The Complexity of Vladimir Putin at Core of 'The New Tsar'

He is one of the most controversial leaders on the world stage: Asserting and expanding Russia's reach, seizing territory in Ukraine, sending forces into Syria and suppressing dissent at home.

Former New York Times Moscow bureau chief Steven Lee Myers spent seven years covering Vladimir Putin as Putin consolidated power. Myers now has written a comprehensive new biography, "The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin."

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Myers joins us to discuss the book. Below, some highlights from our interview with Myers.

Putin's carefully crafted image

"When he came to power in 1999, appointed by former president Boris Yeltsin, no one knew who he was," said Myers. "He was really an obscure bureaucrat: he'd worked in the security services. From the beginning, they felt a need to create an image–essentially a blank slate to work with–and they used his 'tough guy' image from his KGB days to his efforts to suppress the rebellion in Chechnya, he flew in fighter jets, from the beginning there was this sense of showing him as a strong leader. It was a real contrast to Boris Yeltsin, who–especially at the end–was quite sick.

"He wants to show an image–a 'positive example' he says–to the Russian people, of a vibrant leader, like a vibrant country. He wants to put forward this image of a strong country, a strong Russia."

A serious visage

"He's always been a dour personality. Very reserved. Very careful, calculating in his interactions with people in public. Again, he wants to show this image of strength so you don't see a lot of joking, silly stunts and so forth."

What Yeltsin saw in Putin

"I think above all, it was intense loyalty. Putin always served the people above him diligently, quietly. He didn't make a big show of ambition. When Yeltsin was looking around–quite embattled by scandal around him–he was looking for someone who would protect his own legacy, protect him from legal prosecution once he left office."

Putin: At his core

"I think at his core, he is somebody who has a grievance about what happened to the Soviet Union. In his mind, the Soviet Union was not a repressive state. It was a state that he served loyally. He understood its flaws, but he also believed in it; as a kid, it's what he grew up with. When the Soviet Union collapsed, and the new Russia emerged, he saw that not as a moment of liberation–for the Russians, for the other republics–but as a humiliation. At his core is this desire to rebuild the powerful Russian state.

"I want people to see the complexity of Vladimir Putin. He's too often–because, in part, of his stunts– he's too often seen as a caricature. He's become something of a cartoon villain, or hero, depending on how you want to see him. But in fact he's a much more complicated character who reflects very much the transition that Russia has been making from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dangerous direction I think it's headed now."

Read an excerpt of "The New Tsar."

Chapter 1: Homo Sovieticus

Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin edged forward through the cratered battlefield beside the Neva River, roughly thirty Leningrad. His orders seemed suicidal. He was to reconnoiter German positions and, if possible, capture a “tongue,” slang for to interrogate. It was November 17, 1941, already bitterly cold, and the Soviet Union’s humiliated army was now desperately fighting to avoid its complete destruction at the hands of Nazi Germany. The last tanks in reserve in the city had crossed the Neva a week before, and Putin’s commanders now had orders to break through heavily reinforced positions defended by 54,000 German infantrymen. There was no choice but to obey. He and another soldier approached a foxhole along a dug- in front, carved with trenches, pocked with shell craters, stained with blood. A German suddenly rose, surprising all three of them. For a frozen moment, nothing happened. The German reacted first, unpinned a grenade and tossed it. It landed near Putin, killing his comrade and riddling his own legs with shrapnel. The German soldier escaped, leaving Putin for dead. “Life is such a simple thing, really,” a man who retold the story decades later would say, with a characteristic fatalism.

Putin, then thirty years old, lay wounded on a bridgehead on the east bank of the Neva. The Red Army’s commanders had poured troops across the river in hopes of breaking the encirclement of Leningrad that had begun two months earlier when the Germans captured Shlisselburg, an ancient fortress at the mouth of the Neva, but the effort failed. The Germans laid a siege that would last 872 days and kill a million civilians by bombardment, starvation, or disease. “The Führer has decided to wipe the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth,” a secret German order declared on September 29. Surrender would not be accepted. Air and artillery bombardment would be the instrument of the city’s destruction, and hunger would be its accomplice, since “feeding the population cannot and should not be solved by us.” Never before had a modern city endured a siege like it.

“Is this the end of your losses?” Joseph Stalin furiously cabled the city’s defenders the day after the siege began. “Perhaps you have already decided to give up Leningrad?” The telegram was signed by the entire Soviet leadership, including Vyacheslav Molotov, who in 1939 had signed the notorious nonaggression pact with his Nazi counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop, which was now betrayed. It was by no means the end of the losses. The fall of Shlisselburg coincided with ferocious air raids in Leningrad itself, including one that ignited the city’s main food warehouse. The Soviet forces defending the city were in disarray, as they were everywhere in the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion that began on June 22, 1941, had crushed Soviet defenses along a thousand- mile front, from the Baltic Sea Black Sea. Even Moscow seemed in danger of falling.

Stalin never considered surrendering Leningrad, and he dispatched the chief of the general staff, Georgy to shore up the city’s defenses, which he did with great brutality. On the night of September 19, on Zhukov’s orders, Soviet forces mounted the first assault 600 meters across the Neva to break the it was repulsed by overwhelming German firepower. In October, they tried again, hurling forth the 86th Division, which included Putin’s unit, the 330th Rifle Regiment. The bridgehead those troops managed to create on the eastern bank of the Neva became known, because of its size, as the Nevsky Pyatachok, from the word for a five- kopek coin or a small patch. At its greatest expanse the battlefield was barely a mile wide, less than half a mile deep. For the soldiers fated to fight there, it was a brutal, senseless death trap.

Putin was an uneducated laborer, one of four sons of Spiridon Putin, a chef who once worked in the city’s famed pre-revolutionary Astoria Hotel. Spiridon, though a supporter of the Bolsheviks, fled the imperial capital during the civil war and famine that followed the October Revolution in 1917. He settled in his ancestral village, Pominovo, in the rolling hills west of Moscow, and later moved to the city itself, where he cooked for Vladimir Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, at her official Soviet dacha in the Gorky district on the edge of Moscow. After her death in 1939, he worked in the retreat of Moscow’s Communist Party Committee. He was said to have cooked once for Grigory Rasputin at the Astoria and on occasion for Stalin when he visited Lenin’s widow, beginning a family tradition of servitude to the political elite. Proximity to power did nothing to protect his sons from the Nazis; the entire nation was fighting for survival.

Vladimir Putin was already a veteran when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. He had served as a submariner in the 1930s before settling down not far from Leningrad, in the village of Petrodvorets, where Peter the Great had built his palace on the Gulf of Finland. In the chaotic days that followed the invasion, he, like many citizens, had rushed to volunteer to defend the nation and was initially assigned to a special demolitions detachment of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD, the dreaded secret police agency that would later become the KGB. The NKVD created 2,222 of these detachments to harass the Nazis behind the front, which was advancing. One of Putin’s first missions in the war was a disaster. He and twenty- seven other partisan fighters parachuted behind the Germans advancing on Leningrad, near the town of Kingisepp. It was close to the border with Estonia, which the Soviet Union had occupied the year before, along with Latvia and Lithuania, as part of the notorious prewar pact with Hitler. Putin’s detachment managed to blow up one arms depot, as the story went, but quickly ran out of ammunition and rations. Local residents, Estonians, brought them food but also betrayed them to the Germans, whom many in the Baltic nations welcomed, at least at first, as liberators from Soviet occupation. German troops closed in on the unit, firing on them as they raced along a road back to the Soviet lines. Putin split off, chased by Germans with dogs, and hid in a marsh, submerging himself and breathing through a reed until the patrol moved on. How exactly he made it back is lost to the fog of history, but only he and three others of the detachment survived the raid. The NKVD interrogated him after his escape, but he managed to avoid suspicion of desertion or cowardice and was soon sent back to the front. It might have been courage alone that drove Putin, or it might have been fear. Stalin’s Order No. 270, issued on August 16, had threatened soldiers who deserted with execution and their family members with arrest.

Reprinted with permission. Read more of Chapter 1 here.

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