As befits a spy, Vladimir Putin's past contains many mysteries. Hard evidence about the Russian president tends to dematerialise in his wake. None the less, the unanswered questions about him contemplated in each of these books remain crucial to understanding his hold on power, and how that power will shape his nation's future. Is Putin weak or strong? Is he controlled by others or is he in control? Who influences him? Did he ever leave the KGB? Which of his diverse presidential personae, ranging from the smooth-talking charmer to the heartless, foul-mouthed thug, best reflects his instincts, intentions and character? Who, indeed, is Mr Putin?
I for one would like to know why, in 1990, Putin failed in his administrative duty to spy on me when, since he was assistant rector in charge of foreign relations at Leningrad State University, it was his job to do so. Soon after I had been granted an exchange scholarship to study in Leningrad, I was told that no accommodation or stipend could be provided, as the university administration was in collapse. So I made my own arrangements. It was only after Putin had moved on to work for the city government under the mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, that I received my first monthly stipend, by which time food rationing had coincided with hyperinflation, reducing the value of my allowance to almost nothing. The assistant rectorship had, it seems, been an ignominious come-down for the aspiring Soviet spy. As Oleg Kalugin, a former high-up in the Leningrad KGB now living in the west, says disdainfully, it was "even less important than working for Intourist".
Before his return to his home city, Putin, a KGB agent from a working-class family, had done almost five years of routine intelligence work at a spy station in Dresden, collaborating closely with the Stasi. His posting ended in disarray after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Peter Truscott records, Putin spent his last days walking around with "secret papers hidden inside his clothes", destroying "confidential files . . . burning so much paper that the furnace overheated and blew up". All the while, as Putin bitterly recalled, "Moscow was silent."
"It is not easy to understand Putin," the Financial Times correspondent Andrew Jack writes in his lucid, nuanced and stimulating investigation of Putin's first term; and the words carry more ominous weight than they at first suggest. As Jack notes, a number of people who might have shed light on the darker recesses and times of drift in Putin's biography are no longer in a position to talk. The journalist Artem Borovik, who was researching Putin's past, died in a plane crash in the month of his election. Anatoly Sobchak, whom Putin, as Boris Yeltsin alleges, had helped to flee from corruption charges, had died the previous month of a heart attack. Yuri Shutov, a political rival from St Petersburg, has been in pre-trial detention for more than four years. At the time of Putin's first election in 2000, Marina Salye, a bright liberal politician and journalist, published an official report into corruption and mismanagement in St Petersburg dating from 1992, in which the panel recommended Putin's dismissal from the city government for "incompetence bordering on lack of conscientiousness" and "unprecedented negligence and irresponsibility in providing the investigating commission with documents". Again Moscow was silent; since then, for some reason, Salye has been silent, too.
Very recently, Elena Tregubova, author of the revealing Tales of the Kremlin Digger, went into hiding abroad, claiming to fear for her life after an explosion outside her apartment. However, as a sign that freedom of speech has not been entirely stifled in Russia, her gossipy memoir of life in the Kremlin press pool, among the "mutants" who control Putin's image, is still piled high in Moscow bookshops among the sycophantic biographies and personality-cult Putin merchandise. The most acid and direct criticisms of Putin tend to come from former associates who have been granted political asylum in the west, such as Kalugin, whom Putin has branded a "traitor". To this, Kalugin rejoined that Putin's recurrent use of this epithet, which he readily extends even to people who dare to oppose him politically, reveals the president's "dulled awareness of the law".
Among Putin's most effective early political slogans was the promise to create a "dictatorship of the law". For a while, this gave hope to liberals who believe that a legal system should protect the individual from the arbitrary power of the state. "As a lawyer," Truscott asserts with startling naivety, "Putin was determined to make Russia's legal system more effective and just." It should, however, be remembered that Putin studied law in the late Soviet period with the aim of qualifying for the KGB, an institution that used legislation, however pedantically, as a mechanism of political repression. Putin's jurisprudence seems to have given succour to the epaulette-wearing elements in Russia, for whom law is at the service of dictatorship. Their power and political role have increased alarmingly during his presidency, which can be regarded as a deliberated revanche by the security services.
Despite Richard Sakwa's assertion that "the Andro-pov way was not the Putin way", the Russian president's political behaviour increasingly suggests that, when he talks of "reform", Putin has in mind the kind of authoritarian modernisation advocated by Yuri Andropov, who was head of the KGB when Putin asked to join in 1968. In Black Earth, the former Time correspondent Andrew Meier interviews the historian Roy Medvedev, author of two books on Putin which, like all favourable accounts of his presidency, emphasise his strengthening of the failing Russian state. "Putin came in and surveyed the chaos," Medvedev remarks, "and said, 'We need to go back and learn from Andropov.'" In 1999 Putin laid a bouquet on Andropov's grave, and in his first days as acting president restored a memorial plaque at the Lubyanka to the KGB head who, like him, had risen to become a reforming head of state. Jack emphasises how little Putin has done to help his nation to reckon with the crimes of the Soviet era.
Jack and Sakwa give appropriately complex and inconclusive accounts of the ways in which, throughout Putin's first presidency, the ambitions of the neo-Soviet siloviki (the security services, the police and the military) have been checked by a group of influential economic liberals within the Kremlin. These ministers and advisers masterminded the legal and economic reform strategies that, combined with the near-trebling of oil prices, have made Putin's Russia a Klondike for foreign investors, politically conformist business people and old-fashioned bribe-takers, and have spread a small measure of prosperity among some parts of the long-suffering general population. These canny, westernised technocrats also worked on the speeches and manifestos about democracy and civil society that gained Putin adulation from western leaders in the first years of his presidency. Some of these advisers have dropped out of Kremlin circles in recent months to join the tattered ranks of the political opposition and the human rights movement.
The books by Meier and Jack complement each other well. Each testifies to the dignified role of feisty, conscientious journalistic reporting in promoting our understanding of alien political cultures. Jack's prose is crisp, sceptical and argumentative, Meier's prone to lyrical or portentous writerliness that at times detracts from the power of his witness. Both write urgently of the conflict in Chechnya. Jack analyses its causes and consequences; Meier gives a harrowing eyewitness account of the moral cesspit that it has created for Russians and Chechens alike. Likewise, Jack interprets clearly the intricate financial and political games that led to the demise of Russia's independent mass media. Much of Peter Truscott's conversational, sometimes scattered narrative is based on the regular reporting of foreign correspondents such as Meier and Jack. Though he vividly relates the two starkest tragedies of Putin's time in office - the sinking of the Kursk and the Dubrovka Theatre siege - Truscott's own analysis is faltering, and marred by sloppy editing, infelicities of grammar and wavering chronology.
Richard Sakwa is a professor of politics at the University of Kent. His discussion of the strengths and perils of Putinism is thorough and sophisticated but, like many scholarly studies of the Soviet system, it strains at the outer limits of the predictive and explanatory power of academic political science, and goes no further. While Sakwa makes careful distinctions between "order" and "stability", history moves on in its messy, unpredictable way. Too much of the sex and violence, the dirty, knotted intrigues, the lies, personalities and un-solved crimes that make up the story of Putin's ascent and rule are passed over in hygienic prose, or hidden in endnotes. Sakwa does not cover the defining political dramas of past months: the arrest of the oil tycoon and philanthropist Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the scandalous and absurdly neo-Soviet election campaigns for the Duma and the presidency. So he is able to end with the hope that Putin will one day prove his democratic credentials by losing an election and handing power to the leader of an opposition.
As Russia goes to the polls, there is no prospect of that. Nor is there likely to be in 2008. Although he is poised to win an overwhelming majority of the popular vote, having captured the minds of many who lament the passing of the Soviet system, and many who have gained from its passing, Putin's re-election signals the end of any hope for liberal democracy in Russia.
Rachel Polonsky is the author of English Literature and the Russian Aesthetic Renaissance (Cambridge University Press)