Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash
By Richard Lourie
St. Martin’s Press
264 pages, $26.99
Many Americans are asking: Just who is this Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin who has so intoxicated our president with his strength and power, his vast fortune and his inherent iniquity?
For sure, most of us know Putin is president of the Russian Federation, the current Kremlin strongman, the symbol of our nation’s long-standing adversary, and for many, of us the only living Russian whose name we can both pronounce and spell.
But on the human level, most of us don’t know who he is. How did the bright, tough kid from a Leningrad communal apartment building become the wealthiest man in Europe (if not the world)? What are his skills? And what is he doing for Mother Russia and its 144 million inhabitants?
Richard Lourie, a recognized expert on modern Russia, has attempted to answer some of the questions surrounding the introverted and highly secretive world leader in his timely book, “Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash.”
Lourie is an American journalist, an author of non-fiction and fiction, a translator of Russian and Polish books, and has credits in film and TV production. He has worked in the past as an adviser to Hillary Clinton.
U.S. politics aside, this book is about Putin and today’s Russia, not about Donald Trump and his affection for the Kremlin strongman. In fact, at a time when at least three investigative bodies are probing Putin’s role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Trump’s name appears hardly a dozen times in the entire book.
Lourie appears to be consciously avoiding the American political scene, instead concentrating on the rise of the former mid-level KGB operative from the streets of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), who struck it big as Boris Yeltsin’s gofer, then Yeltsin’s prime minister, and then when President Yeltsin resigned under duress, his successor and protector.
Despite containing abundant anecdotes and a strong grounding in Russian cultural history, Lourie’s work only partially succeeds in fleshing out the Putin character. The reader never quite gets to know the man.
That is understandable. Putin is a shadowy figure. In keeping with his chosen profession – a spy specializing in espionage – he is the character at the party who fades into the walls. While others talk, he listens and remembers. While others act out, the young Putin watches silently, taking mental notes for some future dossier.
Even today, with the TV image of the Russian president appearing daily on Mockba 24 in Moscow, he says little to the Russian people, and what is said about him is tightly controlled. At least three leading journalists and several political opponents have died mysterious deaths or fled into exile after saying too much about Putin.
Most of this book deals with the state of Russia since the early 1990s, during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time, Putin still was a middling public official in St. Petersburg. Twenty-five years later, Western sources estimate Putin’s worth at somewhere between $40 billion and $200 billion.
Those same sources estimate he has stashed hundreds of millions in liquid assets in Western Europe through secret accounts and shell companies. Much of it is thought to be in laundered American dollars. And today, he controls most of Russia’s so-called “private” industry.
Strength, power and money are what drive Putin. Lourie argues that Putin and the oligarchy which surrounds him – that’s another name for his high-powered thug associates – have stolen all the wealth of Russia in that country’s transition from communism to today’s government. A 400,000-strong national guard protects him from his internal enemies.
Americans seldom if ever think in these terms. But imagine what might happen to the wealth of the American government – its gold, its land, its resources, its infrastructure, its military stockpiles – if the government one day ceased to exist. Might unscrupulous people on the inside steal it while forming a new government?
Most agree that is what happened when the USSR collapsed. Of course the communist government owned everything of value in the name of the people. Incidentally, a trusted operative named Vladimir Putin was put in charge of managing the $600 billion in property formerly owned by the USSR.
A cunning autocrat and narcissist, Putin has done little to develop Russia in his three terms as president, plus one term as shadow president, which was a scam to comply with the new Russian constitution. The country, the largest by land mass in the world, still depends almost exclusively upon its oil and gas resources for income. Despite its size, its economy remains somewhere around the size of Italy’s.
Instead of expanding the Russian economy and bringing the nation into the 21st Century like his Chinese neighbor, Putin has concentrated on enriching himself, consolidating his power and protecting himself from his internal enemies.
His greatest weapon has been what the Russians call kompromat. Roughly, that translates into compromising information with which to control, threaten and blackmail your friends and enemies. Today, with his power consolidated, the threat of mysterious death ranks right up with kompromat.
Because this huge nation is built on such a linear and flimsy foundation, Lourie insists Russia will crash when the Putin reign comes to its inevitable end through death – natural or otherwise – or banishment. The author is unable to predict when or how it will end. We are left to accept his educated judgment that given its current state, the 21st Century chapter of the long Russian saga cannot end well.
Overall, the evidence for his prediction is thorough, but the proof is less satisfying. Much of it falls into the “believe me” category, with the caveat that records are not public in Russia. There is no Freedom of Information Act in Moscow.
But Lourie’s arguments are perfectly in keeping with the Putin personality: Shadowy, secretive, a mass of entangled self-interests nearly impossible to unravel.
It is no wonder strongman Vladimir Putin is a hero in some circles.
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.