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SAIS Review 26.1 (2006) 193-196
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Russia in the Age of Putin
Russia is no longer the "evil empire" as Ronald Reagan famously described the Soviet Union, but the qualities attributed to it by Winston Churchill, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," more than 50 years ago remain relevant. Russian political culture is deliberately Byzantine; we foreigners are not supposed to understand who in the Kremlin is really calling the shots or why. There was a greater degree of transparency under Boris Yeltsin's disorderly tenure, but as his health deteriorated the fog thickened around the Kremlin. The ailing Russian president then surprised virtually everybody on the last day of the last century when he announced his retirement, and the still relatively obscure prime minister and former KGB lieutenant Vladimir Putin became acting president.
Putin has now been president of the Russian Federation for more than five years, and while we know more about him and his style, he remains a highly controversial and complicated figure. For some he is an authoritarian throwback who has further weakened Russia's frail democratic institutions, destabilizing the country more than ever while simultaneously undermining political authority. Others argue that Putin has brought an end to the instability and disorder of the 1990s when state power collapsed and policymaking was a private affair managed by a very narrow and greedy oligarchy.
Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution by former Washington Post Moscow correspondents Peter Baker and Susan Glasser helps to clear much of the fog about surrounding Putin's Kremlin. Their direct and engaging account confronts the cognitive dissonance emanating from Russia head-on. Each chapter is a richly researched description of many of the key developments and personalities of the eventful years these correspondents spent in Moscow from 2001 to 2004.
Kremlin Rising is not an uplifting account; in fact it is a very depressing and relentlessly negative account of contemporary Russia. Whole chapters are devoted to the tragedy of Beslan, the hellish war in Chechnya, the hostage taking at the theatre in the center of Moscow in 2002, the attack on Russia's best independent national television NTV in 2001 (now there are none), horrific conditions in the military, the health and demographic crisis, and a host [End Page 193] of other desultory topics. In each chapter Baker and Glasser illuminate the events and the personalities behind the events in sparkling prose, in many cases bringing new information to bear; they are excellent journalists and fluid writers. But as an analyst of Russia, I question whether this book gives a fair overall account of where Russia is and how and why it got there.
In some ways this is an "angry" book, written by authors who were admittedly mystified to find a country and people very different from what they expected when they arrived in Moscow in January 2001. Why were so many of their interlocutors so jaded and apathetic about democracy after the tortuous decades of totalitarian Soviet rule? Why were the majority of Russians ready to trade political freedom for order? At the heart of this tale stands Vladimir Putin. In the view of the authors, he has undertaken a counterrevolution, seeing his task as "not about completing the transition to democracy; it was about rolling it back." In fact, the authors declare that after the terrorist attack of fall 2004 in Beslan, the Russian President announced as "counter-terrorist" measures the cancellation of gubernatorial elections and fully proportional representation in the Duma, "The counterrevolution was over, and Putin had won."
The problem with this narrative is that the seeds for an anti-democratic counterrevolution were planted long before the rise of Mr. Putin. Without a doubt, Czar Boris Yeltsin's dissolution and bombing of the Supreme Soviet in 1993 and introduction of a new superpresidential constitution were more consequential blows to Russia's nascent democracy than...