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17 November 2018

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Book Review

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I'm Going to Ruin Their Lives

by Marc Bennetts ( OneWorld, $14.99)

Trying to figure out Russia in the Age of Putin is a bit like attempting to assemble a 1000-piece puzzle after someone has ripped the picture off the front of the box. The best approach is to start with some edge pieces: pick a few points of reference and work one’s way to the center. Here are four.

British journalist Marc Bennetts (I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives, OneWorld, $14.99) traces the unlikely transformation of Vladimir Putin from a technocratic prime minister in 1999 to the Kremlin Tsar he is today by charting the evolution of interactions between the Kremlin and its opponents.

We must begin, Bennetts says, with the reality that Russians assented to a Faustian bargain in the early 2000s, when they accepted sausages in exchange for freedom.

The oil and gas boom pulled Russia out of its economic crisis of the late 1990s and brought new prosperity to most layers of society. Yet this was accompanied by a steady and relentless crackdown on freedom of the press, demonstrations and independent political parties, along with widespread corruption, election rigging and propagandistic Newspeak.

This fairly normative interpretation is not the reason to pick up Bennetts’ book. Instead, it is invaluable for his many interviews and interactions with Russians who continue to demonstrate and defy authority even as things get increasingly difficult. And he covers the full spectrum, from radical right-wingers to pro-Western liberals, from voting monitors to provincial activists trying to stop a nickel mining operation from being set up in their backyard. We learn what keeps them fighting, despite impossible odds, what the Kremlin and Putin seem to fear most (Maidan), and why any form of dissent is increasingly seen as some shade of treason.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2016