Susan B. Glasser is chief international affairs columnist for Politico. She and her husband, Peter Baker, former Moscow bureau chiefs for The Washington Post, are co-authors of “Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his confidants deal readily in the dark arts of kompromat, the not-at-all subtle use of damaging information, real or faked, against enemies. It’s straight out of the KGB playbook in which Putin was trained and a staple of Moscow politics during his long reign.
I immediately thought of this sordid signature of the Putin era when news broke the other day that Donald Trump Jr. had an email from a supposed intermediary of the Russian government that promised help in supplying kompromat on Hillary Clinton — as “part of Russia and its government’s support of Mr. Trump.”
To an American ear, the offer seemed like something operatives might think but would never put in writing — more like a plot twist from “House of Cards” too implausible to be believed. But it makes a lot more sense if you read up on Putin and the Russia he has led for 17 years. A whole stack of brilliant books make abundantly clear that Putin’s Russia is a land of political intrigue and suspicion, where conspiracy theories often turn out to be true, kompromat is the weapon of choice and power is centralized to a surprising degree around “the new tsar” in the Kremlin (which also happens to be the title of Steven Lee Myers’s very good 2015 biography of Putin ).
Perhaps the best guide to the troubled soul of Russia’s tough-guy leader remains Putin’s 2000 campaign autobiography, “First Person,” which more or less lays out how he’d bring his KGB style to the presidency. The book portrays Putin as a street “hooligan” from Leningrad who grew up dreaming of escape by becoming a secret agent. “One spy,” he says revealingly in the book, “could decide the fate of thousands of people.” Or millions, as it turned out in his case.
Besides Putin’s own words, there are dozens of other books that offer insight into his mind and his Russia — and the scandal unfolding around his country’s ties to America’s unlikely new billionaire president. I have bookshelves full of them and could recommend many; here are a few that I keep turning back to as this extraordinary story plays out.
Before my husband and I moved to Moscow at the start of the Putin era to serve as Moscow bureau chiefs for The Washington Post, we went to see David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, who had covered the end days of the Soviet Union a decade earlier as a correspondent for The Post, to ask how we should prepare. Read Chekhov, he advised.
We did, but luckily there are many significantly more contemporary accounts of how Russia got to its troubled post-Soviet present that we found indispensable as well — not least of which was Remnick’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the Soviet collapse, “Lenin’s Tomb.”
To get Putin and why he has such grievance against his interlocutors in the West, it’s crucial to understand that Soviet implosion, which he memorably called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. And indeed, his account in “First Person” vividly recalls the moment when, as a Soviet spy based in East Germany, he watched in dismay as the country crumbled, and frantically shredded documents as protesters threatened his KGB headquarters in Dresden. When he called for military backup, Putin remembers being told: “We cannot do anything without an order from Moscow. And Moscow is silent.”
Putin views this as the signal tragedy of his era. “I got the feeling then that the country no longer existed,” he says. “That it . . . had a terminal disease without a cure — a paralysis of power.”
The collapse of the Moscow center was a trauma for Putin, and it went on to become the foundational myth of his presidency, the rationale for what he invariably portrays as a decades-long exercise to restore the Russian state — and even, as his takeover of Crimea in 2014 and aggressive moves since then suggest, to recover parts of the lost Russian empire, too.
Remnick was perhaps the best in-the-moment chronicler of that Soviet collapse and the passing optimism that quickly descended into dysfunctional politics. Others have trenchantly captured the pathologies of the 1990s. In “The Oligarchs,” David Hoffman depicted the looting of the state and the rise of the super-rich plutocrats after the Soviet implosion; so did Chrystia Freeland, a journalist turned politician who is now Canada’s foreign minister, in “Sale of the Century.” Strobe Talbott, President Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, recounted in his memoir “The Russia Hand” the backstage politicking that led to NATO’s expansion and other current disputes with Putin.
To understand why Putin inevitably emerged on the scene, readers must go back even further, to the Soviet regime, and there are many excellent books covering that period. A few histories of the era seem especially well-timed to today’s controversies. In “Iron Curtain,” Anne Applebaum documents the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe after World War II, which was eerily similar in some respects to Putin’s recent machinations in areas Russians still refer to as “the near abroad.” And Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands,” which excavates the horrific history of the countries caught between the Soviet Union and Germany in World War II, puts the current Ukraine-Russia conflict in context.
As for the spy turned president, a number of credible Putin biographies help illuminate this moment when he occupies such an outsize place in the American national conversation. In addition to Myers’s comprehensive book, I’d recommend “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” by Brookings Institution scholars Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy. Gaddy and Hill, who is now the top Russia hand on Trump’s National Security Council, portray the enigmatic president in all the various guises he has adopted, from “mafia don” and outsider with a chip perpetually on his shoulder to “self-described savior” of a struggling nation.
Ed Lucas of the Economist was an early voice on that savior complex; his book “The New Cold War,” published in 2008, reads now as a prescient polemic about where Russia was headed. Another Economist writer, Arkady Ostrovsky, last year won Britain’s Orwell Prize for “The Invention of Russia,” which helps explain how Putin has cemented his rule by media manipulation and the march to war against enemies foreign and domestic.
The costs of all this? There was no braver journalist exploring the dark corners of Putin’s Russia than Anna Politkovskaya , murdered near her doorstep in 2006, and her book “A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches From Chechnya” is well worth reading. And I’m looking forward to activist and author Masha Gessen’s new book “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” out this fall.
My husband, Peter Baker, and I produced our account in 2005, “Kremlin Rising,” which chronicled Putin’s rapid ascent to power — and swift dismantling of the fledgling democratic institutions he inherited. After the Trump Jr. email revelation, I turned back to our book and found on Page 52 the story of how kompromat arguably brought Putin to the presidency.
In 1999, an obscure Putin was embattled President Boris Yeltsin’s new head of the FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB, when he found himself embroiled in a kompromat war. Yeltsin allies were trying to take out a prosecutor-general who was poking around too closely in Yeltsin family business. After they released grainy video footage of the prosecutor cavorting with scantily clad prostitutes, Putin obligingly stepped forward at a key moment to authenticate the footage.
Putin’s loyalty didn’t just help dispose of the prosecutor. It also confirmed Yeltsin’s view of the FSB head as a man he could trust. Within nine months, Yeltsin would name Putin president of Russia in his stead — and here Putin is today, still confounding the West 17 years later.
‘Putin is playing chicken with Russia,” Hill and Gaddy wrote, and it is an observation as relevant now as ever. “He is daring the population to call his bluff.”
So why is Putin still in power? Why do Russians put up with the corruption and the uncertainty, the ever more constrained public space, and the epic disregard for them by the nation’s smug, oil-fueled elites?
In “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” Peter Pomerantsev captures as well as anyone the money-soaked cynicism and manufactured media echo chamber of Moscow under Putin. “ ‘Everything is PR’ has become the favorite phrase of the new Russia,” Pomerantsev writes. His entertaining memoir recounting his adventures in the dark heart of the propaganda machine helps shed light on why Putin’s gilded, image-conscious Moscow seems so appealing to America’s TV-obsessed new president and his clan.
But Moscow and St. Petersburg are most decidedly not Putin’s Russia. To get outside the cosmopolitan, corrupt capitals and into the rest of the country, you will find no book better describing the vast craziness of the post-Soviet realities than “Secondhand Time,” an oral history by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich.
It is the single best guide I have found to Putin’s subjects, a beautiful, heartbreaking tribute to people who hoped for something better out of the Soviet breakup, but in the classic words of 1990s Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, it “turned out as always.”