putin / russian history / russian politics

Review: Inside Putin’s Russia

A blast from the past: it’s me from 5+ years ago, before I actually started reviewing books as a hobby! XD

Review: Inside Putin’s Russia: Can There Be Reform Without Democracy? by Andrew Jack

Andrew Jack was Moscow bureau chief of the Financial Times, which is a pro-Big business UK paper. The paper hasn’t been particularly focused or interested in Russia, except the occasional critical outbursts of FT columnist Quentin Peel. The author is one of the whole crew of young Anglo-American correspondents who felt compelled to write a book after several years in Russia. The sweep of the book is broad – it is the Russia’s business elite, GULAG, transitional economy, KGB, communism, city of Moscow, Russian political system, and Chechnya. It is impressive for anyone to cover all these topics in one swift stroke, but inevitably questions arise about a depth of such a book and its usefulness in predicting Russia’s future. The book didn’t impress me very much on either of these counts. The author, who is essentially an investigative reporter, has undeniable strengths, which are in his knowledge of details: a date, a name, an event, some important personal detail. But a solid big picture unfortunately is not among them. The book is filled with little nuggets of information about Russia, Russian “oligarchs”, and politicians, but I don’t think it has real depth, nor I am convinced that the book offers an objective portrait of “Putin’s Russia”. In the book Russia is portrayed essentially as an imperfect, if not unsuccessful, disciple of laissez-faire capitalism practiced by US and UK. Also, the author does not appear to be as peeved as Marquis De Custine, but comes close sometimes.

Jack writes in crisp, short sentences. He is obviously familiar with Russian language and throws lots of names around, but his anglicizing of Russian names is annoying. For example, on page 37 he mentions “Old” Square in Moscow. In Russian language it is “Staraya” Square. With the same success one could call the Kremlin “the Tower”.
Many pages are filled with author’s personal “disappointments” in Russia from his description of unsuccessful attempts to buy fresh lattice to his accounts of agonizing encounters with Russian traffic police – the feared GAI. A lot of it appears to be a natural frustration of a foreigner, who is just trying to figure out what makes the Russians tick.

The most important weakness of this book is its failure to examine Russia on its own terms, not to try to fit it into “the bed of Procrustes” of Anglo-American model, code of behavior, and virtues of US-style market democracy. Of course, Jack is right then saying that Putin’s priority is modernization of Russia, not building a “democracy that bears more than a superficial resemblance to the variance recognizable in the west.”
But the author’s attitude, as shown in his choice of words, is quite wrong. Looking at the examples of countries like Japan and Singapore, how could one say that the Anglo-Saxon way of market democracy is the only way to achieve prosperity and modernization? Why, in fact, it should be desirable in Russia?

The message of the book is pedestrian. “Russia in 2008 is likely to be a country in better shape than some now fear, but not as impressive as it might have been had Putin used his potential to the full.” (page 339).
The tone of patronizing superiority notwithstanding, one doesn’t have to go through 350 pages to figure that out. I was impressed with his exercise in semantics when he called Russia a country, which “is shifting from anarchic liberalism towards liberal authoritarianism”, but it really explains nothing. “Liberal” carries multiple meanings. In Russia “young liberals” is a contemptuous name (even a swearing word) for a group of reformers who carried out the “shock therapy” of the early nineties. Incidentally, these “young liberals” have had little to do with liberalism, but were adherents of rightist Thatcherism, standing for massive privatization, withdrawal of price control, trickle-down economics, and general free-market fundamentalism.

What is particularly puzzling is Jack’s failure to notice a most striking feature of Kremlin’s policies. It is not Putin’s connection to KGB which makes him noteworthy, but his Russian version of Gaullism. Like De Gaulle, Putin is a nationalistic, populist leader, insistent on a strong presidency, and determent to actively encourage a multi-polar world in order to check US dominance. Mr. Jack fails to point that out.

Inside Putin’s Russia is a sweeping book on the Russian economic and political system under Putin, but the narrative is uneven and seems to be a little Russophobic.

★ ★ ★

Inside Putin’s Russia: Can There be Reform Without Democracy? by Andrew Jack. Pub. 2005 by Oxford University Press USA. Paperback, 362 pages. ISBN13: 9780195189094

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