Mr. Putin (2015) illustrates that you can write a first-rate biography even if standard biographical details are missing

Protesters in Moscow. Photograph: Alexander Utkin/AFP/Getty. Source:

Protesters in Moscow. Photograph: Alexander Utkin/AFP/Getty. Source: March 26, 2017 Guardian article entitled: “Opposition leader Alexei Navalny detained amid protests across Russia: Crowds gather in most major cities to protest against corruption in largest anti-government demonstrations for five years.” Click on image to enlarge it.

In a previous post, I’ve discussed the Story of Mississauga, which I’ve been following since January 2017.

The project is driven by a focused approach toward heritage management.

The Story of Mississauga is concerned, as well, with community engagement. It’s my understanding that residents will play a key role in the planning of the Story of Mississauga.

Many thoughts come to mind. For example, what might be the best way to ensure that Mississauga residents really have a choice, with regard to which of their stories will be told?


Every community project, that promotes itself as a community-engagement initiative, involves a distinction between rhetoric and reality.

At one end of the continuum, with regard to such a distinction, you can see a close alignment between the rhetoric (what is promised) and the reality (what happens in the end).

At the other end of the continuum, there is no match between what’s promised, and what occurs.

In such a case, community engagement is an exercise in scamming.

The Story of Mississauga also offers the opportunity to increase one’s understanding of what storytelling entails, the forms it may take, and the qualities that stories must demonstrate, in order to attract an audience.

It also can give rise to an interest in story management. That is, who decides which stories have priority, how are they edited and promoted, and what management purposes do the stories serve?

Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (2015)

In this post, I will highlight a book that makes for first-rate storytelling, and highlights key principles of story management.

I have chosen Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (2015) as the subject for my current post.

You don’t need to know every detail about a character

As noted at a previous post, storytelling can take many forms. Non-fiction, book-length storytelling is one such form.

Mr. Putin (2015) is of much interest to me because it demonstrates storytelling at its finest.

In particular, it demonstrates that storytellers can do wonderful things, even when reliable information, about the key character in a story, is absent.

As the authors of the story, Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, demonstrate, you don’t need to know every detail about a character, in order to tell a great story about the person.

Fiona Hill is director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution and a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at Brookings.

Clifford G. Gaddy is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at Brookings.

The book’s Acknowledgements, which serve as a good Introduction to the story, underline that the book is not a journalistic exercise, however valuable (and it can be highly valuable) such an exercise can be.

The book is set up, instead, as a standard Brookings Institution document.

In such a document, thoughtful policy recommendations, and policy-related back stories, are emphasized. Books based upon the standard practice of journalism will take on a distinctly different format. Similarly, a book that is exclusively an academic text (again, such texts can be highly valuable) will take on a decidedly different format, than is evident in the case of the book at hand.

Behind the guises and performances of Mr. Putin

In the opening chapter, entitled “Who is Mr. Putin?”, the authors note that they make a point of looking “beyond the staged performances and deliberately assumed guises that constitute the Putin political brand” (p. 18).

For the purposes of the study, six separate identities, associated with Mr. Putin, are described:

  • The Statist
  • The History Man
  • The Survivalist
  • The Outsider
  • The Free Marketeer, and
  • The Case Officer

The six, above-noted identities of Mr. Putin are explored taking into account “their central elements and evolution, and their roots in Russian history, culture, and politics” (p. 18).

The authors add that their original manuscript (published in the first, 2013 edition of the book) was the outcome of their long-standing collaboration as colleagues at the Brookings Institution, dating to the start of Putin’s presidency in 2000.

The book notes, as well (p. vii), with regard to the second (2015) edition, that:

Between the launch of the first edition in early 2013 and September 2014, Fiona Hill collected and analyzed new source material and embarked on a series of international research trips to conduct supplemental interviews with analysts, policymakers, government officials, and private sector representatives on the key themes of the book.

Some of these trips were sponsored by external organizations, including the Embassy of the United States in Berlin and the U.S. consulates in Germany (through the U.S. Department of State’s Strategic Speaker Program); the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (through its official visitors and speakers program); and the Department of National Defence of Canada (through the National Defence, Defence Engagement Program).

Other trips and interviews were facilitated through meetings and conferences arranged by partner organizations, including the Aspen Institute, Chatham House, the Council on the United States and Italy, the Ditchley Foundation, the European Council on Foreign Relations, the EU Institute for Strategic Studies, the German Marshall Fund, the Heinrich Boll Foundation, the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), the Korber Stiftung, the London School of Economics, and the Munich Security Conference.

Participation in numerous Brookings Institution conferences, seminars, and private meetings in Washington, D.C., and Europe also provided opportunities to engage in one-on-one or small-group discussions with a range of U.S., European, and Russian officials, as well as U.S. and inter­national business figures active in Russia.

There were other interviews as well; the ones that I’ve quoted will serve as a sampling of them.

Reform of the Russian military and the state of the Russian economy

The Acknowledgements also note that Clifford Gaddy contributed new conclusions, to the second edition of the book, regarding the reform of the Russian military and the state of the Russian economy. Some of the material, with a focus on the political economy of resource dependence, has been published separately by Clifford Gaddy and Barry Ickes.

The Acknowledgements end with a note (p. x) indicating that:

The book’s findings are in keeping with Brookings’s mission: to conduct high-quality and independent research and, based on that research, to provide innovative, practical recommendations for policymakers and the public. The conclusions and recommendations of any Brookings research are solely those of its authors and do not reflect the views of the Institution, its management, or its other scholars.

This is a valuable book – as research, and as a demonstration of high-quality storytelling about international affairs.


A Jan. 5, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “All the Kremlin’s Men by Mikhail Zygar review – inside the Putinocracy: This study of the endless jockeying for position around Putin explains the inconsistencies of his rule.”

The above-noted article offers a particular overview – of interest in the context of Hill and Gaddy’s (2015) overview of the same topic – of Putin’s approach to strategy:

The net effect of this system is that the Kremlin always tends towards short-term tactics, not long-term strategy. Russia’s decisive Syria intervention is no exception to the rule that decisions are opportunistic responses to the dynamics of the day (in this case, the need to project power and needle the American bogeyman). The people around Putin are basing decisions on expediency and self-preservation. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, every day.

The article notes that Putin is not concerned about leadership succession; a March 27, 2017 Guardian article, however, argues otherwise.

A March 3, 2017 Columbia Journalism Review article is entitled: “Study: Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda.”

A March 15, 2017 YouTube video posted by the City of Mississauga is entitled: “The Tale of a Town: Stories from Dundas Street.”

A March 21, 2017 Wired article is entitled: “Inside the Hunt for Russia’s Most Notorious Hacker.”

A March 22, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Lawyer for family of Russian whistleblower ‘thrown from building’: Nikolai Gorokhov, who represents family of Sergei Magnitsky, is in intensive care after falling from fourth floor of apartment block.”

A March 22, 2017 Associated Press article is entitled: “AP Exclusive: Manafort had plan to benefit Putin government.”

A March 23, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Denis Voronenkov: ex-Russian MP who fled to Ukraine killed in Kiev: Kremlin critic left Russia last year and renounced citizenship after complaining he was persecuted by security agencies.”

A March 23, 2017 Foreign Policy article is entitled: “Further Revelations on Trump-Russia Ties Build Pressure For Independent Inquiry: New reports rattle the White House, as congressional and FBI investigations gain momentum — but can institutions survive the stress test?”

A March 23, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “In the broken-down heart of Siberia, Putin is still Russia’s ‘good tsar’: Irkutsk struggles with poverty and the authorities do little to help. But I found a puzzling disconnect.”

A March 24, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “In Putin’s Russia, the hollowed-out media mirrors the state: The Russian government has spent years consolidating its control of the media. Now it sees reporters as public servants first and journalists second – if at all.”

A March 24, 2017 Estonian World article is entitled: “The victims of Soviet deportations remembered in Estonia.”

A March 25, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Putin’s desire for a new Russian empire won’t stop with Ukraine: My country has suffered terribly from the Kremlin’s obsession with restoring Soviet hegemony. But the entire security of Europe and the west is at stake.”

A March 26, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Opposition leader Alexei Navalny detained amid protests across Russia: Crowds gather in most major cities to protest against corruption in largest anti-government demonstrations for five years.”

A March 27, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Russia is the house that Vladimir Putin built – and he’ll never abandon it: By co-opting the masses against the elite, the president has shaped a country to echo his values and grievances. And now he’s working to secure his legacy.”

A March 27, 2017 Atlantic article is entitled: “What Russia’s Latest Protests Mean for Putin: After the largest demonstrations in years erupted across the country on Sunday, the Kremlin is fighting back.”

A March 28, 2017 Washington Post article is entitled: “Trump administration sought to block Sally Yates from testifying to Congress on Russia.”

An excerpt reads:

The issue of Yates’s testimony adds to the political controversy surrounding the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian meddling in last year’s election and any possible coordination between Trump associates and Moscow.

A March 28, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Russian authorities ‘imprisoning Crimean Tatars in psychiatric hospitals’: Since annexation many ethnic Tatar activists have been detained in outdated mental institutions, rights activists say.”

A March 29, 2017 Pew Research Center article is entitled: The Future of Free Speech, Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online: Many experts fear uncivil and manipulative behaviors on the internet will persist – and may get worse. This will lead to a splintering of social media into AI-patrolled and regulated ‘safe spaces’ separated from free-for-all zones. Some worry this will hurt the open exchange of ideas and compromise privacy.”

A March 29, 2017 Brookings Institution article is entitled: “Read Fiona Hill’s analysis on Russia.”

The article notes:

As reported in the Washington Post, Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the U.S. and Europe and senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings, will join the White House National Security Council as senior director for Europe and Russia.

Hill, a former member of the National Intelligence Council, is the co-author with Clifford Gaddy of the landmark book “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” which was named one of the Best Books of Summer 2015 by the Financial Times.

The article refers as well to an excerpt from “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin”: “The American Education of Vladimir Putin.”

The article also refers to additional research and commentary by Fiona Hill on Europe and Russia:

Putin and the Kremlin are experts at reading the popular mood

Three reasons why Putin might want to interfere in the U.S. presidential elections

The greatest catastrophe of the 21st century? Brexit and the dissolution of the U.K

The Brookings Institution article also provides a link to a YouTube video entitled: “Vladimir Putin humiliates BBC Reporter John Simpson.”

A Best of 2016 Longreads article is entitled: “Who’s Been Seeding the Alt-Right? Follow the Money to Robert Mercer.

An April 13, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “British spies were first to spot Trump team’s links with Russia: Exclusive: GCHQ is said to have alerted US agencies after becoming aware of contacts in 2015.”

An April 19, 2017 Reuters article is entitled: “Exclusive: Putin-linked think tank drew up plan to sway 2016 U.S. election – documents.”

A May 6, 2017 Los Angeles Review of Books article is entitled: “Protest Tea: Victoria Lomasko’s ‘Other Russias'”.

A May 22, 2017 Center for European Policy Analysis article is entitled: “The dangerous appeal of the Russian regime.”

A July 4, 2017 London School of Economics article is entitled: “Book Review: Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know by Timothy J. Colton.”

An Aug. 3, 2017 Dallas News article is entitled: “Tangled web connects Russian oligarch money to GOP campaigns.”

Magnitsky Act

A July 25, 2017 Atlantic article is entitled: “Bill Browder’s Testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee: “I hope that my story will help you understand the methods of Russian operatives in Washington and how they use U.S. enablers to achieve major foreign policy goals without disclosing those interests,” Browder writes.”

A July 27, 2017 Atlantic article is entitled: “Why Does the Kremlin Care So Much About the Magnitsky Act? What Russian officials mean when they talk about ‘adoptions'”.


A March 30, 2017 article at is entitled: “Temnik – the Kremlin’s route to media control.

An excerpt reads:

Many Russians will know what a temnik is. But only a few can claim to have seen one. In journalistic jargon, the temnik – a word derived from the word “theme” – means an instruction from the authorities, which is disseminated among the media. A temnik tells which themes to cover, who is to be treated positively, who should have negative coverage and who should be altogether ignored. The temnik system has replaced the old style reactive approach of censorship with a proactive approach of guidelines.

An additional excerpt reads:

The policy reaches the bottom from the top, and the job of those further down the chain is then to pitch proposals on how to storify the policy. Media attacks, disinformation and other kinds of propaganda appear not only as as a result of direct orders, but also – and perhaps mainly – as the bottom’s wish to create stories that satisfy the hierarchy and comply with the policies expressed in the briefings.

A March 30, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Russian deception influenced election due to Trump’s support, senators hear: Former FBI special agent discusses Russia’s longstanding ‘active measures’ – including the spread of fake news – before Senate intelligence committee.,

A March 31, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Russia’s 1989 plea for a new world order was rejected, and so Putinism was born: As the cold war ended, Mikhail Gorbachev wanted a new political community, with Russia as an equal partner. The west refused to countenance it.”

A March 31, 2017 CBS News article is entitled: “FBI probing whether Trump aides helped Russian intel in early 2016.”

An April 16, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Hungary’s liberals find a hero in their battle against Viktor Orbán: Academic Michael Ignatieff’s stand for academic freedom has gained attention.”

A July 24, 2017 BBC article is entitled: “The writers who defied Soviet censors: Underground publishers in the USSR broke rules in ingenious ways – such as hiding books in fake binding and making records on X-ray film, writes Benjamin Ramm.”

Right-wing media

An April 5, 2017 Atlantic article is entitled: “From Breitbart to Sputnik: A former Breitbart reporter will host a radio show for the Russian government outlet.”

An excerpt reads:

Stranahan’s new position is the latest twist in the increasingly atomized world of niche right-wing media, which has seen an increase in prominence and influence during the Trump era. It also reflects a realignment on the right towards Russia as the administration, led by an unusually Russia-receptive president, becomes increasingly entangled in a drip-drip of stories about Russian influence.

Also of interest: The Last of the Soviets: U.S. Edition (2016). Svetlana Aleksievich.

An April 13, 2016 (note it’s 2016) Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article by Fiona Hill is entitled: “The one-man show the West doesn’t understand.”

A July 18, 2017 Politico article is entitled: “How the GOP Became the Party of Putin: Republicans have sold their souls to Russia. And Trump isn’t the only reason why.”

A 2016 RAND Corporation article is entitled: “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It.” You can find the article by pointing your browser to the above-noted title.

A July 18, 2017 Politico article is entitled: “How the GOP Became the Party of Putin: Republicans have sold their souls to Russia. And Trump isn’t the only reason why.”

Richard Rorty

A July 2017 Los Angeles Review of Books article is entitled: “Conversational Philosophy: A Forum on Richard Rorty.”

The introduction reads:

AFTER DONALD J. TRUMP was elected president of the United States, the American philosopher Richard Rorty (1931–2007) returned to the pages of many of the major newspapers of the world as one of the few thinkers who had predicted the election of a “strongman” with Trump’s homophobic and racist features. The relevant passage can be found in the lectures Rorty delivered on the history of leftist thought in 20th-century America at Harvard University in 1997, and published as Achieving Our Country a year later. While reprints of this book were hitting several political philosophy best seller lists, Rorty’s Page-Barbour lectures — titled Philosophy as Poetry — were also released. If in Achieving Our Country, Rorty predicted the election of a right-wing populist, in the latter he stresses how valuable the imagination is for the future of philosophy, which is, in many ways, an imperiled discipline. Although these are not his most important books, they indicate that Rorty was a philosopher ahead of his time, a philosopher for the future.

The goal of this forum is not simply to remember Rorty 10 years after he passed away on the June 8, 2007, but also to continue the conversation which he urged all philosophers to pursue. I have invited Marianne Janack, María Pía Lara, Eduardo Mendieta, and Martin Woessner to cover specific aspects of Rorty’s thought, including feminism, social hope, and post-truth. Their concise contributions underscore the significance of Rorty’s writings for the 21st century. My introduction recalls important moments of the American thinker’s life as well as his outstanding contribution to continental philosophy.

— Santiago Zabala

2 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A related post is entitled:

    The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes: A Conceptual Framework (2021)

    A Jan. 21, 2022 Globe and Mail article by Amy Knight, which I accessed through the Toronto Public Library website, is entitled: “On Ukraine, NATO and more, Russia’s Vladimir Putin lives in an alternative reality. How did he get there?: The Russian leader’s personal background and thirst for wealth offer clues to his state of mind – and the things he could do next – as his armies amass on Ukraine’s borders.”

    The article notes that Amy Knight is the author of six books on Russian history and politics, including, most recently, Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder [2017].

    An excerpt from the article reads:

    The problem is compounded, Mr. Gudkov said, by the fact that Mr. Putin is surrounded by yes men. He is told only what he wants to hear because, when his advisers have told him the truth, he has exploded in anger. And his main foreign policy consultants are allies from his KGB days, such as Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev, who is so bellicose toward the West that he has openly advocated for Russia’s military doctrine to include a pre-emptive nuclear strike option.

    Mr. Putin and his Kremlin team are not motivated by the ideological convictions that propelled the KGB when the Soviet Union was at the height of its power. When Mr. Putin served in Dresden as a low-level KGB officer in the late 1980s, all he and his comrades cared about was getting their hands on Western goods. (One of Mr. Putin’s prize acquisitions was a Blaupunkt stereo for his car, pilfered for him by a German contact.)

    An insatiable thirst for material gain has been the driving force behind Mr. Putin’s kleptocratic regime, which views democracies in bordering states as Western-inspired threats to its power and vast wealth.

    Mr. Putin’s “geopolitical anxieties” also stem from his personal background.

    Small in stature – about five-foot-six without his shoe lifts – he grew up in a rough Leningrad neighbourhood, where he had to defend himself against larger, tougher courtyard thugs. According to his biographers, he reacted by becoming a bully himself, lashing out against anyone who tried to humiliate him. Later, in an apparent effort to cultivate a macho image, he took up martial arts.

    A second excerpt reads:

    But Mr. Putin and his clan also have a strong instinct for self-preservation. If NATO governments stand firm on threatened sanctions and continue to provide Kyiv with crucial weaponry, it is always possible that the Kremlin will back down and confirm what it has been saying all along – that Russia is only conducting military exercises. After all, the narcissistic Mr. Putin has already achieved one of his main goals: placing himself back in the centre of the world stage.


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