Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin by Ben Judah. Yale University Press, 2013. Hardcover, 400 pp. ISBN13: 9780300181210.
Judah’s central thesis isn’t quite the retread of worn-out cliches about the Russian president as a manipulative, all-powerful dictator that one finds in Masha Gessen’s Man Without a Face or countless other biographies. In fact, he believes that Putin has failed to build a strong, centralized system and as a result, both his personal political authority and the integrity of the state he runs is under threat.
I did not expect to accept this argument wholesale, and I did not, but I don’t consider this book irredeemable. Fragile Empire offers a reasonable account of the protests that shook several large Russian cities in the winter of 2011. Although Judah’s sympathies clearly lie with the protesters, his treatment of the demonstrations is fair and he describes why the movement did not amount to credible opposition to Putin. Unfortunately, while Fragile Empire gives a diverting, if contestable, account of Putin’s rise and some absorbing reporting from a country growing disillusioned with United Russia, it doesn’t treat Putin’s achievements seriously enough, preferring to write them off as luck, and it doesn’t credit his political project with any underlying philosophy. (Mind you, it was written in 2012, before the popular consensus became that the Russian government was conservative or far-right.)
Judah’s portrait of the young Putin is more believable and briefer that Gessen’s, although it is similar: the tough childhood in St. Petersburg, the schoolyard brawling and a precocious attempt to join the KGB as a teenager. Fragile Empire doesn’t quite subscribe to the conspiracy theories which depict Putin’s career as the result of a Machiavellian plot. Judah is more inclined to portray a hapless but resilient opportunist, who was slow to grasp the liberties offered by Post-Soviet Russia, but managed eventually to drag himself back from a ruined career. Rather than strength, he describes weakness; rather than a hunger for power, he describes fear of the consequences of losing it; rater than an authoritarian state, he describes a leader who has lost control of his subordinates. In this telling of Vladimir Putin’s story, he is not a powerful tyrant who menaces the West, but an insecure thief who cannot step aside because he is terrified of retribution. Points for originality, I guess.
While Judah may be good at criticizing the network of patronage represented by United Russia, he is unconvincingly dismissive of the government’s successes. Yes, he does credit some of the economic success in Putin’s Russia to ‘liberalization’, but he mostly attributes stabilizing the world’s largest country to being in the right place at the right time. Neither does he offer a serious critique of the political thinking behind Putinism like Richard Sakwa did in a much finer book, The Crisis of Russian Democracy. In Judah’s assessment, the president is simply at the apex of a kleptocracy, whose concepts of ‘managed democracy’, ‘dictatorship of law’ and ‘vertical of power’ are just hollow phrases, designed to keep assets flowing in his direction.
Are you starting to notice a general trend here?
Even if I give Judah the benefit of the doubt and just say this cynicism reflects disillusionment with the ruling party, it still can’t explain how Putin, as an individual, is still supported by the majority of Russians after 16 years (well, it was 14 then) at the pinnacle of public life. Fragile Empire doesn’t explain the president’s attempts to rebuild sovereignty after inheriting a state where it had been strewn haphazardly across countless regions. It doesn’t try to fit some of Putin’s more heavy-handed policies – appointing governors, requiring a minimum threshold of support for political parties – into any context whatsoever. Certainly, I think Judah is entitled to argue that the president failed in his projects, but he doesn’t bother to investigate whether there was any rationale behind these moves in the first place. And he doesn’t prefer to acknowledge that, even if the grand theft he acknowledges did take place, enough money was left over to build up enormous reserves, raise living standards substantially and leave Russia the least indebted country in the G20.
The most interesting part of Fragile Empire is its examination of Putin’s opponents and the protests that sprang up after the 2011 State Duma elections. Judah interviews opposition figures including Berezovsky, Navalny and even Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was still in jail at the time. Although Judah is clearly sympathetic to the opposition, he doesn’t make excuses for its leaders. Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky are portrayed as wealthy manipulators, eager to use their riches to warp the political process. He paints the now-deceased Boris Nemtsov as an unappealing candidate unable to connect with the greater public and he describes Navalny’s past, inflammatory rhetoric and firearms incidents included. Indeed, while Judah enthuses about the mood which brought demonstrators to the streets, he acknowledges that there is no common purpose or viable leadership in the opposition movement. The Moscow liberals have little in common with, or interest in, their less cosmopolitan counterparts in the provinces. The demonstrations attracted a hodgepodge of liberals, quasi-fascists, nationalists, communists, and imperialists. There were many demands, but not a unified voice; many participants, but no electoral vehicle to harness the anti-United Russia sentiment.
Of course, the largest flaw with the book is that it appears to overstate Putin’s decline. At the time of its publication, the most recent Levada poll showed that he had a 65% approval rating, which was largely in line with the figures from around the same time during the previous year. And don’t even get me started on this year’s most recent statistics. The idea that there is no longer a ‘Putin consensus’ is not sustainable, though I will concede that the argument that his popularity relies on the absence of a viable alternative is stronger.
Fragile Empire is certainly one of the more negative retellings of the Vladimir Putin story that I have read, but it is certainly not the tired, anti-Putin drivel that “experts” such as Edward Lucas or Luke Harding pump out. It’s a pity that Judah did not concentrate on writing about the opposition and sharing more windows onto people’s lives under the Putin system. These passages form the most insightful material in the book rather than the secondhand, cynical commentary of Putin’s years in the Kremlin.
Oh, and one more thing, Judah: he’s still here.