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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BOOKWORM: Primakov Biography Shirks Big Questions




After complaining twice in the space of three weeks in this column about the dearth of books on leading Russian businessmen and politicians, I recently acquired two new publications on the subject.


The first is a 654-page book about "civilized nationalist" Sergei Baburin, deputy speaker of the State Duma and a candidate for the next presidential elections. Compiled by one of his aficionados, Nadezhda Garifullina, "Sergei Baburin: 'Nynye ili nikogda,'" or "Sergei Baburin: 'Now or Never,'" is a passionate and openly biased collection of pro-Baburin newspaper clippings, interviews with the hero and his colleagues, and photos from the family album.


The second, Leonid Mlechin's new biography of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, is of a superior professional standard. "Yevgeny Primakov. Istoriya odnoy kariery," or "Yevgeny Primakov. History of a Career," is widely available and is targeted at the general public, unlike Garifullina's biography, aimed at a select band of Baburin supporters. Mlechin's 426-page illustrated book has an initial printrun of 20,000 copies and sells for a ruble equivalent of $1.


Since coming to the fore after the August 1998 financial crisis, Primakov has remained an enigmatic figure both as a politician and as a private person. Veteran Soviet journalist Mlechin presents himself as "Primakov's colleague," whatever this might mean. He interviewed dozens of Primakov's friends and colleagues and collected vast material "about people and events that influenced Primakov's career."


Mlechin covers virtually every aspect of Primakov's multifaceted life, as an orientalist, a correspondent, an academician, a foreign service chief and a politician. At least four pages of the volume are devoted to the question of Primakov's Jewishness, with Mlechin citing a claim that his "real family name" is "Kirshenbladt."


But the author seems pathologically wary of giving his own opinion. The book begins: "It is not clear whether [Primakov] has an elaborate plan of action or just drifts along. He still remains the most incomprehensible and misunderstood [neponyatny i neponyaty] figure in modern politics. Is he left- or right-wing? A covert liberal or a communist prot?g?? A strong figure or just an experienced bureaucrat?"


Four hundred-odd pages later, Mlechin ends the book on a similarly ambiguous note: "In the present conditions he [Primakov] undoubtedly will not stand for president. But the conditions may change. ... Any prediction is valid only for a given situation. If a man chooses another path, the forecast will not be fulfilled."


It seems that author and hero are linked by one and the same syndrome: Both talk a lot without saying anything.