With high-profile stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times reporting that Russia tampered with the U.S. presidential election and Twitter ablaze with references to “The Manchurian Candidate” (one of my favorite movies), it seemed a good time to look at some of the best literary journalism about President Vladimir Putin and the Russia he has shaped.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the stories are by Russians or people with a connection to it.
I worked this story about a nationalist youth camp by former Los Angeles Times Moscow correspondent Sergei Loiko five years ago, and it remains a favorite for summoning the Putin cult of personality. The lede seems particularly chilling given our own country’s recent history:
They wake up to the Russian national anthem and gather near the main stage lined with huge portraits of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his boss (on paper at least), President Dmitry Medvedev, where they do their morning exercises to music interrupted periodically by recorded quotations from both leaders.
As the day goes on, they are taught how to keep secrets from journalists, how to be active on the Internet, how to set up youth organizations and how to raise funds. They are trained in martial arts by an expert from the Vladimir Putin Fight Club and instructed to read books suggested by Putin.
One thing they don’t need to be taught is to adore Putin. They already do.
Julia Ioffe, an American journalist who was born in Russia, has been one of the most consistently incisive writers about Putin’s rule. I’d recommend much that she wrote during her years at the New Republic, but this one in particular, “Pussy Riot v. Putin: A front row seat at a Russian dark comedy,” stays with me. How about this passage near the beginning to set the stage (but seriously, read on for some surreal courtroom dialogue):
And that’s where the loftiness ended and reality began to disintegrate. The judge overruled the defense’s motion to call any of its thirty five witnesses at the trial: the reason given was that it was too early, but she ended up rejecting the motion again and again throughout the proceedings. The prosecutor began to mutter his way through the indictment, using phrases like “imitating the Gates of Heaven” and “songs of an insulting, blasphemous nature.” The girls, drifting off in their aquarium, stood accused by the Russian state of being motivated by “religious hatred,” of “demonstratively and cynically putting themselves in opposition to the Orthodox world” and of “trying to devalue centuries of revered and protected dogmas” and “encroaching on the rights and sovereignty of the Russian Orthodox Church.” Somewhere else in there was a statement about how the young women of Pussy Riot had shaken “the spiritual foundations” of the Russian Federation, which, until that point, had given the distinct impression of being a secular state.
The defense counsel, for its part, seemed at this point to have already stopped listening; they were buried in their iPads and phones, live-tweeting the proceedings, as was Verzilov, who sat on a bench closest to the aquarium, as if they had decided that broadcasting the surrealism to the world was a better alternative than trying to make sense of it.
Masha Gessen was also born in Russia and has spent much of her life in America. She’s been a vocal critic of Donald Trump since the election, using her intimate knowledge with authoritarian leadership to warn about America’s possible future. This story, The Wrath of Putin, which ran in Vanity Fair four years ago, tells the story of the billionaire who paid the price for defying the Russian leader. Mikhail Khodorkovsky ended up spending years in a gulag before finally being freed a year after this story was published. Gessen writes:
It is a story of malice, cruelty, and vengeance — but more than anything it is a story of a failure of imagination. Almost a decade ago, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then the owner of the Yukos Oil Company and Russia’s richest man, completely miscalculated the consequences of standing up to Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s president. Putin had Khodorkovsky arrested, completely miscalculating the consequences of putting him in prison. During his eight years in confinement, Khodorkovsky has become Russia’s most trusted public figure and Putin’s biggest political liability. As long as Putin rules Russia and Khodorkovsky continues to act like Khodorkovsky, Khodorkovsky will remain in prison—and Putin will remain terrified of him.
David Remnick was a longtime Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, winning the Pulitzer Prize for his book “Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire.” Now the editor of The New Yorker, he wrote this piece, “Watching the Eclipse,” for the magazine two years ago. Note the echoes with “Making America Great Again”:
An avid reader about tsarist Russia, Putin was forming a more coherent view of history and his place within it. More and more, he identified personally with the destiny of Russia. Even if he was not a genuine ideologue, he became an opportunistic one, quoting Ivan Ilyin, Konstantin Leontiev, Nikolai Berdyayev, and other conservative philosophers to give his own pronouncements a sense of continuity. One of his favorite politicians in imperial Russia was Pyotr Stolypin, the Prime Minister under Nicholas II. “We do not need great upheavals,” Putin said, paraphrasing Stolypin. “We need a great Russia.”
And this may not be traditional literary journalism, but the photos over the years of Putin doing manly things is a classic of cult-of-personality propaganda, each a story of strength and power in one image. This one is pretty over the top, including the positioning of the fishing pole.