Photo depicting individuals protesting at the Lincoln Memorial. Two female-presenting individuals at the foreground carry protest signs. One sign reads "Save Ukraine" and the other reads "Stop Putin."

Weekend Reads: How to Talk About a Brutal Dictator

by Kevin Schofield


I’ll begin this week’s column with two confessions. First, I had a completely different “read” planned for this week, but the events in Ukraine caused me to scrap it. Given that he has now emerged (or perhaps more accurately reemerged) as the newest warmongering “strongman” dictator to shatter peace on the European continent, we need to talk about Vladimir Putin.

Second confession: With a nod to Lin-Manuel Miranda, “We Don’t Talk About Putin” has been stuck in my head as I write this. Which is not as far off from the truth as we might like, as we shall see.

Vladimir Putin has been running Russia for 22 years, ever since Boris Yeltsin suddenly announced his resignation as Russian president on December 31, 1999, and appointed Putin as acting president. Under his leadership, Russia’s economy grew substantially out of the wreckage of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, but the cost for that was Putin’s suppression of democratic principles, personal freedoms, free speech and protest, and the press — not to mention the occasional poisoning of his political opponents.

By many accounts, Putin’s long-term policy goal is to reassemble the pieces of the former Soviet Union, the collapse of which he has called “the greatest political catastrophe of the Twentieth Century.” How he arrived at that goal is tied to his life before becoming president in 2000: If we want to understand the man, we need to understand where he came from.

There is no shortage of biographies of Putin online; this weekend’s “reads” is a collection of three of them.

The first biography, from Encyclopedia Britannica, is the briefest of the three, offering a mere two paragraphs on Putin’s early career before becoming Russian president: a 25-year period in which he served as a KGB spy for 15, followed by a short stint at a university, several years as an aide to the mayor of St. Petersberg, and then the head of the FSB (the successor spy organization to the KGB). It breezes through most of Putin’s terms as president and prime minister, and focuses on his aggressive actions toward Ukraine in 2014 and his role in the Syrian civil war.

The second biography, from Biography.com, also gives little effort to detailing Putin’s first 25 years of government employment, though it gives much more airtime to his more recent controversies: Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war; his heavy-handed approach to hosting the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics; the invasion of Crimea in 2014; and interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It also briefly delves into Putin’s efforts to circumvent Russia’s constitutional term limits for serving as president: In 2008 after serving two terms, he arranged for his protégé Dmitry Medvedev to be elected president, who immediately appointed Putin as prime minister — keeping him at the highest level of Russian government until he could engineer his own reelection as president in 2012. More recently in 2020, Putin arranged for the Russian constitution to be amended to allow him to serve for two additional consecutive six-year terms. 

The third biography, Wikipedia’s entry, is exhaustive — and an informative but exhausting read that includes 606 citations in its bibliography. It dives deep into Putin’s early career before becoming president, including discussion of what he might really have been doing as a KGB spy stationed in Dresden, East Germany, a relatively sleepy assignment. It also spends more time on Putin’s major missteps over his career, including the mismanagement of a $93 million deal for St. Petersberg; his mishandling of the submarine Kursk disaster in 2000; and two hostage crises in which hundreds of people were killed. 

The WIkipedia biography provides significant details on both Putin’s arrangements with Medvedev to retain power and his interference with Russian elections to guarantee his reelection. It also lists out his domestic and foreign policy positions, and gives lengthy descriptions of Putin’s actions in Ukraine and Syria.

Finally, it provides some insights into a big unanswered question: Putin’s net worth. While according to the Russian government he has few assets to his name, there are many signs that he has amassed potentially billions of dollars over the last 20 years. Ironically, Putin has been adept at hiding the paper trail of his accumulated wealth while simultaneously flaunting it in public. 

These three biographies of Vladimir Putin highlight the challenge of writing about a powerful, controversial public figure, especially when you try to keep it concise: How do your choices about which details to include — and which to leave out — shape the image of the person that is portrayed? By largely not talking about Putin, the Britannica biography gives the impression that he is a lifelong civil servant who has faced some big challenges but has the strong support of the Russian people. Reading the Wikipedia biography provides a much different view: a former spy for the Soviet Union who disliked communism but learned from the inside how much power a large, nuclear-capable nation-state can wield on the global stage. And power corrupts, of course, which is a principle Putin has dealt with his entire career: Sometimes he chose to hold corrupt politicians and oligarchs accountable, and other times he looked the other way — all while bending the Russian government to serve his own purposes and accumulating his own massive wealth by means of his station in Russian government.

Putin is immensely powerful and essentially unchecked in his rule over Russia. Understanding his personal history helps to explain — but certainly not to justify — how he arrived there and his past and current actions. It also provides some insights into what he might do next, which will be very important as democratic nations collectively try to stop him.



Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

📸 Featured Image: Photo via DCStockPhotography/Shutterstock.com

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