Considering this is both a book blog and a Russia blog, it was only a matter of time before I tackled a Western Putin book, wasn’t it?
Love Putin or hate him, it’s hard to deny he’s been a major obsession of the West’s for quite some time. We write mountains of articles, books and hit pieces on him (many of which are based on a flawed premise, I might argue). Even people who would otherwise show no interest in Russia know Putin’s name and face. And you just try searching for Russia-related things on Amazon without a Putin book, mask, or calendar popping up*. As for me, I’ve already shared my mixed personal opinion of Putin elsewhere, so no need to repeat that whole spiel here.
Most books about Putin published nowadays are deeply critical of him and almost always present him in a negative light: as the great villain; the Stalin or Hitler of our age. While it’s hard to deny – among Westerners, at least – that some of the present Russian government’s policies are draconian, those books fail to acknowledge the positive work Putin has done for Russia – which, among other things, includes averting state disintegration in the early 2000s. Rare are nonfiction books that give him a complex or less negative, if not fair, treatment.
Even rarer still are fiction books which use him as a fully fleshed character and attempt to delve into his psyche. I, Putin is one of such books.
The fictional portrayal of heads of state past and present is a big interest of mine**. I enjoyed Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, am currently reading Robert Harris’ Imperium, which stars Cicero, and I have Robert Graves’ I, Claudius waiting in the queue. Lenin and Stalin appeared in The Commissariat of Enlightenment. I’m still waiting for fictional Yeltsin. Worsening relations between Russia and the West have created a marvelous backdrop for political and espionage thrillers. You can probably guess how these “new” and “original” stories go: Russia slides back into the role of the USSR (but this time with better PR) and President Putin takes the role of its shadowy ruler, or some slight variation of this theme. I’ve read plenty of these novels, and in most of them Vladimir Vladimirovich is the same caricatured Putin we love to hate. In Gerard de Villiers’ Revenge of the Kremlin, he, one of many one-dimensional characters, is wholly responsible for the death of Boris Berezovsky***. The main character in Red Sparrow (by Jason Matthews) works for him and is going to attempt to assassinate him in the upcoming book 3, The Kremlin’s Candidate. The Russian president in G.W. Eccles’ books The Oligarch and Corruption of Power is a thinly veiled Putin stand-in. And then there is this book, but Prof. Paul Robinson has already covered that.
I, Putin is an entirely different beast. Instead of offering a biographical account of the Russian president’s life or turning him into a cartoonish villain, I, Putin focuses on a particular turning point in his rule that changed him forever: the Kursk submarine disaster of 2000.
Western readers will likely come to this book with a preconceived opinion of Vladimir Putin, many of them misinformed. Despite the passage of more than twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation’s emergence, it is still difficult for many Americans, even those born after the collapse, to shake the mentality of the enemy competing with America. Vladimir Putin conveniently fits into the role of the bogeyman, the conditioned symbol of the “other”. In I, Putin, Jennifer Ciotta tries to at least dispel the notion that Putin is the Cold War spy-turned-autocrat intent on going back to the USSR. Does she succeed? Let’s find out.
As a fictional character, Ciotta’s Putin is adequately developed. He has clearly-defined goals, needs, and desires. His drive to achieve propels the story forward. Like any complex character Putin isn’t any one thing: he can be shrewd and strong, but at the same time possesses a dark element – an inclination to control and repress – that manifests itself throughout the book. Chiefly, Ciotta’s Putin is a Russian patriot, and wants what is best – or what he believes is best – for his country. This is a story about a highly intelligent man who has raised the bar to its highest and faces great odds to carry out his mission. It’s about a man with strengths and peculiarities, and Ciotta also exposes the reader to the sometimes dishonest means by which he survives. Believe it or not, I found myself rooting for him.
Much of I, Putin is told through present-day Putin’s dictations to his fictitious assistant Gosha as he prepares his memoirs for publishing. It’s through these memories that Putin is rendered as a very familiar human being, deserving of understanding if not the reader’s sympathy: a child unsure, frail, seeking approval but instead given the condescending nickname “Goulash Pants” because he carries home some of his lunch each day to feed his only “friends” – the rats in his building. The reader learns of the refuge he found in judo and how it was to shape his thinking as he progressed through the Soviet system he lived in but never fully embraced. Ciotta goes on to provide sporadic glimpses into a domestic life with a very recognizable wife and children not so different from what we see in a Western household. And the reader learns of Putin’s father, a good Soviet but a sad and distant man with his own enigmatic past who serves as the backdrop for all the conflict that happens throughout Putin’s life.
Let’s move on to the plot and story.
In history, there are moments of uncertainty in which the outcome of an event or even the future of a nation hangs in the balance below a swinging pendulum. We don’t always know how or why things turn out the way they do. But when you can identify one of those moments and see the event from another perspective, you possess a new window on the story that allows you to see everything else much more clearly. Ciotta identifies Vladimir Putin’s moment as the Kursk submarine disaster.
At the time of the accident, Mr. Putin has only been president for a few months and is still trying to assert himself in the chaos left behind by his predecessor Yeltsin’s resignation. Oligarchic factions battle for control of the state and its assets and any outward displays of weakness are certain to bring ruin. Putin feels the pressure from all sides and must decide whether to accept foreign aid in rescuing the sailors of the Kursk. On the brink of disaster, Putin experiences his moment of clarity and suddenly and unexpectedly grabs the reins.
Fans of “fictionalized” history will appreciate the story’s plausibility and the fluidity with which it moves between fact and fiction. Ciotta has apparently done close research and respects her subject matter as a person. There’s enough action to satisfy Tom Clancy readers; enough savvy political discussion to satisfy those into politics; enough history for history buffs and enough emotion and drama to keep the pages turning. Again, there is a kind of sympathy around the edges of the book, an understanding that every action on the political world stage is ultimately human, and that Putin, while cold and strong, ultimately makes a hard yet very human decision.
All that being
gushed said, there were several problems I had with I, Putin. I, Putin is Jennifer Ciotta’s first book and it certainly shows. Grammatical errors were minimal, but there were a couple narrative focus issues. I was confused several times at who was telling the story and had to stop and go back to check whether I’d missed something. Yes, much of the story is told through Putin’s memories, but it also shifts back and forth between what other characters – like Gosha and Bill Clinton – are thinking or doing.
Speaking of Gosha, the second narrative issue is tied to him. I think a bit too much time was devoted to Gosha. I understand he was used as a foil to highlight the personality of Putin, but much detail was given over to Gosha that in the end didn’t matter. Other reviewers who’ve read the book liked Gosha, but I did not. Same goes for the Bill Clinton chapter. Had the narrative been told completely from Putin’s perspective – or at least had kept him the sole subject – it might have flowed better.
So that was I, Putin. Returning to the question I posed seven paragraphs back about whether Ms. Ciotta succeeds in dispelling the popular view of Putin’s character, humanizing him in a way, I think she does. Of course, not everyone is going to reach this conclusion, and if you strongly disliked Putin before reading this book, you’re probably still going to dislike him afterwards. However, I, Putin just might encourage you to see him in a slightly different light. I can at least say Ms. Ciotta’s book comes as a breath of fresh air after reading a string of several books which wantonly demonized Vladimir Putin. I, Putin deserves 4.5 stars, but since neither I nor HTML coding does half stars, I’m going to round up and give it the full 5.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I, Putin by Jennifer Ciotta. Pub. 2012 by Pencey X Publishing. Paperback, 210 pages. ISBN13: 9780615602523
*Or maybe that’s just a J.T. problem…
**I’ve always been of the opinion that a head of state should only be fictionalized after they’ve died or left office, and even then it’s important that the writer avoid demonizing his/her subject. However, I’m fine with a living head of state getting this kind of treatment.
***Not recommended under any circumstances. There is far too much sex and shoddy writing!