I've always believed there are specific "tipping points" - moments of uncertainty - when the outcome of an event or nation or a life hangs in the balance below a swinging pendulum. It often takes time and insight to identify those moments as we try piece together the story of how things came to be. But when you can identify one of those moments, you possess a kind of prism that didn't exist before that allows you to see everything else much more clearly. Jennifer Ciotta identifies Vladimir Putin's moment (and likely the new Russia's as well) as the time of the Kursk submarine disaster.
Many people in the West will come to this book with preconceived opinions on Vladimir Putin, most of them grossly misinformed. Despite more than 20 years having passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the Russian Federation, it's still very difficult for many Americans (even ones that were born into a world having never known a USSR) to shake the mentality of the enemy competing with America. Vladimir Putin is the bogeyman, the conditioned symbol of the "other." In "I, Putin," Jennifer Ciotta tries to at least dispel the notion that Putin is the cold war spy and autocrat intent on turning the clocks back to Soviet time.
Much of the book is told through present-day Putin's dictations to his assistant, Gosha, as he prepares his memoirs for publishing. It's through these memories that Putin begins to be portrayed as a very familiar human being, deserving of understanding if not our sympathy; a child unsure, frail, seeking approval but instead given the condescending sobriquet "Goulash Pants" because he carries home some of his lunch each day to feed his only "friends" - the rats in his building. We learn of the refuge he found in Judo and how it was to shape his thinking as he progressed through the Soviet system he existed in but never fully embraced. And Ciotta goes on to provide sporadic glimpses into a domestic life with a very recognizable wife and children not so different from what we see in any western household. Then we also learn of his father, a good Soviet but a distant and sad man with his own mysterious past who serves as the backdrop for all the conflict that happens throughout Putin's life.
When the Kursk accident occurs, Putin has only been President for a few months and is still trying to find his place in the mess that Boris Yeltsin left him. Factions are still struggling to gain control of the new nation and any outward displays of weakness are certain to bring ruin. Add to this an earthquake, insurrection, and pressure from all directions, and Putin is at first overwhelmed and seems in over his head, just following along the old path and doing as he is advised. In the midst of all this, on the brink of disaster, Putin experiences his moment of clarity and suddenly and unexpectedly grabs the reins.
I've always been fascinated by Putin and I was greatly looking forward to reading such a unique look at the man. I'm also a fan of "fictionalized" history like this and Ciotta does a wonderful job of making us wonder where the fact and fiction divide because it's all very believable. Overall, I'm honestly pleased with the insights that Ciotta offers here and I love her writer's "voice." There were, however, a few things that prevented me from fully enjoying it:
- Narrative Focus. It's possible that having read this only once, it may have been my own lack of attention but I was confused several times at who was telling the story and had to stop and go back to check if I hadn't missed something. Much of it is told as Putin remembering but it also shifts back and forth between what other characters are thinking or doing.
- Subject Focus. For the length of the book, I think a bit too much time was devoted to Gosha, Putin's assistant. I understand he was used as a foil to highlight the personality of Putin but much detail was given over to him that in the end didn't matter. Also, the last third of the book contains Bill Clinton's very real friendship with and influence upon Vladimir Putin. Ciotta spends many pages describing Clinton's first visit to Moscow in 1969 as well as his infidelities and marital problems (including one unfortunate phrase describing Hillary's lack of libido) that really have no bearing upon the tale. Ciotta seemed to genuinely love writing about Clinton and I can't help but have a sneaky feeling that she might have rather written a story about him instead.
I congratulate Jennifer Ciotta on a good book and give "I, Putin" a solid 3.75 stars (which means a Goodreads 4), and I'd honestly recommend it to anyone not only looking for more insight into what makes Vladimir Putin tick but to anyone looking for a good read. I'll be one of the first to buy her next book whatever subject she chooses to tackle.