Vladimir Putin is a controversial figure, to say the least. To many in the West and in America, he is the face of Russia, and whether he is a figure to be feared or respected largely depends on an American’s opinion of Donald Trump. Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine has only heightened his visibility.
Putin’s Russia: The Rise of a Dictator is Darryl Cunningham’s latest nonfiction graphic non-fiction from Drawn & Quarterly, and narrates Putin’s rise to power and the many deaths on which that road was paved. Although it’s not an in-depth analysis of Russian politics and history, it is a topical release that serves a purpose.
The lion’s share of the book functions as a biography of Putin but conveys the difficulties involved in getting an accurate history of the man. Much of the information available comes from Putin’s own retrospectives, which are liable to contain misrepresentations, mythologizing, and omissions, if not outright lies. Cunningham does his best to streamline the narrative as much as possible under those conditions and conveys the flow of people involved in Putin’s life during his rise through Russian politics. Tragically, and like something from a classic spy film, much of this history consists of poisonings likely carried out at Putin’s order, including one incident where poison may have been placed on a light bulb and left to vaporize throughout the room as the light bulb heated up.
Once the narrative reaches the mid-2000s, it shifts to a more thematic approach rather than a chronological one, a leap that is slightly confusing in the absence of a heading to indicate the change. It may be necessary in order to address the concept of “Putin’s Russia”, the country’s current cultural, political, and economic state, and the main issues the Russians face under Putin’s leadership. Cunningham firmly places this work from an American perspective, including a lengthy digression into Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia during his campaign and presidency. The narrative splintering may represent trying to research these facts as an American lay writer but makes for a less satisfying reading experience than if he had aimed for either a straightforward biography or a complete topical analysis.
Cunningham’s subject matter involves murder, acts of war and terror, and institutionalized anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes, among other topics, but his approach is grounded in neutrality and plain statement of fact. Publicizing these pressing issues is likely one reason for choosing this topic, and even plain statements about them can make for heavy reading, but Cunningham avoids sensationalizing them. He opts to illustrate people’s faces more often than any representation of violence, and he includes compelling words directly from those who were or would become Putin’s victims.
Like many modern comics marketed as a “graphic introduction” or “graphic history”, Putin’s Russia seeks to simplify a complex concept, supplementing text with simple illustrations to make the subject more inviting and accessible. At heart, these are heavily-illustrated essays, not quite narrative comics or “graphic novel” images per se, but they don’t represent the level of commitment that seems to be required to “study” a topic if you will.
Similarly, although Cunningham is certainly capable of engrossing and individual comic art, as seen in Psychiatric Tales among other works, the art in Putin’s Russia is fairly simple and unremarkable. The limited, saturated color palette is attractive, but clarity is paramount, and Cunningham has clearly spent much time and effort rendering recognizable faces rather than artistic panels.
This book’s target demographic, then, is Americans who have a new interest in understanding Russia and its relationship with the United States due to recent political events, i.e., several years of controversy surrounding Russian interference in the 2016 election that made Donald Trump the American president, and to some extent, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although the book was written and published just before the invasion, it covers ample context of Russia’s relationship with Ukraine and other neighboring countries. For comic fans and informed readers, therefore, this book has little to offer, but it makes for an excellent recommendation to have in your arsenal for those who have questions.