by Steven Lee Myers (Simon & Schuster, £20)
In 1969, 17-year-old Vladimir Putin met a girl at his family’s dacha in Tosno, southeast of St Petersburg. A game of spin the bottle resulted in a brief kiss. “I felt so hot all of a sudden,” she recalled, noting his “small, strong hands.”
In those heady days of revolution—cultural in Paris, violent in Prague—the young Putin would listen to clandestine Beatles records, strum his guitar and dream of a career in the KGB.
These flashes of intimacy are rare moments in The New Tsar, a biography of the Russian president by Steven Lee Myers. Myers, the New York Times’s Moscow Bureau Chief, dispatches Putin’s childhood in 10 absorbing pages, and his undistinguished KGB career in another 33. In less than 10 years, Putin goes from Leningrad special advisor to the presidency, by way of Yeltsin’s feckless Kremlin.
In Myers’s telling, this is a fortuitous upward drift more than a well-planned ascent. There was something profoundly arbitrary about the ailing Yeltsin’s decision to offer Putin the office of Prime Minister in August 1999. There is also something telling in Putin’s response: “I don’t like election campaigns.”
The New Tsar is an impressive and diligent agglomeration of facts. But it struggles to break out of the relentless chronology into a deeper analysis. It lacks the eclecticism of Ben Judah’s dissection of Russian politics, Fragile Empire, or the revelatory nuggets that typically stud Times journalists’ books. Perhaps this is Putin’s fault as much as his biographer’s.
For what emerges is an isolated man utterly devoid of ideas of his own, responding to acts of revolution and resistance—in Syria, Ukraine, or at home—that he, a cynic, can only dimly understand through the simplistic lens of conspiracy.