Putin’s Kleptocracy by Karen Dawisha

23366681Nonfiction — Kindle edition. Simon & Schuster, 2014. 465 pgs. Purchased.

These days, Russian president Vladimir Putin figures prominently in the American news cycle. There is quite a bit of speculation as to what role he may or may not have played in the 2016 presidential election and how much leverage he may or may not have over the current American president, Donald Trump.

In following every breaking news article and columnist’s speculation, I have come to realize that my knowledge of modern Russia is abysmally low. I’ve read about tsarist Russia, Soviet Russia, the Russian space program, and a number of classic fictional novels.

Yet, other than Bill Browder’s memoir, what I have read about today’s Russia (prior to the events of 2016) has largely confined to newspaper articles. (I think we can all agree that the American news media rarely provides in-depth coverage of events outside the US.) Hence why I eagerly downloaded Dawisha’s examination of how Putin came to power to my Kindle.

Dawisha offers her own summation of the book in the first chapter, saying “the contention of this book is that the group around Putin today is the same as the one that brought him to power from St. Petersburg in the 1990s and that the purpose of that project was never to embed Western-style democratic institutions and values. The group did not get lost on the path to democracy. They never took that path.”

As she documents through numerous examples, Putin’s political authority is derived from the power of his protection racket. The elite in Russia are those who were loyal to Putin from the earliest days of his career in the KGB, and their widespread economic predation is conducted in a quid-pro-quo manner with Putin. So long as they support Putin’s continuation in power and finance his lifestyle, he will provide them with no-bid state contracts and constrict their opponents — activists, competitors, etc. — by the legal and political apparatus of the country.

Browder presented this same characterization of Putin’s system in his memoir, Red Noticebut Dawisha takes it a step further, connecting the system to Putin’s objective of restoring “the idea of Russia as a Great Power (derzhava) and a state worthy of and demanding respect in international affairs”.

Such a goal has led to the invasion of Georgia and Crimea, but it has also led to a democracy that exists in name only. While Putin said in the 1990s that the people’s embrace of free speech, foreign travel, and property ownership should be built upon to create a post-Soviet, he also argued that a strong state is required to defend traditional Russian values. Among these values are:

  • derzhavnost (Great Power–ism: “The funeral service for Russia as a great power is, to put it mildly, premature”)
  • gosudarstvennichestvo (statism: “A strong state for the Russian is not an anomaly . . . but on the contrary, the source and guarantor of order, the initiator and main driving force of any change”)
  • sotsial’naya solidarnost (social solidarity)

Putin argued that quick adoption of democracy in the 1990s (and, even today) cannot be done without losing these values that makes Russia great. Which is why some of the non-elites supported him then and continue to support him today, a situation that seemed unfathomable to me until the 2016 election.

The last chapter of Dawisha’s book is dedicated to how Putin’s kelptocracy affects the Russian economy and the lives of everyday people. The “corruption effect” of $2,000 per Russian slows economic growth. According to Dawisha, more Russian women die annually from domestic violence than the number of soldiers the USSR lost in the entire Afghan war.

“Despite receiving $1.6 trillion from oil and gas exports from 2000 to 2011, Russia was not able to build a single interstate highway during this time. There is still no interstate highway linking Moscow to the Far East; in contrast, China, another top-down authoritarian regime, has built 4,360 miles of modern highways annually for the last ten years—equivalent to three times around the circumference of the earth.”

This 700 word recap has likely made it clear that I found Dawisha’s book to be highly informative and, yes, I do feel like I owe Mitt Romney an apology for dismissing his 2012 concerns about Putin and Russia. Unfortunately, my eagerness to read this book and ultimate enjoyment of it was dampened by Dawisha’s writing style.

I went through a series of fits and starts (five since July 2018) with the book before forcing myself to power through and finish it earlier this month. The book is written in a very academic style; “in this chapter, I will…”. But the real problem is that there are so many names and dates to keep straight, and Dawisha insists on listing many of them in an effort to prove her points.

It was almost as though she was trying to say, “see, because of a, b, c, d, and e, what I am saying is true”. But I really needed her to choose one example and explain it in detail, to add color and understanding to her black and white assertions. Such presentation might have made for a more engaging and, yes, more convincing read.

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