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Putin’s Russia : The Rise of a Dictator (review and interview)

Writer/Artist : Darryl Cunningham

Publisher : Myriad Editions, 2021

As I look at the blank page in front of me, trying to fill it with words that might give you, the reader, an idea as to what this book is about, I realize there is a not so hidden hope in my mind that this review, just as this book, might very soon be seen as regarding someone whose name has fallen into oblivion. A hope, this one, which does not leave me satisfied: if we forget, we are bound to repeat the same mistakes again (which is why Franco, Mussolini and Hitler, just as Mao or Stalin, are names to be studied and analyzed).

Perhaps, then, the best outcome would be that Darryl Cunningham’s book, just as many others (Politkovskaya comes to mind), are going to become an example of how people were already warning us of the tragedy to come (may Ukraine remain free, we add now), a warning we thought was perhaps too dire (when, truthfully, it was exactly what it was, a call to reality).

Mr Cunningham offers us a series of events that have been leading up to Mr Putin’s present situation, a way to understand not just the man himself, but also the world he was (is?) living in. The importance of politics as the dialogue between an idea of what our future should be and a present such future is supposed to build itself on pervades the pages. Chance, then, is the basis of history, but so is, at the same time, the will to be good or bad. Politics, for this reason, are interpreted by Mr Putin as a way to obtain power, lost in a theoretical world where everyone and everything is there to attack Russia, the greatest, strongest and boldest country (empire) that ever graced our Earth.

The world is evil because they do not recognize Russia’s greatness, then, a greatness that is not just the product of decades of soviet imperialism, but also the remnant of centuries of czarism.

The book, then, is part and parcel of Mr Cunningham’s modus operandi, a dialogue he wants to have with his readers. Of course, the choice of the topic belongs to him, just as the structure is personal, but such subjectivity has all to do with how to present the message (what words to use, how to draw the panel, what colours for the background, etc.) and nothing with the content. The choice of content, in fact, tries to be as objective as possible, a task the author carries out with the cold precision of a journalistic investigation tinged by the impeccable forma mentis of the academic. The result, as usual for Mr Cunningham, is terrific.

There is a finely interwoven dialectical process at play here. By crossing the boundary of narration, the book opens itself up to the realm of the essay, the political pamphlet, the historical inquiry. By reading it, we are offered the chance to enlarge our knowledge, to have a better grip on reality and on what Mr Putin actually is as an element of our present time (perhaps for not too long, at least in his role as the purveyor of death, rape and destruction on foreign soil, just as of death, crime and corruption on his).

Terrible as we may find ourselves feeling at the end of the book, there is little denying that its importance transcends the limits of time and breaks into the territory of the everlasting caveats of history.

Set out below is an interview with Mr Cunningham about this title.


World Comic Book Review : Your book came out during a time when Putin was not yet as infamous as he is now. The genocide of the Ukrainian people was an idea nobody even harboured in their mind, an idea we would have thought so absurd to be unbelievable. Why Putin, then? What led you to write about him? Your message, in fact, resonates so strongly now, that it seems like an echo from the future (our present), and not just because Putin was already a criminal before the current invasion, but also because your words act as a cave canem (a dog guarding corruption, perhaps, the inverted metaphor of the animal protecting us) we should have been listening to more closely.

Darryl Cunningham : My previous book, Billionaires: The Lives of the Rich and Powerful, was about the one per cent richest people on the planet. It consists of three biographies: Rupert Murdoch (media mogul), the Koch Brothers (oil and gas) and Jeff Bezos (retail and tech). While I was doing the publicity for this book, I joked that my next book would be about Vladimir Putin. This was because I had heard an estimate of Putin’s personal fortune as at least 200 billion dollars. If true this would place him in the top five richest people in the world. It became obvious to me that writing a book of Putin (and therefore Russia) would be an natural extension of the Billionaires book and well worth doing. 

WCBR : Your book gives us a plethora of details about Putin. How long did it take you to carry out such a deep and impartial research?

D. C. : My books tend to take around two years to do. The Putin book is shorter than most of the books I’ve done, but because I was working on other projects as well, it took the same amount of time.

WCBR : Putin is a horrible character, and you try to give the reader a good understanding of how he came to power and what he’s been doing all these years. I would like to know what your stance is on being evil: are people born this way, or are we the product of our environment?

D. C. : Nature versus nurture is an age-old argument that I don’t pretend I know the answer to. Would Vladimir Putin have been a better person if he’d be born in a different and less harsh environment, or would his ruthless ambition and callous disregard for human life have come to the fore anyway. It’s impossible to say for sure. But we can say that reaching a position of ultimate power in Russia where there are no restraints on his wishes has done neither his country or the world any good.

WCBR : How important is freedom of the press? How easily do we take it for granted and forget that in other places, such as Russia, journalists can die for simply telling the truth or for having a different (dissenting) opinion? I refer, for instance, to Politkovskaya, as your book shares the same title as hers (or, at least, the English edition).

D. C. : Anna Politkovskaya, journalist and critic of Putin, was first poisoned (An attempt on her life which she survived) and then a year later shot dead in her apartment building. Putin may not have been directly responsible for her murder, but he and his Kremlin crime cartel have created in Russia an environment where such assassinations are allowed and often encouraged. To criticise the Kremlin at all now is to risk imprisonment or death. Long gone are the days of free speech. Today in Russia, to hold up a blank placard in a demonstration is an arrestable act. Such is a paranoia of those in power.

WCBR :  All throughout your works, from Science Tales to Billionaires, we can see the necessity to have your readers know “something new”, to expand their knowledge. How important would you say is the educational aspect of art?

D. C. : I write and draw these books to educate myself as much as to expand the reader’s knowledge. I pick subjects that interest me and that I know little about, and in the process of researching and writing, I learn a great deal that I didn’t know.