Richard Sakwa. Putin: Russia's Choice. London: Routledge, 2004. 306 pp. Appendix. Bibliography. Index.
In a short period of time, Vladimir Putin has made a strong imprint on Russia's political life. Elected in 2000 as the Russian Federation's second president, he has overseen a period of major reforms, in areas as diverse as taxation, social welfare, and federal relations. Where his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, had the image of a confrontational and erratic presence, Putin appeared to be a disciplined, focussed leader. This solidity is key to understanding the man's success: according to Sakwa, Putin's popularity owes to his ability to project authority while still appearing to share the typical upbringing of the average Russian citizen (p. 249). Putin's appeal to his fellow citizens is often baffling to Western observers, who remain divided over many questions: is Putin an innovator, or a restorer of some of the most unsavoury features of the Soviet past? Is he reversing democracy or establishing rule of law?
Clearly, it is impossible to remain indifferent on the subject of Vladimir Putin. As such, Richard Sakwa's book is a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of present-day Russian politics. Although the work contains biographical information-the first chapter is a fascinating account of Putin's rise to power-it is not strictly speaking a biography. Rather, the book is an examination of the principal reforms, changes and debates in Russian politics from Putin's ascent to power as prime minister in 1999 until the end of his first term as president in 2004. Sakwa's analysis is grounded on the assumption that Putin the individual has been the centre of the country's political landscape and that his world-view decisively shaped reforms. As a result. Putin: Russia's Choice is a book that is a useful general reference work as well as a valuable interpretive statement on the significance of Putin's leadership. Drawing on extensive analysis of Russian-language published sources, the book presents a nuanced and critical perspective on its subject. The book stands out in its consideration of the role of ideas in Russian politics, and for its attention to the particular ways in which Putin uses language. Where much of the contemporary literature on Russian politics focuses on elections, policies, and institutions, a work that considers discourse is a welcome change.
Putin's commitment to "normality" particularly sparks Sakwa's interest (pp. 40-43). As Sakwa claims, historically, Russia's leaders have all too often favoured swift upsets of the status quo over the mundane enterprise of correcting the defects of day-to-day governance. Thus, according to Sakwa, Putin's stated attempts to bring coherent, efficient leadership to the state, and to achieve change through legislation and policy, demonstrate a decisive change for Russia. …