Book review: “Poutine, l’homme que l’Occident aime haïr”

By Andrew Wilson

Poutine – L’homme que l’Occident aime haïr, Nina Bachkatov, éditions Jourdan, Bruxelles-Paris, 2018.

Under a provocative title – The man the West loves to hate – Nina Bachkatov’s book covers more than the Russian president’s personality. In 199 pages it describes in detail the complex evolution of the post-Soviet state under his leadership – a process that she has followed at close quarters for more than thirty years.

A lot of books have been written lately about Vladimir Putin and the regime he has installed in Russia, often referred to as “Putinism”. This book is different, if only because the author is both a journalist and an academic. The result is a readable book for a non-specialised, but inquisitive readership, coupled with meticulous attention to fact-checking and primary sources. Also, testimony to experience of Russia going back to her first accreditation as foreign correspondent in early 1986.

The two first chapters concentrate on Putin as a man and a political figure, withsome touches of humour plus a sharp eye for synthesis and the choice of sources. These pave the way for the reader to make sense of the main question raised by the book, which is how to understand how a man largely seen in 1999 as a “grey little former KGB colonel” has come to be reborn as the bête noire of the West.

In two further chapters the author develops elements of the “confrontation” between Russia and the West, which has replaced hopes of shaping a new world order in concert. The fourth and last chapter deals with the policies adopted by the West to counter a Russia now perceived as a threat to liberal democracy.

This is in large part a story of a missed opportunities, which are analysed one by one. The author, being Belgian, particularly emphasises the failure of the European Union to put fresh energy into Russia-EU relations; but the unhelpful postures of Russia, and of Putin himself, are properly put in parallel.

All this raises the question of the “usefulness” of Putin in a Western world which has so long been celebrating its “victory of the Cold War” that it was late to prepare for the geopolitical conditions of the post-post- Cold War. The classical Western cry of alarm – “ don’t let Putin to divide us” – may have its rationale, but only as long as it not a way of looking for external culprits in order to escape self-questioning.

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