From hero to anti-hero: The fictional transformation of Vladimir Putin

In his initial stint in power, he was lauded for stabilising his country and restoring its great power status after the chaos and drift of the 1990s. Later, Russian President Vladimir Putin ended up facing criticism for the same reason. People may adulate him or despise him following his recent actions in Ukraine, but they cannot ignore him.
Initially perceived (in the Western world at least) as a reliable partner shoring up Russia — an acknowledged power across two continents and still influential across the world — he began to be seen, from one side of the political spectrum, as a defiant maverick, an autocrat, then a tyrant, and now, following the Ukraine invasion, as a war-monger.
Others may see him as a prominent figure resisting the hegemony of the sole superpower, and its allies, who are seeking to impose their own values in a disparate world.
Putin’s depiction in fiction, mostly of the English-speaking world, has seen him move from a valuable support/mentor figure to a spy-turned-political mastermind, who, if not evil, is cold-blooded and definitely not nice as the Cold War seems certain to make a comeback with Russia striding back on to the world stage. In some Russian literature, subsequently translated into English, the references are wide-ranging, ranging from prophetic to the fantastic.
Dissident, exiled writer Vladimir Voinovich’s “Moscow 2042” (1986; English translation, 1987), which came out in the days when the Soviet Union showed no signs of its collapse a few years ahead, was uncannily prophetic in depicting a future “shrunken, post-Soviet Russia run by a former KGB spy who had been stationed in Germany”. Putin, however, first appeared in accomplished US spy novelist Robert Littell’s “The Company: A Novel of the CIA” (2002).
The novel, which chronicles the Cold War from its beginning down to its winding down (a brief hiatus only, as we would learn subsequently) in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, through some of the key episodes — the spy games in Berlin, the Bay of Pigs episode, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, among others — all from the American viewpoint, and featuring a legion of real-life characters, brings him on stage in the end.
As some of the American operatives gather in Moscow to forestall the coup, and make sure it cannot recur, he is referred to as an up-and-coming politician. He appears in one scene — silent and unsmiling — and is tipped for support in his rise.
Putin reappears in Henry Porter’s “Brandenburg” (2005), a gritty espionage tale set in East Germany in the months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
East German art historian (and former spy) Rudi Rosenharte is hauled back into service by the Stasi to contact his former lover (now working for NATO) for some information. Our hero, who is a double agent, knows it is a ploy by his other masters — MI6 and CIA — to contact him for their needs, and as he juggles between his alliances, the Soviets get into the game too.
A seemingly non-descript KGB lieutenant colonel, heading his service’s Dresden base, makes an appearance, helping Rosenharte in various ways — protecting him, giving him key information, and even intervening to free him from jail. If the description and designation were not enough, he is even identified as the future Russian leader.
This Putin is also present at a seminal event — the evening press conference where an East German minister jumped the gun on easing travel restrictions, triggering the massive crowds on both sides of the Berlin Wall that, in a few hours, brought down the nearly three-decade-old barrier.
Subsequent appearances are not very complimentary.
Set in Russia of 2005, Martin Cruz Smith’s “Stalin’s Ghost” (2007) repeatedly refers to Putin, who was then beginning his second term, though he does not make an appearance himself.
The book, part of the investigator Arkady Renko series, focuses on the country’s faultlines — war crimes in Chechnya, criminal elements in security agencies, and the rise of undesirable sentiments — “under the former spy in the Kremlin”.
Charles Cumming’s “The Trinity Six” (2011) swings the other way.
Based on the premise that there was a sixth man in the infamous Cambridge spy ring — five highly-placed MI6 officials spying for the Soviet Union — it sees the hero, a Cold War historian, trying to expose the last traitor. Ranged against him are the Russian regime, headed by President “Sergey Platov”, and British intelligence.
Why does Platov want to keep this sixth man hidden? Because something — which would not look too good on his record — happened between the two in East Germany, where he once served as a mid-ranking KGB officer!
David R. Stokes’ “Camelot’s Cousin” (2013, 2nd edition) is based on a quite similar premise, except that here the hidden spy is from an Oxford version of the Cambridge ring — and was a close adviser to President John F. Kennedy at various key moments, including the Cuban missile crisis.
Naturally, but a little implausibly, the Russians, under Putin — who, as an ex-spy, wants a secret to remain one — will go to any end to stop the name from coming out. Mayhem ensues.
“Red Sparrow” (2013), by ex-CIA operative Jason Mathews, is a riveting account of the no-holds-barred clandestine struggle between the CIA and SVR (the KGB’s successor) — reminiscent of the Cold War at its height — as the Russians strive to unearth an American mole and the CIA tries to save him.
Appearing a handful of times — including bare-chested in the middle of a strenuous exercise (in line with his projected macho image) — the omniscient Putin is not only fully aware of the activities of his spies, who, as ruthless as they may be, are on tenterhooks in his presence — quite like in Stalin’s time.
Putin is shown actively directing the covert operations and, in the end, arranging the brutal but effective contingency plan to ensure the traitor does not escape.
He reappears in the sequels — “Palace of Treason” (2015), where the heroine comes under his gaze, and “The Kremlin’s Candidate”, where he orchestrates a plan to eliminate a high-ranking US official so that a Russian mole can fill the ensuing vacancy.
Two books — in 2006 and 2013 — seemed to foretell the coming Ukraine crisis.
In fact, “Third Empire: Russia Which Should Be” (2006), by Russian politician Mikhail Yuriev (who subsequently emigrated to the US), is set in 2054, when following World War III, early in the 21st century, there are five political entities left, including the Third Russian Empire, covering all of what was the Soviet Union, as well as all of Europe and Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan too.
This is due to the reign of “Vladimir II the Restorer”, under whom Russia has emerged victorious over the US and NATO after a tumult in Ukraine, which, as a result of a “rebellion against the pro-Western government”, has to separate its south and eastern part, which asks to become a part of Russia.
The remaining part is also taken over, leading to a new Cold War, which sees Russia leave all international organisations and agreements, including the ones for nuclear non-proliferation.
US thriller writer Tom Clancy, known for his Jack Ryan series, seemed to have anticipated the coming crisis too.
In the posthumously-published “Command Authority” (2013), Russia, which had even joined NATO (!) to forestall Chinese aggression in “The Bear and the Dragon” (2000), returns to its Cold War villain status under ex-KGB president Valeri Volodin, who to regain control over ex-Soviet states provokes a crisis in first Estonia, and then a bigger one in Ukraine.
There are more like Michael Honig’s “The Senility of Vladimir P” (2016), set two decades in the future, where the eponymous leader is pensioned off to a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow and sporadically recalls his stint in power.
Given the present happenings, the Russian leader is likely to appear in more works of fiction — and not in a positive light.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at

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