In the Critics this week

Craig Raine on Hockney, Alec MacGillis on the Obamas and Colm Toibin on Alice James.

The Critic at large in this week's New Statesman is the poet and novelist Craig Raine. In the first of a series of essays on the visual arts for the NS, Raine considers David Hockney's "abiding concern with the nature of representation". For Hockney, Raine argues, "photography's hegemony is finished ... For [him], the camera is only a near equivalent to the way we experience reality ... Hockney's aim is to place the viewer inside the painting." The results, Raine thinks, are not uniformly successful, but there are undeniable "high points" in this show. "Allow four hours at least," Raine advises. "There's a lot to look at, a lot to think about."

In Books, the American political journalist Alec MacGillis reviews Jodi Kantor's The Obamas: a Mission, a Marriage. "With a writerly touch, Kantor conveys the oddly regal universe of the White House though the eyes of a couple who, just a few years earlier, had been living in a mid-sized apartment and had 'campaigned in 2008 as being citizens of the real world'". The problem with Kantor's account, MacGillis writes, is that it "assumes a prevailing inside-the-Beltway view of the Obamas' challenges". (Jodi Kantor will be the subject of next week's Books Interview.)

In the Books interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to Marwan Bishara about his new book The Invisible Arab. Bishara insists that the role of social media in the Arab Spring should not be underestimated. "Technology had an important contribution to make ... [It] allowed the youth to open up to the rest of the world."

Also in Books: Novelist Colm Toibin writes an appreciation of Alice James, sister of William and Henry. "What she and her two eldest brothers shared, what sets them apart and makes their lives of such continuing interest, was the quality and intensity of their self-consciousness." Other reviews: Leo Robson on Hemingway's Boat by Paul Hendrickson; Mona Siddiqui on Heaven on Earth by Sadakat Kadri; George Eaton on Why It's Kicking off Everywhere and Rare Earth by Paul Mason; and Jonathan Derbyshire on The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.

Elsewhere in Critics: Ryan Gilbey on The Descendants; Rachel Cooke on We'll Take Manhattan (BBC4); Andrew Billen on Travelling Light at the National Theatre; "Test Card", a poem by David Briggs; Antonia Quirke on The Politics of Pandas (Radio 4); and Will Self's Madness of Crowds.

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Leader: The age of Putinism

There is no leader who exerts a more malign influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin.

There is no leader who exerts a more malign ­influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin. In Syria, Russia’s military intervention has significantly strengthened the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad. Under the guise of fighting Islamist terrorism, Mr Putin’s forces have killed thousands of civilians and destroyed hospitals and schools. Syrian government forces and their foreign allies have moved closer to regaining control of the rebel-held, besieged eastern part of Aleppo, a city in ruins, after a period of intense fighting and aerial bombardment. In Europe, Russia has moved nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian city of Königsberg, through the streets of which the great philosopher Immanuel Kant used to take his daily walk.

Across the West, however, Mr Putin is being feted. As Brendan Simms writes on page 30, the Russian president has “annexed Crimea, unleashed a proxy war in eastern Ukraine and threatens Nato’s eastern flank, to say nothing of his other crimes”. Yet this has not deterred his Western sympathisers. In the US, Donald Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian autocrat as a fellow ethnic nationalist and “strongman”. The president-elect’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence is an invitation to Russian expansionism in the Baltic states and eastern Europe.

Mr Trump is far from alone in his admiration for Mr Putin. In France, François Fillon, the socially conservative presidential candidate for the Républicains, favours the repeal of European sanctions against Russia (imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea) and a military alliance in Syria. In return, Mr Putin has praised his French ally as “a great professional” and a “very principled person”.

Perhaps the one certainty of the French election next spring is that Russia will benefit. Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader and Mr Fillon’s likely opponent in the final round, is another devotee of the Russian president. “Putin is looking after the interests of his own country and defending its identity,” she recently declared. Like Mr Trump, Ms Le Pen seems to aspire to create a world in which leaders are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of rebuke.

In Britain, Paul Nuttall, the newly elected leader of the UK Independence Party, has said that Mr Putin is “generally getting it right” in Syria. Mr Nuttall’s predecessor Nigel Farage named the Russian leader as the politician he admired most.

Mr Putin, who aims to defeat the West by dividing it, could not have scripted more favourable publicity. But such lion­isation masks Russia’s profound weaknesses. The country’s economy has been in recession for two years, following the end of the commodities boom, the collapse in the oil price and the imposition of sanctions. Its corrupt and inefficient bureaucratic state now accounts for 70 per cent of its GDP. Its population is ageing rapidly (partly the result of a low ­fertility rate) and is forecast to shrink by 10 per cent over the next 30 years, while life expectancy is now lower than it was in the late 1950s.

Yet this grim context makes Mr Putin an even more dangerous opponent. To maintain his internal standing (and he is popular in Russia), he must pursue external aggression. His rule depends on seeking foreign scapegoats to blame for domestic woes. Not since the Cold War has the threat to Russia’s eastern European neighbours been greater.

How best to respond to Putinism? The United Kingdom, as Europe’s leading military power (along with France), will be forced to devote greater resources to defence. Theresa May has rightly pledged to station more British troops in eastern Europe and to maintain sanctions against Russia until the Minsk agreements, providing for a ceasefire in Ukraine, are implemented. The Prime Minister has also condemned Russia’s “sickening atrocities” in Syria. Germany, where Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term as chancellor, will be another crucial counterweight to a pro-Russian France.

It is neither just nor wise for the West to appease Mr Putin, one of the icons of the illiberal world. The Russian president will exploit any weakness for his own ends. As Tony Blair said in his New Statesman interview last week, “The language that President Putin understands is strength.” Although Russia is economically weak, it aspires to be a great power. We live in the age of Putinism. Donald Trump’s victory has merely empowered this insidious doctrine.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage