The Realist Bibliophile: Getting to Know Vladimir Putin

A textbook on current political affairs can be a publisher's nightmare.

A textbook on current political affairs can be a publisher's nightmare. However, coming out in its second edition, Putin's Russia: Past Imperfect, Future Uncertain (edited by Dale R. Herspring -- 2nd ed., Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) has stood the test of quickly changing events. Whether this volume is commenting on the latest breaking news or on the origins of nagging unsolved problems, it has the analytical scope and intellectual rigor needed for those asking the questions: "who is Putin?" and "where is Russia going?"

For most observers of contemporary Russia, Vladimir Putin remains an unexplained political figure. There appear to be two overriding issues about Putin found throughout this volume: the necessity of Putin's reform project for Russia (and the hope that he will succeed) and the growing concern that his reform project may be slowly, but very surely, drifting away from core Western values concerning the importance of democratic principles, an open and free civil society, an independent media and a competitive market economy.

The scholars contributing chapters address both these issues. All of them, to one degree or another, possess an understanding of the motives behind Putin's decision-making mindset. However, there is little consensus on the thorny question of whether Putin's vision for Russia is good for the country's future and that of the rest of the world.

Timothy J. Colton and Michael McFaul grapple with one of the most pressing issues concerning Western publics, politicians and analysts in this area: to what degree is Russia a democracy? In "Putin and Democratization," Colton and McFaul have no clear answer, but are clearly of the opinion that Russia is moving away from earlier trends that are believed to have been signs of democratic development during the 1990s.

Thomas F. Remington's "Putin, the Duma, and Political Parties" asks the same question in terms of the institutionalization of democracy found or not found in the Russia's Parliament, the Duma, and comes to, more or less, to the same conclusion.

Nikolai Petrov and Darrell Slider, in "Putin and the Regions," are even more alarmist in their concerns surrounding Kremlin ploys to crush regional autonomy.

In what is otherwise superb analysis, Colton, McFaul, Remington, Petrov and Slider tend - as Western scholars often do - to over ideologize what should be expected of Russia's democracy during a time when the direction of the country's economic development remains far from clear. Putin's Russia is not a country to be merely measured by textbook edicts or homespun hopes that its form of democracy should eventually resemble that of the United States and/or other Western countries.

Putin is clearly not anti-democratic. However, he has shown himself to be indifferent toward democratic institutions or a democratic ethos to the extent that he believes that they will hinder his implementation of his vision of a more dynamic and modern Russian economy.

Putin is often severely criticized for his interventionist approach toward Russia's mass media, particularly the electronic media. McFaul and journalist Masha Lipman, in "Putin and the Media," present a detailed review of the history of the relations between Putin and the media -- the latter once controlled by the oligarchs. They also inject a dose of skepticism as to whether Putin respects anything resembling a Western understanding of free expression in his country.

However, both get carried away a bit. They make a very counterfactual, intriguing claim, which is never followed up: "Putin could have disciplined or brought to justice Russia's oligarchs without destroying their media empires." Additionally, virtually all critics of Putin's media approach fail to ask a fundamental question when it comes to the media's role in any society: are citizens provided enough information about the condition of society to make informed decisions? In fact, they are. If Lipman and McFaul approached Russia media from this perspective, their assessment would not sound as catastrophic as it seems they would have readers believe.

James R. Millar, in "Putin and the Economy," and Peter Rutland, in "Putin and the Oligarchs," discuss the essence of Putin's economic strategy. Millar makes the claim that Putin is explicitly aware of the reasons for economic failure under the different leaderships of Nikita Khrushchev, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and is consciously seeking an alternative policy. (Most probably, Putin is using the economic chaos of the 1990s as a negative model when making economic decisions.)

The strength of this chapter lies in Millar's understanding of the "Yukos affair" as it started to unfold. He draws attention to what is probably the most vexing issue concerning Yukos and its core shareholder: "After the fact, and especially five to 10 years after the fact, de-privatization poses a true dilemma for the leadership: Legitimacy of private ownership and protections of property rights in general versus popular demand for an equitable distribution of property that was, under the Soviet state, public property."

In more ways than one, Rutland picks up where Millar ends. Probably the best scholar of Russian business, Rutland first presents a panoramic history of "economic oligarchy" in post-Soviet Russia and then assesses the relative utility of this phenomenon in terms of Putin's economic goals.

This chapter was written without the Yukos affair in mind, but ends on a note that gets as close to prophesy as possible in Russian studies: "It's not clear whether the slow pace of change is because Putin does not understand the need for further reform, or because he still lacks the political authority to carry it out." This piece certainly doesn't explain the Yukos affair, but it does explain the probable reason for it having unfolded in the first place.