When Donald Trump first began his campaign for president, his affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed like parody, the sort of winking proof that Trump’s ambitions were just another performance. No serious aspirant to the highest office in the land could possibly want to buddy up with a dour autocrat whose dearest ambition is not merely to bring back the Cold War, but to turn it hot if that’s what it takes to restore Russian glory.
But now Trump is not merely the Republican nominee for president; he’s also making comments that suggest he’d back out of our commitments to NATO and tweaking parts of the Republican platform that concern military assistance to Ukraine. And just as Americans belatedly understood that Trump was worth taking seriously, it’s worth considering the specific nature of Putin’s reign in Russia, his ambitions abroad and what Putinism might look like in the United States. The books, documentaries and articles below are a great place to start if you’ve previously thought of Putin mostly as a shirtless, morose, macho stereotype:
1. “The Man Without A Face,” by Masha Gessen: If you want a basic biography of Putin, this survey by Gessen, a journalist who has definite opinions and is sure to let you know precisely where she stands, is fascinating. And though Putin, unlike Trump, actually spent time in government service before running his country, Gessen notes that because Putin’s service was covert, he is a particularly self-created figure.
“He has been able to exercise greater control over what is known about him than almost any other modern politician — certainly more than any modern Western politician,” Gessen writes. “He has created his own mythology. This is a good thing, because, to a far greater extent than is usually possible for any man, Vladimir Putin has communicated to the world directly what he would like to be known about him and how he would like to be seen.”
Trump is the product of a much freer media, one that both gave him a platform and has leveled plenty of criticism over the years. But this description applies as much to him as to Putin.
2. “Khodorkovsky,” directed and written by Cyril Tuschi: One of the hallmarks of Trump’s campaign has been his threats to retaliate against those he thinks have treated him unfairly, including The Washington Post and its owner, Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos. Tuschi’s documentary about the activism and trial of former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a chilling look at how Putin actually did the kind of thing Trump only fantasizes about, mounting a politically motivated prosecution of the wealthiest man in Russia. It’s also an unnerving portrait of how an optimist can get devoured in a rigged system.
3. “A Russian Diary,” by Anna Politkovskaya: If you’ve been engaged in dark fantasies about life under a Trump administration, “A Russian Diary,” by the late opposition journalist, risks turning your anxiety level up to 11. Beginning with the 2003 Russian parliamentary elections, these entries chronicle Putin’s consolidation of power in the run-up to Politkovskaya’s 2006 murder. But if you don’t think your anxiety levels can handle an additional jolt, this 2007 piece on Politkovskaya and other opponents of the Putin regime who ended up dead is a short, sharp shock, and a testament to the idea that, geopolitical implications aside, Putin is not a figure any honorable American politician should hold in high esteem.
4. “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” directed by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin: For all that the members of Pussy Riot have become strikingly internationally famous for their opposition to Putin’s regime, one of the most striking parts of this documentary is just how un-threatening they seem when you see the protests that produced such a furious response. That’s not to say that the group lacked courage. Instead, it speaks to how easily threatened the Russian establishment is, and to how Putin’s consolidation of power is tied up in traditional ideas of Russian greatness, particularly the conservative social ideals of the Orthodox Church. Making any country “great again” is an ugly process.
5. “Russian Insider Says State-Run Doping Fueled Olympic Gold,” by Rebecca R. Ruiz and Michael Schwirtz: Trump and Putin aren’t simply united by a shared militarism and disregard for the existing world order. They’re both frauds, people who have built their self-proclaimed reputations for greatness on deception and bluster. Putin’s response to and use of the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis might be the most immediately horrifying examples of his leadership style. But this New York Times story about Russian cheating at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi is perfectly Trumpian in its depiction of a country where false achievements and real ones have become interchangeable and indistinguishable.