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Putin’s Russia: The view from unglamorous places

By Blog Admin, on 23 July 2013

Church View

Photo: Igor Mironovsky via Flikr  CC-BY-2.0

Ben Judah’s new book  seeks out the view of ordinary Russians  to offer an insightful and readable account of Putin and the Putin regime. It nevertheless over-estimates the potential of civil society as an engine of change, finds Imogen Wage .

For journalists, commentators, academics and the general public Vladimir Putin never fails to intrigue. There has been a proliferation of recent books looking at Putin’s life, rise to power and the system he has created. Ben Judah’s Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and out of love with Vladimir Putin presents a new angle.

It examines not only Putin’s popularity and rise but also his relative decline, marked by the popular protests that started in the winter of 2011-12. The book tries to explain how and why Putin became so popular and powerful, and how and why his system started to decay from 2011. Judah finds that Putin rose to power because of the poverty and chaos of the 1990s and managed to create a sophisticated regime that is at the same time deeply backward.

Putin’s regime was sophisticated because it was a ‘videocracy’ which gave censored TV to the masses but allowed free newspapers and blogs for the intelligentsia’ (p.325). The regime was, however, simultaneously deeply backward because it built inefficient institutions and an obsolete structure of power, and because Putin is a bad bureaucrat: much money was put into a poorly performing system, but because of corruption few results were produced.

Judah’s argument echoes that two recent books on Russia. In Can Russia Modernise? , Alena Ledeneva argues that informal power arrangements in the form of the ‘sistema’ explain the failure of well-intended modernisation programmes in Russia. Like Judah, her focus is on modernisation and Putin as a person, rather than on institutions. Similarly, in Russian Politics: the Paradox of a Weak State Marie Mendras takes a statist approach to explain what kind of a state Russia is and how social freedoms (widespread Internet usage, cooperation with the West, high consumption) can coexist with political repression. She, like Judah, highlights the different between a civil society and political society and emphasises Putin’s role, but unlike Judah devotes more time to analysing the question of whether Russia is a strong or weak state.

Russia’s De Gaulle?

Judah compares Putin to De Gaulle in post-war France: both rescued their respective countries from crisis and were larger-than-life personalities with strong leadership styles, yet De Gaulle was also a good bureaucrat as he founded lasting institutions (such as the elite national school for government service founded in 1945). The backward nature of Putin’s regime and the arrangement whereby Medvedev ‘stood in’ for Putin as president for four years undermined the regime, Judah argues; it led to the regime’s decay and to the protests of winter 2011-12. However, despite this, given that Putin’s team maintains control of key assets and that Russian society is not ready for revolution Judah concludes that ‘Russia is not at risk of state collapse.’ (p. 328).

Judah sought answers to these paradoxes by travelling extensively around the whole of Russia over five years (apparently between 2008 and 2012 – although this is not explicitly stated – while working as journalist for the Financial Times, the Economist and others,.During his time in Russia, Judah visited not only the big cities but also remote places and small villages. He talked with a variety of people including analysts, leaders of the opposition(s), ministers, governors, military officers, Federal Security Service agents, and tried to spend time with ordinary Russians in unglamorous places,’ (p.4) carrying out. hundreds of interviews. An appendix would, however, have been useful. Later on the same page – p.4 – he talks about the ‘thousands of interviews’).

Overemphasising civil society

Judah perhaps overemphasises the role of ordinary citizens and ‘civil society’ in facilitating regime change. This may reflect ideological assumptions but it doesn’t fully reflect the recent political science debates on democratisation and regime change. This debate can be crudely grouped according to two main perspectives: the pro-popular protest and civil society perspective versus the institutionalist perspective. The first perspective emphasises the role of society as the major driver of regime change via popular protests or revolution, the second argues that parties, bureaucracy and government and political elites are more significant for regime change. Judah does have a chapter on Russia’s opposition parties (‘Navalny and the Evolution of the Opposition’) but his focus is on the outspoken figure of Alexey Navalny at the expense of other opposition actors.

Second, it is not clear what his sources are when claiming that ‘it is a myth that in deep Russia he [Putin] is popular.’ (p. 327)or that ‘discontent is vast, but resistance tiny.’ (p.327). As the latest poll from May 2013 from the independent Levada Centre suggests, there is some truth to this ‘myth’: 64% of the population approved of Putin’s work, while 35% did not approve. It may be true, as Judah claims, that there is vast discontent among ordinary Russians because of corrupt officials (‘“werewolves in uniforms” that prey on the people’, p.327). However, it is perhaps wrong to assume that people blame Putin for all their woes: Judah does not consider the different elements of the ‘state’ beyond the President, such as the police, army, or regional and municipal officials. Even a super strong President cannot control all these elements of officialdom.

Judah’s book is certainly worth reading if you want a colourful picture of diverse Russians’ views on Putin and an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of Putin’s system of governance. Overall he finds that Putin and his system have survived the short-lived protest movement of 2011-2012. The book’s accessible, yet also scholarly, style is commendable. However, Judah perhaps overemphasises the role of a civil society in Russia’s political and social transformations.

Imogen Wage is a PhD candidate at UCL-SSEES. Her research interests include governance, technological innovation and regional development in contemporary Russia.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.