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  • Stealing Russia Blind
  • Harley Balzer (bio)
Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? By Karen Dawisha. Simon and Schuster, 2014. 445 pp.

How does someone who was unemployed twice in the 1990s become president of Russia in less than four years, and then by 2014 head the Forbes magazine list of “The World’s Most Powerful People”? In Vladimir Putin’s case, luck has clearly been involved. He has benefited (at least until recently) from a tenfold increase in the price of oil between 1999 and 2008. Inheriting one of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals did not hurt either.

Yet talent of a particular variety has been in the mix as well. Putin has adroitly assembled a reliable group of cronies who have shown vast expertise at extracting rents (both natural and artificial) while creating their own media reality, and they have helped him to cut a path to wealth and power. Karen Dawisha’s thorough account of Putin’s rise is important. Indeed, if you are going to read only one book on Putin’s Russia, this should be it. Dawisha not only traces the growth of predatory power under Putin, but shows the toll that it has taken on Russian society and the country’s long-term development prospects.

In her opening pages, Dawisha introduces us to a Russian sistema (system) based on massive predation that has produced the most unequal wealth distribution in any developed economy. She sees this system, in both its political and its economic aspects, as the intended product of an “intelligent design”:

Within weeks of Putin’s coming to power, the Kremlin began to erode the basic individual freedoms guaranteed under the 1993 Russian Constitution. [End Page 165] This pattern of gradually closing the public space and denying citizens the rights of free press, assembly, and speech was present and planned from the very beginning, as will be shown in my discussion of a document, never before published outside Russia, detailing the plans made in late 1999 and early 2000 to reshape the entire Presidential Administration to achieve these ends (p. 2).

Dawisha’s account contains ample details about the Putin clique’s wealth and its implications for Russia and for the world. There are many themes in the book that might be touched on, but I will focus on five: 1) Putin’s disdain for electoral politics; 2) his transformation of a merely corrupt state into a ruthless predator; 3) the close-knit nature of the group that benefits the most from this sistema; 4) the social consequences of a regime that fosters massive inequality even as it destroys the climate that legitimate businesses require; and 5) the international ramifications of a state run by crony predators who safeguard their loot by relying on public goods produced in the very democracies that Putin’s political technologists disparage.

After serving in the KGB in Dresden from 1985 until 1990, Vladimir Putin experienced two employment crises. The first came in 1990, when about a third of all KGB employees stationed abroad were pushed into the active reserve. He returned to his hometown of Leningrad (again named St. Petersburg in 1991) and eventually found work on the staff of its mayor, the democratic icon Anatoly Sobchak (1937–2000). Dawisha presents evidence that Putin’s relationship with Sobchak stemmed from KGB concern about Sobchak’s probes into the security service’s appropriation of Communist Party assets and plans to ship tanks abroad to discredit Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. The assignment given to Putin, who rose to become first deputy mayor in 1994, was to bring Sobchak “under control” (p. 28).

Some may question Dawisha’s claim that Sobchak probably knew about Putin’s past and his assignment. In the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin supporters used to tell me how proud they were to have on their side an old KGB hand who had seen the light and come over to join the good guys. Russian democrats might have wondered why so many Yeltsin supporters employed someone whose major resumé item was “KGB officer.”

The second job crisis came in 1996, after Putin mismanaged Sobchak’s reelection bid. Putin later told Yeltsin that he disliked campaigns so...


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pp. 165-170
Launched on MUSE
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