"In the meantime, anyone holding up an empty sign is being arrested." It is sentences like this that remain in the mind after reading Michael Thumann's book "Revanche". Die Zeit's long-time Russia correspondent traces Vladimir Putin's career and describes Russia's stages on its way to dictatorship: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the democracy exercises of the nineties under Boris Yeltsin, Putin's first election as president, his return to power in 2012 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Thumann describes how Putin used the Chechen dictatorship as a blueprint for all of Russia, allied himself with nationalists from other countries, created a propaganda apparatus and revived the Soviet system of penal camps. And how he finally justified the attack on Ukraine in February 2022 with lies. The author has three central theses. First, the war of aggression against Ukraine is Putin's revenge for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the shrunken Russian nation-state. Secondly, Putin does not react to the West – as is often assumed in Germany – but acts of his own accord. Putin had deliberately fed the misunderstanding that the war was a reaction to NATO's eastward expansion in order to justify the attack. In fact, he had let the enlargement happen in the noughties as president without protest. His war was to be understood as a continuation of an imperial Soviet tradition.

First ignorance, then fear

With his third thesis, Thumann places the Russian regime in a larger context: Putin's rise is a variety of the new authoritarian nationalism that can also be observed in Turkey or Hungary. Putin only acquired nationalist ideology at the age of sixty, not out of conviction, but to secure his grip on power after protests against his return to the Kremlin in 2012.

The author complements his successful crash course in modern Russian history with scenes from everyday life in Moscow and political analyses. He tells of encounters with Russian acquaintances, neighbors and Ukrainians on the run. He also describes the mood in Moscow's late summer of 2022, when the ignorance of the population turned into fear after the partial mobilization. Content and form stand in irritating contrast, because the author packs the hard-to-digest findings into easy-to-read bites.

For him, traitors are worse than enemies

The description of today's world situation has an alarmist tone: "Once again, an Iron Curtain is lowering across the continent." Or: "But the hybrid great war is primarily directed against us. Putin wants to bury liberal democracy." But the argument is always conclusive. Particularly exciting to read are the memories of the author's first meeting with Putin in 1999. At the time, the Russian president met him as a shy man who sought contact with the West and did not yet promote himself with nationalist slogans. In retrospect, however, Thumann claims to have recognized him as an authoritarian secret service man.

He emphasizes Putin's role as a despot as well as the fact that an autocrat can only remain in power if he is supported by the people. Putin's loyal voters had legitimized him and made themselves complicit. He also discusses the absurdities produced by Putin's war: "In Ukraine, Ukrainians are shot on the street, in Russia Ukrainians are allowed to travel unmolested."

According to Thumann, Putin's system is a dictatorship with increasingly totalitarian traits, but with decisive differences from fascism: Russians in Ukraine are not on a "hunt for the different in order to find and destroy it. Instead, as contradictory as it may seem, they shoot to ensure that Ukrainians declare themselves to be similar brothers and sisters who are no different from Russians." Ukrainians are threatened with violence precisely when they insist on being different. As an independent people, Putin sees in them something he finds even worse than enemies: traitors.

In the final chapter, Thumann deals with the question that has occupied many since the beginning of the war: How realistic is the use of nuclear weapons? On the other hand, the tactical use in the decentralized warfare of the Ukrainians makes little sense. In addition, Putin is fighting for his own survival and a place in the ancestral gallery of Russia. This is supported by the fact that threats without redemption lose their effect. And also that Putin has proven time and again in recent years that he often chooses the most radical of all possibilities.

Michael Thumann: "Revanche". How Putin created the most threatening regime in the world. C.H. Beck Verlag, Munich 2023. 288 pp., ill., born, 25,– €.