RD Interview: Mikhail Zygar, the former chief editor at independent TV station Dozhd, discusses his latest book, “All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin,” which will be available in English starting in September.


"By demonizing and idealizing Putin, many journalists have come to wrong conclusions in an attempt to follow the rules of the genre they choose." Photo: Reuters

The recent shakeup in the Kremlin’s inner circle, including the appointment of a new head of the presidential administration to replace Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close teammate Sergei Ivanov, has reinvigorated interest in Russia’s political elites and how the decision-making process works in the country.

All of this makes the new book by Mikhail Zygar, a well-known Russian journalist and former chief editor at independent TV station Dozhd, relevant for both Russian and foreign audiences.  Published in 2015 in Russian, his “All the Kremlin's Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin” is expected to be available in English in September. The book provides insights into how Russia’s political system has evolved under Putin.

Russia Direct recently sat down with Zygar to discuss his book and hear his thoughts on how the Russian political system really works.

Russia Direct: Why and when did you decide to write such a book?

Mikhail Zygar: In fact, I was writing this book approximately for seven years. That is, I was collecting information for this book for seven years: I had to meet with numerous newsmakers and conduct off-the-record interviews with them.

During all these years, I was working as a political journalist for different media outlets. I started this book when I worked for Kommersant. Then, I became deputy editor-in-chief of Russian Newsweek and, afterwards, I moved to the Dozhd TV channel as editor-in-chief.

Dealing with Russian political journalism means that newsmakers can be relatively outspoken only during off-the-record interviews. It is impossible to have honest and sincere conversations on the record. That’s why, in order to be political journalist in Russia and fulfill the commitments of an editor, I had to conduct off-the-record interviews to learn all the ins and outs of Russian politics and understand what is important and what is not, what is really going on under the surface of Russia’s political agenda.

Read the review on Zygar's book: "All the Kremlin's men: Inside Russia's political system"

This is one of the most important parts in the editorial routine of working either for a publication or television. At any rate, I had to meet with different newsmakers and understand what was behind that pseudo-news in Russia’s news feed.

So, at the earliest stage, in 2007, I came to an idea that I had to come up with a book that would include these off-the-record interviews.  At that moment, it seemed to me that it would be easy and fast enough to fulfill this task: I planned to sum up the results of Putin’s two presidential tenures.

However, afterwards, [with the third presidential tenure of Putin and the start of the Ukraine crisis] it became clear that the book would not end that way and it was too early to come up with conclusions. Only in 2014, I understood that a certain political epoch ended and it was high time to release the book to remind readers about the events that had been taking place during Putin’s three presidential terms and what was the origin of this political epoch. So, I had to finish the book.                 

RD: You mentioned that most interviews were off-the-record. Is this the reason why your book is primarily based on assumptions without referring to primary sources, as some skeptics claim?

M. Z.: Those people who think in such a way might not be well aware about the nuances of Russia’s political journalism. In fact, since the beginning of the 2000s, there hasn’t been [reliable] information based on primary and open sources in Russia’s political press. If you open high-quality newspapers in Russia such as Vedomosti or Kommersant, all journalistic investigations are based on anonymous sources. This is the reality that has existed in Russia for more than 10 years. And there is no other reality.

In such a situation, I had several alternatives: either I could give up writing the book or I could write an official and boring account about Russian politics or Putin, which would be released but would fail to attract an audience, because it would not reflect the reality — it would be something like ZhZL [a Russian abbreviation for “the life of remarkable people,” a series of Russian books describing the biographies of outstanding people – Editor’s note].

Another option was to come up with the book that I wrote, one based on off-the-record conversations. At the same time, the book contains references to primary sources; in fact, I clearly identified them in my book and mentioned many interviewees. 

Nevertheless, although almost the entire book is based on anonymous sources and on their narratives, I don’t see it as a flaw; instead, I see it as an advantage, because this is the only opportunity [in Russia] to find out true information about what is happening behind the-scenes of Russia’s politics.

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RD: The name of your book – “All the Kremlin’s Men” – is intriguing. It seems to refer to the famous movie All the President’s Men, about the Watergate scandal and corrupt politicians in the high ranks of power, or to “All the King’s Men,” a novel by Robert Penn Warren, which portrays the rise of cynical politicians and demagogues. Is it an attempt to describe Russian politics through symbols, allusions, and memories?

M.Z.: The name of the book conveys a lot of references. In fact, it is a hint at the quote from the famous English writer Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” - “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall: Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

So, it could be anything. On the one hand, it might mean that a big group of people with a great deal of power cannot resolve a trivial task. At the same time, there are multiple layers of meaning. Yes, it refers to Penn Warren’s novel, which deals with the ways of how power functions; what effect it has on human psychology; how human behavior changes, when one gets access to power; what is primary — the impact of the human psyche on political decision-making or the impact of political calculations [on human behavior].

"The main character of my book is the collective environment around Putin; it is rather about the Russian system of power." Photo: RIA Novosti

In addition, it’s possible to mention the famous movie about the Watergate scandal, even though it is related to the book to a lesser extent. So, there could be a great number of allusions embedded within the name of the book.

RD: The structure of your book is based on the comparison of each of Putin’s tenures with different historical monarchs — from Richard the Lionheart to Ivan the Terrible and, finally, to Vladimir the Saint. How can you account for this?

M.Z.: It is rather an irony: it is about the [psychological and behavioral] changes inside of one person; it is about the changes in his mindset, his outlook, his self-assessment; it is about the changes in how others — his environment — treat him.  And all these changes can be so drastic, I mean, beyond recognition. 

RD: The Kremlin’s inner circle is one of the most popular topics among experts and academics. For example, University College London professor Alena Ledeneva with her book about “Sistema” as well as Russian well-known expert Evgeny Minchenko with his “Politburo 2.0,” shed light on how the system of power in Russia work. They seem to provide a very detailed analysis of the problem. What new aspects of the topic does your book reveal?

M.Z.: In fact, there hasn’t been any popular book, which tries to explain how the system of Russian power works, how and why Russia’s political decision-making has been evolving for the last 15 years. Even though the previous works - like the ones from Minchenko - contain nuggets of information, but they don’t reveal the whole story. The problem is that both journalists and pundits in Russia can be very knowledgeable, but they are affiliated with the country’s key political movers and shakers.

On the other hand, there are those who are more independent, but less informed. Most importantly, despite the fact that there are many high-quality books and reports on this topic, written by journalists and political experts, none of them has targeted a broader audience until recently; none of them has written something complete, solid from the point of view of plot and narrative.

Meanwhile, my book firmly follows the plot and the [chronological] narrative — and it targets not those who keep up with Russia’s political agenda on a daily basis, but rather ordinary, politically unmotivated and rather unbiased people, who might be interested in politics — who seek to know what happened in reality and why.

I wrote this book for those who will read it in a hundred years and understand it; who have just started expressing interest toward politics and see it as a tabula rasa, a blank sheet of paper, to be interpreted in new ways. So, my book is a sort of executive summary of the previous episodes in a long-running television series, which they just started watching.       

RD: Some compare your book with the one by New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers ("The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin"), despite the fact that your books offer totally different explanations of Russia’s politics and alternative narratives. You argue that there is no intention in what happens in Russia, that Russia’s politics are situational in nature and respond to domestic and foreign challenges depending on circumstances. In contrast, Myers seems to search for an explanation in the intentional schemes in Putin’s behavior and Russia’s politics: Everything is predetermined and has a certain design. Why do you avoid such an approach?

M.Z.: If you compare my book with the one by Steven Lee Myers, it is important to keep in mind that they are written in different genres. While he wrote a book about Putin, I came up with a book not about Putin per se. The main character of my book is the collective environment around Putin; it is rather about the Russian system of power.

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It is not the biography of a person. And if you write the biography of this person, everything should be related to this person. Involuntarily or purposely, you might either idealize or demonize him; you put him in the center of the world. I see such an approach as a key mistake, committed by about 99 percent of both Russian and foreign journalists who write about Putin.

Unfortunately, they purposely distort the reality just because they put themselves in the framework of the genre that they choose. Instead of trying to describe the real political processes, they draw the same artificial and improbable schemes. After all, never ever does life add up to a simple black-and-white picture; I firmly believe that it is more nuanced.

To illustrate this, I always give an example: During numerous sessions in the beginning of Putin’s first tenure, the Russian president frequently reiterated that Russia needed to care about Ukraine otherwise Moscow would lose it. It is a clear indication that reveals his initial plan. It was to control Ukraine not to alienate it by incorporating Crimea.

Unfortunately, by demonizing and idealizing Putin, many journalists have come to wrong conclusions in an attempt to follow the rules of the genre they choose. For example, if you make a movie, let’s say about Alexander the Great, you will have to focus primarily on him and – to a lesser extent – on his environment, which is less interesting than the major character. Thus, you create an image of a celestial half-god, which is put in the center of the world. It is a logical and archaic artistic approach, which has been used by many writers throughout history. 

RD: Ok, how do you describe the genre of your book?

M.Z.: Let’s describe it as a historical chronicle. It is a sort of “medieval chronicle” that reveals the details of how the king’s court is working and functioning. That’s why in my book I use hints and reminiscence to medieval historical characters like Richard the Lionheart and other monarchs. My goal is to convey its “medieval” nature.

RD: Your book looks like a counterbalance to numerous conspiracy theories, which abound today in Russia and abroad. Why do you think they are popular among the Russian political elite? Do they really believe in conspiracy theories or don’t they — maybe, they just use them to manipulate and impose their own agenda?          

M.Z.: Based on my numerous conversations with key Russian politicians and officials, I would argue that many of them do believe in conspiracy theories just because it is such an easy answer to difficult questions. They just see it as a simple and logical explanation: that we are right, while others are wrong; or even though we are wrong, it is not our fault — it is the fault and plot of our enemies. Yet such behavior is common not only for Russian politicians, but also for their foreign counterparts.

It seems to me that the explanation, which presents Putin as a politician with an artful and skillful plan to conquer the world, is another example of a conspiracy theory, which is very popular in the West. For example, some Western journalists frequently ask me why I don’t pay attention [in my book] to a special operation of the Federal Security Service (FSB), which allegedly sought to integrate then agent Putin into the structures of Russian government and, afterwards, conquer all its institutions. This is a good example of a fantastic conspiracy that is unfortunately in vogue among foreign journalists. Alas, it usually hampers a well-balanced and reasonable analysis.

"All the Kremlin's Men" deals with the ways of how power functions, what effect it has on human psychology, how human behavior changes, when one gets access to power. Photo: RIA Novosti

RD: The recent reshuffles in the Kremlin’s political elite and the increasing influence of law enforcement representatives seem to be a gift for the fans of conspiracy theories who argue that Putin has a certain plan.

M.Z.: In fact, everything that takes place is a gift for conspiracy theorists, because it is always convenient to find necessary facts to come up with explanations, which fit one’s theory. That’s why I would prefer to avoid giving any political analysis on the recent political appointments and resignations within the Kremlin’s inner circle.

In this regard, I would rather say that the American version of my book ends up with a chapter about Syria and Turkey. It highlights that the whole Russian conflict with Turkey is not the result of an industrious, overarching plan.

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And today’s events [the reconciliation between Moscow and Ankara] is another proof that it is the case, because if one has a certain plan of how to behave in the Middle East and what kind of policy it is necessary to choose toward Turkey, the recent fluctuations in Moscow-Ankara relations, which we have been witnessing for the last half a year, would be just impossible. However, initially, a cold war started between Russia and Turkey, but afterwards they suddenly reconciled and fraternized [as indicated by the Turkish president’s visit to Russia – Editor’s note].

RD: Some argue that there is demand for paternalism in Russia, which means that Russians are not ready for true democracy. However, it is not clear what comes first – the demand for a paternalistic leader from the population or the Kremlin’s information campaign that imposes this agenda. It is like the chicken-or-the-egg problem. What is your take on it?

M.Z.: This is the very question that preoccupied people in the early 20th century, during the events, which preceded the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution (Now I am writing a book on this historical period in Russia). Likewise, they were debating the question whether the Russian people were ready for democracy or not. Interestingly, in 100 years these doubts – whether Russians are ready or not – still persist. In my view any claims that Russians are not ready for democracy are very dubious: It is an attempt to ascribe anthropomorphous, human characteristics to inanimate objects like entire nations.

But there is no reason to do it. It is too naïve, it is an oversimplification, something like looking over clouds and trying to find the shapes of animals in the sky while sprawling on the lawn: this cloud looks like an elephant, this one resembles a crocodile. Yet the cloud neither turns into an elephant nor into a crocodile no matter what you think about it. It doesn’t reflect the reality. So, again, there is not need to oversimplify and claim that a nation has certain and predetermined characteristics and fate.

In my view, Russian society is much more sophisticated and it brings together different groups of peoples with different values. While some stick to democratic values, others prefer to affiliate themselves with a great power and share imperialistic values, they feel pride for their country. These people are very different in their mindset.

At the same time, there is a group of people who are politically apathetic, who try to shy away from politics and power; they are preoccupied with routine, mundane burdens and they don’t think about democracy; they just don’t want to be bothered. And such people represent the majority of the population. They are ready to agree automatically with any initiatives and calls, because it requires less effort. In this situation, a lot depends on the current political situation. So, it would be wrong to oversimplify and put nations into boxes.