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A Book About Chavez: The Russian Perspective

Russia's Molodaya Gvardiya Publishers which has offered the readership the biographies of V. Putin, M. Thatcher, and F. Castro recently made available “Hugo Chavez, the Lonely Revolutionary”, the story of Venezuela's controversial leader and another contemporary icon.

For years, the career of the author, Konstantin Sapozhnikov – better known to the public as Nil Nikandrov, the journalist whose writings include “Grigulevich. The Lucky Spy” and “Ivan Solonevich. A Monarchist with Populist Views” - had, like those of the people portrayed, been linked to Latin America. Sapozhnikov spent over a decade in Venezuela, where he worked in the 1980ies, the years when awareness of Chavez's revolutionary plans was limited to a handful of trustees, and in 2002-2008, the epoch marked with the rise of Chavez's socialist project.

A complete collection of books dedicated to Chavez would count hundreds of volumes. The popularity of the defiant Venezuelan leader reached unprecedented proportions when he slammed the US as an empire posing a threat to the entire humanity and even projected the collapse of American statehood in the XXI century. The uncompromising verbal exchanges between Chavez and figures like G. Bush and C. Rice will hardly ever be forgotten. The media went out of the way to slap on Chavez the reputation of an unpolished populist, deliberately overlooking the fact that on every occasion the verbal offensives were launched by Washington, and Chavez simply picked up the challenges.

Chavez proclaimed agenda of building the XXI century socialism attracted followers across the continent, and the number of books about him grew accordingly. Needless to say, most of them are clearly inspired by Washington and supposed to smear Chavez whose regime the CIA is permanently trying to undermine… Positive portrayals of Chavez are seldom found. “Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela's Controversial President” by Alberto Barrera Tyszka and Cristina Marcano was reprinted in Russia. Its translation into several languages was a CIA project, but, seduced by easy money, the author misappropriated pieces from Venezuelan commentator Alberto Garrido's book about Chavez. Garrido filed a lawsuit over the borrowings but died in December, 2007, before the court issued a ruling on the case. The authors of “Hugo Chavez Without His Uniform” nevertheless won several awards for the “revelations exposing the dictator”.
Chavez remains steadily among the world's top newsmakers, and his personality draws increasing interest in Russia. Sadly, the Russian media mostly side with their evidently biased Western peers in assessing politicians unfriendly to Washington. Therefore, a book carrying the Russian perspective on Chavez and his struggle for a fair world in which he firmly believes is more than welcome.
Sapozhnikov's book abounds with curious personal observations, references to documentary sources, recollections thrown in by people

from Chavez's inner circle, and accounts of trips to various places related to the Venezuelan leader's tenure. Instead of the simplistic image routinely encountered in media coverage, the readership gets a glimpse of Chavez as an evolving personality, a reader, an athlete, an officer of remarkable self-discipline, a revolutionary fighter, a journalist, poet, and writer, and, above all, a country leader.

Sapozhnikov tracks Chavez's personal history from the early age till present, while highlighting key episodes like the suppression of the 1992 coup, the April, 2002 coup attempt, the famous UN speech, and the first meeting with Cuba's F. Castro which marked the starting point of a long friendship. The titles of chapters from “Hugo Chavez, the Lonely Revolutionary” giving a good idea of the book content are: “Bandit Maysanta – the Defiant Ancestor”, “Venezuela Rued by a Madman”, “The April Coup: At a Step's Distance From Death”, “Clash With the Oil Conspiracy”, “Russian Arms for Venezuela”, “Chavez's Wifes and Other Women”, “Facing Charges of Personality Cult”, and “A Book for Obama, or Clouds on the Horizon”.

Chavez became widely known in Venezuela when a military coup collapsed in the country in February, 1992. As one of its leaders, Chavez, a paratrooper colonel, took charge and in a televised address called his brethren to put down arms, admitting that so far the attempt to achieve revolutionary goals was unsuccessful. Venezuelan president Carlos Andrés Pérez who was implementing predatory economic reforms managed to retain his post, but Chavez's confidence instilled among Venezuelans hope for radical changes.

Over the two years he spent in jail, Chavez reconsidered much of his political philosophy and realized that only democratic reforms backed by the majority of the population and implemented by a legitimately elected administration could deliver changes to Venezuela. He formulated a serious agenda with an emphasis on putting the country's oil riches to work for its socioeconomic development. At the early phase, Chavez lacked experience and expertize, and individuals who planned to benefit unfairly from his naivety occasionally sneaked into the cohort of his closest associates. The secret police trained by CIA curators schemed to assassinate Chavez. Nevertheless, he moved on and gained ever greater popularity while opponents criticized him for messianic inclinations.

Analyzing the phenomenon of Chavez, Sapozhnikov unearthed the fact that early in his political career the would-be Venezuelan leader said to his brother Adán: it makes sense to get inside the capitalist monster and to fight it from within. Chavez's strategy seems to be based on Christ's words: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (the Gospel of Matthew). Chavez modeled himself on Martin Luther King who used to say: “We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of a dove, – a tough mind and a tender heart. To have serpent-like qualities devoid of dove-like qualities is to be passionless, mean, brute and selfish. To have dove-like qualities without the serpent-like qualities is to be sentimental, anemic and aimless…”. This wisdom, in Sapozhnikov's view, explains quite a few of Chavez's seemingly incoherent steps.

Sapozhnikov dwells in detail on the West's information war against Chavez. Considering the importance of informational warfare in today's politics, the in-depth examination of the issue should help clarify the true meaning of debates around the figure of Chavez and modern Venezuela in general.

It may be seen as the book's weakness that in Sapozhnikov's perception politics prevails over economy. The statistical data in “Hugo Chavez, the Lonely Revolutionary” is indeed limited to the quintessential. Chavez's XXI century socialism program routinely comes under fire in and outside of Venezuela. Sapozhnikov does hold that the Venezuelan brand of socialism established itself as a reality. A recent survey of happiness levels in Latin America showed that on the continent the percentage of people who believe that they are happy peaks in Venezuela.

The phrase about the lonely revolutionary should not puzzle the readership. In the era of triumphant anti-communism, Chavez is about the only country leader to espouse socialism as a model for the future. His ability to act responsibly would be hard to call into question, and for Chavez running the country is a historical mission. His self-perception is both sober and poetic: he describes himself as a straw carried away by a hurricane and admits being a consequence rather than the cause of the historical developments underway in Venezuela. Still, Chavez is convinced that Venezuelans need him.

The infighting in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), of which Chavez is the architect, at times prompts him to threaten to quit his membership. Aware that the oil revenues are a constant temptation confronting the Venezuelan elite, Chavez is permanently preoccupied with fighting corruption, which is the reason behind frequent dismissals in the country's government.

Chavez is harsh with his party colleagues who pay little attention to the people's needs. In a case cited in the book, Chavez points to a destitute nearby village during the inauguration of a freshly built installation and bitterly questions those attending why it has not occurred to anybody to ensure water supply to the local residents. Sapoznnikov remarks that few of the people around were able to understand how lonely in his efforts Chavez must have felt at the moment. In a poem composed when he was young, the Venezuelan leader wrote: “Life led me, a lonely man with a heavy invisible cross, deeper into the terrain of my dreams”. On that inauguration day, Chavez relived the grandeur of his mission which nobody but he is able to shoulder. Not many of his associates can, as does his brother Adan, render a service as sacrificial as his.

Inviting parallels with the mystical realism of Latin American literature, Chavez's messianic mission is a recurrent theme in the book, to which, by the way, rich illustrations also add value.

Reaching the final pages, the reader realizes that as of today Chavez's biography is far from being complete.