Looking Back From Ninety

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This updated edition of Fiona Hill's incisive portrait of Vlaldimir Putin was published seven years ago, just after the Russian dictator's "little green men" invaded and seized Crimea and the eastern edge of Ukraine itself. If we had read the book then, we would have been prepared for his war crimes of 2022, because Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin lays it all out: how a self-described thug from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) grew up to become a case officer in the KGB, the Soviet Union's feared secret police, security force, and spy agency; how he honed his craft in East Germany and there acquired his blinkered understanding of the West; and how he parlayed the Soviet Union's collapse to become fabulously rich and the unchallenged leader of the diminished Russia that emerged in the 1990s. He is the "operative" of Ms Hill's title, still the KGB officer and determined to reconquer what he calls the "near abroad," the Eastern European countries that were once part of the Soviet Union and, before that, the Russian Empire that collapsed in 1917. First he razed the breakaway republic of Chechnya, then he seized two provinces of Georgia, and then he set out to claim the would-be European country of Ukraine, itself once a "republic" in the Soviet Union.

Mr. Putin is a lengthy read (520 pages in paperback) but well worth the time. To be a KGB case officer, she explains early, "means studying the minds of the targets, finding their vulnerabilities, and figuring out how to use them." Thus his constant veiled threats of resorting to nuclear weapons: he senses that Joe Biden and indeed most Western leaders are terrified of stumbling into a nuclear war and will do almost anything to reassure the man who's gaming them.

One of Ms Hill's favorite sources about the inner Putin was First Person (as it is called in English translation, with the sub-title "An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia's President V Putin and three journalists"). In 24 hours of interviews, Putin discussed his childhood, his life as a spy, and his meteroric ascent to a head of state along the lines of Tsar Nikolas II or Joseph Stalin, a dictator whose word cannot be challenged. (Ms Hills calls the Kremlin the "one-boy network.") Curiously, he scolded Soviet leaders for their invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia: "the Russophobia that we see in Eastern Europe today is the fruit of those mistakes," Putin said, rather overlooking the fact that if those countries had gotten their freedom, the last thing they'd want was to fall back under Moscow's domination. (Well, Hungary today is playing footsie with Putin.) With regard to his butchery in Chechnya, he declares in much the same whine as he speaks of Ukraine today: "We are not attacking. We are defending ourselves." There's also an interview with Mrs Putin, who when asked if he ever looked at other women, replied: "Well, what sort of man would he be, if he weren't attracted by beautiful women?" Just one of the boys in the one-boy network!

Last month I recommended the movie "Mr Jones" as a way to understand the troubled history of Ukraine and the Soviet Union, remembering the Holodomor ("The Starving") when Stalin's henchmen caused the deaths by famine of millions of Ukrainian peasants. A more serious history of the Holodomor is Anne Applebaum's Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine. "Applebaum's account will surely become the standard treatment of one of history’s great political atrocities," wrote Timothy Snyder in the Washington Post. "... She re-creates a pastoral world so we can view its destruction. And she rightly insists that the deliberate starvation of the Ukrainian peasants was part of a larger [Soviet] policy against the Ukrainian nation.... To be sure, Russia is not the Soviet Union, and Russians of today can decide whether they wish to accept a Stalinist version of the past. But to have that choice, they need a sense of the history. This is one more reason to be grateful for this remarkable book."

Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Daniel Ford's books:

Looking Back From Ninety: Depression, War, and the Good Life That Followed Cowboy: Interpreter, Soldier, Warlord, and One More Casualty of Our War in Vietnam
The Only War We've Got: Early Days in South Vietnam
Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault & His American Volunteers, 1941-1942
Tales of the Flying Tigers (think of it as a lengthy appendix to the history)
The Lady and the Tigers (Olga Greenlaw) o
Poland's Daughter: How I Learned About Love, War, and Exile
Glen Edwards: Diary of a Bomber Pilot
A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America's War on Terror
The Country Northward: A Hiker's Journal
The Greater America: An Epic Journey Through a Vibrant New Country (Ralph Paine)
~ ~ ~ ~
Michael's War: A Story of the Irish Republican Army
Remains: A Story of the Flying Tigers
Incident at Muc Wa: A Story of the Vietnam War
The High Country Illuminator: A Tale of Light and Darkness and the Ski Bums of Avalon

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Flying Tigers
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