Owad’s Micro-Review #130: All the Kremlin’s Men

by Mikhail Zygar

Old Turkish proverb: “When a clown moves into a palace, he doesn’t become a sultan; the palace becomes a circus.” Sounds about right, but this book, by a now-exiled Russian journalist, proves the saying wrong. When a clown enters the palace, the entire government becomes a circus—and then becomes whatever the sultan wants it to be.

Zygar’s book gets up close and personal with Putin’s courtiers and cronies—and at times with Putin himself. The main conclusion underpinning the many intrigues: Putin’s rise to power wasn’t a KGB plot. It wasn’t a kleptocratic conspiracy or a meticulous, authoritarian strategy. It was a series of accidents—a case of a dour, sociopathic spy who consolidated power through ad hoc decisions and the movement of chessboard pieces. Problem: parliament and big business aren’t doing the president’s bidding. Solution: run a “privatization program” that makes monied slaves of oligarchs. Problem: Ukraine’s handpicked president ceases to toe the Kremlin line. Solution: Go after the Ukrainians themselves.

In his early years in power, Putin at least obliquely supported integration with both the EU and NATO. At the same time, he sent weekly flights full of prostitutes to Saddam Hussein’s sons in Iraq. At one point, he idolized George W. Bush; at another, Silvio Berlusconi. At all times, the only throughline in his behavior was a clear desire to be Peter the Great, but without too many distracting hopes or dreams. No glowing vision of bringing Russia into the future. No appetite for rebuilding society. Just short-term goals that could be met with the help of the right people in the right places.

This book could have been titled The Dictator Who Didn’t Give a Damn. Or, better yet, The Guy Whose Life in Power Went Exactly the Way Any Historian Could Have Predicted. He’s not the first accidental dictator in history, but he’s the biggest one in modern times. For that reason, this book is a must-read. It synthesizes a whole lot of information in a brilliantly straightforward way.

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