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Fragile Empire

Ben Judah 

Yale University Press, 400 pages


As the Olympic festivities wind down in Sochi, western attention on Russia has been at levels unseen since the Cold War. As the most expensive Olympic games yet (the most recent estimate is $ 50-51 billion by the Washington Post), President Putin has invested much in this symbolic paean to Russia’s post-Soviet Risorgimento. Moreover, events over the past year have only seemed to confirm this intended message—often much to the chagrin of Washington policymakers. Whether it be Russia’s protection of rogue whistleblower Edward Snowden, Putin’s eleventh hour snub of US intervention in Syria, or Moscow’s role as the subtle “bete noire” in the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, many in the west undoubtedly perceive that Russia has returned to its status as a strong counterweight to the US and western Europe. However, for author Ben Judah, perception is not reality.  In his book, Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out of Love With Vladimir Putin (Yale 2013), Judah takes stock of contemporary Russia, how the policies of Vladimir Putin have contributed to its rise, and how these same policies have ironically contributed to its eventual demise.   

Judah artfully maneuvers between two, common extremes that present post-Soviet Russia either as ripe for full-throttled western liberalism or as a backward, quasi-Asiatic political culture irrationally predisposed to iron-fisted despots. While Boris Yeltsin’s unfortunate legacy as the Russian George Washington who never was left a great deal of cynicism concerning Russian democratization, Judah also insists that early, popular support for Putin’s policies had rational support. Nevertheless, looking back at the near decade and a half of Putin’s influence, Judah underlines the economic, political, and cultural signs that the legacy of Putinism is a greater liability than an asset to the future of Russia.  

Economically, Putin’s early years were a godsend, and the concrete numbers bore this out. From 1999 to 2008, the Russian per capita GDP increased by almost 300 % (from $5,951 in 1999 to $20,276 in 2000) only to be slightly halted by shocks from the international financial crisis of 2008. To fund this economic rebirth, Putin looked to strategic nationalization of the country’s vast natural resource sector that had been largely privatized under Yeltsin’s leadership. Putin’s successful take-overs of major gas and oil firms, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos, paired with inordinately high global petroleum prices throughout the 2000’s provided necessary and primary catapult to Russia’s meteoric rise. This economic rebirth not only hastened Russia into the league of the world’s most rapidly emerging BRIC’s economies but also instigated the most significant socio-economic change in Russia’s post-Soviet period—the emergence of a middle class.  

These surpluses bore most impact on Putin’s own middle-aged generation whose memories of the economic nightmares of the 1990’s were still fresh.  These Russian baby boomers, who waited in food lines and hid their life savings (in cash) under their pillow during the Yeltsin-years, bought Dolce and Gabana and used credit to renovate their Khrushchev-era apartments in the Putin-years. From this perspective, it is no surprise as to why Putin garnered significant support from his own generational cohort. However, the significance of the Putin recovery would not necessarily translate to younger generations who were nevertheless the beneficiaries of these socio-economic improvements. As was observed nearly five decades earlier by American social scientist Seymor Martin Lipset, the unintended consequence of a growing middle class that buys more, travels more, and attains greater levels education is also the development of greater, more sophisticated political demands—namely, democratic demands. For younger Russians who had little to remember and little to lose as a result of the Soviet dissolution, Putin’s heavy-handed paternalism would seem far more anachronistic than necessary, and their dissatisfaction would take primary aim at Putin’s own leadership style.

Putin’s centralization of the Kremlin’s executive power, also known as his “vertical power structure,” came at the expense of both parliament and regional governance. Despite incurring the criticism of the west, Putin’s authoritarian behavior was initially welcomed as a relief to Yeltsin’s weak mismanagement of a vast and often disparate state. The desire for stronger, paternalistic leadership especially extended into the security sphere. Whereas the Yeltsin years were characterized by haplessness in the face of oligarchs, mafia lords, and rogue Chechen separatism, Putin instilled an image of a strong leader reinforced by an omnipresent police state. Under Putin’s watch, the official internal security service, the FSB (successor organization to the Soviet KGB), expanded by 70% compared to the size of its Soviet forebear. (Judah compares the ratio of 1 KGB agent to 428 Soviets to 1 FSB agent to 297 Russians). Judah cites similar increase in standard police personnel. As a security man (silovik in Russian), Putin’s interest in taking care of his own should come as no surprise. In turn, Putin’s praetorian guards repaid him with their loyalty and served as leverage to crackdown on journalists, political opposition movements, and independent-minded judges.

Understandably, what was intended to be a secure power vertical soon became a vertical of corruption and mismanagement. Far from the efficiency of the Hegelian super-state, Putin’s Kremlin-centered government perpetuated the Moscow-versus-the-rest dynamic with financial and infrastructural attention benefitting the western centers (namely Moscow and Petersburg) at the direct expense of Russia’s southern, central, and far eastern peripheries. This not only served to exacerbate the historical enmity of many of these populations for Muscovite imperialism, it also made the idea of a sustainable, unified Russian Federation of the future more untenable. Given post-Soviet Russia’s struggles with regional factionalism, most notably in the north Caucasus, such potentialities cannot be overlooked.

Putin’s establishment of the Russian police state proved to be the most devastating to the already tenuous development of democracy and civil society. By leveraging the power of the expansive security sector and effectively neutering both the independent judiciary as well as the media, Putin obliterated the formidable checks on governmental authority that are not merely necessary for democratic development, but also efficient governance. While effective at establishing despotic rule at the outset, such repression eventually creates a self-perpetuating culture of corruption and mismanagement as the external sources of accountability have been removed.  As a result, Russia’s problem with corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy has become a tough, if not impossible, nut to crack.  Nowhere is this most evident than in Putin’s own security sector where a culture of abuse, bribery, and cronyism reign supreme. For most citizens, random searches and bribes are an accepted fact of life with no recourse to higher legal authority. Frequent polls report that Russian citizens regard the police as one of the least-trustworthy institutions in the country. Such a problem would even lead the relatively liberal president Medvedev to frequently decry the crisis of ‘legal nihilism’ that seemed so deeply entrenched within post-Soviet society and its institutions. Nevertheless, such criticisms even from a ruling president fall deaf on a bureaucratic system that is rendered unable to rectify such problems.  

Regarding the question of post-Soviet Russian identity, Putin quickly emerged as nation builder-and-chief, providing a well-needed face to a Russian nation that had endured a serious crisis of identity in the years following 1991.  Putin took on the role of mending an otherwise fractured and disjointed history divided among the Czarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet eras. Diverging from Yeltsin’s far more civic approach, Putin emphasized the uniquely “Russian” identity enduring across seemingly contradictory periods of history through a recovery and incorporation of symbols from each of these periods, especially Soviet. For Putin’s contemporaries who maintained nostalgia for the bygone Soviet days, such references had meaning. On the visual and rhetorical levels, such displays amounted to an ironic pastiche of Russian Orthodoxy, kitschy celebrations of the Soviet past, and symbols of the Czarist court. Such images as that of Moscow’s patriarch, Kyril offering blessing to the May Soviet victory parades on Red Square under the Czarist tri-color flag adequately makes the point. For a nation strained between the failure of the Marxist past and an uncertainty of a liberal future, Putin’s role in constructing a more certain, unapologetic national identity cannot be overstated.

Nevertheless, the impact of Putin’s generational perspective also cannot be overstated.  As a member of what Judah refers to a Russia’s “lost generation” (Russia’s equivalent of the babyboomers), Putin represents a generation stigmatized by the failures of both Communism and neo-liberal Capitalism. While cynical of doctrinaire Marxism and liberal internationalism alike, Putin is brutally pragmatic beyond ideological commitments with a premium on stability. While far from perfect, the Soviet era provided the only source of stability that Putin’s generation knew. On these grounds, Putin’s 2005 assertion that the “collapse of the USSR was the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the century” can be put in proper context.

Yet the priority of stability alone is not shared by the younger generations who have little, formidable memories of the Soviet experience. For these younger cohorts, especially those who were the products of the Russian new middle class that Putin’s policies helped to create, nostalgia for the Soviet days paired with heavy handed, quasi-authoritarian leadership hold no special appeal. As products of a globalized Russian society in the 21st century through the new civil society of the internet, Judah insists that the 25-40 age group has posed the first, major popular opposition to the Putin regime. The most vivid manifestation of this opposition movement occurred as a backlash to Putin’s late 2011 decision to run again for the presidency after what would be Medvedev’s brief and uneventful term. In a movement that extended to Putin’s eventual re-inauguration in May of 2012 upwards of 50,000 protesters, a majority of whom were young professionals, flooded major cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Smolensk to protest rigged elections and outrage at the possibility of president-for-life Vladimir Putin and the continuation of the corrupt and inefficient system that he came to represent.

Yet before Americans and Europeans can rejoice in what seems to be the dawn of a Russian “enlightenment,” Judah insists that these new Russians do not exactly fit the liberal ideal.  While demanding democratic reforms, transparency, and rule of law; a significant proportion of this opposition movement is also galvanized by strong, even quasi-fascist assertions of national identity. Often times, this is an emphasis on the superiority of the Slavic Russian ethnic identity that revives traditional, populist bigotries against Caucasians, Central Asians, and Jews. One need only look to the leading opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, to see this irony on display. Navalny manages to effectively combine a moral crusade against Putin’s passé Soviet-style authoritarianism with incendiary rhetoric against immigrants, assertions of ethnic purity, and the scapegoating of non-Russian ethnics for the ills of society. More disconcerting is that all of this seems to be marketable. Navalny, in his very presentation, embodies this seeming contradiction: youngish (thirty-seven), dressed in casual yet tasteful European style, he speaks charismatically of Russia’s necessity for political and bureaucratic reform in line with Vaclav Havel, and in the next moment, unloads a xenophobic, racist diatribe more in line with David Duke.  While Judah does not indict all of these so-called “nationalist democrats” for maintaining the same xenophobic ideas concerning ethnic minorities, the fact that Navalny’s platform is as appealing as it is should give obvious pause for concern.

What both Putin’s Soviet revanchism and Navalny’s paranoid ethno-nationalism confirm is the volatility of national identity in contemporary Russia, or perhaps, lack of it. What Judah’s book implies, but does not state outright, is that Russian national identity is not merely a tenuous reality; it has never had the opportunity to develop in the first place. On account of the expansiveness of both Czarist and Soviet empires and their fractured histories, the question of contemporary Russian identity has remained largely unanswered save for the tendency to piece together shards of the past. This has resulted in certain cultural vacuity that has been more or less up for grabs since the Soviet collapse. The danger of this is that national narratives become manipulable by political elites and motivated by baser hostilities and fears—be it the resentment surrounding the collapse of an empire or the paranoia of losing ethno-national homogeneity.  Either way, both orientations within contemporary Russian politics pose significant risks on both the international and domestic levels.

The extent of Putin’s Soviet revanchist tendencies has already been demonstrated in his 2008 invasion of Georgian Ossetsia and Abkhazia as a strident effort to defend Russian interests in the near abroad. Currently, the leveraging of Russia’s sphere of influence through the establishment of the Soviet-esque Eurasian Customs Union (ECU), an intended financial and trade union between Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine, is a clear indication of his long-term game plan. Of course, such plans require the willing participation of its member countries and given the current crisis in Ukraine, one wonders the extent to which Moscow would be willing to intervene in order to secure a key, if not most essential partner for this project. The insistence by many within the Kremlin regarding the centrality of Kiev within Russian national history, the indivisibility of the Russian and Ukrainian nations, and the historical prerogative of Russia to the eastern Ukrainian territory would seem to indicate that all bets are off. If efforts in Ukraine are undertaken and prove successful, such would confirm Putin’s restorationist project and undoubtedly encourage greater prerogative for further gestures of aggression. As a foreign policy that is fueled largely by historical resentment, it is more prone to taking aggressive risks out of desperation than rational calculation. Having learned the lessons of 1938-1939 with another nation hell-bent on recovering its national pride, western leaders ought to realize that appeasement of any sorts invariably leads down a path of greater destruction.

Yet despite the dire implications for Putin’s leadership, the current alternative does not look much better. Alexei Navalny’s ethno-nationalism would undoubtedly exacerbate the already existing ethnic, regional, and religious tensions within the Russian Federation. If such popular slogans as “Russia for Russians” (“Rossiya dla Russkykh”) were to be further reified into actual policy, there is no doubt as to the willingness of many ethno-national minorities in the north Caucasus, Volga basin, and central Asia to engage in open conflict. Given the horrendous blood-letting incurred by both Chechen wars (1994-1996 & 1999-2000), one would only shudder to think of similar violence, only on a significantly greater scale.  Moreover, the conflict would not be an isolated Russian affair either. Both Chechen wars drew significant foreign Islamist insurgents from both the Afghani Mujahadeen and Al-Qaeda.  It is reasonable to expect that further agitation of Muslim minority groups and separatists would only serve as a greater recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda and other terror organizations across the Muslim world. Such a scenario would not only encourage an already rapidly growing Al-Qaeda organization but also serve as a tremendous setback in the west’s efforts at effectively containing global terror.  

While it is true that Russia is in fact in serious decline despite anxious perceptions to the contrary, the implications of this are much more disconcerting than most in the west are willing to admit. Judah’s sobering prognosis rightfully disabuses democratic optimists that post-Soviet Russia is still a healthy democracy in the making, fully capable in breaking free from its Czarist and Soviet past. The reality is that Russia’s historical legacy remains all too relevant to the present. On one hand, there are the geo-political risks incurred by a semi-authoritarian leader’s insatiable drive to restore his country’s imperial past. On the other, there is a political alternative whose ethno-nationalistic policies would likely put the already tenuous unity of the Russian Federation in serious jeopardy. Either way, contemporary Russia is in dire straits. If this demands anything of the west, it is the return to a sober realism that first looks at the world as it is before deciding what it could be.


Brett McCaw is a freelance writer based in Washington DC.