‘If you read twenty five books about foreign policy this year, make one of them Ben Judah’s Fragile Empire’. Not exactly the words of Foreign Policy magazine, and the book, subtitled How Russia fell in and out of love with Vladimir Putin, has attracted praise from a number of reviewers.
The author’s central thesis isn’t quite the re-tread of worn-out clichés about the Russian president as manipulative, all-powerful dictator, that you’ll find in Masha Gessen’s Man Without a Face or countless other works. In fact Judah believes that Putin has failed to build a strong, centralised system and, as a result, both his personal political authority and the integrity of the state he rules are under threat.
I didn’t expect to accept this argument wholesale, and nor did I, but the book was far from irredeemable. It forms a reasonable account of the protests which developed in Moscow and other large cities last winter, and, although Judah clearly has sympathy with the demonstrators, he describes fairly why the movement did not amount to a credible opposition to Putin.
Unfortunately, while Fragile Empire gives a diverting, if contestable, account of the President’s rise and some absorbing reporting from a country growing disillusioned with United Russia, it does not treat seriously enough Putin’s achievements, preferring to write them off as luck, and it does not credit his political project with any underlying philosophy. Actually, the book is rather flabby around the middle and it could have done with better editing and proof reading, as there are plenty of typos, repetitions and confusing sentences.
Judah’s portrait of the young Putin is more believable and briefer than Gessen’s, although it is similar. He at least bothers to track down the future president’s teacher, to offer some fond but hazy memories of her former pupil. The broad outline is familiar- the tough childhood in post-war St Petersburg, the schoolyard brawling and a precocious attempt to join the KGB as a teenager.
Fragile Empire doesn’t quite subscribe to the conspiracy theories which depict Putin’s career as the outcome of a Machiavellian, Chekist plot. Indeed the author is more inclined to portray a hapless, though resilient, opportunist, who was slow to grasp the opportunities offered by post-Soviet Russia, but managed eventually to drag himself back from a ruined career.
Rather than strength, he describes weakness, rather than a hunger for power, he describes fear of the consequences of losing it and rather than an authoritarian state, he describes a leader who cannot control his subordinates. In this telling of the Vladimir Putin story, the President is not a powerful tyrant who menaces the West, but an insecure thief, who cannot step aside because he is terrified of getting his comeuppance.
While Judah might be good at picking holes in the network of patronage represented by United Russia, he is unconvincingly dismissive of the regime’s successes. He is willing to accord some of the economic success in Putin’s Russia to ‘liberalisation’, but he largely puts stabilising the world’s largest country down to being in the right place at the right time.
Neither does he offer a serious critique of the political thinking behind ‘Putinism’, unlike, for instance, Richard Sakwa in The Crisis of Russian Democracy. In Judah’s assessment, the President is simply at the apex of a kleptocracy, whose concepts of ‘managed democracy’, ‘the dictatorship of the law’ and ‘the power vertical’ are just hollow phrases, designed to keep assets flowing in his direction.
That bleak cynicism might reflect recent disillusionment with United Russia, but it can’t explain why Putin, as an individual, is still supported by a majority of Russians, after 14 years at the top of public life. There is no serious reflection in Fragile Empire on the President’s attempts to rebuild sovereignty, after inheriting a state where it had been strewn, haphazardly across countless regions and republics. Judah doesn’t try to fit some of Putin’s more draconian policies – appointing governors, requiring a minimum threshold of support for political parties - into any type of context.
Certainly, he is entitled to argue that the President failed in his projects, but he doesn’t really bother to investigate whether there was any rationale behind these actions in the first place. And he doesn't sufficiently acknowledge that, even if the grand larceny he alleges did take place, enough money was left over to build up enormous reserves, raise living standards substantially and leave Russia the least indebted country in the G20.
Fragile Empire becomes most interesting when it starts to deal with Putin’s opponents and the protests which gained momentum after the State Duma elections in 2011. Judah interviews opposition figures from Berezovsky to Navalny and he even corresponds with the gaoled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Although the author is clearly sympathetic to the opposition, he doesn’t make excuses for its leaders. He portrays Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky as wealthy manipulators, eager to use their riches to warp the political process, he paints Boris Nemtsov as an unappealing fop, who cannot connect with the wider public and he describes Navlny’s past, with all its inflammatory rhetoric and fire-arms incidents.
Indeed, while Judah enthuses about the mood which brought demonstrators to the streets, he acknowledges that there is no common purpose or viable leadership in the opposition movement. The Moscow liberals, whom he says formed the back-bone of the demonstrations in the capital, had little in common with, or interest in, less cosmopolitan Russians beyond the Garden Ring. They rubbed shoulders at these events with nationalists demanding the reinstatement of Tsarist autocracy, quasi-fascists and communists. There were no coherent demands, no leaders who could capture attention beyond the capital and no electoral vehicle to harness anti-United Russia feeling.
Even the movement's brightest star, Navlny, was an obscure figure outside Moscow, attracting the derision of regional protesters, who alleged that he didn't care about them.
A major flaw with the book, is that it appears to overstate Putin’s decline. The latest polls from the Levada Centre show that he has a 65% approval rating, which is a small improvement on last month and largely in line with figures from this time last year. Those are numbers which most politicians would kill for. The idea that there is no longer a ‘Putin consensus’ is not sustainable, even though the argument that the President’s popularity relies on the absence of a viable opposition is stronger.