The Putin system on trial

Ben Judah’s first book is a mixture of history and reportage from Russia’s winter of discontent. As one of the 2011/12 protest leaders is sent to jail on dubious charges, Josh Black reviews this account of whether the Putin system is bound to fall.


Vladimir Putin now has his fair share of biographers in the English language, many of which explain his rise to power in terms redolent with imagery of a staid, inflexible form of leadership. They have titles like The Strongman, or The Man Without A Face, and play into the caricature of Russia as a country which longs for a firm hand on the tiller. The virtue of Ben Judah’s first book is that it takes none of these Cold War stereotypes on trust.

Instead, we are treated to a thorough account of the manner in which Putin established control over an apparently uncontrollable country. As decisive and repressive as Putinism could be, it was equally rooted in imagery. The aim of Gleb Pavlovsky and Vladislav Surkov (two-eerily modern spin-doctors) was to make Putin into the alpha-male amongst a pretty vicious pack. So sophisticated was this form of government (or so it seemed), that a specially developed app informed the iPad-toting Medvedev of sixty political danger indicators – Putin’s popularity in various locations amongst them.

Yet the ‘Putin majority’ was based on the losers of the Yeltsin years; groups hungry for long-delayed advancement who were fully prepared to play by Putin’s rules. The society underlying this imposed consensus is now far less willing to accept its government on trust. If political technology of the sort chronicled by Andrew Wilson’s Virtual Politics was the secret to Putin’s extraordinarily successful first two terms, the second half of Judah’s book clearly exposes its limits.

Ironically, it was the rising expectations of the Medvedev presidency that allowed the activism of Alexei Navalny and Yevgenia Chirikova to take off. When the limits of the government’s modernisation drive were exposed by its lacklustre response to forest fires outside Moscow in 2010, Judah concludes that Putinism ‘boomeranged.’

Similarly, the creation of a monolithic governing party in United Russia seemed to be an impressive achievement after a decade of ‘feckless pluralism’, yet by providing a home for every sort of political brigand, it merely tarnished the name of the government. Speculation has since been rife that Putin will ditch what has come to be known as the ‘Party of Crooks and Thieves’, but this would still leave in place a raft of under-performing regional governors, a health system where the providers do not get the money they need, and a highly centralised economic and political system that cannot deliver much beyond Moscow.

Fragile Empire is a well-informed retelling of the events that led to protests in Moscow between parliamentary elections in late-2011 and the presidential elections in March 2012.   The author excels when it comes to the fractious, under-reported East of the country, and in access to the protagonists of these protests. The picture it paints is highly conflicting.

On the one hand, Judah is bold and original in his description of rural Russia as no more pro-Putin than Moscow (his journalism on OpenDemocracy is another good illustration of this). However, the concerns of the metropolitan elite and the rural poor are often quite different.

Perhaps the only concern shared in both the regions and Moscow is a visceral mistrust of Central Asian migrants – the perhaps inevitable product of a demographic mismatch. A particularly nasty account of a group of skinheads who go hunting Caucasian migrants leaves the reader well-aware of what is at stake as political contest action hots up in a country with an extremely weak rule of law.

Nonetheless, Judah does dismiss the concerns of some analysts. The chapter on the relationship between Russians and Chinese in far-Eastern Siberia makes clear that fears of Chinese mass-migration are exaggerated. Elsewhere, the prognosis borders on the apocalyptic. Vladimir Milonov, another opposition leader, concludes that ‘politics will be competitive, but it will be aggressive too.’

Pen-portraits of the opposition leaders cast grave doubts on their ability to create a more lasting opposition movement than Gary Kasparov and Mikhail Kasyanov. Alexei Navalny, the presidential hopeful currently standing trial on trumped-up charges of tax fraud, comes across as a polished politician, but hubristic and with some dubious policies. Boris Nemtsov appears downright arrogant, loudly boasting about the cost of his cognac in one of the many bad cafes Judah’s research took him to.

As Navalny went on trial, Judah wrote that the principle that no one should challenge Russia’s leadership was being codified. That is a stark development, but as Fragile Empire shows, the Kremlin has not always responded well to challenges. With the protest movement losing momentum, it is far from clear that the end is nigh for Putin. Discontent may be rife, but even if this generation does not view stability in the same halcyon tones as the previous one, the possibility of a harder, more competitive authoritarianism presents an unenviable choice.


One thought on “The Putin system on trial

  1. Pingback: Vostok Cable | Out of the Black

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