The fictional transformation of Vladimir Putin (Column: Bookends)
Posted on Mar 09 2014 | IANS
By Vikas Datta: Admired or hated, he cannot be ignored. It is undeniable that Vladimir V. Putin restored Russia's traditional great-power status, though opinion is divided if this is good or bad.
Initially perceived (mainly in the Western world) as a reliable partner shoring up Russia, he is now seen as a defiant maverick, and even a tyrannical leader.
Likewise, Putin's depiction in fiction has seen him move from a valuable mentor figure to a spy mastermind, who, if not evil, is cold-blooded and definitely not nice as the US-Russian spy war returns to Cold War intensity.
The first depiction of the ex-KGB officer is in Henry Porter's "Brandenburg" (2005), a gritty espionage tale set in the repressive East Germany in the months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Art historian (and former spy) Rudi Rosenharte is hauled back into service by the ruthlessly efficient Stasi to contact his former lover (now working for NATO) who has apparently important information to hand over.
Rosenharte, who is a double agent, knows it is a ploy by his other masters - MI6 and CIA - to contact him. They want him to find about an Arab terrorist being harboured by Stasi.
As Rosenharte juggles between his masters, the Soviets get in the game too.
A seemingly nondescript KGB lieutenant colonel, heading his service's Dresden base, makes his appearance, helping Rosenharte in various ways - protecting him, giving him key information, and even intervening to free him from jail. If the description and designation were not enough, he is even identified as the future Russian leader.
This Putin is also present at a seminal event - the evening press conference where an East German minister jumped the gun on easing of travel restrictions, triggering the massive crowds on both sides of the Berlin Wall that, in a few hours, brought down the nearly three decade-old barrier.
Subsequent appearances are not very complimentary.
Set in Russia of 2005, Martin Cruz Smith's "Stalin's Ghost" (2007) repeatedly refers to Putin, who was then beginning his second term, though he does not make an appearance himself. The book, part of the investigator Arkady Renko series, focusses on the country's faultlines -- war crimes in Chechnya, criminal elements in security agencies, the rise of xenophobic sentiments - "under the former spy in the Kremlin".
Charles Cumming's "The Trinity Six" (2011) swings the other way from "Brandenburg".
Based on the premise that there was a sixth man in the infamous Cambridge spy ring - five highly-placed MI6 officials spying for the Soviet Union - it sees the hero, a Cold War historian, trying to expose the last traitor. Against him is ranged the Russian regime, headed by President "Sergey Platov", as well as British intelligence.
Why does Platov want to keep this sixth man hidden? Because something - which would not look too good on his record - happened between the two in East Germany where he once served as a mid-ranking KGB officer!
David R. Stokes' "Camelot's Cousin" (2013, 2nd edition) is based on a quite similar premise, except that here the hidden spy is from an Oxford version of the Cambridge ring - and was a close advisor to President John F. Kennedy at various key moments, including the Cuban missile crisis.
Naturally (but a little implausibly from the plot point of view), the Russians, under Putin - who, as an ex-spy, wants a secret to remain one - will go to any end to stop the name from coming out. Mayhem ensues until it ends very satisfactorily for the hero.
"Red Sparrow" (2013), by ex-CIA employee Jason Mathews, is a thrilling account of the no-holds-barred clandestine struggle between the CIA and SVR (the KGB's successor) - reminiscent of the Cold War at its height - as the Russians strive to unearth an American mole and the CIA tries to save him.
Appearing a handful of times - including bare-chested in the middle of strenuous exercise (in line with his projected macho image) - the omniscient Putin is fully aware of the activities of his spies, who - as ruthless as they may be - are on tenterhooks in his presence - quite like in Stalin's time.
The president is shown actively directing the covert operations and, in the end, arranging the brutal but effective contingency plan to ensure the traitor does not escape as the action moves across two continents before a showdown on the Russian-Estonian border.
(09.03.2014 - Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)