First Person

Tony Wood

  • ‘Sistema’, Power Networks and Informal Governance by Alena Ledeneva
    Cambridge, 327 pp, £19.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 521 12563 5
  • The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen
    Granta, 314 pp, £9.99, January 2013, ISBN 978 1 84708 423 1
  • Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? by Karen Dawisha
    Simon and Schuster, 464 pp, £11.50, September 2014, ISBN 978 1 4767 9519 5

Nearly five thousand people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since April 2014; according to Ukrainian government figures, 514,000 have been internally displaced by the fighting, with another 233,000 applying for refugee status in Russia (9000 have sought asylum in the EU). Peace talks over the fate of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions have so far been fruitless, and the ceasefire nominally agreed in September has been patchy at best.

The effects of the Ukraine crisis on Russia itself have been visible everywhere, from the thousands of refugees from Donetsk and Lugansk now resettling across Russia to the fresh graves quietly appearing in scattered villages, containing the remains of Russian conscripts killed in eastern Ukraine – casualties Moscow prefers not to acknowledge. (Some have even been retroactively discharged from the army, so that, for official purposes, they weren’t killed on active service.) Relations with the West have reached their lowest point in decades, and the combination of US-EU sanctions and plummeting oil prices has started to spread economic gloom. Between June and mid-December 2014 the ruble lost half its value – its downward path mirroring the slump in the price of oil, which went from $109 per barrel of Urals crude in June to $67 in December. All this has been exacerbated by the Kremlin’s self-destructive decisions. In August, Putin introduced retaliatory sanctions against countries that had mandated measures against Russia, the main effect of which has been drastically to reduce food imports and raise prices, helping to push inflation to an official level of 10 per cent, though some estimates put it at between 15 and 25 per cent. The country was already in recession when, in late December, the central bank forecast a further 5 per cent contraction of GDP in the course of this year. Some Russians have now taken to amending the patriotic slogan ‘Krym Nash’ – ‘Crimea is Ours’ – to ‘Krizis Nash’: ‘The Crisis is Ours.’

Yet so far Putin’s handling of the situation remains broadly popular in Russia. In fact one of the most striking things to emerge from the events of 2014 was the mismatch between the Putin government’s position domestically and internationally: surging neo-imperial popularity at home, virtual pariah status abroad. While the Western media is full of resurgent Cold War rhetoric, recent polls by the Levada Centre, one of the few independent research outfits remaining in Russia, show overwhelming support – 85 per cent – for the annexation of Crimea; they also show that in November 59 per cent thought the country was ‘moving in the right direction’, compared with 43 per cent last January. The solidity of this domestic consensus, however, is likely to be tested in the coming months by a combination of recession and rising prices, and the hostile international climate will narrow the regime’s options further. Putin’s presidential term runs until 2018, and the political landscape has been carefully swept clear of viable electoral alternatives, but his hold on power has begun to seem less unshakeable than it was a year ago. Any sense of how Putinism will fare – is it more likely to crack under external pressure than to erode from within, or will it do neither? – depends on the view one takes of the kind of regime it is.

Since the early 2000s, a number of terms have been applied to the system over which Putin has presided. The Kremlin’s own ideologues have at different times called it ‘sovereign democracy’ or ‘managed democracy’ (to which Russian wits responded by saying that either adjective was to democracy what ‘electric’ is to ‘chair’). Scholars and journalists, inside and outside Russia, have opted for other labels: ‘competitive authoritarianism’, ‘virtual’ or ‘imitation democracy’, ‘militocracy’, ‘mafia state’. Medvedev’s chair-warming cameo between 2008 and 2012 added a new term to the lexicon – ‘tandemocracy’ – and for a moment seemed to raise the possibility of liberalisation. But with Putin reinstalled a cold front settled over Russia in the wake of mass protests in the winter of 2011-12, and the autocratic features of the system became even more pronounced.

The various labels for Putinism put the stress on different aspects of the regime: its increasingly authoritarian bent, reflected in the suppression of dissent and the spread of security service personnel throughout the state apparatus; its hollow performance of democratic rituals such as elections, emptied of any actual democratic content; its artful manipulation of appearances through its grip on the media; its endemic corruption, and the related entanglement of officialdom with organised crime. Underpinning most Western analyses is the idea that all this represents a sharp break with what came before: as the standard story has it, the Yeltsin years saw the installation of a turbulent, flawed democracy; Putin has presided over an anti-democratic turn – even, for some, a regression towards state socialism. The tone was set early on by Putin’s frequent mentions of the ‘vertical of power’: in stark contrast to the apparent free-for-all of the 1990s, he established a clear chain of command, firmly subordinating Russia’s regional governors to Moscow and bringing the whole country’s administrative structure increasingly under the control of the United Russia party. This emphasis on central authority appeared to be echoed in the economy, as the state moved to regain its hold over strategic sectors such as oil and gas. By 2004, Putin appointees were in charge of seven companies which accounted for 40 per cent of GDP – a phenomenon referred to as ‘Kremlin Inc’, and seen as evidence of a turn away from free market capitalism towards a statist model. In The Man without a Face, Masha Gessen concluded that Putin’s goal was a steady and deliberate ‘transformation of Russia back into the USSR’, while in Putin’s Kleptocracy, Karen Dawisha insisted, in more excitable vein, that we need to understand his rule as the triumph of a nefarious KGB ‘cabal’ which had spent the 1990s preparing for a creeping revanchist takeover.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] Peter Pomerantsev wrote about sistema in the LRB of 5 December 2013.

[†] Michael Wood reviewed Leviathan in the LRB of 8 January.