- A State without a Society
Brian Taylor's The Code of Putinism provides a great introduction to the reign of Vladimir Putin in contemporary Russia. Drawing on his deep and extensive knowledge of Russian politics, Taylor deftly explains why Russia is different from other authoritarian countries. In a time when analyses of Russian politics are typically informed by an author's own ideology, he helps the reader gain a more dispassionate understanding of why Russia's most important leaders do what they do. In stressing that ideas, habits, and emotions matter in the "code" of Putinism, the book provides a nuanced alternative to the more common view that Putin and his team are driven purely by power and pecuniary predilections. At its best, The Code of Putinism offers guidance on how Putinist Russia might behave under certain circumstances, just as Nathan Leites's The Operational Code of the Politburo did on the Soviet leadership in the 1950s.
The book seeks to construct a complete picture of Putinism without becoming a turgid political science text. Yet what this effort ultimately results in is the synthesis of a huge amount of literature without an overall argument. There is no Virgil to guide us through the circles of the Putinist inferno. While Taylor quotes many experts on Russia, he never explicitly shares his own perspective with us. Perhaps because the intended audience of the book remains nebulous—is it students, the interested public, or policymakers?—many discussions are only summarized without going into greater detail or indicating who is right and who is wrong. Although Taylor's efforts to be even-handed are admirable, we would have appreciated reading more of his insights.
The paradox laid out at the beginning of the book—that "Putin seems to grow ever stronger, his famous muscles bulging powerfully, while Russian institutions remain weak and ineffective" (p. 1)—does not seem to be much of a paradox. This line of thinking made sense in Taylor's earlier books about Russia's security and military organs, in which the agencies [End Page 97] grew stronger and the state as a whole grew weaker, but it does not transfer naturally to the concept of Putinism as a whole. The Russian state certainly is weak, which is a point deserves more explanation. The only explanation the book provides is that the code of Putinism leads the Russian president to think that he is more effective than any institutions can be, resulting in a lot of "disappointing outcomes and missed opportunities" (p. 132).
Perhaps the main missing ingredient in this top-down, elite-centric analysis is a discussion of Russian society. The book does a great job of explaining why Putin behaves in certain ways, but it does not attempt to explain why the rest of Russian society—140 million people—accepts these actions. It is understandable that Putin would want to bring Russia's governors to heel after they grew more powerful during the 1990s, but why did they let him do that? Analysts at the time assumed that the governors would not be willing to surrender their newfound authority without a fight. That, however, is exactly what they did. Illuminating the interaction between state and society might deepen our understanding of precisely how the Russian state operates.
As it is presented here, Putin's state seems to be floating, disengaged from the rest of Russia. It is not connected in any coherent way to the regions or society as a whole. It appears to act with impunity on an inert and shapeless population. However, Putin's own policies have certainly led to societal change and the development of a much more assertive set of social groups. As his tenure drags on, regional, ethnic, generational, class, gender, and other cleavages are becoming more pronounced and forcing the state to respond. With Putin's ideas, habits, and emotions leading him to behave one way, how does he always manage to respond to these demands in a manner that ensures that he remains on top? Understanding his effectiveness in this regard might further reveal how the current Kremlin elites retain control.
The book also does...