For twenty years now, the Western politicians, journalists, businessmen, and academics who observe and describe the post-Soviet evolution of Russia have almost all followed the same narrative. We begin with the assumption that the Soviet Union ended in 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev handed over power to Boris Yeltsin and Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of the Soviet republics became independent states. We continue with an account of the early 1990s, an era of “reform,” when some Russian leaders tried to create a democratic political system and a liberal capitalist economy. We follow the trials and tribulations of the reformers, analyze the attempts at privatization, discuss the ebb and flow of political parties and the growth and decline of an independent media.
Mostly we agree that those reforms failed, and sometimes we blame ourselves for those failures: we gave the wrong advice, we sent naive Harvard economists who should have known better, we didn’t have a Marshall Plan. Sometimes we blame the Russians: the economists didn’t follow our advice, the public was apathetic, President Yeltsin was indecisive, then drunk, then ill. Sometimes we hope that reforms will return, as many believed they might during the short reign of President Dmitry Medvedev.
Whatever their conclusion, almost all of these analysts seek an explanation in the reform process itself, asking whether it was effective, or whether it was flawed, or whether it could have been designed differently. But what if it never mattered at all? What if it made no difference which mistakes were made, which privatization plans were sidetracked, which piece of advice was not followed? What if “reform” was never the most important story of the past twenty years in Russia at all?
Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy is not the first book to ask this question. Indeed, she makes extensive use of the work of others, both fellow political scientists as well as journalists working across the US and Europe. Some have found fault with this method, but the resulting work has a certain admirable relentlessness. For by tying all of these disparate investigations together so thoroughly, so pedantically, and with so many extended footnotes—and by tracking down Western copies of documents that vanished from Russia long ago—the extent of what has always been a murky story suddenly becomes more clear. In her introduction, Dawisha, a professor of political science at Miami University in Ohio, explains:
Instead of seeing Russian politics as an inchoate democratic system being pulled down by history, accidental autocrats, popular inertia, bureaucratic incompetence, or poor Western advice, I conclude that from the beginning Putin and his circle sought to create an authoritarian regime ruled by a close-knit…
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