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21 November 2018

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Book Review

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Fragile Empire

Ben Judah (Yale)

The subtitle of this book, “How Russia fell in and out of love with Vladimir Putin” is an apt summary. Judah chronicles the rise of Putin from virtual nobody (1991), to lionized tsar (2008), to a putative Tsar Nicholas II or Boris Gudonov (2012). It is a compelling account, based on thousands of interviews with ordinary Russians, and dozens with “influentials” past and present. Judah shows Putin to be a man who has assumed the guise demanded of him by events and history: a Chekist in the last days of the USSR, a democrat under Sobchak, a loyal servant under Yeltsin, a militant war president riding a popular tide that wanted security and stability above freedom. But, in the process of that last bit, Judah argues, Putin and his coterie built centralizing institutions that eviscerated civil society and the democratic accomplishments of the Yeltsin era. The manipulative interim presidency of Medvedev, followed by the re-re-election of Putin showed that the Vertical of Power had no clothes, that “managed democracy” had only “the formal institutions of democracy... gutted of meaning,” that the Party of Power was in fact the “party of crooks and thieves.” The vertical of power turned into a vertical of corruption, United Russia turned into a patronage network not a party, and the ‘dictatorship of law’ turned out to be a dictatorship of predatory officials. They left Russia a fragmented and feudalized country in which all corrupt policeman, inspectors and governors had been signed up into Putin’s party. The mass demonstrations of 2011-12, Judah says, were signs of a discontent that he says is far from limited to the capital. The discontent “is vast,” he says, “but resistance is tiny.” For now, the regime has bought off its natural critics, but a civil society is creating itself online, away from the corrupt and powerless vessels of “managed democracy.” How it will develop is as yet uncertain. This book is a sobering portrait. It is strongest in describing the type of state Russia has become, how it has come to be driven by the personality and desires of one man. Many, however, may find the prognosis to be overly dismal. In any event, if you are interested in understanding where Russia is and how it got there, this is an exceptional place to start.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2014