06 Jul 2022

What's On column: Putin’s roots explored in new podcast series

New column: Kevin Dowling from Kildare takes a look at the latest films, series and documentaries

What's On column: Putin’s roots explored in new podcast series

The BBC Radio 4 documentary Putin

‘To understand Vladimir Putin’s career and what he might do next, you need to understand where he’s come from.’

So goes the opening salvo from host Jonny Dymond in the excellent BBC Radio 4 documentary Putin (also available on Spotify and iTunes). The Russian leader’s actions have thrust him to the forefront of international headlines for all the wrong reasons. So, for anyone struggling to understand Putin’s decision-making process, this show is a very good place to start. 

We learn that, from a very young age, he had an almost pathological obsession with joining the KGB, once as a schoolboy going as far as approaching local KGB officers and hounding them for advice on what he needed to do to join their ranks. From his humble beginnings in Soviet era Leningrad, Putin rises through the ranks of the KGB, being posted in Dresden when the collapse of the communist stranglehold began. One can only wonder if being away from home ‘when it all happened’ and the sense of displacement this created led to him later stating that the collapse of the USSR was ‘the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the century.’ 

As Russia hobbled along under the perpetually inebriated Yeltsin, seemingly out of nowhere came the abstemious bureaucrat Putin, his rise coming as a shock to some observers. But not to Putin. At the outset, things seemed promising. On September 12, 2001, Putin was the first world leader to ring Bush offering support and condolences. Bush famously said he ‘was able to get a sense of [Putin’s] soul’ when he and the Russian leader met at Bush’s ranch. If only we could eat our words.  

So, from the viewpoint of the West, where did it all go wrong? The documentary points to the tragic siege of Beslan in 2004 and the ‘colour revolutions’ of subsequent years as two huge turning points. Putin saw the former as a warning that weakness against terrorist threats was political suicide, and the latter as Western led orchestrations.

What followed can be referred to as the Grozny military doctrine: Horrifying, Slow, Merciless. The host recounts how Putin unleashed this type of scorched earth warfare in places like Chechnya and Syria and the West looked on as any number of ‘red lines’ were crossed and double crossed. 

 In 2014, as pro-Russian leader of Ukraine Yanukovych flees to Russia following popular protests, Putin annexes Crimea.

This leads to a bounce in the polls, further emboldening Putin. Halfhearted Western sanctions only increase his sense of invulnerability. The MH17 airline tragedy, the Salisbury poisonings, the signs of how far Putin was willing to go to further his own agenda were there for all to see. The show demonstrates how much Western governments were willing to tolerate from the man with the hydrocarbons, as long as the gas kept flowing.  

Coupled with all the hard facts we also get some interesting tidbits of information about Putin, like the fact that he is superstitious and also is believed by some to actually be the world’s richest man, but the host explains that this is more a factor of how much access he has to the wealth of Russian oligarchs, rather than his own personal wealth.  

This is a very accessible radio documentary, with a great line-up of Kremlin experts and guests with in-depth knowledge on Putin, and is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the subject.

There are 10 episodes, but they do not drag at all and Dymond’s years of reporting on the US, Europe and the Middle East give him the inside track on the subject at hand.  

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