I’m not going to lie or be ashamed: I think Vladimir Putin is an interesting character. Don’t get it twisted – I’m not a Putinophile who thinks he should be worshiped and exalted. Nor am I a Putinophobe who thinks he should be hated and feared. (Technically, I’m centre with leanings toward pro-.) But I do think that Putin should be watched and studied in all his complexity for as long as he remains in power in order to understand what he wants for Russia/Russia’s role in the world. Whether his system and policies will survive him and what that will mean for the country and Western relations with it. Maybe that’s why I seldom turn down books about Putin unless I know they will be hatchet jobs (but then again, Man Without a Face is in my review lineup). To understand.
First Person (or От первого лица) was one of the first books I ever read in the original language several years ago, so this review is essentially of a rereading. However, I’ve tried to keep some of my original impressions of the book in this review along with modern references.
First Person is a transcript of a series of interviews conducted in 2000 by three Russian journalists with Putin, his wife and daughters, friends, teachers, and colleagues. Readers who pick up this book should not expect to find deep insight into Putin’s political philosophy or details of his experience in the KGB. But when read for what it is – a collection of meandering yet frank conversations with the Russian president – First Person is a useful and interesting account of Putin’s life, family, and ascent to power.
The book is written in a question-and-answer format which is usually effective but occasionally leaves the reader in doubt as to who is answering a particular question: Putin or one of the other interviewees. Despite the triviality of some of Putin’s stories, a general portrait of his life emerges. Putin describes himself as a hooligan in his youth who mended his ways primarily to achieve his goal of going to law school in preparation for a career in the KGB. He chose that career path after seeing a movie titled the Sword and the Shield (the KGB logo) which prompted him to walk uninvited into the local KGB office in Leningrad to seek employment. The officer who met him advised him that the KGB seldom considered walk-in applicants and that he should attend university and study law as a means of preparing himself. Rather amazingly, he did exactly that and was recruited immediately upon graduation.
The book also contains numerous details about Putin’s time in Dresden, East Germany, his early political life in the administration of Anatoly Sobchak, the reform-minded mayor of Leningrad, and his subsequent steady rise in the national government as well as numerous anecdotes from his family life. Parts of this autobiography are plainly banal (he’s 165 lbs and likes beer), but interspersed throughout are candid comments by one of the world’s most powerful men.
Putin admits he didn’t know much about Stalin’s purges in the 1930s when he joined the KGB:
I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education.
He also criticizes Soviet leaders for invading Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War:
These were major mistakes. And the Russophobia that we see in Eastern Europe today is the fruit of those mistakes.
At another moment, he expresses frustration with some of the accusations leveled at him by critics:
Why have they made up so much about me? It’s complete nonsense!
On the Chechen war, he is defensive:
I was convinced that if we didn’t stop the extremists right away, we’d be facing a second Yugoslavia on the entire territory of the Russian Federation – the Yugoslavization of Russia […] We are not attacking. We are defending ourselves.
These occasional bits of insight either slip or are inserted into the conversation. I find it hard to believe that someone as in-control as Putin would really let something slip, and I don’t mean to be derogatory here. I’m just recognizing that Putin is a successful politician who climbed one of the most difficult – and dangerous – ladders in the world.
In the introduction to the English version of First Person, the three journalist interviewers express their hope that First Person would “bring us a little bit closer to understanding Russia’s newest president”. Does the book accomplish its goal? Well, somewhat. It does succeed in humanizing the not-so-charismatic politician. In stark contrast to his modern portrayal as the Hitlin (Hitler-Stalin) of our age, we see Putin as the Soviet kid-next-door, son, schoolboy, university student, intelligence specialist, patriot, democrat, bureaucrat, family man. Putin comes off as reserved and rectitudinous, with a wry sense of humor. In some ways, First Person bears a resemblance to a standard campaign biography, intended to provide details on the candidate’s accomplishments and give readers a sense of his personality. But despite the aforementioned details, there are no shocking revelations to be found here, and the reader is brought no closer to understanding how Putin was able to become acting president and then president of the world’s largest nation.
Though dated by its 2000 publication, First Person is a light and interesting introduction to Vladimir Putin. Just don’t go into it expecting serious analysis or discoveries – the journalists’ questions and the conversations, though plain-spoken, don’t go much deeper than the surface. Frank, perhaps; but astonishing…no.
★ ★ ★