By Talia Jessener
On Monday 31st October the Henry Jackson Society were delighted to welcome Russian journalist and filmmaker Mikhail Zygar to discuss his recent book: ‘All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladamir Putin.’ As its name suggests, the book focuses not on the life and rule of Putin himself, but rather offers a surprising and insightful look into the decision making of day-to-day Russia. With decisions that often lack logic or rationale, Zygar instead places Putin in the role of the weary leader often deceived by the very men he surrounds himself with.
In order to get to the root of the workings of the Kremlin, Zygar explained that he wanted first-hand testimonies as the backbone of his narrative. However, he began by explaining that his biggest difficulty had been learning to extract small kernels of truth from otherwise much edited memories, with interviewees often glossing over real issues. In fact, he claimed that the first thing he had to take into account when interviewing any member of Putin’s inner circle, past or present, was that quite simply, ‘all of them were lying.’
He also argued that decision-making was further complicated through Putin’s two sets of influences: his ‘people of Saturday’ and his ‘people of Sunday.’ The former referrs to Putin’s staff and advisors, such as those in the Security Council, who meet once a week on Saturday to make political decisions. The latter referrs to his personal friends, who he socialises with over Sunday lunches and barbeques, and with whom he discusses everything else. Zygar asserted that, since it was highly unusual for the people of Saturday to talk economics, or for the people of Sunday to talk politics, Russian policies often lack coordination and resulted instead in fragmented dogmas often lacking structure and tactic. However, despite these setbacks, Zygar was nevertheless able to construct an interesting picture of an inner circle, handpicked by Putin for its loyalty and shared belief in the pursuit of imperialist Russian values.
When it came to the Russian Empire itself, Zygar opined that Putin’s regret over the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 was not from a communist nostalgia, as many in the West like to infer, but was instead a lament for the collapse of Russia’s world status. He believed that under Putin, the focus on regaining this power has been at the forefront of decision making, and can also be seen from the relationship between the authorities and civil society. Under Putin’s first administration, Zygar argued that society traded freedom for the hope of wealth and security. However, he stated that under Putin’s second term in office society pined no longer for wealth, but for the feeling of national pride once more. He went on to voice how this transformation has indeed been reflected through the lack of criticism over the prioritisation of hard over soft power.
Zygar concluded by assessing, somewhat worryingly, that despite the future of Russia being a very prevalent and topical issue, no-one can truly know what strategy, or indeed lack of strategy, Putin is currently considering. Ultimately, whether Russia intends to become a ‘shareholder’ of the world, showcased by its action in Syria, or whether it intends to continue along its past trajectory, the only thing predictable about Russia seems to be its unpredictability, leading Zygar to end his talk by claiming ‘new era’ of Russian foreign policy is about to begin.
For a full transcript of this event click here