Book review: A new book by Mikhail Zygar, the former chief editor at independent TV station Dozhd, explains the decision-making process inside the Kremlin. Russian President Putin is not an infallible leader taking decisions by himself; rather, he is surrounded by a circle of trusted advisors.

"Putin" is the collective judgement of the dozens of politicians, bureaucrats, civil servants, intelligence chiefs, and military and business leaders, who surround him. Photo: RIA Novosti

Does the world really need another biography of Russian President Vladimir Putin? If that biography is another tired re-hash of uncorroborated stories from the same old English-language news sources by ivory tower academics, retired Cold Warriors, disgruntled investors or career-minded journalists, who endlessly remind their readers of Putin’s KGB career past, then the answer must be no.

However, Mikhail Zygar, former chief editor at independent TV station Dozhd, brings a fresh approach and new insights to the ever-fascinating world of Kremlinology. Published in Russia late last year, his “All the Kremlin's Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin” has been translated into German and will be available from September in an English-language translation.

Zygar lives and works in Moscow and has spent the past 16 years  ever since Putin was first elected president  interviewing hundreds of the key political and government figures who have worked with and interacted with Putin during this time. As a result, Zygar has developed several insights into how the Russian political system under Putin really works, and he comes up with a number of theories, which he proceeds to illustrate over the course of the book.

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Firstly, he says, the people he interviewed were, to a man and woman, unreliable interviewees. Key events, dates and protagonists were regularly glossed over, transposed, or eliminated entirely from their accounts. Moreover, whenever the historical record contradicted the interviewees, the errors they made always ended up showing them in the best light.

It is hard to escape the conclusion here that without a transparent government apparatus and an independent media free to pursue stories it believes to be in the public interest without fear of obfuscation, harassment, or violence, subjective accounts of events will remain the key prism through which Russian politics must be analyzed and interpreted. Kremlinology is dead (we thought) – long live Kremlinology.

Secondly  and this theory should be discussed widely in and adopted by Western newsrooms, think tanks, foreign ministries and academic institutions — whenever there is a Kremlin-related discussion between the conspiracy theory of history or the accident theory of history, the latter should always be the prevailing interpretation.

This leads him to his third theory: that notwithstanding the evolution of “sovereign democracy” as a political theory (for more on this, see below), there has never been any overarching grand strategy informing the actions of the Kremlin in the years of Putin’s rule  policy is improvised. As the Kremlin never ceases to remind its Western partners, everything it has done in Ukraine over recent years has been a response to Western actions initiated first. Zygar believes this modus operandi applies equally to all other areas of government policy.

His theory about Putin himself is more subjective, but no less compelling for being so: While Putin is of course a single individual (notwithstanding some of the more colorful rumors of lookalike body-doubles and plastic surgery), taking all major (and many minor) decisions relating to the direction of the country, for the purposes of policy making and political decision-making, "Putin" is in fact the collective judgement of the dozens, or even hundreds, of politicians, bureaucrats, civil servants, intelligence chiefs, and military and business leaders, who surround him.

But while Putin takes all key decisions, he does so not from a position of omnipotent infallibility, but rather is constantly trying to second-guess the "collective Putin" to check that the decisions he is taking are politically appropriate and fit the overall logic and strategy of his administration. A sceptic might point out that this theory is convenient for the author, since, curiously, the one individual he admits to not having interviewed is Putin himself. Nevertheless it makes for an interesting prism through which to reassess his 16-year rule.  

From Richard the Lionheart to Ivan the Terrible

Zygar’s structures the book by comparing each stage of Putin’s rule to a different historical monarch.

The early days of Putin’s administration, approximately from his election in 2000 to the end of his first term in 2004, Zygar compares with those of Richard the Lionheart, the warrior king best remembered today as a great military leader. Putin’s first term was marked by a number of major terrorist attacks and national tragedies — including the 1999 apartment bombings, the 2000 sinking of the Kursk submarine, the 2002 Nord-Ost theatre siege, the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis, and the second Chechen war. Putin emerged from this baptism of fire having burnished his credentials as a strong leader.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, flanked by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, and Federal Security Service Chief Alexander Bortnikov, right, in Sevastopol, Crimea on May 9, 2014. Photo: AP

The second section, corresponding to Putin’s second term from 2004 to 2008, implicitly compares him to Peter the Great, the first Romanov tsar and founder of St. Petersburg. Peter dragged the feudal and backward state he inherited into the modern age by encouraging the adoption of the latest technologies in engineering, architecture, culture and the arts, and is remembered as a cultural revolutionary and modernizer of his state, who “broke open a window to Europe.” Putin’s second term was characterized by the trickle-down effects of the oil boom, including increased infrastructure spending, a burgeoning middle class keen to travel and spend, and the glitz and glamour of booming Moscow.

In 2008, Putin stepped aside to become prime minister, allowing then deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev to replace him as president. These events are discussed in the chapter called “The False Dmitry,” a reference to the name given to several pretenders to the Romanov throne during the 16th century’s “Time of Troubles.” The inference here is clear  Medvedev was a poor replacement for what the Russian people had come to expect in their leaders, and was only pretending to be tsar.

Finally, the fourth chapter likens Putin to Ivan the Terrible, the legendary Russian tsar whose initial popularity and successes descended into brutality and paranoia over the course of his long reign. But this is a portrait of a somewhat reluctant monarch. The narrative Zygar suggests is of the successful warrior and reformer who at first accepts his position enthusiastically, then tires and decides to take a back seat, but in doing so realizes how indispensable he has become and returns, somewhat reluctantly, to answer the call of destiny.

Shashlik meeting

What each of the sections contains are insights into some of the major events, which Putin and his circle have shaped, as well as the relationships between some of the key players. This form of political analysis is not a dry review of dates or political policies, but rather, political analysis by gossip, innuendo and relationships — the soft, cultural cement without which the dry brick wall cannot be constructed. But it’s no less fascinating or illuminating for all that.

Shortly after his election as president, in the summer of 2001 Putin invited a dozen or so of the leading oligarchs of the day to a barbecue at the presidential dacha of Novo-Ogarevo. This was the so-called “shashlik meeting,” named after the Russian dish of meat skewers traditionally prepared over hot coals. Putin was keen to outline his vision for his administration and lay out the terms of successful cooperation between the Kremlin and big business.


Relations with Ukraine feature heavily, from the 2004 presidential elections, which triggered the so-called Orange Revolution, to the assimilation of Crimea into Russia a decade later. In a clear sign that Ukraine was a battleground for the great powers as early as 2004, U.S. Senator Richard Lugar was heavily involved in the campaign for presidential hopeful Viktor Yuschenko, while Russian political advisors ran the campaign for Viktor Yanukovych almost as though it was their own campaign.

Sovereign democracy

The Ukrainian presidential elections were probably the highpoint of Russia’s use of “political technology” to extend its influence outside the country. Domestically, this continued to develop under the leadership of political strategist Vladislav Surkov, who developed the key concept of governance known as “sovereign democracy.”

This philosophy has its roots in the 19th century Europhile-Russophile debate over Russia’s political, social and cultural destiny. The premise of Russian exceptionalism is that Russia has a unique society and culture and its people (defined broadly as Russian-speakers wherever they may be) must be protected from outside corruption, whether political (in the form of CIA-sponsored “color revolutions”), religious (the equality of “non-traditional” sexual minorities) or socio-cultural (forcing Russian speakers to adopt local languages in Ukraine, the Baltics and elsewhere). To do so, Russia requires a unique form of democracy, which can defend itself against threats from abroad. Sovereign democracy is the answer.

Many of the events Zygar features shed light on Putin’s evolving political philosophy, which inevitably hardened as the West continued to ignore or misconstrue his attempts at rapprochement. At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin took the opportunity to publicly condemn the unilateral approach to security that the U.S. had adopted under former U.S. President George W. Bush.

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Russia had supported the U.S.-led “War on Terror,” closed its overseas bases in Cuba and Vietnam, grumbled but took no action as the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the ABM treaty, and watched NATO expand to within 100 miles of its second city (St. Petersburg). But in return it received neither support nor friendship, was subjected to ongoing public hectoring by the U.S. on human rights and Chechnya, and was threatened with anti-missile systems in Europe and NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia.

This first part of the speech confirmed the Western view of Putin as an anti-Western strongman, and naturally attracted the bulk of media attention, triggering the first “new Cold War” headlines. Less noticed was the second, more conciliatory part of his speech in which he called for a new Eurasian security architecture, eschewing NATO but including BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Events over the next few years only served to harden the positions of both sides.

The antipathy continued once Barack Obama had become U.S. president. The Soviets had always believed that they could find common language with Republican presidents, but not Democrats. Putin mistrusted Obama from the start, seeing him as too weak, too ideological, inflexible. Hopes were soon dashed that Obama and Medvedev might see eye-to-eye as new leaders of a younger generation. However, the UN-approved and NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011 was strongly condemned by Russia and caused a split between Putin and Medvedev. For the Kremlin, it served to confirm their worst fears over the West’s selective unilateralism and aggression towards governments it objected to.

Domestic unrest

The 2011 Duma elections and Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 were long in the planning and, at least initially for the Kremlin political technologists, well executed. They were soon caught unawares, however, by the strength of public opposition to what many Russians viewed, notwithstanding their genuine admiration for Putin and his achievements, as a cynical abuse of the levers of power. Zygar’s TV station, Dozhd, took a prominent role in the opposition protests that followed, broadcasting the protests in central Moscow live and providing a platform to the briefly emboldened opposition to get its message out.

A surprising number of leading figures initially expressed some sympathy towards the protestors, including Medvedev, Surkov, finance minister Alexei Kudrin and Patriarch Kirill. The Medvedev camp let it be known that they would have been more proactive in support of the protests, had they appreciated the strength of feeling  a sure sign of political weakness. But Putin felt betrayed by the creative classes he believed he had supported, and this would lead henceforth to a clear break from the urban intelligentsia in favour of his key constituency: conservative, provincial and Orthodox.

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During Putin’s presidential inauguration, Dozhd split its screen to contrast the pomp of the official ceremony in the Kremlin with a meeting of the leading opposition figures, gathered together in a hip French café a couple of miles away. The riot police took the opportunity to raid the café live on screen, dragging off many of the leaders for a night in the cells.  But by this stage the opposition protests were already flagging, operating in something of an echo chamber.

Relations with the West

The next 18 months were characterized by an increasingly hard-line approach to domestic and international issues, and rancorous relations with foreign partners, which partly resulted from the passing of the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. bill to penalize officials accused of involvement in the death in custody of Sergey Magnitsky, the lawyer representing foreign investor Bill Browder. In response, Russian lawmakers passed the notorious Dima Yakovlev bill, banning the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens. Zygar’s description of how this came about provides one of the key pieces of evidence to support his “collective Putin” theory.

By the time of the G20 meetings in St. Petersburg in 2013, relations with the West had worsened to such an extent that U.S. officials were telling anyone who would listen that they had lost all confidence in the Kremlin. Preparations for the Sochi Olympics in February 2014, the Kremlin’s greatest publicity exercise, were in danger of being drowned out by a stream of negative stories in the Western media about the expense, corruption, poor planning and boycotts by Western leaders.

The relentless stream of negative media further embittered the Kremlin, which was already pre-occupied with events in Ukraine. Shortly after the closing ceremony, the Kremlin put into action its plans for the accession of Crimea  plans already prepared in detail since December. Relations with the West would go from bad to worse.

Puppet masters and the Matrix

The book brings together a cavalcade of colorful and often baroque characters. Vladislav Surkov, chief Kremlin ideologist, is compared to the hero of a nineteenth century Romantic novel. Sergey Ivanov, chief of the presidential administration and a former colleague of Putin at the KGB, is likened to a “Soviet James Bond,” similar in both the blandness of his name and appearance to Mr. Smith from the Matrix.

Igor Sechin, the long-running chief of Rosneft and a close associate of Putin from the early 1990s in St. Petersburg, is a “cyborg” who works standing up, needs little if any sleep, and, such is the awe he inspires in others, is rumored to have cured himself of cancer through nothing more than a disciplined and ascetic lifestyle.

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Former finance minister Alexei Kudrin refused to vacate his ministry office after being sacked by Medvedev, and for several months would turn up for work, “like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.” Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is an “alien,” a normal-looking person whose every move is a political calculation.

The book was written shortly after the murder of prominent opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in February 2015 right by the Kremlin walls, and this event inevitably casts a long shadow. Although no one has yet been found guilty of his murder, it is widely believed to be the result of in-fighting between various factions close to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Zygar describes Kadyrov as petulant and headstrong, a “medieval tyrant” emotionally dependent on the approval of his father figure and political patron, Putin. Zygar believes that Putin’s response following the murder suggests he himself is now unsure how to contain Kadyrov, and may even fear the implications of the Chechen leader’s increasingly erratic behavior.

Zygar concludes that, as the circle of advisors trusted by Putin has become smaller and closer over time, there is little in the way of fresh or innovative thinking, and without some kind of external stimulus, the existing political and economic structures will remain for the foreseeable future. One of the most popular Russian films of the 2000s was Brat-2, a sequel to the equally popular Brat, about small-time gangsters trying to eke out a living among the economic chaos and corruption at the end of the Yeltsin era. Both movies spawned a number of popular phrases and were quoted regularly.

In the second movie, much of which is set in the U.S. and which came out just three days after Putin’s 2000 inauguration, one of the Russian heroes turns to his American counterpart and says: “So tell me, American, what is power? Is it really money? That’s what my brother says, money is power. You have a lot of money, but so what? I think the truth is power. Whoever has truth on their side is the more powerful.” For Putin and many of Russia’s citizens, this image of the tough, street-hardened, wily underdog getting the better of its slicker, richer but weaker opponent is one they nurture and cherish.