READING about Vladimir Putin and his clandestine activities is not high on my list of pastimes. But when Putin's Prisoner landed in my lap, I was so captivated by the subject that I immediately tracked down and read the bestseller Killer in the Kremlin as well. Author John Sweeney holds nothing back, and if you read everything he has written about Putin, you'll wonder how far his future stretches ahead of him. I wouldn't get on a plane if I were him. Just ask Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group. Or the leader of the Russian opposition, Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned and thrown in prison without cause. As Bill Browder said, “Russian stories never have happy endings."
Killer in the Kremlin exposes dark secrets about Putin's life. Some of the claims are that he was an illegitimate child, has an unhealthy penchant for young boys, and that his puffy face is due to the use of steroids to manage the so-called cancer he lives with. Not to mention his obsession with a macho appearance. This explains a bare-chested horseback ride in Siberia, and the high heels to appear taller in photos.
We've all witnessed the Botox excesses that explain the plastic face and stuffed hamster cheeks. Artyom Borovik, who wrote about the alleged paedophilia, is one of 41 journalists killed by the current regime so far. “To be a proper journalist in Russia, you must be aware that you may be killed," writes Sweeney.
He tells of activists and dissenters who find themselves in prison, protesters who have been killed and an opposition which is denied freedom of speech. This maintains the illusion that Russia uniformly supports Putin. And even though it defies logic, you can understand why 85% of Russians are happy with their president. One person's monster is another's darling.
The population has no choice but to accept the new reality, even though it is sustained by suppression, threats and fear. A tyrant holds his population hostage. Putin demands dominance even on the international stage, and he will use venomous methods to assert his authority. Sweeney says he is notorious for showing up late to meetings with other leaders. It has ranged from 14 minutes for Queen Elizabeth to 40 minutes for Barack Obama, but the four hours Angela Merkel had to wait carried a definitive message about who was the most important person in the room. And to the dismay of everyone aware of Merkel's fear of dogs, he brought his large black Labrador into the room during a meeting with her.
Putin’s Prisoner is the story of Aiden Aslin, a British citizen and professional soldier. In 2018, he joined Ukraine's marine corps, and by February 2022 he was one of the soldiers defending Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, against Russian takeover. Eventually, the assault proved too powerful and a large group of soldiers sought shelter several floors beneath one of Europe's largest steelworks, Azovstal. On March 22, Aslin uploaded a video to YouTube showing bombed buildings in the city where thousands of civilians have perished.
Russian forces took control of Mariupol and surrounded the steelworks, and when the roughly 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers ran out of ammunition and food after a month, they surrendered. Aslin's British passport painted a target on his back, and he was subjected to physical torture and ruthless interrogation. After he'd been kicked, beaten and stabbed, a video was recorded where he was forced to denounce Ukraine as a country sympathetic to Nazis and declare his support for Russia. The video was broadcast worldwide.
With other soldiers, he was held in cells and prisons with no toilet facilities or mattresses. They were forced to learn the Russian national anthem and sing it every day. The screams of people enduring brutal assaults became part of their daily lives. Aslin says he will never forget the sounds from the night an inmate in the cell next door was beaten to death.
Eventually, he was found guilty of terrorism and sentenced to death with two of his comrades. Behind the scenes, however, his mother, his wife and the British cabinet were fighting for his freedom. On September 21 last year, he and 10 other prisoners were released.
Aslin has decided fear will not control him, and he wants to make the world aware of the massacre of innocent people. He returned to Ukraine to upload videos to YouTube that reveal the truth of what is happening there, and in Putin’s Prisoner he documents his story with John Sweeney.
There are many diagnoses to explain Putin's personality, from antisocial personality disorder to hubris syndrome. One cannot help wondering what kind of person uses fear as a weapon to rule his country and unabashedly annex another. Who has to feel so absolutely in control that he will do anything to emerge as a conqueror from battle. One who does not care about consequences, even if they mean the loss of thousands of lives and the destruction of vital resources.
These two books paint a picture of someone who pursues power with a relentless focus. And we know that the more power people gain, the stronger they become.
Currently, up to 800 Russian soldiers a day are dying to feed this insatiable monster, according to British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. And still, it is not enough.
I think what Sweeney and Aslin are saying is: do not become accustomed to Putin. Always be incensed by him, and know that he is driven by an ideology: the only thing worse than starting a war is losing one.
♦ VWB ♦
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