Russia without Putin


RUSSIA: Putin will leave the Kremlin one day - but don't expect that to change things, argues Tony Wood in his well-researched thesis on power and continuity in today's Russia.

Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic.
Published date: August 13, 2020
       
Money, Power and the Myths of the Cold War
Author: Tony Wood
Verso Books,

Russophiles and supporters of open democracy will thrill to the title of Tony Wood’s thorough analysis of power in the Russian state – it is, after all, the rallying cry of many an anti-Kremlin demonstration from Moscow to Khabarovsk, St Petersburg to Ekaterinberg. But like the book, the devil is in the details – Wood’s densely packed, but eminently readable thesis is no rallying cry to get rid of Putin and usher in golden shafts of light of the uplands of Slavic freedom. It is all there in the subtitle – and the keyword is myths.

Wood, a New York-based member of the editorial board of New Left Review and contributor to the London Review of Books, is a specialist on Russia and Latin America (both of which share features common to corrupt governance). His central thesis explored through chapters on Putin, money, and power, the legacy of the Soviet past, foreign policy and the major shifts in the Russian polity since Maidan (the revolution in Ukraine of 2014, followed by the annexation of Crimea by Moscow) is the influence of continuity on Russia’s development.

Money, Power and the Myths of the Cold War-Putin-post1

Too much attention

«Too much attention has been paid to the man, and not enough to the system over which he presides,» Wood declares. And lest the unwary reader thinks – well, Putin created the system, didn’t he? – Wood sets about a systematic demolition of many of the holy cows of Russian analysis over the past three decades since the Soviet Union withered and died in the dust of its own internal contradictions.

Terms that are bandied about like a debased currency by scores of media pundits «mafia state», «kleptocracy», or «militocracy» are given short shrift as the authors unpick Putin’s own story – demonstrating that he is neither some kind of a Bond villain nor as omnipotent as some claim – and as much a product of his circumstances as any leader that tries to exude some kind of quasi-divine right to rule.

«My argument…is that Western media coverage and analysis of Russia are overly fixated on Putin’s personality. Time and again, the characteristics of the man are used to explain the behaviour or interests of the state.»

Smooth, clean image

For journalists chasing a byline, Putin’s idiosyncrasies have often been the story. The grey, characterless figure that stood awkwardly alongside Boris Yeltsin on national TV, December 31, 1999, as he was anointed president to be in a broadcast none who saw it will ever forget, rapidly created a persona that was both technocratic and sympathetic: the resumption of war in Chechnya (a policy that, under Yeltsin, had become mired in death and disaster) and the infamous remark reference to Chechen rebels «We’ll smoke them out of the outhouse», signaled a new kind of Russian leader, one able to both look the part hosting foreign dignitaries and throw out a vulgar phrase with a smirk and figurative wink for popular consumption by the people. Whereas Soviet leaders had often been frail elderly figures or country born apparatchiki with little in the way of manners, Putin presented a smooth, clean image.

But, as Wood argues, the policies he pursued were all initiated under Yeltsin or came as part of the Soviet legacy that lies like the bulk of an iceberg under the turbulent waters of modern Kremlin policymaking.

The book is built around his thesis, which amounts to demolishing a series of tropes that have become familiar in Russian analysis in recent years: The widespread notion that Putin has overseen a nostalgic return to Soviet times; the idea that Putin and a small clique control and decide everything; the country’s problems can, in large part, be put down to the lingering legacies of the Soviet past; when these are shed, Russia will be able to join the ranks of ‘normal’ capitalist countries; the opposition weakness is due to authoritarianism; that Russian foreign policy under Putin makes it an aggressor state, bent on the destruction of the West.

None of this is actually true, Wood argues. «Putin continued what Yeltsin had begun,» he says, comparing the humbling of the national legislator by Yeltsin in 1993 (which culminated in the October shelling of the Moscow White House) with Putin’s streamlining of the party system that by 2007 ensured a compliant State Duma.

«Politically, the system that prevailed in the 2000s was not a perversion of Yeltsinism but its maturation.»

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Money and power

The same argument applies to money and power: Yeltsin may have unleashed market forces and created a new wealth class with the bargain basement privatisation voucher scheme of the 1990s that gave away Soviet industry for pennies to people that rapidly formed a new breed – the oligarch, but Putin’s revisions merely shifted more of that wealth to a political elite and brought unruly oligarchs to heel.

Even in foreign policy, Wood shows that Putin was initially keen for Russia to join NATO and repeatedly positioned Russia as part of the European space, but it was Western triumphalism and resistance that slowly turned him into a foe of the West. Putin’s alleged interference in American (or British) elections since is simply the mirror image of US and Western interference in Russian politics in the 1990s, the author argues.

But it is perhaps his detailed analysis of the extent to which the Soviet legacy has provided continuity and stability that will elicit the most comment. Without the hybrid state that remains a feature of Russia today – a mixture of rampant capitalism and socialistic state subsidy – the transition and Putin’s appearance of astute state management, would not have been possible, Wood argues.

Putin’s alleged interference in American (or British) elections since is simply the mirror image of US and Western interference in Russian politics in the 1990s, the author argues.

How long?

«While the urge to speculate about Putin’s personal fate is understandable, it is ultimately misguided….The question we should really be asking, in fact, is not whether the system can function without Putin, but how long it can keep functioning in the same way, regardless of who is in charge,» Wood states.

And it is this question the opposition should contemplate, rather than merely mouthing «Russia without Putin.»

«Russia’s imitation democracy is capable of reproducing itself whether Putin is in charge or not. If it is to be replaced with something substantively different, an alternative to the system as a whole will have to be coalesce – not just around an anti-Putin who can take the current president’s place….A period of stasis for the ruling system could also be a valuable interval for those ranged against, allowing Russians to think about what kind of country might await them beyond imitation democracy, and to imagine what a future without Putin would look like.»