Apr 20, 2007

Book Review: Putin's Russia

Shevtsova, Lilia

Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003, 306 pages

Lilia Shevtsova is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, and is also a professor of political science at the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs of the MFA of Russia. As an academic, Shevtsova came of age in the last years of the Soviet Union, and she has developed a reputation as an astute observer of post-Soviet Russia. Shevtsova is an unabashed supporter of Western-style democratic capitalism, works for organizations funded largely by Western sources, and Putin’s Russia reflects the author’s philosophical beliefs.

In those areas in which the policies of Russian president Vladimir Putin mirror Shevtsova’s ideological proclivities, he merits praise from the author, but is likewise criticized for actions that deviate from what are perceived to be policies in line with modern capitalist and democratic models. Much like Fukuyama and his End of History arguments, Shevtsova is a true believer in the supremacy of American models of government and economy for postmodern civilizations.

The text focuses primarily on the period from 1999-2002, the first three years of the Putin presidency, although Shevtsova provided readers with several chapters at the beginning of the book that recounted the last years of Kremlin politics with Boris Yeltsin at the helm. The author followed a chronological approach to the topic, with essays that flow together almost in the fashion that might befit a political diary. Shevtsova provided footnoted material on her sources, which are largely drawn from periodicals and personal interviews.

Shevtsova argued that responsibility for the 1998 financial meltdown in Russia should not placed solely at the feet of former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, during whose tenure inflation reached 84 percent, the ruble’s value imploded, and dozens of Russian banks closed. Instead, the author chose to highlight the Victor Chernomyrdin’s Gosudarstvennoe Kratkosrochnoe Obyazatelstvo (GKO) bond scheme, which Shevtsova likened to an investment pyramid. By the end of 1998, the author noted, the Yeltsin government needed 113 billion rubles to pay interest on the GKOs and related bonds, in a year in which tax revenues were not likely to exceed 164.6 billion rubles. It is in the aftermath of the 1998 Russian financial crisis – and the political fallout associated with millions of Russians losing their life savings – that Yeltsin began to groom the previously-little known Vladimir Putin as his successor.

Left: Boris Yeltsin

Quoting from Yeltsin’s memoirs, the author noted that the Russian president was “amazed by Putin’s lightning reflexes,” and that Putin “was ready for absolutely anything in life, he would respond to any challenge clearly and distinctly.” Putin’s comment to Yeltsin that he would “work wherever you assign me,” argued Shevtsova, reassured Yeltsin, accustomed as he was to Kremlin intrigues and power-seeking subordinates. Putin’s acceptance by Yeltsin and his “Family” – the term used to describe Yeltsin’s inner circle – had other reasons beyond the superficial, argued Shevtsova:
After a long and tortuous selection process involving the testing of numerous pretenders to the throne, the ruling team saw in Vladimir Vladimirovich something that made it believe he would not sell them out, that they could trust him and be assured of their future. And they had ample reason to worry about the future – because of the allegations of corruption, because they had acquired so many enemies, because they were blamed for all the country’s ills.
Appointed by Yeltsin to the position of Prime Minister in August 1999, Putin faced his first challenges almost immediately with a series of attacks on residential buildings in Moscow and several other Russian cities. Arguing that Chechen separatists were responsible, Putin ordered the resumption of full-scale military activities in Chechnya, an act that Shevtsova argued ingratiated him to the Russian populace:
He stated that his goal was “to defend the population from bandits.” He said what millions of citizens expected from a leader. When he spoke from the podium of the Duma, the Russian audience saw what it finally wanted – a determined, willful face, the springy walk of an athlete, and...very cold eyes. Many decided that a man with eyes like that had to be strong. And a majority of Russians wanted a strong man in the Kremlin. They were tired of watching Yeltsin fall apart.
Putin represented what Shevtsova described as the traditional “Russian System,” with power manifest in a political leader who “has taken all the levers in his hands and could rule unchecked, with no accountability.” Like Yeltsin, his predecessor, Putin was the latest appearance of a “leader-arbiter” who stayed “above the fray” leading a nation built on a “fusion of state and society, of politics and economy,” and based on paternalism. Putin, as leader of the Russian state, was “power personified,” reigning over a vertically-oriented system of subordination and patron-client connections.

To maintain this system, argued Shevtsova, required that Putin concentrate power at the top of the Kremlin hierarchy, demand total loyalty from his subordinates, and proactively attack potential rivals and threats to the regime. Putin quickly focused on Vladimir Gusinsky, the powerful Russian oligarch and head of the Media-Most holding company. Four days after Putin’s inauguration as President in May 2000, police raided Gusinsky’s corporate offices and took over the Most-Bank. Shevtsova maintained that Putin’s attacks on Russian oligarchs such as Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky were meant to send a message to Russian elites: groups that expressed discontent with the Putin regime would become the targets of the state prosecutors and court systems.

Left: Boris Berezovsky

Shevtsova credits Putin for his ability to recognize that post-Soviet Russia could no longer be considered a world power on par with the United States. Moreover, argued the author, Putin successfully presided over a nation that still believed in its equality with the United States on the world’s stage; this belief was especially pervasive among many Kremlin officials:
The new people Putin brought into the Kremlin were sick of their country’s weakness. They had been brought up believing in Russia’s exceptionality and greatness. They wanted to be respected, and they wanted their country to be respected and taken into account again – and perhaps, if not feared as before, at least regarded with some wariness.
Shevtsova is most critical of Putin with regard to the Russian President’s curbing of individual freedoms and his creation of what she termed “managed democracy.” Putin’s 2000 reforms of the Federation Council – especially the seats directly appointed by the President – created “an obedient parliament that had existed only in Yeltsin’s dreams.” The executive branch, argued Shevtsova, now could view the parliament as “an extension of itself; the Soviet tradition of unanimity had been restored.” Such deviations from American models of democratic governance clearly worried Shevtsova:
A combination of mild authoritarianism and economic liberalization is perfectly adequate for dragging a peasant country onto the road of industrialization. To meet postindustrial challenges, however, to move toward a high-technology society, a new type of regime is needed, one that makes room for social initiatives, local self-government, and individual freedom.
Yet, while noting her obvious affinity for and citation of American models of “ideal” governance, Shevtsova fails to convince this reviewer that Putin’s methods will be unsuccessful without imitating his counterparts in Washington. Admittedly, the Russian economy has benefited from the higher oil prices in the past five years, but certainly Putin’s rule should receive credit for raising the standard of living for the average Russian citizen. The Russian Federation ended the year 2006 with its eighth straight year of growth, averaging 6.7% annually since the financial implosion in 1998, while foreign debt has fallen to 31 percent of GDP. Russian foreign currency reserves rose from $12 billion in 1999 to approximately $315 billion at the end of 2006.

Putin’s Russia provides general readers and non-specialists with insightful analyses of the era of Vladimir Vladimirovich, although the text rarely moves far from the Kremlin and Putin’s circle of advisors. This is a book narrowly focused on political intrigue and powerful elites, and those seeking answers to questions about the effects of the Putin presidency on the average Russian citizen will have to settle for the occasional poll or economic indicator from which Shevtsova quotes. Still, the text is useful for its knowledgeable analyses of the structure and operation of Putin’s Kremlin, and is an excellent starting point for scholars desirous of understanding twenty-first century Russia.


Anonymous said...

er uhm -- God love ya Mike, but do you ever do any light reading?

Dariush said...

I have it on good authority that Mike is an avid reader of the entire Harry Potter series.

He also happens to be a fan of the Britney Spears autobiography. Not the last one -- waaaay too pretentious apparently -- but the first one.

It contained "a lot of important messages for today's youth" and "was just a delight to read."

historymike said...

(laughing at Dariush's comments)

I have managed to miss every Harry Potter book, although I have friends who swear by the Rowling books.

I read an occasional novel, and keep Time magazine around for brain candy.

Some of the reviews I post are requirements for one of my doctoral courses, while others I post for my own benefit. During the dreaded doctoral exam process, students need a working knowledge of 150 books or so.

Other reviews I post just because I liked the book, or because I think the text has some contemporary relevance.

Still more reviews are just out of a sense of obligation because a publisher sent me a free copy (Simon and Schuster - I SWEAR I'll get to those Civil War books you sent me).


I am also simply a fan of the genre of book reviews, as it is a way to engage the author and spark interest in other readers.

Shevtsova's book is a pretty fascinating look at the power structure in the Kremlin, although I disagree with her take that Western democratic and capitalist structures are one-size-fits-all.

If a more authoritarian regime can turn Russia around, who are we to insist that the Russians ape the West?

And - while we are dancing around the topic - the Western media's coverage of the violence at the anti-Putin protests is quite one-sided. Lurking in the background and stirring the anti-Putin forces is Boris Berezovsky, who - in my opinion - is the epitome of the gangster-oligarch.

It is laughable that Putin should get lectures about freedom from this murderous thug.