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19 November 2018

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The Putin Mystique: Inside Russia's Power Cult

by Anna Arutunyan

There could not be a more appropriate book to read at this moment. Published almost coincident with the Ukraine crisis, Arutunyan's book offers a powerful portrait of the economic, political and psychological forces that undergird the modern Russian state.

The title is a bit misleading, however, because this is not a book about Putin, per se. It is instead about how Putin could happen, about what it is in the Russian polity, in Russian history and economics, that would lead a country recently freed from the shackles of Communism, beginning its unsteady lurch toward democracy, to revert to its well-worn, authoritarian-feudal past.

Arutunyan, a journalist, approaches the issue from a sociological perspective, seeking to explain Russia by conveying illustrative stories about the various “layers” of society. She approaches Russia's current situation not as a problem that needs to be fixed, but one that needs to be understood. Through a mixture of first-person journalism, relevant political science and economic research, she shows why nothing gets done without the tsar's intervention, why Tsar Vladimir is as much the siloviki's prisoner as they are his, why Russians so avidly support Putin, why such a centralized, authoritarian Moscow is so weak in the regions, why corruption is immutable and the law is powerless, and why any successor to Putin will of necessity be a lot like Putin, and be brought to power by the Kremlin itself.

Russia, Arutunyan shows, is a society that remains intensely feudalistic and atomized, far from the collectivist society others have mythologized. And she finds many fascinating parallels in history to explain modern predicaments –not the least significant of which is the medieval practice of kormlenie –where boyars “fed themselves” off the property and resources bestowed upon them by the state.

In Russia, the ruled see those in power as a force that has “an unwritten, God-given right to exploit them in exchange for bringing order to their lives.” Those in power, meanwhile, have a paternalistic, possessive view of the “feminine” society over which they rule. This paternalism, this authoritarianism, Arutunyan argues, is the result of a deplorable lack of trust among Russians, of their weak sense of civil society. And as long as that is the case, the only unifying force in a country that is in fact very fractious, diverse and individualistic, will be the cult of a Good Tsar. And probably a carefully cultivated image of an outside world filled with malicious enemies.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2014