The Evolution of a Narrative; or, To Read or Not To Read?

Because it’s incredibly rare for contemporary Russian-language books – especially political biographies – to get English translation, I’m usually very excited to discover that a new one’s about to come out.

Usually.

First came the translation of Gorbachev’s После кремля (retitled The New Russia), which I was excited for, but which currently has a one-and-a-half star rating on Amazon. Since March, I’ve been following the progress of another English translation, this time of Mikhail Zygar’s Вся кремлевская рать (All the Kremlin’s Men), which purports to tell the story of Putin’s inner circle.

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Эта книга рассказывает об истории России на всем протяжении правления Владимира Путина, с 2000 по 2015 год. В основу книги легли документы, открытые источники и десятки уникальных личных интервью, которые автор взял у действующих лиц из ближайшего окружения Владимира Путина. Собранные воедино, факты, события, интриги и мнения героев составляют полную картину жизни Кремля, из которой впервые становится понятна логика метаморфозы Владимира Путина: как и почему из либерального прозападного президента начала 2000-х он превратился в авторитарного правителя и одного из самых ярых противников Запада.

(my translation) This book tells about the history of Russia throughout the reign of Vladimir Putin, from 2000 to 2015. The book is based on documents, open sources and dozens of personal interviews, which the author took from active persons from the nearest environment of Vladimir Putin. Taken together, the facts, the events, intrigues and opinions of the characters make up a complete picture of life in the Kremlin, which for the first time, the logic of the metamorphosis of Vladimir Putin becomes clear: how and why the liberal Pro-Western President of the early 2000s became an authoritarian ruler and one of the most vocal opponents of the West.

Sounds very interesting, right? My curiosity was further piqued after reading my friend’s review of the Russian edition and the first released synopsis of the English version:

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Charting the transformation of Vladimir Putin from a passionate fan of the West and a liberal reformer into a hurt and introverted outcast, All the Kremlin’s Men is a historical detective story, full of intrigue and conspiracy. This is the story of the political battles that have taken place in the court of Vladimir Putin since his rise to power, and a chronicle of friendship and hatred between the Russian leader and his foreign partners and opponents.

Russia’s most prominent independent journalist Mikhail Zygar has had unprecedented access to people who are either currently or were formerly allied with Putin, but have only now agreed to reveal their impressions of the powerful president and his circle of power. Zygar’s in-depth interviews include Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, former Kremlin chief of staff Alexander Voloshin, former mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov, former presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, former residents of Ukraine and Georgia Viktor Yushchenko and Mikhail Saakashvili, and many other key Russian and Western politicians and diplomats. For many people from Putin’s closest circle, it was the first time they could tell their stories.

Each chapter has a main character, who gives an insight into the origins of Vladimir Putin’s transformation. Cumulatively, All the Kremlin’s Men explains to the English-speaking audience what has happened to Russia, what the role of the West is in its destiny, and how this destiny could play out going forward. It is a delicious portrait of the strangeness of modern Russia, a country swirling with intrigue and paranoia, peppered with fateful missteps and confusion, and the brooding, volatile, magnificently unpredictable figure of Vladimir Putin.

Yeah, this synopsis is far more sensationalist than its Russian counterpart, but that’s to be expected from a Western book on Russia. Publishers are quick to appeal to tropes and popular sentiment on Russia/Putin in order to sell copies. And, well, it worked here. While the Russian synopsis is more succinct and fair, this one is what got me excited for All the Kremlin’s Men‘s publication. It promises the same story of Putin’s metamorphosis that the Russian edition did. It promises the same in-depth interviews with a fairly good mix of Russian, E. European and Western figures, and now I know exactly with whom. Zygar’s portrait of Putin (compared to those of other Russian liberals, Ed Lucas, Ben Judah, etc) seems reasonable. Overall, my impression was that content-wise the English version was going to be very close to the Russian version, without adding in any exaggerated anti-Putin rhetoric for the Western audience just because the book’s dealing with Putin. All things considered, that’s pretty unique.

But then along came the new synopsis on Amazon.

This is the story of an accidental king and a court out of control. When renowned journalist Mikhail Zygar began conducting exclusive interviews with members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, he uncovered a shocking slew of inconsistencies, reinterpretations, and confusion. Over time, their firsthand accounts—mired in egos and excuses— comprised a new image of Vladimir Putin as a weary leader controlled by the many men who advise and deceive him.

Through unprecedented portraits of key political figures—from Kremlin Chief of Staff Alexander Voloshin to Deputy Prime Minister Igro Shavalov—Zygar reveals how the Kremlin’s decisions have been nothing more than tactical responses to external events, devoid of logic or objective. And in their failed attempts to defend their actions, Putin’s men have invented implacable enemies of the state and launched an imaginary war. A bestseller in Russian, All the Kremlin’s Men is both a shocking reconstruction of Putin’s tumultuous reign and an exposé of the manipulation and myopia of his closest circle.

After reading this, my metaphorical hackles were raised and the red flags started going up as well. This is almost a complete tonal and narrative shift from the first English synopsis, let alone the original Russian version. Zygar’s Putin is now beginning to sound a lot like Ben Judah’s Putin (see my review of Fragile Empire for what that Putin is). The description’s almost entirely sensationalist, anti-Putin, and anti-Russian government rhetoric. Familiar liberal figures Svetlana Alexievich, Boris Akunin, Nadya Tolokonnikova (P**** Riot), and Christiane Amanpour have all jumped on board to praise it.

There’s only so much you can blame on the publisher’s meddling. All of this is purely speculation, but considering that Zygar is a fluent English speaker, I’m now beginning to suspect this was never a translation at all; that Zygar just rewrote the English edition of the book himself and heightened the hostile language to attract mainstream Western readership. Then again, maybe the book is the same but the publisher just altered the synopsis. However, it’s unlikely the publisher would’ve made such a drastic change if the book’s narrative hadn’t changed drastically first. What I do know is that All the Kremlin’s Men is increasingly looking like the typical anti-Putin story, this time with Russian liberal gossip. (It sure doesn’t help that computer problems prevent me from actually seeing text in the Amazon sneek peek.)

Which brings me to the question posed in the post’s title. To Read or Not to Read refers not to whether I’m going to read/review Zygar’s book. I definitely will. The question is whether to skip reading the English version of All the Kremlin’s Men and just read the original Russian Вся кремлевская рать. Clearly that‘s the version I wanted to read. It’ll be harder, it’ll take longer, but it might make the difference between a four-star and a two-star review.

What do you think, readers? Perhaps you know more about All the Kremlin’s Men than I do. Should I hold out for All the Kremlin’s Men or go with Вся кремлевская рать? As always, I’m open to your input.

Edit 12:13pm : In the minutes after I posted this, The New Russia gained 2 more reviews on Amazon. Rating is now 3.3 stars.

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8 comments

  1. The original book you described sounded very interesting. But why am I not surprised to learn that things went downhill from there in terms of the English version?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. >”Russia’s most prominent independent journalist Mikhail Zygar”
    >”renowned journalist Mikhail Zygar”

    “You keep saying this word!”(c)

    I (as Russian) am uaware of M/ Zygars fame or even of the fact that his book is a “bestseller” in Russia. I’m also dubious how interviews with batono Mishiko Saakashvili or yasnovelmozhny pan Viktor “Dioksinovych” Yushenko, let alone with the so-called “leader of the opposition” Lyosha Navalny (who never met Putin in person) can add anything to the purpoted goal of the book – to describe Putin and the inner workings of his “court”.

    Like

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