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Review: “The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin”, Steven Lee Myers

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Lee Myers’ book is a fascinating and detailed biography of Putin’s life; from early childhood in a poor family in St. Petersburg; as a low level KGB officer; a loyal adviser of the St. Petersburg major Sobchak in the early 90s; and then suddenly and unexpectedly as first prime minister and then president of Russia at the turn of the century. The story includes detailed political and personal events up until the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Lee Myers balances the personal anecdotes, which give glimpses of Putin’s character, with overall political history and background. Throughout, all is very well researched and referenced, with the list of references taking up some fifty pages of a five hundred pages book.

Although some of the sources are clearly biased, as they come from stories told by Putin himself, his wife, or other loyal to Putin, Lee Myers paints a picture of Putin as extremely hard working, determined and goal oriented. Clearly, his unquestioning loyalty was something which got him forward in his early political career in the 1990s. Later on, and especially as president, he has expected the same unquestioning loyalty and servitude from his subordinates and even business interests. Where there has been opposition and resistance, it has been crushed decisively and sometimes brutally, including assassinations and other KGB style methods.

Putin’s upbringing and early life in Soviet Russia and background in the KGB, and also briefly as director of its reincarnation FSB, is a central part of his character, and still shapes his presidency and politics today. The US and the West is still seen as the enemy or at least opposition of Russia, and the politics and wars in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia; Chechnya; Ukraine; Crimea, as well as the Middle East; Iraq; Afghanistan; Syria must be seen in this light. Thus it becomes clear why Russia is against the Americans in Syria: It is not to support Bashar al-Assad, but rather to avoid American forces on the footsteps of Russia, and furthermore to keep their naval base in the Mediterranean sea at Tartus at the east coast of Syria.

Lee Myers’ book ends in 2014, but hints at the next milestone in Russian politics: The upcoming presidential election in 2018, where Putin legally can sit a second term (which overall would be his fourth term). If he does, it means he will rule until 2024, since he extended the presidential term from four to six years while prime minister under Medvedev in 2011.

Most interesting

As mentioned, Lee Myers’ book is fascinating and a page turner, which is a good achievement when writing about politics. The blend between political and historical events, and personal anecdotes make it entertaining, and also something to quote. Personal favorites include the story from the business meeting between Putin and US business leaders, among them Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots football team. He showed Putin his Super Bowl ring, who understood it as a gift, and put it in his pocket. Mr. Kraft was forced to announce it as a gift to avoid at diplomatic embarrassment.

Understanding Putin’s Russia goes a long way to explain many key world events and decisions over the last decades. Given that it looks like he will be at the head for another seven years, for almost quarter of a century in total, his reign will shape world affairs for decades to come.

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Review: “Flashpoints – The Emerging Crisis in Europe”, George Friedman

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In his latest book, “Flashpoints – The Emerging Crisis in Europe”, George Friedman gives a summary of various events through European history, focusing on the 20th century wars, inter-war years, and cold war eras. Although the book tries to sell itself as being about future predictions, he spends more than half of it looking at the past. In the second half, he tries to foresee various possibilities and outcomes for the regions of Russia / Eastern Europe; Germany; France; the Mediterranean region; Turkey and Britain. However, most of the attempt at analysis remains limited, shallow, and biased.

The problem with Friedman’s book, is that it seems he didn’t quite decide what it was supposed to be about: his own and his family’s escape from war in Europe; his travels across Europe in later years; a history of Europe; or as the title suggests, about future emerging crisis. It turns in to a bit of everything, and becomes colloquial and incoherent. Between the endless anecdotes, it seems what Friedman is missing is an editor who can cut away the cruft. Totally irrelevant stories covering taking a leak behind a border office in Ukraine or that some hotelier in Sarajevo reminds him of his aunt, are just some of what could have been left out.

Skip it

Frankly, this book is a waste of time. Although the history of Europe is important in order to understand the present and the future, this book is not a good summary. If any section of it had been part of Wikipedia, it would have been littered with “citation needed”. In fact, Friedman hasn’t included any references at all, and sometimes it seems he has not done his homework very well, with plenty of inaccurate facts.

This makes the future predictions in the book rather worthless. They are not based on any hard facts or research, but rather what Friedman could imagine. Furthermore, the book shows some age, despite being republished this year: In the chapter on Britain, he completely missed the risk of Britain voting to exit the EU, while it’s mentioned briefly in the after-word.

Overall, this is not a book worth spending time on.

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