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MAY 2016


The Why of Putin

The New Tsar: The Rise and

Reign of Vladimir Putin

Steven Lee Myers, Knopf, 2015, $32.50,

hardcover, 572 pages

Reviewed By Josh Glazeroff

When you open this comprehensive

biography of Vladimir Putin, you’ll see a

map of the Soviet Union before 1991. This

map is a striking reminder of how much

has changed for Russia in 25 years.

If you, like Putin, believe that “the

collapse of the Soviet Union was a major

geopolitical disaster of the century,” then

the map represents a lost world, some-

thing to be remembered and treasured.

It’s an almost fantastical experience to

look back, and then realize that today the

Baltic nations not only no lon-

ger answer to Moscow, they

are members of NATO.

These changes to the

world map, whatever one’s

view of them, are central to

Putin’s world view and his

reign as the new “tsar.” That

is at the heart of this excel-

lent book by longtime Russia

watcher Steven Lee Myers.

Putin, the son of a World

War II fighter, grows up without

resources or huge opportuni-

ties. He moves from being a low-level

KGB operative in Germany to managing

the administrative work of the senior

politician in St. Petersburg, and then

(almost miraculously) becomes Boris

Yeltsin’s prime minister and successor.

Putin’s rise is not predictable or

reproducible, but its effects on his reign

are significant. He is tied to the people he

can trust, those he knows from his days

in St. Petersburg (once Leningrad), those

who have worked with him or for him for

years. He is not beholden to money men

as much as he is tied to them intimately.

He derives much of his political power

from his knowledge and insight into

everyone’s affairs. He manipulates events

to further his vision of the country as a

strong actor on the world stage. He steps

into a position occupied by a seriously

ailing drunk, Yeltsin, and exudes a sense

of stability and rigor.

The set-piece photo

shoots—Putin bringing

amphorae up from the

Black Sea, Putin leading

migrating birds to their

new home, Putin always

with his shirt off—dem-

onstrate the cleverly

controlled spectacle

and vision of the man

and his office.

Accountability is

hard to find in an atmo-

sphere of deliberate obfuscation. Putin’s

move from the presidency to the prime

ministership and back to the presi-

dent’s chair is political masterwork, but

unthinkable in our definition of a democ-

racy. Putin not only has a ghostwriter

complete his dissertation, but plagiarizes

entire sections; his approach to academ-

ics is just as indifferent to Western norms

as his approach to war in Ukraine.

It is difficult for Americans to under-

stand Putin or his worldview. We cannot

anticipate action A will lead to response

B when we do not see “A” as the same


I appreciate the insights Steven Lee

Myers offers. I recommend the book

highly for those who have not studied

Russia and also just as highly for those

who already have Russia experience. The

level of detail and discussion of person-

alities is deep and thoughtful.

Picture the world of 2020—will that

map be the same as today’s? After read-

ing this book, I am not so certain. With

President Putin in his chair for perhaps

many more years to come, there is a level

of uncertainty that U.S. policymakers

must internalize and resolve.

Josh Glazeroff is a Foreign Service officer

who has served in Santo Domingo, Durban,

New Delhi and Washington, D.C. He previ-

ously served on the FSJ Editorial Board and

is a current member of the AFSA Governing


The How of Soviet Spies

Near and Distant Neighbors:

A New History of Soviet Intelligence

Jonathan Haslam, Farrar, Strauss and

Giroux, 2015, $30, hardcover, 400 pages.

Reviewed By James Morris

In 2014, Presidential Deputy Chief of Staff

Vyacheslav Volodin ominously declared,

“There is no Russia today if there is no


In Western media, Putin can be

many things: a KGB spymaster outfox-

ing the hapless West at every step, a

doomed Soviet-era Don Quixote chasing

Brezhnev-era windmills or a post-

modern Big Brother building an empire

of lies. But there is little disagreement

among pundits that Putin is central to

Russia’s current course, and that the two


Putin’s move from the

presidency to the prime

ministership and back to the

president’s chair is political

masterwork, but unthinkable

in our definition of a