Incommensurate Russia


Perry Anderson in The New Left Review:

It will soon be a quarter of a century since Russia left communism behind. Its present ruler has been in power for fifteen years, and by the end of his current term in office will have all but equalled the tenure of Brezhnev. From early on, Western opinion of his regime divided sharply. That under Putin—after a period of widespread misery and dislocation, culminating in near state bankruptcy—the country had returned to economic growth and political stability, was evident by the end of his first term; so too the popularity he enjoyed because of these. But beyond such bare data, there was no consensus. For one camp, increasingly vocal as time went on, the pivots of Putin’s system of power were corruption and repression: a neo-authoritarian state fundamentally inimical to the West, with a wrapping of legal proprieties around a ramshackle pyramid of kleptocracy and thuggery.

This view prevailed principally among reporters, though it was not confined to them: a representative sample could be found in Economist editor Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War (2009), Guardian journalist Luke Harding’s Mafia State (2012), Standpoint contributor Ben Judah’s Fragile Empire (2013), but expressed no less pungently by a jurist like Stephen Holmes. For Lucas, Putin, having seized power with a ‘cynical putsch’, and maintained it with the ‘methods of terrorists and gangsters’, had ‘cast a dark shadow over the eastern half of the continent’. For Harding, under Putin’s tutelage, ‘Russia has become bullying, violent, cruel and—above all—inhuman’. For Judah, Russia was ‘an anguished, broken society’ that is one of ‘history’s great failures’, in the grip of an apocalyptic system in which, since ‘Putin cannot leave power without fear of arrest’, the West ‘should ask itself whether it will offer him exile to avert blood’. For Holmes, ‘behind the mask of an authoritarian restoration’ there was no more than the ‘lawless feeding frenzy’ of ‘an internally warring, socially detached and rapacious oligarchy’, whose ‘various groups fight to grab their portion of massive cash flows’.

The opposite camp had greater weight in the academy, where works by the two leading authorities on the politics of post-communist Russia delivered—without failing to note its darker sides—substantially favourable verdicts on Putin’s record in office. David Treisman’s study of the country in the first two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, The Return (2011), expanded on his earlier claim that Russia had become a normal middle-income country, with all the typical shortcomings of these—crony capitalism, corruption, income inequality, media bias, electoral manipulation—but one that was incomparably freer than the petro-states of the Gulf with which it was often compared; less violent than such a respectable member of the OECD as Mexico; less statist in its control of energy than Brazil. Most Russians felt their freedom had increased since 1997, and their happiness too. ‘Does it really serve the West’s long-run interests’, he asked, ‘to assume some unproven imperial agenda, to exaggerate the authoritarian features of the current regime, to demonize those in the Kremlin and romanticize its liberal opponents?’

More here.