Mikhail Zygars obliging survey glistens a light on the fearful band of acolytes second-guessing the wishes of the Russian leader

On the day I finished reading this book, two newspaper articles caught my attention. A former head of the armed forces warned that the UK could not withstand a Russian attack; on the US presidential campaign trail, more evidence emerged of Vladimir Putins support for Donald Trump.

Of the many accounts written about the Russian president, Mikhail Zygars insiders guide to his court is one of the most compelling. Zygar, a prominent journalist, has clearly earned the confidence of many. He tiptoes carefully; a number of journalists and their sources who have tried to disclose details of the cash that Putin and his henchmen have squirrelled away have ended up dead or in jail.

The book charts not just the machinations of the various players indeed some of the detail is a possibility amazing to non-Kremlinologists. It also acutely traces the evolution of Putins mind. The former KGB operative in East Germany did, even as he fixed down on the domestic media, initially try to woo the west. After Iraq and particularly the colouring revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, Putin felt betrayed.

The fat decade, as the 2000 s were known, was the period when Russians( or at least some of them) maxed out on conspicuous consumption. Russia was clumsily learning how to be a rich country, the author writes. It was not just the oligarchs; the civil service quadrupled in number, a ready cash cow. There was scarcely any politics , no public life, just solid hedonism. The most common form of bribery was a family holiday abroad, worth a few thousand, in return for rubber-stamping a contract worth millions. The state officials grew wiser and developed a taste for proper luxury. Why take hand-outs from billionaires if you can become a billionaire yourself? That is when the power nexus changed. What mattered was access to the top, and increasingly that entailed one human only.

In foreign policy, Putin took a binary approach to friend and foe. George W Bush( at first) was the tough guy who knew how to buy elections; Gerhard Schrder was the dependable friend who tried and received a big job in Russian business. The favourite, naturally, was Silvio Berlusconi. The two households is very much close. Putin received it so much easier to deal with European cynics, Zygar notes.

As for the present pack, he loathes Barack Obama( and the impression is reciprocal ); he considers Angela Merkel as the ringleader for a tougher European response to Russia. Hence the constant subsistence Russia gives to Trump and Frances far-right Marine Le Pen, and the delight registered over Brexit. Russia will use every possible means to shake the status quo and undermine Europe. One of the many amusing anecdotes was how Putin would bring his huge black Labrador to sessions with Merkel; she is frightened stiff of dogs.

Few of the cardinals around the president emerge with credit. The most pitiable role is ascribed to Dmitry Medvedev, the man on whom the west briefly pinned some hopes. Plucked from nowhere by Putin( just as Putin was by Boris Yeltsin ), his job was to keep the presidential seat warm. Putin needed to step down after two terms, but assumed that as “ministers ” he would continue to run the show.

For a year or two his protege struck out; he not only brought in his own people, he tried( a little) to introduce some constitutional order into the criminal nation and he tried a rapprochement of sorts with the west. Obamas team privately mocked Medvedev and his obsession with western contraptions. They and the Europeans were pleasantly astonished when the Russians did not object to the bombing of Libya. Putin, however, was furious and would never let Medvedev forget his disloyalty. When the president briefly contemplated operating for re-election, Putin sent out the order to destroy him. Parliament, security services, media and the business community did the rest.

By 2012, securely ensconced in his third term as chairwoman, Putin controlled everything and everyone. Within a couple of years of his new tenure, he had watched off the liberal protest motion, annexed Crimea and occupied eastern Ukraine. He had won back some global authority with his clever scheming in Syria.

Such was the power he wielded that during his strange( and still unexplained) two long absences from the Kremlin , nobody knew what to do. Western sanctions hit his circle hard, but nobody dared argue with him, since they are knew that he was the source and guarantor of their wealth. Putins good favour was what dedicated them legitimacy. He had by this phase become obsessed with victimhood Russias diplomatic and spiritual consolation blanket.

Yet, while emphasising the courts dependency on Putin, Zygars conclusion is more nuanced. Putin became what he is because those around him saw it as the simplest track for their own enrichment and job security. In trying to divine the intent of their leader, his associates effectively materialised their own wishes. In other words, Putin is more of a phenomenon than a leader.

The perennial neurosis about slavophilia versus westernism is therefore a false choice. Russia, the author indicates, attempts consolation and confidence in definition against others. Each of us fabricated our own Putin. And we may yet generate many more.

John Kampfner is the author of The Rich: From Slaves to Super Yachts A 2000 -Year History . All the Kremlins Men is published by Perseus( 18.99 ). Click here to buy it for 15.57

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