The Economist (UK)
May 11-17, 2003
The winding road
In the course of Boris Yeltsin's unruly eight-and-a-half-year presidency, fortunes in Russia were made and destroyed, new ideologies dreamt up and endlessly rehashed. Not until Vladimir Putin took over in 2000 did life calm down and post-Soviet Russia start to take shape.
But this shape, like Mr Putin's own personality, is still unclear. Those who look at economics tend to see a country that has bounded back from its 1998 economic collapse and is now stepping firmly towards modernity. Observers of society and human rights see a grim dictatorship emerging, which offers little heed for its citizens' well-being. A book that makes sense of the contradictions is sorely needed.
Wisely, Lilia Shevtsova does not try to paint a sharply focused portrait of a country still in flux, but opts instead for a chronicle. She describes how Mr Putin has grown as a leader, how he has gradually shaken off his ties to the Yeltsin clan and surrounded himself with his own people, many of them from the security services. Mr Putin consolidated his power and created stability by crushing or co-opting every institution that might threaten his authority. It looks all too much like a return to the Soviet model. And yet it gained him the freedom and self-assurance to bring about economic reform and rapprochement with the West--policies he believes Russia must pursue to survive.
Ms Shevtsova, a noted Russian scholar, offers many insights into Kremlin court politics, as well as Mr Putin and his foes. She often comes back to the impact that recent events have had on Russian society, and uses this as a way of explaining how the chaos of the Yeltsin years exhausted the country and made it hunger for order, even to the point of accepting unpopular causes such as the war in Chechnya.
But the book, like Mr Putin's presidency itself, is sometimes confusing, jumping from theme to theme without always making the necessary connections. Disappointingly, Ms Shevtsova is sketchy about how Mr Putin actually got to be president. Mr Yeltsin, she believes, saw in his protege a loyal man who would protect him after he left office. But she does not explainhow Mr Putin--at the time a senior butunremarkable official in the St Petersburg city government--attracted Mr Yeltsin'sattention in the first place.
The book's main weakness, though, is that Ms Shevtsova wants to prove a point. Disturbed by Mr Putin's authoritarian tendencies, she cannot resist lecturing him. "Government is always a balancing act, and balancing authoritarianism and the market is an even trickier one," she notes; but she omits to mention that such a balance can be sustained for a long time, as in Augusto Pinochet's Chile. By refusing to take a cool-headed look at such a possibility, Ms Shevtsova denies herself and her readers a clear view of all the ways that Mr Putin's Russia might go from here.