Robert Service’s new book touches on all these themes and more, attempting to explain such divergences by examining how the Russians themselves feel and think about Russia and the world. The book has many qualities, not least its ambitious breadth, covering domestic politics, foreign policy, economics and military matters. Although the book is framed as an analysis of Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 – the ‘second coming’ of the title – Service, a historian, adds much background context, which is essential given the short-term focus of much contemporary discussion of Russia. Happily, he is not seduced, as so many others have been, by assertions that the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West represents some kind of ‘return to Cold War’ (it does not), or by the idea that Moscow has a ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ (there is no such thing).
That makes for an important book, one that only a historian of Service’s calibre — he has written biographies of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin — can carry off. It demands a forensic reconstruction of Putin’s record from the more hopeful days of his first presidential term in 2000, when it seemed sensible to have a former KGB officer as leader, to his present status as the Kremlin’s cynical caretaker.