In a new podcast series, British journalist Misha Glenny provides an examination of the rise and reign of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Peter Finn and Robert Ledger write that although the series is relatively short, it constitutes a weighty journalistic endeavour with insights on the evolution of post-Soviet Russia and Putin’s expansion and consolidation of power.
There is currently a surfeit of podcasts dealing with various aspects of the lead up to, and fall out from, the 2016 US presidential elections and the alleged meddling carried out by the Russian state and related entities. Indeed, it appears the scandals of the Donald Trump era are playing out at the very moment that podcasting has matured as a medium, with Politico reporter Darren Samuelsohn amusingly opining that, in the Trump era, ‘Scandals don’t die, they just breed more podcasts.’
Those with the highest production values include the Max Bergmann-fronted The Asset, which develops the theory of the case for Trump being an asset of Russian intelligence and The Report, which is produced by the Lawfare website team and essentially transfers the narrative of the Mueller report to audio.
Into this space comes Prisoner of Power, a seven-part series by journalist Misha Glenny, who has previously examined Russian organised crime in McMafia. However, rather than focusing on the US-Russia relationship, or the minutiae of Trump’s ascension to office, Glenny engages in a sustained examination of the rise and reign of Russian President Vladimir Putin. As such, while the US-Russia relationship is discussed on numerous occasions, it is treated as a secondary, and sometimes tertiary, concern for the series; thus giving Prisoner of Power a unique selling point to non-experts interested in gaining deeper context into the Trump-Russia furore. Moreover, there are enough intriguing anecdotes and interviews with journalists and politicos with on-the-spot insight into events to engage experts. As is typical of such podcasts, Glenny’s narration is set to a reliably claustrophobic soundtrack, with continuity provided by an imposing piano refrain.
Across episodes 1-6 the listener is, in broadly chronological fashion, taken through key points in the evolution of post-Soviet Russia and how these, firstly, created the space within the Russian body politic for a strongman leader, secondly, allowed Putin to consolidate and expand his power and finally, how this very process may have made him a prisoner of his own power, unable to step down for fear of reprisals or getting caught in the crossfire of the inevitable jockeying for wealth and influence that will follow his downfall.
The first three episodes cover the chaos wrought by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the violence unleashed by the battle to control former state assets and the oligarchs these intermingled processes created. This story is told by focusing on oligarch cum ‘power broker’ Boris Berezovsky and, more specifically, by highlighting his central role in the selection of Putin as the heir apparent to Boris Yeltsin. Subsequently, however, Glenny documents how Berezovsky was bested by his former supplicant (in a process that saw Berezovsky’s Russian media empire, and with it his influence over public opinion, brought under the Kremlin’s sway) after he suggested to Putin the manufacture of an opposition party and leader that could replace Putin at the helm of a ‘managed democracy’ ultimately under Berezovsky’s influence. Similarly, the fourth instalment details Putin’s battle with oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky over corruption; a confrontation that led to Khodorkovsky’s decade-long imprisonment and eventual exile in London.
Moving on, Episode 5 focuses on the botched response to the tragic Beslan school shooting of September 2004, an event Glenny argues allowed Putin to consolidate power by cancelling elections for regional governors in favour of his own appointments. Episode 6, meanwhile, explores the 2013-14 Maidan protests in Kyiv and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea (as well as the boost it gave to Putin’s then waning domestic popularity). The series closes with a discussion between Glenny and Mark Meddish, who advised Bill Clinton on Russia.
Glenny can certainly turn a phrase, with Putin-era Russia, despite an economy a tenth of the size of that of the United States, described as appearing to ‘stride the globe like a geo-political colossus’ led by the ‘most self-assured leader in the world’ who has ‘accrued more power and influence than any Russian leader since Stalin’. By contrast, Trump is characterised as having ‘bumbled’ through an appearance alongside Putin in Helsinki in 2018.
All told, Putin is portrayed as a resourceful short-term tactical thinker unafraid to ruthlessly engage those seen as a challenge, who is, nevertheless, bereft of longer-term strategic vision; more reactionary than visionary. With his system of government portrayed as non-ideological and shown to straddle both formal and informal power networks.
Events are used to explore themes rather than presented in an exhaustive fashion. This generally occurs to good effect. Yet, given the series is a sum total of less than three hours, some events inevitably feel under examined. The decade between the Beslan shooting and the Maidan protests, for instance, is, bar a brief allusion to a 2008 conflict with Georgia that provides context for events in Ukraine, afforded just a few short minutes that highlight the fascinating political dance between Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, which saw the latter anointed as a four-year stand-in for the former when constitutional restrictions prevented Putin serving a third concurrent term as president.
More frustratingly, the final episode is underwhelming. Though the discussion with Meddish is engaging, the episode it is couched in is, at 17 minutes, the shortest in the series by far and feels more like an out-take or a bolt-on than an in-depth discussion of the materials covered in episodes 1-6. Perhaps a round table featuring a number of guests or some kind of live recording of the type present in other podcast series such as The RFK Tapes and Slow Burn could have dealt with this issue? Such events may well have been considered but have been financially or logistically prohibitive (or, one hopes, may be in the pipeline for release at a later date, we’d certainly buy tickets). However, if no such addition is made, Episode 7 feels a lightweight end to an otherwise weighty journalistic endeavour.
Putin: Prisoner of Power by Misha Glenny is available from Audible
Note: This review gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Peter Finn – Kingston University
Peter Finn is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at Kingston University.
Robert Ledger – Goethe University Frankfurt
Robert Ledger is a visiting researcher in the History Seminar at Goethe University Frankfurt and currently teaches at Schiller University Heidelberg and the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management.