Putin’s Russia: The Rise of a Dictator by Darryl Cunningham from Drawn+Quarterly presents a solid journalistic look at one of the most powerful, devious, and ruthless men on the face of the planet. In his previous graphic novel, Billionaires, Cunningham gave biographies of several different ultra-wealthy figures, showing their backgrounds and rise to become economic powerhouses. The entirety of Putin’s Russia focuses on Vladimir Putin, giving more space to analyze the leader that many abhor and many adore, though few of either can articulate exactly why.
In Putin’s Russia, Cunningham presents the facts as straightforwardly as possible to give the reader a concrete biographical and political view. There is editorializing, of course, but the extensive six-page, double-column references list at the end of the book shows the depth of research into giving as accurate of a picture as is possible. Much of it stretches back into the days of the Soviet Union when information policing was all too real, just as many of the recent events remain shrouded in modern information policing, whether digital or enforced by old-fashioned intimidation and erasure.
Putin’s Russia follows a rough chronological flow from his youth in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), still recovering from the devastation of World War II. It comments on his parents’ service during the war and young Putin’s personality of violently dealing with any other children who insulted him, using “any dirty method to take vengeance.” Cunningham shows the context of the chaotic days of the decline of the USSR and the rough beginnings of the Russian Federation, setting it as Putin dreams of joining the KGB.
Ultimately he achieves his dream and is dispatched to East Germany, where he learns the hard lesson that the supposedly glamorous and exciting life of international intelligence is actually mostly paperwork. Putin returns to Russia and local government in St. Petersburg, finding himself in the right place at the right time to make tremendous amounts of money skimming from international trade deals.
Much of Putin’s Russia is dedicated to the era of Putin’s presidency, from his appointment by Yeltsin in 2000 to events as modern as 2021. Cunningham uses flashbacks to explain the backgrounds of the people who come into Putin’s path, whether opponents or allies, and presents detailed explanations of what is happening in European and Ukrainian politics. The topics come fast, including Olympics scandals, assassinations, American elections, and Putin’s struggles with liberal and far conservative opposition during COVID-19.
Though the information in Putin’s Russia is comes fast, the illustrations and side cartoons make the firehouse of facts palatable. Much of the art is realism in its near-tracing of photographs, adding faces to names, along with maps to show where events go down. The final pages give Cunningham’s summary challenge, quoting Garry Kasparov, “Dictators don’t ask ‘why.’ They ask ‘why not?’”, before going into his own thought, “Democracy or dictatorship? The choice is up to us.”