Five Books on Putin

Stephen Kotkin, Professor of History at Princeton University, reviewed five recent books on Putin in the 2 March issue of the Times Literary Supplement. Kotkin is a tour de force when it comes to all things Russia, and when I heard about the review, I scoured the internet looking for an accessible version, but to no avail. Not having a subscription to TLS, I had to patiently wait until the University of Pittsburgh library received its copy. It finally hit the periodical shelves a week or so ago, and I eagerly made a photocopy. You can read of scan of the review here.

The five books under Kotkin’s analytical gaze are:

Gleb Pavlovsky, Genialnaya vlast! Slovar abstraktsii kremlya, Evropa, 2011
Masha Gessen, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, Riverhead, 2012
Augus Roxburgh, The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, Tauris, 2012
Sean P. Roberts, Putin’s United Russia Party, Routledge, 2011
Allen C. Lynch, Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft, Potomac, 2011

Here are some of my favorite passages:

This one-man capture of the State has stood out as utterly singular in writings on Russia. Throw in Putin’s KGB background and all the lingering emotions and politics of the Cold War, and Russia’s ostensible singularity becomes magnified. But the world knows myriad examples of personal rule, caudillos, juntas, in countries small and large. Did not Indonesia’s Suharto appoint senior military officers, equivalent to Putin’s KGB types, to civilian posts, whence they enriched themselves in the name of sovereignty and state security? Is not today’s Georgia under Mikheil Saakashviii essentially a one-man regime under which a tiny clique of associates holds sway over the executive, parliament and main national television channels, with a constitution altered by fiat and an opposition chased from the streets with truncheons? We would do well to understand that such regimes are often feeble, even before they reveal themselves to be so, and yet they are not so easily dislodged. They wield numerous instruments—tax police, courts, buy-offs—that are useful only for certain tasks, like holding on to power. Stalin excepted, the more leaders in Russia have pushed for a “strong state”, the more they end up producing weak personal rule and institutional mush. In the end, whether the current Russian regime falls or survives, the colossal modernization challenge will persist.

On Pavlovsky:

Pavlovsky draws a telling contrast with Karl Rove’s efforts under George W. Bush to create a permanent Republican Party majority, which failed. The “Putin majority”, he explains, encompasses people on the state budget (such as pensioners), the working class, state functionaries and the security services, and women. In other words, those who bore the burdens of the Yeltsin “reforms”, the losers of the 1990s, became the winners of the 2000s. The majority holds, provided the state budget can continue to find the largesse for its outlays, and the people continue to stay out of politics. But now? If the election of 2000 institutionalized the Putin majority, Pavlovsky concludes, the election of 2012 will institutionalize the “permanent insulted minority”.

On Gessen:

When the voluble Sobchak inconveniently recalled Purin’s role differently from the emerging official line, he was, Gessen implies, murdered by poisoning. She piles up the suspicious corpses, recounting the death by polonium radiation of Alexander Litvinenko in London and the murders of the investigative journalists Yuri Shchekochikhin and Anna Politkovskaya, among others. Gessen’s friends fear she may be next. She is right that the regime shrinks from no act or method, but proving matters is not simple. In her telling, the deadly terrorist siege of a Moscow theatre turns out to have been a convoluted set-up; and the fatal storming of a school held hostage in Beslan two years later was unnecessary (Putin could have acceded to the terrorists’ demands). Tarring Putin, rather than just his associates, with corruption, she recounts the story of his supposed $1 billion dacha complex on the Black Sea, invoking the notion of pleonexia (an “insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others”). Conversely, she tells us that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed tycoon, “invested money and energy in constructing a new political system”. She offers a similarly one-sided account of the destruction of Vladimir Gusinsky’s empire (”The day the media died”), where she used to work. Repeatedly, she scolds the New York Times for its allegedly naive response to these events. Above all, she frog-marches Putin’s facilitators before her interviewer’s court. Berezovsky, we hear, rues the day he ever helped him. Andrei IIlarionov, who worked as Putin’s top economic adviser, rues the day. William Browder, who applauded Khodorkovsky’s arrest before his own investment fund was evacuated under duress, rues the day. Gessen derides her peers for being taken in by Medvedev’s talk of modernization (“The intelligentsia ate it up”), then lets on that her recent boss, the ultra-rich Mikhail Prokhorov, a permitted presidential candidate, “just might topple the system”.

And finally, Kotkin concludes:

After twelve years at the pinnacle of power, with twelve more in prospect, Putin remains at a loss as to how to move Russia to the next level, towards a version of the modernity he rightly says the country needs. As for the man-boy Medvedev, even now he continues his enervating verbiage. “The old model, which faithfully and truly served our state in recent years, and did not serve it badly, and which we all defended – it has exhausted itself’, he remarked on December 17. Why have these endless calls for modernization not been answered? Masha Gessen has the simplest response: it was mostly a ruse. Angus Roxburgh’s explanation comes via a Russian businessman, who tells him that corruption “is the entire system – the political system, the business establishment, the police, the judiciary, the government, from top to bottom, all intertwined and inseparable”. Allen Lynch, too, singles out structural impediments, as well as accumulated Soviet rot and geopolitical constraints, some self-imposed. Russia wants to deal with the West and China from a position of equality, but it cannot; Russia wants to be a global power centre in its own right, the hub of a Eurasian Union, but it is not. Pavlovsky suggests another piece of the answer, on top of the exigencies of the global economy: Putin has exposed himself as ever more cocky and vindictive, and bereft of the political agility of his first term, refusing all concessions and unable to revive a sense of a future. Russia deserves better, but is in line for more of the same.