Putin’s Russia: The Rise of a Dictator
Created by Darryl Cunningham.
Published by Myriad and Drawn & Quarterly.
160 pages – £16.99.
Over the last six months or so there have been a couple of books about Vlad that have been pushed under my nose with an intense “You should read this!” added. The first is the recently paperbacked long-read ‘Putin’s People – How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West’ by Catherine Belton. And the second comes recommended by my more comics busy contacts and is the subject of this review.
Belton’s book is something I snapped up in hardback, enjoyed and have looked through for reference in my day-job since. The second, I will immediately admit, is something of a headscratcher. It is, as any Hampstead sourced and posh sounding bookseller will tell you, a ‘Graphic Novel.’ Having initially balked at the use of that phrase I will admit that I stopped knowing, and bothering to know, what makes a ‘Graphic Novel.’ But to lay it out more clearly it does appear to be drawings and words in a perfect bound product. It’s just comics but for Guardian readers I am guessing.
It also submits to the nebulous Graphic Novel test of being one continuous story. A biography of President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Through this concentration on Putin, we then see the author Cunningham explain a broader history of Russia.
The book races through the life of Putin in its 160 pages. We see his rise through university where he studied law and then onto a role in the KGB and onwards into politics. Seemingly pushed ever forward with a high self-regard and unrelenting confidence. We read the history of Gorbachev and Yeltsin with Putin hovering ambitiously ready in the background.
Once Vlad is in power, Cunnigham chronologically follow the scandals, assassinations, wars and influence campaigns he and his government/military carried out. From the Dubrovka Theatre siege, to Litvinienko to Pussy Riot to the shooting down of flight MH17 to The Mueller Report and more this book runs through history using brief paragraphs, iconography and quick to view images. The book is almost up to date and contains both the pandemic and the arrest and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny in the last twenty pages.
It finishes on the following line that whilst blatantly melodramatic could almost be seen as a redeeming feature for what otherwise I found lazy and obvious. Although I am not sure who he means by ‘us.’
‘It’s a simple choice. Democracy or Dictatorship? The choice is up to us.’
Be aware that there are a couple of different versions of this book. Myriad and Drawn & Quarterly have put it out with several different covers. The one I feature here is the copy I bought through a UK online seller and is the version published by Myriad.
The book does open with the assertion that much is not known about Putin. He has often been the author of his own mythology and the complications of much of his private and social life remain behind closed doors if not hidden under the covers.
For those that know my background are aware of my work as a political researcher. I have published papers on politics and continue to study the global political scene daily. Being a comics fan notwithstanding I purchased this graphic novel through a sense of professional curiosity. I have read an awful lot about Russia, especially recently, and am always looking for something new. I thought that this standing would assist me in reviewing the comic – my professional and hobbies combined.
The work of a comics-based biography is something that is not lost on me as a reader. I have always read all kinds of comics, these included. Admittedly they have become more visible over the last couple of decades with such releases as the March series, the comics of Reinhard Kleist and even the more shameless cash-in releases of Bluewater productions and Tidalwave Comics (anyone fancy a Selena Gomez or a ‘Stormy Daniels: Space Force’ comic?) But we have always had something similar. Maus being the highpoint and the perhaps infamous Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics being somewhat further down the totem pole.
My main skepticism regarding this comic I’m now holding in my hands comes from the staggering amount of amazing pull quotes and reviews it has garnered. Are they from people with short attention spans who cannot see the crassness of releasing and promoting this book at this time and claiming it is also such a brilliant example of comics.
Some of the pull quotes include mentions of ‘The drawings are remarkable…’ or ‘A superb example of how powerful graphic nonfiction can be.’ (Oh, give me a break – ‘graphic nonfiction….’)
Who is it for? It may be for sixth formers? But even I who read comics every day may straightaway suggest they “Go read a proper book.” Is it for the coffee table or the downstairs loo? Possibly. You can ingest short chunks of information without any real investment. Is it for the short attention spans of idiots who can then go forth and claim to be experts on Twitter? Possibly. Have we really fallen this far where adult subjects can only be disseminated using a crude infographic parading itself as a piece of art?
Here is a link to an unboxing video released by Drawn & Quarterly on 15/02/2022 and featuring Cunningham himself – At Home with Darryl Cunningham: Putin’s Russia It is worthy of note that the war and slaughter in Ukraine was happening at the time and the author uses that to sell the book. He also describes it as having, “Nice Art.”
“The war in Ukraine if you want to know all about that, that’s here…”
The art is not particularly good. It veers from the amateur / faux amateur with crudely designed people and backgrounds (especially the drawing of aircraft) to the appearance that many of the images of individuals have been copied from photographs (and dare I say often even just traced). I have watched a lot of footage of Putin over the years and I can point you to many of the photos and films that images are taken from. But this is a history book so maybe that can be seen as just part of the research. The publisher’s description on their website describes Mr. Cunningham’s art as ‘economical’ and ‘clear.’ Both true. But I would also add that this reader found them ‘insubstantial’ and ‘rushed.’
Does this graphic novel now appear on a bookshop/LCS shelves as consumer guilt clickbait? Given the terrible situation in Ukraine I do find the big red cover and close-up of Putin holding a globe in his hands as an affront to the sensibilities of genuine and caring people. I am quite possibly also being over-sensitive after watching bodies burn on bomb sites every day and having Ukrainian friends and colleagues. Your own opinions may differ wildly. But I can see nowhere on the publisher’s site an indication that this is raising money to help people- but I will happily update this review if someone can let me know that this is the case.
Did I learn anything? The odd mention here and there? But mostly information that I have read previously and was being reminded of here. You may well learn something if you have avoided the many books and articles and interviews/films/videos/podcasts on Vlad/modern Russia. It should be emphasised that whilst this does explain Putin to a certain level if you really want to understand the politics of Russia then you do need to read more. This book will not make you an expert, it will not even, on its own, make you pass most serious exams. It is an overview with crude art and use of what I am guessing are badly traced photographs. You might do well in a pub quiz though.
So, the question remains. Why is this book here? After a long ponder the only answer I can think of is the obvious and that is to sell books. I’m not hating on that and isn’t that after all what the publishing business is all about. It isn’t a charity event. You sell books. Some of the money goes to the publisher/s and some of it goes to the author. You must make a book that sells. Is that what Mr. Cunningham and his publishers have done? No shade need be thrown in that case.
If you fancy donating money to those suffering because of the war in Ukraine, you can go here. https://www.unicef.org.uk/donate/donate-now-to-protect-children-in-ukraine/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwpImTBhCmARIsAKr58czvBFuOz35fe0htROS0oQvYsZcQT3-y2SYYuE1fERrNy5KgXtzaxFoaAqTgEALw_wcB
Many thanks for reading.