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Author Andrew Weiss on his graphic novel, "Accidental Czar"

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It can be all too easy to paint Vladimir Putin as a cartoon villain, a thug, an evil genius, a spy schooled in the black arts of the KGB. It can be so easy that, in fact, Andrew Weiss has done it. Weiss is a Russia expert. He has met Putin, has tracked him from posts at the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House. And now Weiss has written, as he pitched it to me, a seriously quirky graphic novel about the Russian president. The book is titled "Accidental Czar: The Life And Lies Of Vladimir Putin." Andrew Weiss, welcome.

ANDREW WEISS: Thanks so much for having me.

KELLY: This book is a joint venture. It's written by you. It is illustrated by Brian "Box" Brown. And y'all really do have Putin resembling a comic book villain. Like, literally in one frame, he is - he's shooting lasers from his eyes at his enemies. Why did you want to tell Putin's story this way?

WEISS: Well, for more than 20 years, the Kremlin has deliberately been trying to make Putin seem like a larger-than-life James Bond-style superspy. That's why we always see him carrying weapons, prancing around without a shirt on, that kind of thing. The Russians are masters at getting in our heads and shaping the way we think about things. What the Kremlin doesn't want you to know was that Putin was actually an undistinguished mid-level former KGB officer, and then he washed out of the KGB after barely making it to the rank of lieutenant colonel. The Kremlin wants to fuzz all of that up.

KELLY: I have read my share of Putin books. You open yours with a remarkable story that I had not heard before to do with Putin's parents, in particular his mother in postwar Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. Would you briefly tell us what happened?

WEISS: So the siege of Leningrad was one of the most brutal moments of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. People starved to death and resorted to incredible, horrible things to survive. And Putin's father, who was fighting in the Soviet Red Army, came home wounded from the war and basically found his wife on a pile of corpses in a cart being taken away. Putin's dad plucked her off the cart and brought her home and nursed her back to health.

KELLY: It's horrific. How do we know it's true? How do we know that happened?

WEISS: Well, as with everything with Putin, you're not totally sure. But what we do know for sure is that his mom barely survived the war, and Putin had an older brother who didn't survive the war. He was taken from the family, put in an orphanage so that he would have enough to eat. But he died of diphtheria during the war and was buried in a mass grave. Putin never met his brother.

KELLY: So that tells us a little bit of - I mean, it's - you struggle to imagine what impact that would have on a child, that that's what was happening to their family. I want to fast-forward to 1966. Putin is now in ninth grade. And you write about how he walked up to the big KGB building in Leningrad; with what aim?

WEISS: So he had been a real screw-up as a kid. He'd basically been a street thug, and it was his love of the KGB, studying judo, studying German, that made him get his life back on track. And so when he was in high school, he walked up to the front door, knocked on the door and said, I want to work here. And the person who answered the door said, kid, get out of here. Beat it. We don't take walk-ins.

KELLY: Especially not ninth grade walk-ins.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: It's a stretch.

WEISS: Exactly. But then Putin said, well, how do I get a job here? And the guy said, you need to go to college. And that's what Putin did. He threw himself into being a good student. And for a working-class kid from the wrong side of the tracks, getting into the most prestigious school in Leningrad was no small feat.

KELLY: Well, he does it. I mean, in 1975, he enters the KGB. He's posted to East Germany - at the time, a backwater. Those years have been much documented because people are so curious about how that may have influenced who Vladimir Putin became. What do you want us to take from that chapter, from those years in his life?

WEISS: The most important thing that Putin experienced in East Germany was the spontaneous unraveling of the German Democratic Republic, the GDR. He saw what happens when people take responsibility for their own freedom and their destiny. And it's the fear of that kind of situation that animates pretty much, I think, Putin's most deepest, darkest fears about the United States and what the ultimate agenda for the United States is with regard to Russia.

KELLY: Let me bring us up to today and Putin's war in Ukraine, a war that even he - there seemed to be signs that he grasps that it is not going entirely to plan. How do you explain his miscalculation there?

WEISS: Part of it has to do with the fact that Putin probably had the worst work-from-home experience of any foreign leader. He retreated during the pandemic. He marinated himself in conspiracy theories and bogus history about Ukraine. But then the thing which we all have to remember is that Putin is an opportunist and an improviser The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 convinced him that the Zelenskyy government would crumble if Russia pushed for regime change in Kyiv and that the U.S. and the Europeans wouldn't push back. So he made an epic miscalculation, and he's paying an enormous price for that today on the battlefield.

KELLY: This next question is outside the scope of your book. But I want to take advantage of having a true Putin expert on the line to ask the Ukraine question that a lot of people are asking these days. Would Putin use nuclear weapons in Ukraine? What do you think?

WEISS: The danger when it comes to nuclear weapons - and this is a theme that starts on literally on Page 1 of the book - is this level of emotionalism and impulsivity that Putin has displayed at key moments in his life. This is a man whose emotions have often gotten the best of him. I saw this firsthand at the White House, and it's part of why leaders like Joe Biden have to take seriously the threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

KELLY: What was your story? What was your experience at the White House that causes you to say that?

WEISS: So I was in President Clinton's private residence for his farewell call with Putin in early 2001. And at the time, we knew Putin had this hothead streak, and we were really worried about Russian bullying of Georgia, the neighboring country in the South Caucasus. And we told Putin in the phone call, you need to knock it off. And what surprised President Clinton and everybody else who was listening in was how Putin just exploded. He totally lost his cool in this phone call. And it revealed to me that even for all his image of this cool, calculating career intelligence operative, there's this hothead, this street tough not too far underneath the surface. And we all need to be very careful in how we manage a person with that kind of behavior.

KELLY: I was in Russia in 2018 to cover the last presidential election, which he won. A lot of people we interviewed said it wasn't a win so much as an illegitimate coronation to his fourth term. They have presidential elections there coming up in 2024. Are we getting any glimpses of what his plan might be?

WEISS: Putin's trapped. There are no institutions that'll allow Putin to hand off power to someone else and be comfortable that he won't end up in a jail cell either in Moscow or in The Hague as a result of the horrible crimes that have been committed in Ukraine. So the only real pathway for Putin is to stick it out, wait out the West, wait out Ukraine and hope at some point we either lose heart or we stop paying attention to what's going on. That's basically what he's hoping for. And he's also hoping, of course, that we'll have elections in 2024 and there'll be a new U.S. president who's going to put the U.S. on a totally different trajectory.

KELLY: Yeah, it's going to be two very interesting presidential elections to watch in 2024. Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, we've been talking about his new book, "Accidental Czar: The Life And Lies Of Vladimir Putin." Andrew Weiss, thank you.

WEISS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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