Friday, September 16, 2022

When Putin Got a Bad Book Review

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Aug. 18 – Since becoming president, Vladimir Putin has written any number of historical articles and at least in the official Russian media has received glowing reviews. But in 1996, long before he became the Kremlin leader, he contributed to a book that got anything but good notices even from those who might be expected to give them.

            In reporting this, Dina Toroyeva, a St. Petersburg blogger, says that in saying this, she has to point out that Putin in fact didn’t write an entire textbook about St. Petersburg but only one chapter, and the book wasn’t a text but only a guide for teachers. But despite that, his first contribution in this field is intriguing and reaction to it even more so.

            The volume which bears the title A Book about St. Petersburg was edited by two local deputies, O.Ye. Levedev and V.S. Yagya and was intended as a guide to teachers of the 10th and 11th grades. Many then prominent Russians and even one foreigner were asked to contribute chapters (

            Putin’s 16-page chapter was devoted to relations between the Northern capital and foreign cities, an area he had overseen in the city’s government earlier. He talked about sister city relations and the way in which various Soviet actions created problems for those city to city ties.

            The future president even talked about the disintegration of the USSR, but in 1996 unlike more recently, “he recalled it without any negative commentaries” in contrast to his subsequent insistence that 1991 was for Russia the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. He even indicated that after that date, “the status of the city was strengthened.”

            The language of the chapter is sufficiently wooden and full of officialese, Toroyeva says, that one can have little doubt that Putin wrote all this himself or at least had the last word before the book with his chapter was published.

            Unfortunately, she continues, the book did not get good reviews from those specialists on the city who knew it best. One of their number, Arkady Veksler, observed that “among the many interesting and extremely useful local studies publications of recent years, there have also appeared unsuccessful ones.”

            “Among their number,” the regional specialist says, “the Book about St. Petersburg for upper classes unfortunately must be counted.”

            Toroyeva says that some of the reason that regional specialists were upset by the book and Putin’s contribution to it reflects the fact that they were not asked to contribute to the book. But in the main, Veksler’s objections reflect the fact that the book and Putin’s chapter in particular wasn’t very good.

            She doesn’t address the most interesting question of all: why was this book published and why was Putin involved? The answers to these questions likely reflect simple greed. In Soviet times and for some years thereafter with regard to books with large print runs, those who contributed stood to make a great deal of money regardless of how their books were received or even used.

            Putin thus likely profited from publishing this chapter financially even if as seems clear from Toroyeva’s and Veksler’s comments, it did little to boost his intellectual reputation. But of course, everything he has done since suggests that that is far from being one of his major concerns.

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