Historical Biography Review: All the Kremlin’s Men

March 22, 2023 Uncategorized 2 ★★★★

Historical Biography Review: All the Kremlin’s MenTitle: All the Kremlin's Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin
Author: Mikhail Zygar
Source: Library
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads

Summary: This was both an informative overview of Russian history and a fascinating look at the inner workings of the Kremlin.

This book gives the history of Russia from 1999 to 2014 by looking at the people who have influenced Putin over this time. The author is a Russian journalist and editor-in-chief of the only independent Russian TV station (shut down in 2015). As such, he had incredible access to interviews with Kremlin insiders that informed this book.

What I Loved About This Book

One major difference between this book and the first book I read on Russia is that I learned so much I didn’t know. The chapter-opening comments from the author on the personalities of the people who have influenced Putin were one of my favorite parts. They let me get to know something about the goals and concerns of the people surrounding Putin. This didn’t read like a thriller, but the atmosphere of court intrigue meant I always wanted to know what happened next.

This book also gives a good overview of Russian history since Putin came to power. His consistent obsession with Ukraine jumps out reading this now. The history of Russia’s interactions with neighboring countries and Putin’s response to the color revolutions (revolutions supporting a more liberal state) were also timely and fascinating. I’d definitely like to pick up some books that focus on this time period more closely.

What I Didn’t Love About This Book

Although the author mentions reconciling contradictory accounts to create a narrative, he doesn’t explain how he did that. There are also no citations. On this podcast, the author says that he did many interviews over 7 years, read newspapers back to 1999, and had to reconcile 100’s of different versions of stories with the newspaper accounts. That seems really impressive! Given that people wouldn’t talk to him on record, this is probably done as well as possible. Still, I prefer for nonfiction to be more transparently cited.

I’m also not sold on the author’s choice to organize each chapter around one person who influenced Russian politics. The figure each chapter was named after was not always someone central to the story. Even with the cast of characters and an index, enough people were relevant to each story that it was hard to keep track. The book was largely chronological though, which did help.

As a complete newbie to Russian history, I  could have used more explanation and summarizing events from the author. Based on an incredible sound bite explaining Putin’s trajectory from a podcast interview, I hope he does decide to write something more introductory. However, I don’t think that was his project here. This seems largely intended for Russian readers and for those already familiar with the country.

The Author’s Central Claim

I’m not completely convinced by the author’s hypothesis that Putin is more of a collective mind than one person. Yes, a lot of people have moved in and out of the circle of power in Russia over the years. Yes, some of them have managed to influence Putin or even sometimes take action in his name on the two occasions he’s retreated from public view. Still, Putin’s behavior felt consistent enough to me to be driven by one person’s agenda. I think a lot hinges on the author’s claim that Putin’s advisors convinced him to remain in power. If Putin is power-hungry, his changing opinions could be a tactic to maintain power, rather than a result of different advisors swaying him over time.

The author does sometimes describe officials giving Putin incorrect information to shape his actions. Every world leader has advisors, but advisors controlling access to information could have an unusual level of influence. I noticed that this Wall Street Journal review really focused in on that aspect of the story. Both reviews from The Guardian (1, 2) also seem to accept the author’s claim as a given. I therefore found it somewhat validating to come across this Bookforum review that shared my skepticism. I think this reviewer and I even identified the same main problem, which is that the author doesn’t make a cohesive case about which person or people are manipulating Putin and why. In the epilogue, the author does suggest one man as the architect of much of the false info and of Putin’s changing attitudes. Unfortunately, there was too little detail, too late in the book for this to be convincing.


I don’t think the fact that I struggled with this as a complete newbie to Russian history is the fault of the author. It seems like he works in journalism because he believes it’s important that Russians know the facts about their country. As of 2017, this book had sold more copies in Russia than any other work of nonfiction, so the author clearly succeeded for his target audience. For those of you like me, who are new to the subject, I will keep an eye out for a Russia book that might be a better primer. Still, I enjoyed this and I learned a lot, so I would recommend it even to other newbies.

2 Responses to “Historical Biography Review: All the Kremlin’s Men”

  1. Jen at Introverted Reader

    I wish I knew more bout Putin and Russia but I don’t think this is the book for me. It seems incredibly brave for a journalist to write a book like this though. And even for readers to buy it! I wonder if it’s still available in Russia now or if the environment has gotten more restrictive since it was published? Great review!

    • DoingDewey

      It strikes me as a brave choice to publish this in Russia too! On a podcast I listened to, the author suggested that journalists don’t have to be any more afraid than anyone else, because the anyone could be targeted by the state. I don’t know if his book is still available in Russia, but that’s a good question. I’ll try to find out.

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