elite groupings since the Romanovs came to power in 1613. The overwhelming majority of Russians are not necessarily enamoured with Putin and the regime he has instituted since 2000, but they are at least moderately content that the country is relatively stable and “strong.”

Putin’s childhood and rather undistinguished career in the KGB are covered in detail. This is followed by a most interesting description of his political rise, as an advisor to Moscow’s first democratically elected mayor in the 1990s. We now see how Putin’s strengths result in him gradually accumulating power and influence. Putin values loyalty above all else, and he remained more or less uncorrupted by all the dirty dealings that went on in this chaotic period.

Most of book covers the post-2000 period, during which Putin has served as either president or prime minister. While Russia encountered a number of disasters in this time (including Chechnya, the Kursk sinking, and ongoing Islamic terrorism) and Putin did make mistakes, the economy grew rapidly, helped by the era of rising oil prices.

Myers shows that Putin valued stability over continuing to work towards a western-style democracy, which Yeltsin sought. However, the price paid by Russia appears to be an incredibly high level of corruption. This malfeasance is not linked to Putin directly, but the book notes that some estimates place his actual wealth at US$40 billion. The book also explores Russia’s growing pride as a nation (or indeed as an empire), with recent events in the Ukraine covered near the end.

Overall, one is left with a sense that Putin is a very smart politician, with strong beliefs, who has worked steadily and ruthlessly towards his goals of restoring the power of Russia. He has coalesced power to such an extent that no one in Russia can really imagine an alternative leader to Putin at the moment.

The book’s conclusions imply that Russia will continue to assert its power over the Eurasian arena and beyond. Since publication, this has already been evident in Russia’s response to the Syrian crisis. The question of whether the achievements of Putin’s new Russia are worth the costs of the loss of individual human liberty and endemic corruption is left relatively open, for the reader to ponder.

Tim Aldridge is a pilot and a former economist with the New Zealand Reserve Bank. Originally from Hamilton, New Zealand, he is a graduate of the University of Waikato. Follow @traldridge.

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