Good books about Vladimir Putin, gangster Carl Williams and the novel “The Lifeboat”

I have spent several interesting days reading a new biography of Vladimir Putin. The authors are Chris Hutchins and Alexander Korobko, neither of whom give the impression of being fans of Putin, but come-up with a vision of a leader who is vastly under-rated because he never ever gives the world much of a look into his soul, and comes over as being cold, tough and unapproachable. What the book does make clear is that he came out of nowhere to save Russia from the chaos left behind by a drunken and chaotic Boris Yeltsin. He has now returned Russia to its place as one of the most powerful nations of the world, and it would be a great error to write him off as just another bully. It must be remembered that Russia supplies the rest of Europe with most of its natural gas and, if they annoy Putin enough, he has the capacity to turn off the supplies and leave Europeans without light and power, particularly as Germany is closing down its nuclear power stations. Putin’s Russia also controls the vast, mostly untapped, mineral resources of Siberia which he uses sparingly, encouraging the rest of the world to indiscriminately pillage their minerals, so that one day we will all come cap in hand to Russia begging for resources and paying a great price for them. Putin has another five years remaining of his current term as President, and is eligible to stand for a further six years, a victory that appears to be his for the asking. This means that he will be around for a long time after the current crop of world leaders are a dim memory. It is interesting to note that Putin is a fitness fanatic and a light drinker who has an occasional glass of wine and no vodka — very unlike all of his predecessors. He is also a practicing Christian of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose closest confidant is a priest, Father Tikhon. If Lenin and Stalin knew any of this, they would turn in their graves. The impression that this book has left with me is that we must be clear in our minds that the Russia of Vladimir Putin is a very different place to the discredited nation of the Cold War.

A long standing friend of mine, Adam Shand, well-known as a feature writer for the Australian, the Financial Review and the Murdoch Sunday papers, has just written a fascinating account of the life of the legendary Melbourne gangster, Carl Williams. Shand has written a number of books on the underworld, as well as bikie gangs, and has established an incredible number of contacts who have great knowledge of the way that Australian criminals operate. He met Williams socially on a significant number of occasions and, when Williams was finally convicted of his crimes, he did a lot of confessing to Adam from his prison cell. The powerful feature of Shand’s book is its fearless coverage of corruption by police who were on Williams’ payroll for many years (and also on the payroll of his gangland enemies). They disgraced the many competent and honest police officers who do their job with integrity every day. The other great concern is the outline that Shand gives of the sheer volume of the drugs that Williams and the rest of the underworld traded every day. Far too many Victorians seem to have been their customers. Williams used to mix his drug components in his washing machine in a few minutes every day and devastated countless lives while making millions of filthy dollars in the process. Williams used some of his wealth to remove thugs, mainly the Morans, who encroached on his territory. There is no evidence that he ever actually killed anyone himself, as he seems to always have employed hit-men to do the job for him, at 150,000 dollars per dead body. Some of his killers made big money from Williams by making very regular hits. One of Williams’ mates killed him in prison by crushing his skull with an iron bar. It is very hard to feel sorry for him. Few will mourn his passing, and many will wonder how it was that anyone could have lived a life of such cold blooded stupidity.

No matter how many books we read on history, politics and economics in order to keep up with what is happening around the world, it is necessary to intersperse this with a few good novels just to get a healthy dose of humanity back into our thinking. I enjoyed reading ‘The Lifeboat’ this month, a first novel by a very promising author, Charlotte Rogan. It tells the story of the survivors of the sinking of a passenger liner in the Atlantic at the beginning of the First World War. There are 40 of them in a boat that should have had only 24 on board. Some will have to go overboard if the boat is to make it to land. The question is who? There are a few volunteers, some noble, and a couple who are emotional cripples, but it finally comes to murder. It gives us an understanding of how good people, who seem on the surface to be quite sane and balanced and humane, can turn into absolute villains when their own life is at stake. Sobering reading, but quite unforgettable.

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