The Resistible Rise of Vladimir Putin: Russia's Nightmare Dressed like a Daydream

By Kotkin, Stephen | Foreign Affairs, March/April 2015 | Go to article overview

The Resistible Rise of Vladimir Putin: Russia's Nightmare Dressed like a Daydream


Kotkin, Stephen, Foreign Affairs


The Resistible Rise of Vladimir Putin Russia's Nightmare Dressed Like a Daydream Stephen Kotkin Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin BY FIONA HILL AND CLIFFORD G. GADDY. Brookings Institution Press, 2013, 400 pp. $29.95.

Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? BY KAREN DAWISHA. Simon & Schuster, 2014, 464 pp. $30.00.

Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin BY BEN JUDAH. Yale University Press, 2013, 400 pp. $22.00.

How did twenty-first-century Russia end up, yet again, in personal rule? An advanced industrial country of 142 million people, it has no enduring political parties that organize and respond to voter preferences. The military is sprawling yet tame; the immense secret police are effectively in one man's pocket. The hydrocarbon sector is a personal bank, and indeed much of the economy is increasingly treated as an individual fiefdom. Mass media move more or less in lockstep with the commands of the presidential administration. Competing interest groups abound, but there is no rival center of power. In late October 2014, after a top aide to Russia's president told the annual forum of the Valdai Discussion Club, which brings together Russian and foreign experts, that Russians understand "if there is no Putin, there is no Russia," the pundit Stanislav Belkovsky observed that "the search for Russia's national idea, which began after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is finally over. Now, it is evident that Russia's national idea is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin."

Russia is classified as a high-income economy by the World Bank (having a per capita gdp exceeding $14,000). Its unemployment remains low (around five percent); until recently, consumer spending had been expanding at more than five percent annually; life expectancy has been rising; and Internet penetration exceeds that of some countries in the European Union. But Russia is now beset by economic stagnation alongside high inflation, its labor productivity remains dismally low, and its once-vaunted school system has deteriorated alarmingly. And it is astonishingly corrupt. Not only the bullying central authorities in Moscow but regional state bodies, too, have been systematically criminalizing revenue streams, while giant swaths of territory lack basic public services and local vigilante groups proliferate. Across the country, officials who have purchased their positions for hefty sums team up with organized crime syndicates and use friendly prosecutors and judges to extort and expropriate rivals. President Vladimir Putin's vaunted " stability," in short, has turned into spoliation. But Putin has been in power for 15 years, and there is no end in sight. Stalin ruled for some three decades; Brezhnev for almost two. Putin, still relatively young and healthy, looks set to top the latter and might even outdo the former.

In some ways, observers are still trying to fathom how the revolt against tsarist autocracy in 1917-the widest mass revolution in history up to that point- culminated in a regime unaccountable to itself, let alone to the masses. Now, after the mass mobilizations for democracy that accompanied and followed the 1991 Soviet collapse, a new authoritarianism has taken shape. Of course, Putin's dictatorship differs substantially from the Soviet communist version. Today's Russia has no single ideology and no disciplined ruling party, and although it lacks the rule of law, it does allow private property and free movement across borders. Still, the country is back in a familiar place, a one-man regime.

The methods Putin used to fix the corrupt, dysfunctional post-Soviet state have produced yet another corrupt, dysfunctional state. Putin himself complains publicly that only about 20 percent of his decisions get implemented, with the rest being ignored or circumvented unless he intervenes forcefully with the interest groups and functionaries concerned. But he cannot intervene directly with every boss, governor, and official in the country on every issue. …

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