Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.
None Dare Call It a Conspiracy
Scott Anderson • GQ • September 2009
Banned in Russia and cut by Conde Nast from the GQ website, Anderson’s piece details the intrigue behind the Moscow apartment bombings, blamed on Chechens, that allowed Putin to rapidly ascend to power.
“It is a riddle that lies at the very heart of the modern Russian state, one that remains unsolved to this day. In the awful events of September 1999, did Russia find its avenging angel in Vladimir Putin, the proverbial man of action who crushed his nation's attackers and led his people out of a time of crisis? Or was that crisis actually manufactured to benefit Putin, a scheme by Russia's secret police to bring one of their own to power? What makes this question important is that absent the bombings of September 1999 and all that transpired as a result, it is hard to conceive of any scenario whereby Putin would hold the position he enjoys today: a player on the global stage, a ruler of one of the most powerful nations on earth.”
The Accidental Autocrat
Paul Starobin • Atlantic • March 2005
A character study.
“Understanding Putin requires exploring three core aspects of his political and personal character: the fighter, the Chekist, and the believer. These roughly correspond to Putin's instincts, his professional training and methods, and his religious and patriotic convictions. The parts may seem not to fit, but that is often the case with Russia's rulers. (After all, Stalin, the ‘Red Czar,’ was trained in a Georgian seminary.) Putin is best understood not as a divided character but as an integrated if complicated one: the Russian in the Kremlin.”
Power: The Vladimir Putin Story
C.J. Chivers • Outdoor Life • May 2011
Putting Putin in context.
“Vladimir Putin is a national savior and hero, a man, sober and exceptionally smart, who stepped from shadows to resuscitate a proud country that others had run aground, looted, and left for dead. After eight years as president, a period marked by a surging economy and an unexpectedly victorious war in Chechnya, he surrendered one of the most seductively powerful offices on earth voluntarily and according to Russia's constitution, with Moscow's influence in the world restored and with a large fraction of Russia's citizens better off than they ever had been. He has been a bridge from postcommunist chaos and hardship to national stability, freer markets, individual economic choice, and the possibility of democracy.
“Or, he is a cunning, even diabolical strongman atop a scrum of bandit cliques. As a career officer in the KGB, an organization its members never leave, he is fundamentally anti-Western and undemocratic, and comfortable with conflict, crime, and the company of beasts. Moreover, he is nostalgic for empire and covetous of power, and he has surrendered only a title. Instead, he has manipulated Russia's loose political rules and obedient political class to install a puppet successor and transfer the levers to his new post as Russia's premier, where he continues to abuse office and direct the spoils of oil-state excess to his coterie. His talk of public stewardship and personal liberties is farce. The Kremlin has rejected democracy while pretending to embrace it, hardening into a kleptocracy with nuclear weapons and state-controlled television stations purring that all is well.”
The Wrath of Putin
Masha Gessen • Vanity Fair • August 2012
Putin’s long war with the richest man in Russia.
“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.”
Pussy Riot v. Putin: A Front Row Seat at a Russian Dark Comedy
Julia Ioffe • New Republic • August 2012
Inside the puppet trial of the decade.
“The one thing that the authorities had determined was not negotiable was the verdict. That had been determined months ago: Shortly after the punk prayer became a viral hit, Putin spoke at a Church event, apologizing to the faithful for the harm done to them by the Pussy Riot performance. The court had received its signal from the Kremlin; now the only question was whether the girls would get the full seven-year sentence.”
The Civil Archipelago
David Remnick • The New Yorker • December 2011
A rundown of Russian prisoners, dissidents and civil society, 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and just before Putin's reelection.
“This month, Russians will commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union with almost universal silence. Ukrainians, Balts, Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, and even the citizens of the most repressive of the Central Asian republics will mark their emergence from the Soviet yoke. They will re-tell their narratives of oppression and independence. But in Russia, where nationalists, Communists, liberals, and other citizens cannot agree on a narrative of national founding or purpose, and where most see 1991 as a loss, there will be no holiday, no parades, no speeches. Only the most unruly outlets of the Russian media will rehearse the myriad economic, political, ideological, and social factors that led to the erosion and fall of the Soviet Union. As a state, modern Russia began with no commonly held values; it was founded in a charged atmosphere of collapse, rebellion, and almost unimaginable improvisation and contingency.”
One-on-One With Vladimir Putin
Gayne C. Young • Outdoor Life • May 2011
Putin talks conservation, shirtless photo-ops and U.S.-Russia travel in this interview with a high school English teacher.
“You say that you cannot imagine the U.S. President even allowing himself to be photographed while hunting, or with his shirt off. But I can because I remember pictures of Theodore Roosevelt taken not just with a hunting rifle or a fishing rod in his hands, but with a lion he killed. And indeed, as recently as last summer, President Barack Obama was bathing in the Pacific Ocean in front of TV and photo cameras, and he was not wearing a tie, to put it mildly. Does this look like politically incorrect behavior? Not to me, and my ethnic origin has nothing to do with that.
"It is certainly very important, particularly for the Head of State, to carry oneself in such a way as not to offend or humiliate people’s feelings, in word or deed; however, the society is so rich in various—sometimes mutually exclusive—customs, hobbies and forms of self-expression that it is merely impossible to measure one’s actions against each of them every now and then.”