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An illustrated polemic, “Accidental Czar” takes pictorial potshots at the egregious President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. While the heavy lifting on Putin’s adventures and misadventures (mostly the latter) is done by Andrew S. Weiss, former director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs on the National Security Council staff, and currently the James Family Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the allegations against Putin are accompanied by exquisitely drawn pictures by noted cartoonist, Brian “Box” Brown.
If the book’s purpose is to serve as a primer in blowing the lid on the shenanigans of a purported megalomaniac, it succeeds beyond the wildest imaginations of its authors even! The quintessential motive of Weiss and Brown is to dispel the widely accepted ‘strong-man myth’ attached to Putin – and in whose reflected glory, he unashamedly basks – and to portray him as a fatally flawed character who is a bundle of contradictions and agglomeration of insecurities. Even if the authors do not identify an Achilles Heel, they sure lash out in the tenderest of spots exposed by an otherwise iron clad armour.
Tracing Putin’s early career the authors illustrate how Putin turned out to be an absolute failure in his quest to rise to the highest echelon of the Russian Secret Service, the KGB. Inspired from a young age by the staple diet of spy movies such as The Sword and The Shield and by the highly embellished and exaggerated exploits of two famous Russian secret service agents, Pavel Belov and Stierlitz, Putin had his eyes set on a glamorous James Bond like career in the world of espionage. To his credit after graduating with a Law Degree from the University of Leningrad, Putin enrolled himself with the Russian secret service. However hotheadedness and an intemperate brawl in a subway poured hot water on his dreams as Putin was forced to vacate an elite training programme offered by the famous Red Banner Institute deep in the jungles of Moscow.
A dull and drab sojourn at the insipid KGB office in Dresden, East Germany was the only available option for Putin. Following Glasnost and Perestroika, President Gorbachev’s last ditch efforts to bring a semblance of order to a crumbling empire, and an alcoholic Boris Yeltsin’s desperate gamble to protect himself and his family from a corrupt house of cards, Putin, who was looked at as a non-descript yet pliant individual, was made President of Russia, in return for guaranteeing Yeltsin and his cronies a clean chit.
With Putin began the reign of the oligarchs. People displaying fidelity towards him were richly rewarded and those opposing him either deprived of their fortunes – if lucky – or divested of their lives – if unlucky. Russia went back to the early 1800s where while stealing was not viewed as a crime, stealing beyond one’s ranks, surely was! But Putin early in his political tenure was not the brash, brazen and arrogant individual whom the world recognises today. In fact according to former Putin advisor, Gleb Pavlovsky, Putin needed to be asked to act more rudely and hence the photo ops and videos of the President riding in tanks, aircrafts and submarines.
As Weiss and Brown elucidate, Putin is an ideal Gosudarstvennik, a complicated Russian word which loosely translates to ‘a supporter of a strong state as an end in itself’. Orthodoxy, aristocracy and nationality, the trifecta adorning the philosophy behind every Czarist regime, came naturally to Putin. Paraphrasing the famed historian Edward L. Keenan, Weiss and Brown, write, it speaks volumes that even in the later 16th century, when the round trip to the capital could occupy the better part of the year, even simple real estate transactions conducted in tiny villages in the Arctic Circle, were registered and approved in Moscow.”
The book also describes Putin’s obsession in brining Ukraine back to its ‘rightful’ place. This obsession first manifested in an insidious cyber attack on Ukraine in 2014. This vicious virus named Notpetnya, crippled Ukrainian infrastructure, and brought the country to its knees, This was soon followed by the dastardly attack on the nation and the annexation of Crimea. But these moves served as mere appetizers for the primary horror fare to follow. In February 2021, Putin commenced a full fledged invasion of Ukraine, an inglorious assault that still continues unabated at the time of review.
However, the NATO countries that have jumped onto the sanctions bandwagon still continue to import natural gas from Russia by the barrels. Wonder what the seasoned Weiss would have to say about this charade.