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15 November 2018

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Book Review

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All the Kremlin’s Men

By Mikhail Zygar (Public Affairs $27.99)

Back during the First Cold War, academics invented kremlinology. The Kremlin was a black box, and so, to smoke out Soviet intentions, analysts would parse leaders’ seating arrangements, speaking order, speech content, press articles and more, to find out what sorts of things the red elite were sparring about behind closed doors. There were often some interesting conclusions, but it was sometimes more tea leaf reading than science, and rarely of predictive value.

Today, the Kremlin is no less opaque, and the speculations of modern kremlinologists are still rarely helpful in predicting Russian actions.

Along comes Mikhail Zygar, one of the few Russian journalists with a measure of independence, and clearly a vast network of leadership connections. His book illuminates what has been going on behind Kremlin walls in the Putin years and is a must read for anyone interested in understanding Kremlin intentions, if not predicting its actions. Because he bases his conclusions not on reading tea leaves or the content analysis of speeches, but on real interviews and inside contacts with real people. People, being people, will always want to tell their side of the story to someone, even to a journalist...

Zygar writes in a conversational style, lightly tinted with wry humor and cynicism. He starts each chapter with a concise portrait of a Kremlin player that is revealing and human. If one takes nothing else from this book, it is that the Kremlin is a viscous solyanka soup of strange, conniving, egotistical and power-hungry personalities. Clans wrestle beneath the rug like rabid bulldogs, cementing grudges, undermining rivals, all seeking to shape and mold the tsar into their vision of what he should be (and usually with personal gain in mind).

It is also clear that there is no Grand Plan guiding the Kremlin’s actions. Zygar shows that the Kremlin leadership is largely reactive and tactical, mainly interested in keeping Russia’s adversaries off balance through conflicting messages, inconsistent and unpredictable behavior, and info/cyber disruption. Apropos of the present tsar’s martial arts predilections, Russian foreign policy is guided by principles of judo: if your opponent shows strength, step aside, parry, and use their strength against them; if they show weakness, advance in ways that do not put yourself at risk.

Yet Zygar also shows that, if someone were paying close enough attention, they would not have been surprised by recent events, say in Crimea or Ukraine. Putin and others telegraphed these moves in early 2008. And they were a natural consequence of the main turning point in US-Russian relations, which was in 2004 and 2005. Until then, Zygar asserts, the Kremlin truly thought that Russia and the West could reforge a new relationship. But when George W. Bush became a lame duck, and when the “anti-Russian” course of events (dropping the ABM treaty; expanding NATO eastward; supporting Georgian and Ukrainian independence) proved unstoppable, the hardline anti-Western elements in the Kremlin strengthened, and there was no turning back.

Zygar’s fine book (which can hardly be fully summarized here; get a copy and read this book not once, but twice) ends on a troubling analysis of the cynical self-deception that is now lodged in Kremlin player’s minds. They thrive on anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories targeting Russia, Zygar writes, and wantonly feed these theories to a willing Russian public, knowing “that if they do not offer television viewers a simple and plausible answer to pressing geopolitical issues, the people will draw their own (far worse) conclusions. But such analysis is in itself a conspiracy theory. There is no evidence that Russian officials are so crafty. Most likely they really do believe in their fictions.”

And that is the most disturbing part: never knowing whether the Kremlin minions are just cynically manufacturing lies for personal gain, or if they truly believe their own lies.

Perhaps it’s time to consult some tea leaves.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Nov/Dec 2016