Review: Understanding Russian Politics

I have to admit, I did not realize this was a textbook until after I had checked it out from the library. All the same, I was pretty pleased.

What exactly makes Understanding Russian Politics a great resource? To begin with, there are the collected opinions of the Russian people themselves on the topics presented presented in the form of responses to questions such as “Is democracy good or bad? What are its advantages and disadvantages? Certainly the Russian people are not Western democrats to the core who will gratefully come to full flower once authoritarian controls are removed. Historical developments have put the Russian experience in its own compartment and it’s largely incomprehensible to Westerners. It therefore helps a lot that the other tables and statistics in the book are largely neutral and stripped of emotional charge.

The book also touches on the effects of crime, poverty, housing shortages, corruption of governmental agencies and the like on ordinary people. There’s an equally interesting and revealing profile of Yeltsin, his character, and way of governing that was startling in its degree of chaos. Another section provides heaps of human interest details on the extravagances and boorishness of oligarch behavior. When this heedless and seemingly endless wealth is contrasted with the ghastly and worsening poverty that is described in previous chapters, it becomes even more alarming. Surprising to [most] Westerners is that these national patterns of vehemence and misery do not move the Russian population to want to desperately rush toward and embrace existing Western democracy on its own terms. Sufficient facets of the Russian character are examined to shed light on the nature of Russian discontents, their views on reforms and their distinctive (and to us, obscurantist) response patterns riddled with the expectation of authoritarianism. The nature and specifics of Putin’s rule are well described and these, like the entire book are well chosen, deftly organized, lucidly written and offer smooth reading.

Despite its title, this is not a book that focuses on the narrow topic of elite factions struggling for power with boring lists of committee names and power chains. The material is of a broad nature rich with abundant insights into the Russian character and the otherwise unheard voices of the Russian people. The book does not take the position that Western reforms are indicated or even desirable. It treats the Russian experience as a phenomenon with its own distinctive trajectory and character. It is what it is. Some problems have no solutions and the politics described in this book seems to accept this, as do vast sectors of the population.

Summing things up, Understanding Russian Politics seems to be less of a textbook in the traditional sense and more of an introduction to Russia for the general reader, and a good one at that. If you have even a fleeting interest in contemporary Russia, you should pick the book up…you probably won’t regret it.

★ ★ ★ ★

Understanding Russian Politics edited by Stephen White. Pub. 2011 by Cambridge University Press. Paperback, 466 pages. ISBN13: 9780521868570

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