June 13, 2017

I picked up The Invention of Russia by Arkady Ostrovsky because I wanted to know more about Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, especially the rise of Putin. Now I’m half wishing I hadn’t been so inclined. This is a scary book because of its two main conclusions: 1) You never know how history will unfold, and 2) Vladimir Putin is a serious threat to Russian—and world—stability.

The first two-thirds of the book or so correspond to the first conclusion. This is a fascinating chronicle of the decades leading to Gorbachev’s reforms and the demise of the Soviet Union, followed by the chaotic Wild-Westian Yeltsin-led 1990’s and the initial rise of Putin to the presidency. This story is filled with complex heroes, conniving villains, heroes-turned-villains, and villains-turned-heroes. The lines between politics, business, and media blur in dramatic ways that presage the same phenomenon that has to a less blatant (but no less damaging) way arisen in the United States.

Gorbachev appears as a catalyst of the chaos, by no means seen in Russia as the great leader we in the west often perceive him to be. He fades away surprisingly abruptly, giving way to Yeltsin, whose ups and downs as a politician undermined his apparently sincere attempts to direct the kleptocratic energies of Russia’s oligarchs—and its easily manipulated populace—toward Western-style pseudo-democracy.

Putin’s rapid rise from minor star status within the old political machine to the young, virile savior filling Yeltsin’s void and making Russians feel safe and proud provides the truly scary section of the The Invention of Russia. Putin is revealed as a quintessentially Machiavellian political chameleon. He adopts whatever ideology or rallying cry suits him at the moment in his never-ending quest for absolute power. He’ll side with the elites when it suits his purposes, but unabashedly appeal to lowest-common-denominator populist sentiments at the drop of a hat when the wind starts blowing that way. He will celebrate the media when its messages support his aims, and he’ll castigate it (or kill its messengers) when it does not.

Throughout his nearly two decades in power, however, Putin has stayed steadfast in his use of four primary tools. First, on the domestic front, Putin has undone most of the progress made in the 1980’s and 1990’s toward decentralized, distributed power. He is a textbook autocrat who consolidates power in himself and his inner circle with every move. Second, he is a master propagandist who uses wholesale fabrications and insidious media manipulation to control the minds of Russians and bamboozle the outside world. Third, he has united a country whose identity was shaken with the fall of Soviet communism around a powerful old idea: anti-Americanism specifically and anti-Westernism in general. Fourth, he uses unilateral (and often covert) militarism to accomplish or reinforce all of his other goals.

The other scary theme that emerges from this pre-rise-of-Trump book is how similar Donald Trump is to Vladimir Putin. They are both driven by authoritarian impulses, they both demand absolute loyalty, they both spew negative hateful rhetoric, they both seek to control their image and distort any fact contrary to that image, and they are both brazen opportunists. It is blatantly obvious why Trump has modeled himself after the Russian autocrat. One key difference appears equally obvious, however: whereas Trump has so far emerged as a bungling clown, Putin is something close to brilliant. Trump’s buffoonery may end up doing as much as or even more damage than Putin’s master scheming, but he is no Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, the two men’s clear affinities combined with Trump’s vapidity make him the perfect Putin puppet. And it remains to be seen just how much puppetry has been—and is currently—in play.

Overall, I come away from The Invention of Russia grateful that a Russian journalist has somehow survived to write such a revealing work, increasingly interested in our former (current? future?) enemy, and hopeful that the Trump era lasts a tiny fraction of that of his mentor. Finally, I am left pondering this question: Which of these men is the world leader most likely to do something that will change history in ways we can’t possibly predict? I guess we’ll see how the story unfolds.