Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#2 - JRL 7234
Washington Post
June 22, 2003
book review
The Operator
'Putin's Russia' by Lilia Shevtsova

Reviewed by Stephen Kotkin
Stephen Kotkin is the author of "Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000."

By Lilia Shevtsova
Carnegie Endowment For International Peace 306 pp. $40; paperback, $19.95

On Jan. 1, 1992, the day after the Soviet dissolution, Russia awoke with just 6,000 judges, all trained for the communist era. The new Russia also inherited some 250,000 KGB operatives. So much for an immediate transition to democracy and the rule of law. In 12 misunderstood years, Russia has managed to triple its ranks of judges. As for KGB officers, the information is secret, but their ranks appear to have oscillated near the inherited level. One of them, Vladimir Putin, became Russia's president by fiat in late December 1999, when Boris Yeltsin resigned, and by popular election in March 2000. Is Russia again in the grip of the KGB under a new name? When and how can a dictatorship's legacies be overcome?

Russia was not supposed to matter much anymore. And yet, having taken possession of the vast storehouse of Soviet doomsday weapons, a mischievous or chaotic Russia could instantly transform the strategic situation in many a region or across the globe. Russia's geography is unique, too. Whether the issue is the European Union or North Korea, Iran or Afghanistan, terrorism or transnational crime, Russia is in the neighborhood. Russia also holds bountiful supplies of fossil fuels, not to mention a U.N. Security Council veto. For Washington, no country has greater potential as a spoiler or an ally. In addition, many look to Russia after communism as a test case of U.S. efforts to help build democracies.

Putin's Russia, by Lilia Shevtsova, is a timely, expert book. She calls her chronological, unsystematic approach "a political diary" for "an unfinished story," but her narrative and personal example testify to an already well-advanced Russian transformation. First, the author works at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Moscow Center, which has assembled award-winning Russian analysts of the country, a sea change from the days of one-sided U.S. Sovietology. Second, her book indicates how Russia's democratic intellectuals have shed their illusions but not their ideals. Shevtsova's previous Yeltsin's Russia (1999) rebuked the first Russian president for betraying the "democrats," but now she writes that "there were no such forces or leaders in Russia at the time of the break with communism, nor do they exist today." If her Putin is no democrat, however, neither is he a dictator.

Whence Putin? From Yeltsin's inner court, where he stood out as neither a crook nor an incompetent, and ultimately from the ballot box. "A few people in the Kremlin controlling all state resources," Shevtsova writes of Putin's ascent, "determined the fate of the presidency and the enormous country along with it." But even without recourse to the state budget and state media, the Kremlin's lucky, wit's-end choice would likely have triumphed over the alternatives, whether communist-chauvinist Gennady Zyuganov, liberal double-dealer Grigory Yavlinsky, pseudo-fascist fraud Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Boss-Tweedy Yuri Luzhkov or obliging patriarch Yevgeny Primakov (who withdrew and backed the Kremlin). Putin won a credible election in 2000, and he is poised to win re-election in 2004.

Russia's unexpected president gained a big boost by launching a war on terrorism. Shevtsova rejects the conspiracy theory that, for election purposes, the Kremlin masterminded bombings against its own citizens and an expedition against a Chechen warlord beyond Chechen territory, but she adds that the authorities have still offered no persuasive accounting of the unpunished bombings or the convenient timing of the warlord incursion. And despite the bloody stalemate in the Caucasus, she acknowledges, Putin and his policies have remained fantastically popular. "He was liberal, statist, populist at the same time," she writes of the political magic. "He was a consensus guy and authoritarian politician, Russian patriot and pro-Western person simultaneously. . . . Everybody still saw [in him] what they wanted."

Readers may get lost in the ensuing minutiae of elite machinations, but Shevtsova pinpoints a central paradox. "We admit," she writes, "that it is thanks in great part to Putin's authoritarianism that Russia has revived economic reform and has entered into an alliance with Western countries," potentially a "real breakthrough" against an unmoved establishment.

More broadly, Putin has institutionalized pragmatism and commercial interests in foreign affairs, improving relations with Russia's former colonies and other neighbors, including, simultaneously, India and China, Iran and the United States. His Kremlin forcibly repossessed two national television stations from slimy private hands for state use. It has also employed non-democratic means to tame sultan-like cliques in Russian regions. Above all, balancing the twin imperatives of deeper structural reform and stability, Putin's government has succeeded in what almost everyone, myself included, deemed well-nigh impossible: getting many of Russia's state functionaries to function.

Occasionally, Shevtsova lapses into the Kremlin's mode, inflating Putin's much-circumscribed power. Alternately, she suggests that "Yeltsin left behind a complex political structure overgrown with powerful vested interests -- regional, oligarchic, bureaucratic," but she mostly neglects to pursue this insight, other than to note Putin's persistent inability to reform the army when "the military leadership was not ready for . . . a substantial reduction in generals and a renewal of their ranks." Can we accept her assertion that Russian society has become "tranquilized" without hearing from the factories or farms? She concludes that Russia's youth will decide the country's fate, but she does not examine schools, recent films or other trends in socialization and culture. It would have been interesting to hear her views on other post-Soviet countries or comparisons to Africa, Latin America and East Asia.

Putin's Russia takes us inside Kremlin-obsessed Moscow, where, as the author puts it, the communists battle to enhance parliament's prerogatives while liberals trumpet authoritarianism. She chastises Putin for adhering to traditional, top-down, personalized rule, then urges the Russian leader to create a liberal democracy. The lesson of the Yeltsin presidency, which Putin has fully absorbed, lies in the futility of decrees and even legislation without stakeholders committed to implementation. In that sense, the successful new tax laws, private land code and partial judicial restructuring speak volumes, as do the pending overhauls of pensions and housing, along with the more elusive one of security and the military.

Top   Next