Darryl Cunningham savors taking demonic moguls and wretched autocrats to task. This past May, Drawn & Quarterly published his graphic biography/exposé Billionaires: The Lives of the Rich and Powerful, which chronicles the rise of Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers and Jeff Bezos, detailing how these ultra-wealthy, supremely powerful, very white men have come to control much of the world’s industry through monopolistic practices worthy of America’s robber-barons of the Gilded Age.
His recent offering, also through D&Q, Putin’s Russia: The Rise of a Dictator, is a detailed account of Putin’s unforeseeable ascent from “schoolyard thug to Russian president.” Cunningham’s style is reminiscent of the groundbreaking “Beginners” series inaugurated four decades ago by Writers and Readers, a comic book–style, trade paperback line of nonfiction reference titles, the first being Cuba, the second Marx, then Freud and a score of other influential personages. The purpose of the Beginners series was to open up a realm of knowledge that the publishers believed had long been “locked into the domain of academia.”
Cunningham’s Putin, like his earlier Billionaires, demands a certain existing knowledge of the period when the Soviet system was collapsing—when Soviet Bloc nations were taking back their governments (including the Ukraine) and the Russian Federation was rising from the ashes through some free elections, multiple parties and rebuilding of its core institutions.
Sadly, many of those institutions changed only in name. Comrade Putin, a trained KGB officer, took the opportunity to realign himself with the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK) of Russia, which was succeeded by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). Putin’s power is underscored by shifting loyalties, brutal treatment of detractors, and lawless financial dealings. But despite his transgressions, Putin has retained public support and enjoys stature in Russian society, largely owing to his ever-tightening control over the media and harsh treatment, including the lengthy imprisonment, crippling poisoning and outright murder of critics (like the courageous journalist mentioned in the panel above).
Putin’s Russia lacks some of the page turning dynamics of Billionaires. There is nothing comic about this comic book. Cunningham’s drawing is functional (shifting between straight representation and childlike cartoon, a conceit that is appropriate yet curiously inconsistent); the massive blocks of hand-font lettering, often across entire pages, also make it necessary to put the book down to rest one’s eyes every 10 or 20 minutes. (Although maybe that discomfort is Cunningham’s goal.) For me there is little enjoyment from an entire evening of reading the raw facts of Putin’s toxic career. Also corrosive are the fates of the many people he’s destroyed to get to where he now is.
It takes persistence to read. But Putin’s Russia is nonetheless a necessary and essential “beginners” guide to the current state of global crises and of the self-styled superman who may prove to be the longest-lasting demon-despot left standing during this first half of the 21st century (and he is not even 70 years old).