Watching the Throne
Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin. By: Ben Judah. Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven, London, 2013.
In November 2010 at Kushchevskaya Stanitsa in Krasnodar Krai, one of the richest agricultural regions of southern Russia, bandits lead by the district deputy of the pro-Putin party United Russia, annihilated the family of a local farmer. The farmer was hindering the deputy’s business, so the bandits killed his family and guests right in front of his eyes. They then killed him, piled up the corpses, laid the still- living nine-month-old granddaughter on top, doused the pile with gasoline and ignited it. This is the story that opens the book Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin which was published in May 2013 by Yale University Press.
Correspondingly, the book concludes with another story, which also happened in 2010, in Vladivostok, the biggest seaport in eastern Asia: a band of six teenagers carried out a series of raids on police departments, killing policemen over the course of several months. They were finally encircled by a task force and two of the teenagers shot themselves, while the remaining ones are still awaiting trial.
In between these two stories, there are 330 pages of powerfully argued text which covers the entire history of new Russia – from the dissolution of the Soviet Union until the end of 2012, after Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin. The artistic frame – from the tragedy in Kushchevskaya Stanitsa, to the bloody events in the Far East – is aimed to illustrate the main task of the book: to explain why Putin, despite 12 years of increasing prices of hydrocarbons (such as oil and gas) and the solidification of an authoritative regime, has failed to turn Russia into an effective state.
Ben Judah, the author of the book, is 25 years old. After graduating from Russian studies at the University of Oxford, he worked at the Moscow news office of Reuters and spent some time at the British office of the European Council for Foreign Relations. His book, Fragile Empire, is written in a classic journalist style – eloquent, with rich details and vivid portraits of the lead characters. And yet it combines an analytical view of the events in Russia which have taken place over the last few years. Judah not only describes the picture he sees, but tries to explain in numbers why the Russian reality looks this way.
The book is divided into two approximately equal parts. The first one “The Rise of the Lieutenant Colonel” features a description of what has happened in Russia in the last 30 years. As the title indicates, this part has a protagonist – Vladimir Putin. Judah’s investigation gives answers to several important questions, including: how did this second-rate officer, an unsuccessful KGB agent sent to spy on the Soviet workers in the East German city of Dresden (not even Berlin), become the ruler of one of the most powerful states in the world? Judah painstakingly reconstructs Putin’s biography, recounting stories of Putin’s friends from St. Petersburg, and describes the Russian reality of the 1990s. He tries to explain not only Putin’s mindset, but also the reasons why the Russian people accepted his leadership so enthusiastically. The author analyses in detail how the young dynamic president, who in early 2000, ended the war in Chechnya, implemented successful economic reforms and tried to develop good relationships with the West. He describes the evolution of Putin over the years; prior to him becoming president through to today, and how he is known to the West and the rest of the world.
Fragile Empire gives an account of all the challenges inherited by Russia from the 1990s: secessionist sentiments in the regions, criminality, low governability, corruption and the abundance of various groups struggling for influence, power and money. By meeting each of these challenges, Putin strengthened Russia, but also formed a severe regime which would later cause even graver problems. One of the great merits of the book is the fact that Judah keeps trying to lose himself in the context of the events and tries to understand the logic of the participants. At that, the analysis and the narration are hinged not on the theories of a totalitarian society or advocacy rhetoric, as in many books of this kind, but on the passionless analysis of the struggle for power, money and ideas. The jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for example, is far from presented as being a hero and liberal.
The second part of Fragile Empire, “Watch the Throne”, is obligatory reading for those wanting to gain an insight into modern Russia. Judah relies on his journalistic experience at Reuters and his contacts in Moscow to present the events of December 2011 and the protest campaign that followed. The range of sources is vast: from the deputies of the ruling United Russia to the young opposition activists, as well as people that are rarely mentioned in narrations – ordinary Russian people representing the notorious “Putin majority”. Fragile Empire traces how the Russian economic growth from the middle 2000s (largely due to the boom of natural resources) led to the formation of a young middle class which initially was not interested in politics; although, the economic crisis of 2008-2009 led to an abrupt politicisation of this social group. And then the elections to the State Duma in December 2011 which ended with protests of the opposition.
Among the most valuable parts of the book are the detailed portraits of the leaders of the protest movement, whom Judah knows personally. From the charismatic blogger Alexei Navalny who studied at Yale University and pursued a political career with the liberals and the nationalists, to the figures who are less known in the West, such as activist Yevgeniya Chirikova, who became the face of the ecological opposition.
The value of these portraits (even if there is too much detail about café meetings and the descriptions of the food eaten during the interviews) is that Ben Judah does not allow any of them to enchant him just because they are Putin’s opponents. The book fairly reveals the opposition’s lack of vision and lack of clear political plans and collaboration. Controversies between Navalny and his teammates is the side of modern Russian politics that is rarely discussed (and little known) in the West. Meanwhile, understanding the nature of the modern Russian opposition is extremely important for building relationships and planning future strategies in relation to Russia.
The last three chapters of the book are devoted not to the capital city, whose life is chiefly described by journalists and diplomats in dispatches such as the ones that can be read in the WikiLeak archives, but to life in the regions of Russian. The author travelled around the whole country – from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, and these chapters should be of interest not only to the western reader, but also to the learned Russian reader. Judah provides a unique description of what is taking place in provincial Russia – the citadel of the pro-Putin majority – and is very up-to-date. Judah travelled to Nizhny Tagil, the Ural city that produces tanks and which is considered a bastion of Putinism, and to Primorsky Krai, where people are incensed at the influx of migrants from Central Asia.
From these chapters, especially the excellent last chapter describing the situation on the border between Russia and China, the title of the book Fragile Empire becomes clear. The fatality of the system, which is sunk in corruption, has no meritocracy and is ruled by nepotism, isn’t better seen from the protesting capital city, but from the suburbs, where the people seek change but do not even put their faith in Putin. The author concludes that Russia’s problem is not only the lack of democracy and fundamental freedoms, but a lack of efficiency and the total degradation of the state. If these problems escalate, the consequences could be grave, and a simple replacement to Putin, with a democratically elected populist such as Navalny, would not necessarily make Russia more stable and democratic.
Translated by Olena Shynkarenko
Alexander Gabuev is a Russian journalist and deputy editor of the magazine Kommersant-Vlast.
This review comes from New Eastern Europe Issue 3 (VIII) / 2013: Why Culture Matters. Click here for more information and the table of contents.