The New Tsar by Steven Lee Myers: Summary & Notes

Front cover of The New Tsar by Steven Lee Myers.

In short

The New Tsar is an interesting biography of Vladimir Putin that shows his rise to power up to the annexation of the Crimea. Many people are probably aware of the broad lines of Putin’s actions and policies, but probably less so with his background and his thinking. The New Tsar makes a good attempt to analyze them, with the only downside of the book being that you sometimes feel the author’s disdain for Putin himself (which, I personally think, should be avoided as much as possible when writing a serious biography).

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Book Summary & Notes

“Lieutenant Colonel Putin’s role in the events surrounding the dissolution of East Germany was a small act in the face of uncertainty, if not danger. For a fleeting moment, he was indeed an intelligence officer standing alone in the defense of his country, a single man able to affect the course of history – in Germany, no less – just as he had imagined as an impressionable young man two decades before. He acted with calm, stoic determination. He avoided a security breach and also bloodshed. And yet there would be no recognition of his actions that night, no commendation, no medal. Moscow is silent. The phrase haunted him for years afterward. He sensed that night that his career was coming to an end. So too was his country.”

“His career as a KGB officer stood at a crossroads. He joined a mass repatriation of intelligence operatives from abroad, not only from Germany but from all of Eastern Europe and other far-flung battlegrounds of the Cold War, like Afghanistan, Angola, Mongolia, Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Yemen. They were defeated, dejected, and effectively out of work, displaced refugees of a crumbling empire. […] After fifteens years, his career was unspectacular, and no longer inspiring. In his last year in Dresden he sensed the disorganization of the organs of power, the breakdown of discipline, the theft and lawlessness within his own ranks.”

“Russia is in the midst of one of the most difficult periods in its history,” the document said. “For the first time in the past 200 [to] 300 years, it is facing the real threat of slipping down to the second and, possibly even third, rank of world states. We are running out of time to avoid this.” The prescription was to restore national unity, patriotism, and a strong central government – not “the restoration of an official state ideology in Russia in any guise,” but a voluntary social pact that placed the authority of the state over the messy, divisive aspirations of its subjects. Its tone seemed almost religious, as if Putin were sharing a “personal revelation” of the middle road Russia would take between its authoritarian history and its democratic future. “Russia needs strong state power and must have it. I am not calling for totalitarianism. History proves all dictatorships, all authoritarian forms of government, are transient. Only democratic systems last.”

“Putin from the start understood the importance of television to the Kremlin’s authority – of its ability to shape not only his image, but the reality of Russia itself. Sergei Pugachev, a banker and friend who worked closely with him in the Kremlin at the time, marveled at how Putin would obsessively follow television news reports, even calling the channels’ directors in the middle of a broadcast to challenge aspects of the reports. He considered the state networks a “natural resource” as precious as oil or gas. “He understands that the basis of power in Russia is not the army, nor the police, it’s the television,” Pugachev said. “This is his deepest conviction.” Now, barely a year into his presidency, the three main television networks in Russia were firmly under the control of the Kremlin.””‘In an interview in the company’s gleaming headquarters in Moscow, he [Mikhail Khodorkovsky] explained that Russia stood at a crossroads, its fate a choice not between capitalism and Communism, but rather between a democratic society and an authoritarian one. “It is not a matter of choice between the South Korean model and the North Korean model,” he said, dismissing the old ideological divisions. “It is more like the choice between Canada and Guatemala,” a modern, transparent, and accountable government versus a banana republic.”

“The Kremlin issued orders to outlying regions specifying Putin’s vote totals and voter turnout. The authorities in Khabarovsk in the Far East threatened to discharge hospital patients if they could not prove they had received absentee ballots to cast their votes. A housing official in St. Petersburg sent a letter to building superintendents ordering them to ensure 70 percent turnout. Anticipating the Kremlin’s wishes, local bureaucrats threw up obstacles to keep Putin’s rivals from mounting campaigns at all. The police interrupted one rally in Yekaterinburg on the premise there was a bomb threat; the electricity was cut off at another in Nizhny Novgorod two days later.”

“The people could not be entrusted with the power to choose their own leaders except in the most carefully controlled process. “The Russian people are backward,” he would later tell a group of foreign journalists and academics […]. “They cannot adapt to democracy as they have done in your countries. They need time.” His remarks reflected condescension that bordered on disdain, but few in Russia spoke up to challenge the authority he now took upon himself.”

“It should be recognized that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. For the Russian people, it became a real drama. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. The epidemic of disintegration also spread to Russia itself.” Putin did not wish to restore the Soviet or Communist system – anyone who wants to, he had said, has no brain – but for the first time he began casting his leadership in a broader historical context. He meant to restore something much older, much richer and deeper: the idea of the Russian nation, the imperium of the “third Rome,” charting its own course, indifferent to the imposition of foreign values.”

“The Russian people were not prepared to challenge the system that had slowly taken hold of society. Putin himself was not the villain in the prosecution against them, she believed. He simply represented the face of a conservative and deeply patriarchal society. The villain was the numbing conformity of a system, in culture and politics, that made any deviation of thought too risky to contemplate. “The problem was not that everyone thought we were innocent, that the charges brought against us were illegal, that Putin alone was bad, making phone calls and issuing demands in the case,” Katya [Pussy Riot] explained. “The problem was that everyone thought we were guilty.”

“The Russian problem is that our citizens in the large majority don’t understand that they have to be responsible for their own fate. They are so happy to delegate it to, say, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, and then they will entrust it to someone else, and I think for such a big country as Russia this is the path to a dead end.” – Mikhail Khodorkovsky

“For Putin, the personal had become policy. The pragmatism of his first two terms as president had long before ended, but now the upheaval in Ukraine signaled a fundamental break in the trajectory that he had followed since Yeltsin unexpectedly handed him the presidency at the dawn of the new millennium. For fourteen years in power, he had focused on restoring Russia to its place among the world’s powers by integrating into a globalized economy, profiting from and exploiting the financial institutions of the free market – banks, stock markets, trading houses – to the benefit of those tycoons closest to him, of course, but also Russian’s generally. Now he would reassert Russia’s power with or without the recognition of the West, shunning it’s “universal” vales, its democracy and rule of law, as something alien to Russia, something intended not to include Russia but to subjugate it. The nation became “hostage to the psychosomatic quirks of its leader,” the novelist Vladmir Sorokin wrote after the annexation. “All his fears, passions, weaknesses, and complexes became state policy. If he is paranoid, the whole country must fear enemies and spies; if he has insomnia, all the ministries must work at night; if he’s a teetotaler, everyone must stop drinking; if he’s a drunk, everyone should booze it up; if he doesn’t like America, which his beloved KGB fought against, the whole population must dislike the United States.”

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