But much of the insight in Putin comes from interviews with western officials, and from those Russian officials selected by the Kremlin to speak (Putin did not grant an interview). Percy describes the making of the Putin documentary as far more difficult, with access far more restricted than in the Gorbachev era.

“Russia has become a place where people are scared” to talk, she says. Percy describes the atmosphere in Putin’s Russia as “reverse glasnost.”

Nevertheless, Putin is said to have liked the film, and NTV, owned by Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled natural gas monopoly, aired it last year just before Putin won election to a third presidential term.

“An NTV chap told us: ‘He thinks it shows him as a strong leader,’ ” wrote Percy and Paul Mitchell, series director of Putin, Russia and the West. “What liberals saw as a revelation of Putin’s brutal suppression of dissent, his supporters saw as the strongman standing up to western enemies or greedy oligarchs.”

But Percy notes that NTV was careful to run the broadcast before the election, which Putin won handily despite months of opposition protests and allegations of election fraud.

Gone were the days of Gorbachev, when—at least temporarily—public opinion mattered, elections were at least “quasi-democratic,” and the press could hold officials accountable. “Vladimir Putin still calls the shots,” wrote Percy and Mitchell as Russians went to the polls last March. “And if all goes to his plan, by today he will no longer have to worry about public opinion.”

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Ann Cooper teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked as a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and National Public Radio, and was the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.