Readers will inevitably be drawn to Gregory Feifer’s Russians: The People Behind the Power by its promise to delve into the Russian character and “explore the seeming paradoxes of life in Russia by unraveling the nature of its people“. And reveal it does – but much more about the author and his views than about the “people behind the power” themselves.
The book is 350 pages of unwavering pessimism. Here is what we learn about the state of Russia today:
- ‘Putin’s system turned out to be all about dictatorship’ (p.34) and is ‘not based on popular support’ (p. 38).
- ‘Anger is never far from the surface’ (p. 43)
- One can observe ‘the obvious disintegration of the social fabric’ (p. 70), as ‘hopes for a better life steadily decline’ (p. 73)
- ‘Poverty is endemic’ (p. 47), is worse than in the Soviet Union, and ‘continues getting worse’ (p. 65)
- Drinking is ‘helping drive men’s life expectancy down’ and ‘the population continues to shrink… It’s getting worse’ (p. 89)
- ‘Putin’s self-interested authoritarianism is driving his country off a cliff’ (p. 213)
Feifer concludes that the West must take a hard line against Russia and ‘must have no illusions about what kind of country they are dealing with’ (p. 348)
Feifer’s book is anecdotal rather than academic – after all, he is a journalist for NPR – and he draws unwarranted conclusions from his anecdotes. Putin does in fact enjoy popular support (an 81% approval rating according to a recent Levada poll). Surveys suggest that Russians are happier than ever and that the majority are proud of their country’s history and contributions to sport, literature and the arts. Poverty underwent a substantial reduction with the economic growth of the 2000s. Since the onset of recession in 2014, the poverty rate is up slightly from last year, but Feifer overstates its prevalence. The mortality rate has declined, as have alcohol-related deaths, and the population is growing.
There are, of course, many bad things about modern Russia – corruption, weak rule of law, and xenophobia, to name a few. But there are positive stories to be told about Russia as well. Feifer is far too one-sided. What explains this? I think it may have to do with the reference point he starts from. Feifer begins his book by describing his experiences in the USSR at the time of the August coup in 1991 which briefly ousted Mikhail Gorbachev and ended with Boris Yeltsin forcing the coup leaders to back down. This is Feifer’s reference point – the heady, exciting days when he and the others believed that the Soviet Union was going to become a liberal democratic Western state. Seen from this perspective, the Putin era has been a terrible disappointment – thus the inclination to describe it in such negative terms.
But herein lies the problem. Feifer is comparing Russia not with what it really was at any time in the past but with his ideas of what Russia could and should be. It’s very much possible that this idea of the “liberal democratic Russia” was never realizable. The result is an unfair assessment of the country’s progress.
But, I digress. The purpose of this book is supposedly to provide an inside look at the Russian people themselves. Feifer’s main thesis is that the ordinary Russians are trapped by their history. Is it possible that after the Revolution of 1917 the people were victims of an alien ideology? No, not at all, Feifer says; they were participants in the construction of a new autocracy because the legacies of serfdom, tsarist autocracy, and backwardness proved too strong. Ideas of totalitarianism and expansionism have been imprinted on the Russian DNA, and it is because of this that Russia can never be expected to change.
In my view, Russians lacks empathy for the Russians. Feifer doesn’t seem to be respectful or fond of Russia and its long, complicated history. His tone is one of patronizing superiority:
“Living in Russia often seemed to me an ongoing lesson in precisely how NOT to conduct politics, business, and almost every other human endeavor.” (p. #)
Feifer repeatedly denounces Putin as a leader with limited abilities. While it is true that every statesman has his flaws, this would be terrible advice for the US leadership. Whether the current administration wants to admit it or not, many of the U.S.’s foreign policy objectives – including combating international terrorism, nuclear arms reduction, and stabilizing Syria – are not easily solved unilaterally or without some kind of partnership with Moscow. But today the U.S. is treating Russia as a pariah state, and it is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this sense, Feifer is adding fuel to the fire: he portrays Putin as some nasty-king-of-the-horrid-people with no redeeming qualities. He highlights and even overemphasizes Russian problems – authoritarianism, cronyism, corruption, alcoholism, backwardness – and then warns Western countries not to have any illusions about what kind of country they’re dealing with.
Russians: The People Beyond the Power is a fundamentally distorted picture of the Russian people. It is more similar to purpose-oriented ideological ‘warning reporting’ than it is to an attempt at understanding a complex country. Feifer has a measuring stick – the idealized liberal version of the US – and applies it to Russia without critically comparing the two nations. He dismisses many Russian shortcomings as pathologies rather than discussing why they might have developed and how they can be corrected. The result is a book – like many other Russia books – that promotes neither critical thinking nor greater insight. I’m sorry, but those seeking to understand Russia and the Russian character are advised to look elsewhere.