On the shelf
War and Punishment: Putin, Zelenskyy and the Road to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine
By Mikhail Tsygar
Scribner: 432 pages, $30
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Mikhail Zygar was the founding editor-in-chief of TV rainRussia’s only independent news channel until its exile in 2022, and author of “All the men of the Kremlin” And “The empire must die.” But when Russia invaded Ukraine, his Ukrainian friend Nadia stopped talking to him, believing he was an “imperialist,” not to mention that he wrote much of that first book in her home.
On the one hand, zygar know that’s unfair. “It’s a mistake to blame everyone who has a Russian passport and it could be counterproductive,” he said in an interview from London, where he is doing the press for his new book.war and punishment: Putin, Zelenskyj and the road to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
When I asked if fears for his personal safety or the inability to do independent journalism in Russia made him move to Berlin last year, he replied that both reasons were secondary. “I felt a sense of moral obligation,” he explains. “You couldn’t live in Hitler’s Germany; You cannot live in Putin’s Russia. It’s just impossible.”
And yet he does not vigorously protest against Nadia’s accusation. “I will never argue with a Ukrainian before the war is over,” he says. In fact, the opening sentences of his book side with Nadia: “This book is a confession,” he begins, saying that every Russian who lets Putin go his own way bears some responsibility for the war.
But Zygar at least feels like he’s taken up arms: “The aim of this book is to fight imperialism.” In order to change the future, the author is convinced that we must understand the past. He begins his book in the 16th century, long before Russia or Ukraine were countries with fixed borders and identities, and he writes exclusively in the present tense as he travels through the centuries.
“I think it’s important to think of these historical figures as real people, as today’s politicians,” he explains. “They were people like us, not bronze monuments.”
While there is a lot about Ukrainian history in the book, Zygar says there are broader stories about this country. “I’m not writing about Ukraine, I’m writing about Russia,” he says. “It’s like writing a crime story from the criminal’s point of view. It is the story of Russian crimes.”
The long, detailed, and complicated story may confuse Westerners, but Zygar’s target audience is Russians, people who have been “brainwashed” for hundreds of years.
“You have to understand that imperialist propaganda is the reason for this war,” he says. “We must stop trying to understand Putin’s motivations – there is no story that can justify his brutality. Destroying the imperialist idea is the only way for Russia to become a decent, democratic nation. That will take a lot of time.”
Zygar, who has been dubbed a “foreign agent” by Putin’s government, won’t be giving a book signing in Moscow anytime soon but says the book is being smuggled in digitally. “The only way independent work is perceived in Russia right now is through social media or YouTube and other websites,” he says. “I’m much more privileged than my colleagues in the Soviet era, when people had to copy books by hand to pass them on.”
The government hasn’t banned his earlier books, they just put stickers on them that basically said, “Don’t buy this.” It was written by a foreign agent.” That, of course, boosted sales. “Everyone wants to read the dangerous books before they’re banned outright,” he says.
Despite its historical scope, the book largely focuses on the post-Soviet era, with characters ranging from Boris Yeltsin to Paul Manafort. Zygar says he always asks “what ifs” questions. “There were many opportunities for a different story and a different outcome,” he says, noting that in 2000 Putin wanted Russia to join NATO. “What if that idea had been accepted – there was a chance of stopping him from becoming this damn dictator.”
He also argues that President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was an inspiration for Putin’s later strong behavior in Ukraine. And he believes the now-cornered leader is buying time and hopes Donald Trump is re-elected. “He thinks if Trump wins it can save him,” he says. “Do you have a plan B? I do not believe that.”
However, he is quick to add that the West is not to blame for the war. “Putin is most to blame, then the Russian system and the oligarchs.”
Nor does he only blame the leaders. In the first paragraph of War and Punishment he writes: “Unfortunately, Russian culture is also responsible for making all these horrors possible.” And throughout the book he examines the views and influence of esteemed Russian literary greats such as Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Joseph Brodsky.
“In Russian society, even liberal Russians who oppose the war tend to say: Please don’t touch our special culture, please don’t touch Pushkin, he is our saint,” says Zygar.
Zygar isn’t asking for a cancellation, it’s asking for a reckoning, just like the Brits have reconsidered Rudyard Kipling and other imperialists. “If we’re going to heal ourselves from the disease our country is suffering from, we have to be honest with ourselves,” he says. “We have to admit that the idea of Russian exceptionalism and its grandeur can be poisonous, and that great Russian literature is partly to blame.”
The landscape in Russia has changed since Zygar finished writing, most recently with the semi-rebellion of the Wagner mercenaries. “This war is accelerating the disintegration of this regime and Putin is not the same person as he used to be,” says Zygar.
A post-Putin era could come sooner rather than later — and the country could be destabilized or even slide into civil war, Zygar says — but nothing would change his call for a recalibration of Russia’s self-image.
“I don’t think that Russia is doomed to establish a dictatorship, that empire is the only way,” he says. “I believed in the real possibility of change during the 2012 protests, but I was wrong. We had many chances. I hope they are not gone forever.”