This is my review of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin by Ben Judah.
Aged barely three when the Soviet Union collapsed, how did Ben Judah manage to interview so many people, from oligarchs and former leading politicians to the destitute unemployed of the failed collective farms near the Chinese border? Clearly, he must have enormous energy and confidence, aided by fluency in Russian.
He covers quite effectively Putin’s sudden and unexpected rise to power. For years an unremarkable KGB official, Putin was in the “right place at the right time” when Russia needed a strong leader after the “Wild West” capitalism of the 1990s in which many people lost their secure jobs or savings to become destitute, law and order broke down and outlying republics began to revolt. “After ten years of total chaos….he brought social order and economic stability”, with a marked rise in living standards for many, aided by the rising revenue from oil exports.
The strongest section is the very topical information on how Russians have fallen out of love with their modern “Tsar”. The opposition slogan, “a party of crooks and thieves” has adhered firmly to Putin’s “United Russia”. Shocked by corruption and the inefficiency of the over-centralised “vertical” control of power from Moscow, with its lack of concern for peripheral regions treated like colonies, many people have become disgusted by Putin’s personal enrichment, his transparently devious moves to wangle a third term or more as President. They begin to see through the PR fantasies which portray him as an athletic sex symbol catching outsize pike and guiding flocks of geese to safety.
Judah does not try to conceal the flaws and divisions in the opposition. The charismatic Navalny sounds like a bigoted skinhead in his Islamophobia. He is bitterly attacked for his lack of interest in visiting neglected areas like Birobidzhan near the Chinese border. Demonstrators in Moscow are widely dismissed as privileged middle classes who feel more in common with Europe where they holiday frequently than with the rest of Russia. To show how “Moscow is not Russia,” Judah travels to some of the least developed areas like Siberian Tuva, where male life expectancy is lower than Gabon in Africa, and murder rates exceed those of Central America. “To stay in power Putin knows he must divide the nation, preventing the Moscow opposition from linking up with the discontent in the rest of the country”. Portraying Russia as one of history’s greatest failures, he makes fascinating comparisons with China which he sees as managing its economic transition more effectively.
Too young to be saddled with baggage from the Soviet era, Judah’s focus on the last two decades gives the book a sense of immediacy. However, there is a need for a bit more context, as regards explaining more clearly why communism collapsed with such apparent speed, the reasons for Gorbachev’s sudden demise, the policies of the main “opposition” parties and the names of their leaders. A glossary would have been useful.
The main and rather serious shortcoming of this book is the slapdash journalistic style. The lack of editing is revealed where some paragraphs are repeated verbatim, but it matters more where the meaning is obscured by dodgy syntax, non sequiturs and misuse of words. I’m sure Ben Judah has a great future but he could learn a thing or two from the style of “the old Russian hand”, Angus Roxburgh’s “The Strongman” to which I have now resorted to fill some of the gaps. We need more of the coherent analysis evident in Judah’s concluding chapter.