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  • The Roots of Authoritarianism in Russia
  • Peter Rutland (bio)

In The Code of Putinism, Brian Taylor presents a balanced, informed portrait of Putin and the system of "Putinism." The book covers an impressively broad sweep of relevant topics in Russian politics and society, from the state of the roads to the war in Syria.

Taylor rejects simplistic portrayals of Putin as a self-interested kleptocrat, noting that central to his world view—and his actions—is the restoration of Russia as a great power. Putin's international ambition and domestic political "code" are two sides of the same coin: the former justifies and reinforces the latter. Putinism is a combination of what Taylor calls "hyperpresidentialism" and informal clan understandings. This "code" has proved effective in stabilizing the political system, reviving the economy, and restoring Russia's great-power status, but Russia eventually will need to make the transition from a personalistic to a rule-based system because this has not been achieved on Putin's watch.

The central question lurking behind Taylor's account, to which there is no easy answer, is to what extent Putinism is tied to the person of Putin. Did Putin create the system, or did the system create Putin? How much freedom of maneuver does he really have—is he a personal dictator or merely a broker, resolving disputes between rival clans and bureaucracies? Taylor portrays Putin as a fixer at the center of a web of informal networks (p. 79), yet also argues that he is "the boss," endorsing "the image of Putin as a powerful tsar, the ruler who can dismiss any other official at any time and to whom all other officials owe their position" (p. 104). By contrast, no less an authority than Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled oligarch turned opposition activist, sees Putin as a weak leader, controlled by criminal groups.1 As a result, his capacity to effect significant policy change has been stymied by bureaucratic inertia and popular protest.

One way of approaching this question is to ask about the origins of Putinism. The book basically starts the story in 2000 and does not probe the question of origins at length. Taylor briefly discusses Putinism's relationship [End Page 93] to the deep history of Russia's authoritarian political culture (pp. 13, 36). But he prefers to see Putinism as a modern phenomenon, the product of a new, post-Soviet Russian society. Taylor describes Russia in 2000 as a "frail but functional semidemocratic system" (p. 41), while conceding that "Yeltsin did much both for efforts to build a democratic Russia, and to create conditions that enabled the return of authoritarianism" (p. 44).

However, it can be argued that most of Putinism's core features predate the accession of Putin to the presidency in 2000. The code was created by the oligarchic elite that rose to power under Boris Yeltsin. Archie Brown likes to argue that nearly all the features of democracy in Russia (such as competitive elections, a free press, a sovereign parliament, and freedom of association) were introduced under Mikhail Gorbachev and not Boris Yeltsin.2 The only innovation under Yeltsin was the direct election of regional leaders (which Putin abolished in 2004 and restored in 2012). Despite this, Yeltsin is typically hailed by Western observers as the founding father of Russian democracy.

Similarly, one can argue that most of the key features of Russian authoritarianism were introduced under Yeltsin in the 1990s. Crony capitalism, Kremlin-friendly television stations, rigged elections, bribery and clientelism, loyalty to one's inner circle, a politicized judiciary, and invasion (of Chechnya, in this case) were all practices central to the Yeltsin administration's consolidation of power. Taylor describes the 1996 election as "the most competitive" in Russia's post-1991 history (p. 45). This may well be true, but would Yeltsin have really allowed Zyuganov to win? Taylor believes that Putin's clan system is centralized, whereas Yeltsin's was fragmented, but he concedes that Henry Hale, an authority on the subject, sees both as "single pyramid" systems (p. 105, footnote 52).

Most of the key informal networks that undergird the Putin regime were formed during the "wild privatization" of the 1990s...