What Drives Putin

Review: Steven Lee Myers, ‘The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin’

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin / AP


The meteoric rise of Vladimir Putin from mid-level intelligence apparatchik to president of Russia has been chronicled by numerous biographers. Few have captured the complexities and influencing forces in Putin’s life as well as Steve Lee Myers’s meticulously researched and vividly written portrait of "the new tsar."

Some political leaders seem destined for their role: the privileged backgrounds of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt spring to mind. Such was not the case with Putin. Myers recounts how "Volodya" grew up in poor circumstances in St. Petersburg. His father was a war veteran who worked in a train factory and his family shared a small apartment with two other families.

As Myers details, the lack of influential connections, combined with a penchant for reckless and at times confrontational behavior, likely contributed to a KGB career notable only for its mediocrity. This was reflected in Putin’s posting to the backwater city of Dresden at the height of the Cold War, when the far more glamorous and important assignments could be found in Berlin.

While Putin’s superiors in Moscow never disliked him—in the Soviet era being allowed to serve anywhere abroad in itself was a privilege—his greatest support came from his Dresden supervisor who appreciated Putin’s ability to ingratiate himself in any setting. Myers refers to this as a "defining trait."

Putin’s time in Dresden provided him a front row seat to the collapse of the Soviet empire, which for a true believer represented not only a major career setback—the KGB as well as the Communist Party fell from their privileged positions—but also a "humiliating" experience.

Upon returning to St. Petersburg, Putin began what Myers describes as a "career transition," in which the KGB apparatchik slowly became enmeshed in local and then national politics, ultimately working for President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow. As the author writes, that was the turning point in Putin’s career.

Beginning in St. Petersburg and continuing in Moscow, that career included befriending and enriching close associates like Yuri Kovalchuk and Vladimir Smirnov who "would grow close to the young official … and would ultimately, years later, become business titans in the new Russia."

If St. Petersburg is where Putin’s views were formed about Russia and the world around it, it was in Moscow where he could put those ideas into practice. Putin became Boris Yeltsin’s chief of staff, protecting the often inebriated and out of control Russian president. Equally out of control were those around Yeltsin, including his daughters.

Once a charismatic if not necessarily disciplined politician, Yeltsin’s drinking and the corruption of those around him became a national embarrassment. Knowing that his world was caving in around him, Yeltsin made a "grand bargain" with his diminutive assistant.

Yeltsin would help Putin gain the presidency in exchange for Putin’s agreement not to prosecute Yeltsin’s family and associates. Putin ascended to the Russian presidency, keeping his word to Yeltsin.

Once known as someone who sought to please others, Putin now stood unrivaled within Russian politics. His presidency has been a largely successful mix of ruthlessness toward critics and prying journalists, an enormous capacity to shade the truth for political gain, and an ultranationalist worldview that preys upon the weak and indecisive.

The result has been a wartime presidency. Putin has presided over wars in Chechnya, an invasion of Georgia, the annexation of Crimea and, most recently, a military excursion into Syria. The Crimea and Syria operations have garnered Putin soaring domestic popularity and international condemnation. Myers writes that, "his initial instinct to bring Russia into closer cooperation with the West … had faded as steadily as his political and economic power had grown."

Informed readers of the Myers biography will be aware of this litany of Russia’s military adventures and Putin’s political disdain for his western counterparts, but by the time they encounter them in Myers’s discussion they will have gained a much better understanding of the motivations driving these decisions.

This is a first rate biography that explains as well as recounts events, providing much to say about the man who is likely to guide Russia for many years to come.

Jack Caravelli   Email Jack | Full Bio | RSS
Jack Caravelli served in the Central Intelligence Agency, the White House National Security Council Staff from 1996-2000 and then as Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Energy from 2000-2003. He is the author of Beyond Sand & Oil: The Nuclear Middle East and Nuclear Insecurity.

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