According a recent interview with writer Andrew S. Weiss, illustrator Brian “Box” Brown had already begun to work on the duo’s brilliant new book, Accidental Czar: The Life and Lies of Vladmir Putin, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With his vast reservoir of knowledge and firsthand experience as a Russia and Eurasia specialist in the State Department, National Security Council, and Pentagon, however, the author likely knew it was coming. Not that anyone ever truly knows what Putin will do.
Much like Putin’s Russia: The Rise of a Dictator by Darryl Cunningham—which I also happened to review on the very day Russian troops first began pouring across the Russia-Ukraine border—Weiss cautions his audience to remain skeptical of Putin’s carefully crafted, but largely fictitious persona as the quintessential tough guy and brilliant political strategist.
“Exaggerating Putin’s strength allows the west to ignore its own vulnerabilities,” Weiss cautions. “Putin preys on our weakness precisely because his country can’t really compete with ours militarily, economically, or technologically.” It’s a stark, but well-argued thesis, convincingly articulated via the exquisite combination of Weiss’s words and Brown’s imagery.
Brown, whose previous work includes the graphic nonfiction classics Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, Is This Guy for Real? and Tetris: The Games People Play, delivers another knockout. Here, his clean, organic lines, intuitive compositions, and stunning colors provide pitch-perfect accompaniment to Weiss’s endlessly insightful script.
As seems to be the trend of late, Brown uses different colors for different chapters, creating a distinct duotone look underscoring the chapter’s tone and overall subject matter. Putin’s youth and young adulthood, for example—much of which he spent in the thrall of James Bond-esque international spy fantasies—is colored bright red, befitting Putin’s pugnacious nature and unflappable devotion to the former Soviet Union. The following chapter, “Riding High,” features a stately cornflower blue as Putin makes his entrance on the international stage. Other chapters are bright yellow, dirty bronze, lavender, and an earthy pink. Dominant chapter colors aside, Brown’s dexterous, but sparing use of occasional accent colors powerfully highlights key moments and sets them apart, as when Weiss discusses the annexation of Crimea and infamous “little green men” Putin used as justification.
If the creators’ goal is to shatter the myths that underpin Putin’s public persona and lay bare the truth behind these fictions, the book is a huge success. It’s also an artistic triumph.
Like a great musical duo, Weiss and Brown craft a groove that simultaneously feels both heady and insistent. Even as Weiss ventures off into brief, but important asides or lengthier deep dives—like the momentous wave of “color revolutions” that deeply rattled Putin throughout the early 2000s—Brown’s tight accompaniment subtly conveys clever, consequential details and stinging commentary.
From start to finish, the book’s nonlinear, fluid structure remains clear and easy to follow. With a brisk but informative tempo, Weiss carefully develops each of his central arguments, deftly interweaving strands of Putin’s biography with Russian history and an astute analysis of the embedded cultural artifacts that continue to shape Russian politics to this day. This thoughtful dissection of the internal and external factors that make Putin who he is, contextualizes his reign within the broad sweep of history and helps us better understand the often inscrutable motives underlying his actions.
Highlighting some of Putin’s more momentous decisions from the past 22 years, Weiss makes the case that Putin is not a strategic genius with a broad, sweeping plan or vision. He is a merely a high ranking thug and self-serving opportunist sitting atop a feudalistic system where very few people can—or even want—to challenge his right to the throne. As the author concludes, “Make no mistake, the world definitely has a big Russia problem to confront, but seeing Putin as he wants us to see him, rather than as he is, only makes that problem worse.”
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