"Putin's Russia" by Lilia Shevtsova, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 455 pages, $19.95
Hanging in Vladimir Putin's office in the Kremlin is a huge portrait of the czar, Peter the Great. That, perhaps more than anything else, symbolizes the ambivalent nature of Putin's regime. Like Peter the Great, Putin also wants to open Russia up to the West. But again, like Peter, what he is importing from the West is technology and lifestyle not norms of government. This is nothing like what the optimists envisioned when Soviet rule collapsed. Neo-conservative philosopher Francis Fukuyama was convinced that when communism disappeared, all former communist countries would open up to democracy and embrace a market economy.
If countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were faced with the dual challenge of political democratization and liberalization of their economy (which do not always go hand in hand), Russia confronted two additional challenges: renouncing its legacy of imperialism, which was partly czarist and partly Soviet, and consolidating a modern nation-state. Russian/Soviet imperialism stood in the way of the establishment of a nation-state a chief prerequisite for democratic growth.
In view of these complexities, Lilia Shevtsova's book is particularly intriguing. Shevtsova is a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment Moscow office, and she divides her time between Moscow and Washington. She thus enjoys an advantage over Russian scholars, who find it hard to get past the limitations of Soviet heritage and Russian life, and Western scholars, to whom life in Russian can still be enigmatic.
Shevtsova's previous book, "Yeltsin's Russia: Myths and Reality," was one of the first to shatter the conventional view of the West of Yeltsin as a political democrat and an economic liberal. She wrote about the internal chaos and corruption in his regime, which paved the way for the rise of the oligarchs. These economic gangsters plundered the country's resources and became multimillionaires through shady deals, receiving legitimization from Yeltsin and several Western economists, some of them naive and others partners in crime, in the name of privatization and liberalization.
Shevtsova begins her book about Putin with a description of the end of the Yeltsin era. According to her account, in addition to anarchy and corruption, Russia was falling apart as a state. In the federative structure inaugurated by Yeltsin, each of the 79 administrative districts of Russia was granted a large degree of autonomy. In this way, the district governors became "local czars." In the absence of political parties, the elections in these districts became a joke. The governors seized control of the local resources or granted concessions to the oligarchs who greased their palms. The central government was unable to collect taxes, laws passed in Moscow were not enforced in the provinces, and Yeltsin's administration failed to replace the Soviet party apparatus with effective governing tools. Delegates to the Russian Parliament also fought to gain control of the country's resources. Real liberal parties, like Grigori Yavlinski's Yabloko party, did not muster enough supporters outside the intelligentsia in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the giant expanses of Russia, which spans 11 time zones, their voice was hardly detectable. At the same time, Russia's international standing declined.
Ascent to the presidency This was the background for the surprising ascent of Putin, who became president on December 31, 1999 after Yeltsin resigned. With all her criticism of the Yeltsin administration, Shevtsova has a soft spot for him: He fought bravely against the Soviet regime and its defenders (without him, the putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev might have succeeded). But he was not a builder. His strength lay in tearing down.
Members of the political system, realizing what was happening, plucked Putin out of his relative anonymity in St. Petersburg, saw to it that he was appointed prime minister, and forced Yeltsin to resign (in exchange for legal immunity), thereby paving the way for Putin's presidency. In practice, it was a silent overthrow in the finest Byzantine traditions of czarist Russia, but without the bloodshed.
Putin gives the impression of trying to reconsolidate Russia as a state and keep it from falling to pieces. Outwardly, he continues with the rhetoric of democracy and liberalization. But the reality, says Shevtsova, is very different. Without a tradition of civil society, without organized parties and a legacy of abiding by the law and autonomous courts, it is no accident that democracy has turned into anarchy, and economic freedom into a mob-run form of capitalism. Putin's consolidation efforts have saved the Russian state from disintegration, but they have also created a new authoritarianism authoritarianism with a human face, you might call it (in a play on Dubcek and Gorbachev's phrase "socialism with a human face").
In Putin's Russia, people are not executed, but the Kremlin uses police tactics and pseudo-legal means to restrict the freedom of the unaffiliated press. Elected district governors are replaced with appointed establishment officials. Tax laws are employed to rein in the oligarchs, who supported Putin at first, but later felt the extent of his power. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky are in exile; Mikhail Khodorkovsky is in jail.
Perhaps a few words about the oligarchs are in order here. In a lengthy footnote on page 410, Shevtsova lists some of the more prominent names in addition to the three just mentioned: Vladimir Potanin, Petr Aven, Mikhail Fridman and Alexander Smolensky. She makes no mention of the fact which everyone knows that most of these people are Jews or of Jewish descent.
This gives rise to two questions worthy of discussion in their own right. How did it happen that in the twilight years of the Soviet regime, when Jews had no access to the government or to sources of economic power, a handful of them mathematicians, theater directors managed to gain control over most of the Russian economy? And why, despite all the apprehension, has this not spurred any fresh outbreak of anti-Semitism in Russia? Anti-Semitism exists (traditional Russian anti-Semitism was adopted on and off by the Soviet regime), but there are no pogroms or outright violence against Jews.
On the other hand, it is hard to claim, as some of Khodorkovsky's supporters and partners do, that Khodorkovsky is being hounded for no reason. Putin is clearly running an authoritarian regime, and Khodorkovsky, as Shevtsova points out, represents a threat. Indeed, of all the oligarchs, he is the one who has financially supported the liberal opposition parties and spoken of his personal political ambitions.
But to say that Putin is anti-Semitic, when he is one of the leading supporters of Chabad in Russia, is absurd. In such a complex political situation, not every Jewish mobster-tycoon with the law on his tail for criminal activity real or fabricated can cry "anti-Semitism" and expect the Jewish community to stand behind him.
KGB background Shevtsova also discusses Putin's KGB background, pointing out the paradox here. Ex-KGBers, of all people, have been the ones consistently pushing for greater openness toward the West (Yuri Andropov and Eduard Shevarnadze are examples).
On the one hand, the KGB was a fearsome institution inspiring dread; on the other, its agents, who served in the West, understood that the Soviet regime was a dismal failure. When the Communist Party apparatus collapsed in the Soviet Union, the KGB remained, but assumed a new guise under the leadership of Yevgeni Primakov.
When Putin came to power and looked for people to appoint to key positions in his government - in particular, high commissioners to oversee the sprawling new districts he established he did not turn to former party members, with their narrow-minded, doctrinaire approach, but to colleagues from the KGB. This was not only because he could trust them personally, but because they represented a system that still operated more or less efficiently, and did not suffer from the administrative chaos that characterized most of the other Soviet institutions.
Shevtsova's attitude toward Putin is thus complex. She is well aware of the authoritarian nature of his regime, but if the choice is between the anarchy, corruption and dissolution of the Yeltsin era and the authoritarianism of Putin, the decision is not so easy. "Maybe we are demanding the impossible from Vladimir the Reformer," she writes. "We reproach him for his rule through personified power and his attempts to control the country's fate single-handedly. But at the same time, there is no sign that influential forces have formed in Russian society that could offer enough support for a completely new, democratic regime. Even the reformers are supporting the elected monarchy."
To this, Shevtsova adds the terrible tragedy of Chechnya, a legacy of Russian and Soviet imperialism. She is sharply critical of Putin's brutality in the battle against the Chechnya separatists. On the other hand, she is left speechless by the atrocities committed by some of these separatists to draw attention to their cause (for example, the school massacre in Beslan). She would like to see Russia adopt a different, more liberal approach, but is not at all sure that what may have been possible in the 1990s can be done today.
So where should the West stand with regard to Putin? Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment, sums up the dilemma in her introduction to the book: "Putin has attempted to base his rule on a mix of economic liberalism, pragmatic authoritarianism, and a pro-Western orientation. This combination may have been enough to modernize a peasant country. But it can hardly help Russia deal with the challenges of the post-industrial era. Sooner or later, the limitations of one-man rule - even in a more pragmatic wrapping will become clear."
The Russian saga is far from over.
Prof. Shlomo Avineri is writing a book about Theodor Herzl and the socio-political crisis in central Europe in the late 19th century.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now