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. (more…)