Putin in Shades of Grey
Putin and the Rise of Russia
Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2008
Before the international credit markets imploded, crushing the Russian stock market and rejuvenating hopes for political change in Russia, Vladimir Putin was on a roll. He presided over almost a decade of 7% economic growth; he was named Time Magazine‘s person of the year; he made a successful bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics; he managed to get the rest of the world to talk about him; and he presided over many a scheming politician’s fantasy—a short and victorious war. This impressive record rendered Putin enigmatic because he was both powerfully “evil” and yet enviously popular. He could suggest a French journalist be circumcised “so that nothing would grow back” or threaten to hang Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili “by the balls”, and yet, it seemed that no matter what he said or did, Russians loved him all the more.
A large number of books have been published over the past two years that aim to answer the question: “Who is Putin?” What is interesting about this breed of nonfiction is the strange dichotomy between the stated goals on the book flap and the actual analysis on the pages. On the cover, Putin and Russia appear in bold strokes as different, reinvented, successful, threatening, and on the move. Yet, in the meat of the analysis, the reader often discovers that Russia is old, tired, unreformed, unsuccessful, decrepit, and, in some ways, stagnant. Despite proclaiming the “rise” of the “new” Russia, this genre of books often implicitly argues that there is nothing—apart from new faces, new elites and new hydrocarbon cash—that differentiates today’s Russia from yesterday’s sclerotic Soviet version or Putin from yesterday’s communist apparatchiks.
More frustrating is the genre’s tendency to paint a picture of Russian politics that bears more resemblance to a medieval morality play than to the dark, twisted, and incestuous world of post-communist Russia. As part of the journey into the dark land of Putin, the reader is inevitably acquainted with former President Boris Yeltsin (good) who built democracy (good) fought the communists (good) and supported the liberals (good). Yeltsin, however, was subsequently tricked into supporting Putin (bad) who, in turn, routed the liberals (bad), supported the siloviki (bad), and recentralised state power (bad). Yet, despite the prominence that Putin enjoys in this tale of moralised misfortune, surprisingly little is said about the man. Rather, Putin perpetually lurks in the background like some malevolent spirit—a gloomy demon casting an icy glare this way and that in service of some unknowable evil plan.
Thankfully, Michael Stuermer spares us the circuitous and often false moralising. He writes about Yeltsin’s support of Putin, which largely arose out of narrow and selfish reasons (namely, so Yeltsin could protect the fantastically large sums of ill-gotten money belonging to his “family” of close associates). While Stuermer is not the first to describe the mind-bending corruption prevalent in Yeltsin’s inner sanctum straightforwardly, in an area of study where Western commentators tend to canonise Yeltsin as Russia’s great departed liberal while portraying Putin as a Judas-like Stalin incarnate, Stuermer’s honesty about Yeltsin’s flaws is a useful litmus test for honesty in other areas. Yeltsin was both laudable and contemptible; so too is Putin. But publishers, we know, make little money selling books that deal in shades of grey.
If we consider the Putin demonisation industry that has sprouted up over the past several years, Stuermer’s book is notable for the fact that it adamantly refuses to paint Vladimir Putin as being one step removed from Stalin. In the somewhat incestuous community of Kremlinologists, this is the point at which allegations of Kremlin sympathising or rank moral cowardice are levelled against the commentator at hand. Stuermer, however, is unapologetic. For the most part, he succeeds in avoiding the lethal perils of cliché, which are never far from the surface when Russia and its leaders are concerned. It is thus no small credit to this book that it did not follow the route so shamelessly charted by books such as Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West or Steve Levine’s Putin’s Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia. Compared to that of Lucas, who somehow manages to keep a straight face while comparing the Nordstream gas pipeline (a German-Russian project that will bypass Poland and the Baltics) to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Stuermer’s tone is notably calmer and his argument more nuanced.
In the most enjoyable parts of the book, Stuermer tries to show Putin as a somewhat reasonable and intelligent man, despite his serious flaws. Rather than magically appearing in Moscow as the head of the FSB, Putin rose from the St Petersburg city administration in the same way that all politicians rise: through a combination of competence, hard work, and luck. Stuermer does an evenhanded job of showing all sides of Putin, including his time with the KGB in East Germany. After leaving the KGB, Putin was an early and loyal protégé of Anatoly Sobchak, a noted liberal and the first democratically elected mayor of St Petersburg. If there was nothing more to Putin than his past as a spy, (something often “proved” by usage of the phrase, popular amongst KGB operatives, “once a Chekist, always a Chekist”), then his early association with Sobchak simply makes no sense. All sorts of politicians were popping up in Russia in the chaotic years of the early 1990s, and Sobchak, though far from perfect, was about as pro-Western and non-threatening as they came.
In highlighting some of the attributes of Putin that are often ignored, Stuermer exposes a paradoxical aspect of the man and the system that would never get a hearing in the more hard-line anti-Putin books. Russia’s system of government remains closed, opaque, and brutal, as Anatol Lieven and others have suggested. Yet the Kremlin’s intentions and policy stances seem more or less unambiguous to the wider international community. Putin and his protégé, President Dmitry Medvedev, are quite clear, brusque even, in stating their positions. Russia complained so loudly and persistently about NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia that the Kremlin seemed one small step short of taking off its collective shoe and banging it on the international podium. Yet, somehow, the West was shocked that Russia reacted the way it did this past August.
Stuermer seems to achieve a reasonably satisfactory position on the critical question of “who is Putin”. He shows how Putin was explicitly selected and backed by Yeltsin as well as how the state apparatus he has used to recentralise power over the past eight years was not “recreated” by nefarious ex-KGB operatives but utilised by Yeltsin himself, albeit in a more restrained manner. Stuermer also highlights the pragmatism and caution that have generally been a hallmark of Putin’s rule. In fact, few Westerners who automatically equate Putin’s rule with “new imperialism” would guess that the defence budget as a percentage of GDP has essentially remained flat over the past eight years and is only a tiny fraction of what it was in the old days of the Soviet Union. As recently as 2005, Russia spent less on defence as a percentage of GDP (3.9%) than the United States (4.1%). Given the Kremlin’s impressive oil revenues, this appears to be part of a deliberate strategy to learn from the abject failure of the Soviet garrison state. There is a great difference between talking big and actually deploying and paying for modern armed forces. Putin can saber-rattle with the very best, but he has proved far less willing to pay for new sabers. In fact, Putin has faced substantial criticism, usually from some truly frightening people in extremist Russian nationalist circles, due to his “ignoring” of defence matters.
Strummer, however, does not sufficiently engage with the possibility of Putin being, at least on a few issues, a man of the left. Truth be told, there is a very good chance that Putin is more liberal than the median Russian voter, especially when it comes to economic matters in which the Russian public has long displayed a preference for extensive state involvement and robust social guarantees. Nonetheless, Stuermer does admit that what we understand as “liberals” make up no more than 15% of the Russian population, and that Putin’s adept nationalist posturing and consciously constructed image of sobriety are genuinely appealing to Russian citizens—not merely the result of traditional Kremlin excellence in brainwashing.
While Stuermer, thankfully, does not embrace wholeheartedly the consensus Western view of Putin as Beelzebub in a suit and tie, this book is ultimately not a thorough reexamination of Russia so much as it is an oddly disjointed series of chapters that do both too much and too little. Upon finishing Putin and the Rise of Russia, it became apparent that Stuermer should have written two separate books: Putin, full stop, and The Rise of Russia. This book would have been sharper had it examined either subject more in depth.
In short, Stuermer is at his best as a writer when he attempts to describe Putin as a man in power, especially the frustrations from his time as president: his inability to control the labyrinthine bureaucracy effectively, his admissions of failure in modernising the economy, and the inherent limitations on the sort of top-down hierarchical rule that has characterised Russia for centuries and that Putin has set about reconstituting. There is real value in this, as far too many excitable Westerners take Putin’s carefully crafted image of omnipotence and intimidation at face value. Understanding that even Putin labors under constraints, some severe and some less so, will do a lot to assuage the largely groundless fears that Russia is on the brink of recreating the Soviet Union. Russia has such a litany of problems—economic, military, and, most especially demographic—that it isn’t on the brink of conquering anyone and, in fact, will be lucky simply to hold itself together in the medium and long term. Stuermer recognises this, and while his focus could surely be improved, he should be heartily commended for one of the book’s clearly stated prescriptions: everyone—Russian, European, and American alike—should take a deep breath and relax.
Mark Adomanis is reading for an MPhil in Russian and East European Studies at New College, Oxford.