Putin: A Russian Spy Story, Channel 4, Monday

I never thought I’d be looking to Vladimir Putin for light relief and an injection of normality and certainty, but there you go. Strange times, and all that.

Nick Green’s three-part documentary marks the 20th anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s accession to the Russian presidency, two decades in which he has seen off three US presidents and four British Prime Ministers and cemented his power-base to the extent that he may now stay in office until at least 2024. He did this by using his not inconsiderable clout to alter the constitution to suit his own political ends. Easy when you now how – and easy to see why he’s the poster boy for wannabe hardmen like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Green and his succession of talking heads treated their subject with caution and some respect but a great a deal less reverence. We met Russian historian Lev Lurie who took us to the building in St Petersburg where Putin was born in 1952 and where, in what was then little more than a bombed-out shell, he grew up. He heard how he went to school – small, tough and always ready to scrap was the verdict – and later fell in with the local street gangs. What saved him from a life of crime (ha!) was his decision to join the Soviet secret service, inspired in large part by his love of the massively popular film Seventeen Moments In Spring and its spy hero Stierlitz, the Soviet James Bond.

That sort of detail was fascinating, as was the treasure trove of photographs and footage in which the young Putin appeared, Zelig-like, at the arm of this or that functionary, or sitting unsmiling at the end of a dinner table. Much of this material came from his posting to Dresden, then in East Germany, though as one interviewee noted, if he was that important a spy there wouldn’t be any photographs of him at all. Later he moved to St Petersburg as political fixer for uber-corrupt mayor Anatoly Sobchak, then he swung behind Russian president Boris Yeltsin. In her first British interview, Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana Yumasheva talks about the relationship between her father and his younger acolyte.

So this wasn’t – or isn’t so far, anyway – a take-down or a hit. Instead, Putin’s rise was set in the context of (and partly explained by) the innate desire that Russians have for order and anyone who can provide it. That was especially true after the collapse of the Soviet Union with its subsequent financial hardships. He is, in many ways, simply a product of his environment – or at least he is thus far in the story. Opening clips of him and Trump at their podiums at the 2018 Helsinki summit and news footage of the aftermath of the Skripal poisoning give fair warning of the malevolent presence he will become over the coming episodes as he flexes his and Russia’s muscles on the world stage – and, occasionally, stripped to the waist on horseback.