Russia’s Teetering Toughman

Ben Judah’s rich and thoughtful account of the Putin years charts a Russian political system continually manipulated by a wounded leader

Books Russia

Vladimir Putin: Looking for support from a new constituency

“Previous books have told of the rise of the Putin system: this one aims to start telling the story of its decay.” Thus Ben Judah begins his compelling account of the Putin years. 

As Judah says, Vladimir Putin emerged at the end of Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic presidency as exactly the man Russia thought it needed. He was the “Russian Pinochet”, loyal, effective and tough. The Russia he inherited faced accelerating political disability, armed insurrection and economic collapse. In short order his new regime took firm control, brought the oligarchs to heel and crushed the Chechen revolt. Putin was lucky; a turnaround in the oil price transformed Russia from a bankrupt into a BRIC. His methods were not gentle, but the Russian people saw the emasculation of the rule of law, press freedom and any genuinely effective opposition as a small price to pay for order and prosperity. Even allowing for ballot rigging, he won re-election in 2004 by a landslide.

Then the bill came in. Putin’s “vertical of power”, unconstrained by any channels for public criticism or redress, increasingly turned running Russia into a racket. Corruption rose to the levels of Nigeria and Kazakhstan. Perhaps a third of state revenues was stolen. Meanwhile the quality of government deteriorated. Forest fires burned unchecked, terrorists bribed their way through checkpoints, the health and education systems withered, and some two-thirds of Kremlin directives were simply not implemented. The graft and failing government that Putin had been brought in to remedy were again rampant. And top among the extortionists and bribetakers were the police and security organs themselves. In one of Judah’s many telling quotes, a Russian friend cries out: “You just don’t get it at all — what it really feels like to come from a country where everything can be stolen from you by a policeman with a smile on his face with one knock on the door.”

Dmitri Medvedev was made president in 2008 because Putin could not serve another consecutive term. He was, in Judah’s words, “powerful enough to define Russia’s problems but not to solve them”. Putin remained the real ruler, and Medvedev’s ineffective stabs at liberal reform just underlined how entrenched the system had become. Putin’s announcement that he would be returning to the presidency in 2012, rubbing ordinary Russians’ faces in the irrelevance of their views on the matter, finally provoked a storm. Huge demonstrations in Moscow and other cities demanded change: less corruption, more democracy, less Putin. It felt like the Arab spring.

But there was no revolution. As Judah argues, no one wanted one. Russia had already had too many revolutions. The opposition were disunited and incoherent. The demonstrators were the urban middle class, not all of Russia. Order remained more important to most Russians than rights. In the 2012 election Putin was convincingly returned to the presidency. And the regime has since set about re-establishing control of the street. The law on “treason” has been tightened. Leading oppositionists face jail on trumped-up charges. The internet, hitherto a glorious exception among Russia’s shackled media, now faces regulation. Meanwhile, in a serious political shift, Putin has changed constituency. It is to the poorer, more nationalistic and more xenophobic Russia that he increasingly looks for support.

Where next? Judah is pretty downbeat. He points to a “wounded” Putin, but also one who could survive decades if the oil price holds up. As he crisscrosses Russia he quotes most of his interlocutors as despising the system but helpless to do anything about it. He damns virtually every leader of the opposition as either irrelevant or unsavoury. And, in a striking coda written close to the Russo-Chinese border, he contrasts a decayed, alcoholic, Russian wasteland with encroaching, carefully-tended, soya bean fields — Chinese investments farmed with Chinese labour.

Even with its faults  — some overwriting, too many misprints, and a lack of sympathy with the real risks Russian oppositionists are taking — this is a rich and thoughtful book. But Judah’s conclusion is too dark. A long literary tradition attests how easy it is to fall into exaggerated gloom about Russia. Despite everything, the country is in a much better state than it was before Putin took over, and has weathered the 2008 financial crisis in stronger shape than most of the rest of Europe. The Russian ruling clique (to none of whom, as far as I can see, Judah spoke) is fully aware of the cul-de-sac the country is now in. Even those grabbing the golden eggs know that the goose is sick. And it is not comfortable for avowed modernisers to find themselves excoriated by the country’s most modern elements. The challenge they face is to reform the system without bringing on the anarchy that all Russians both remember and fear. Medvedev made tentative, and ultimately failed, efforts in that direction. There will be more.