This book is a great antidote to the Karen Dawisha/Frontline hysteria that’s been making the rounds.
If you want to know more of my thoughts on the Dawisha and Frontline issues, please see:
I use Lynch’s book, among other sources, to buttress some of my critique of Dawisha and the Frontline program, “Putin’s Way,” which violated several of Frontline’s own stated journalistic guidelines.
Lynch’s political biography of Putin is a sober and scholarly analysis of Putin the man, the current political conditions of the Russian Federation and the relationship between the two.
Lynch’s assessment of Putin is that, in addition to having conservative views on honor and loyalty, he is extremely intelligent and recognizes (and is even open to) many aspects of western democracy on an intellectual level; but Putin also has certain psychological facets to his personality that make him lean toward control, particularly in times of crisis.
I think this is a reasonable assessment. Putin is indeed preoccupied with stability. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and subsequent chaos that enveloped Russia during the 1990’s made an indelible impression on Putin, as it did on most Russians.
I also think it would be fair to say that most leaders would have some of those same tendencies if faced with the challenges that Russia has had in the past two decades, including a lone superpower overrun by neo-Wilsonian and neoconservative thinking that continues to move a hostile military alliance right up to Russia’s borders, funnels money to opposition figures that want to topple the Russian government – even going so far as having an ambassador (Michael McFaul) that actively supported the opposition in violation of diplomatic protocol, and an oligarchy inherited from the previous leadership – some of whom bristled at having any constraints placed on their behavior and continued to collude with hostile powers to cause trouble (Khodorkovsky and the late Berezovsky).
What also has to be kept in mind is that Russia is trying to find its way in the midst of many challenges with no historical experience with democratic institutions prior to Gorbachev’s brief rule.
Contrary to Dawisha’s mishmash of unverified sources and discredited theories, Lynch describes Putin’s relative honesty when he was working as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the 90’s:
“For much of this time, given (mayor Anatoliy) Sobchak’s frequent and protracted absences and his preoccupation with national affairs, Putin assumed the functions of acting mayor. He supervised the drafting and implementation of countless international business deals and policy reforms. These transactions did not always go according to plan, and no doubt many profited handsomely from Putin’s admitted inexperience in these matters. During his attempt to establish municipal oversight over a series of casinos, for example, the city was cheated. In another case, the city was fleeced for $120 million for two shipments of cooking oil. Although during this period his mother bought a choice apartment at an exceptionally low price at a city auction, Putin didn’t seem to enrich himself personally. In the one specific public charge of corruption that was brought against him, Putin sued in court for slander and won….”
This assessment is confirmed by other sources as noted in my article on Dawisha and Frontline.
Lynch also details Putin’s career in the KGB and how his actual job, throughout most of it, was as a low-level analyst in Dresden. Disenchanted with the agency, Putin voluntarily quit the KGB in the early 1990’s, not long after passing up a potential promotion to “the headquarters of the KGB’s foreign intelligence operations,” opting to keep his family in St. Petersburg where they had secure housing, which would have been difficult to obtain in Moscow.
In the latter chapters, Lynch sums up that, contrary to the hysterical and propagandistic statements thrown around by many western politicians and pundits, Russia is not presently a dictatorship or an autocracy, but that the governance in that vast country is far more nuanced and complex:
“For all the impressive aura of authority surrounding his presidency, Putin was no dictator. Nor was his affinity for authoritarian rule similar to the unbridled totalitarianism of Soviet days. Substantial sectors of the economy remained in private hands, including scores of billions of dollars in liquid capital in private banks abroad. A considerable public forum existed for debate on public issues, though much more so in the press than on television. Furthermore, Russians had the right to travel abroad pretty much as they pleased; availability of funds, not political considerations, was their main constraint. Religious adherents of Russia’s historical religions of Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism were free to practice their faith more or less as they pleased. Putin’s Russia, measured by any Cold War standard, represented impressive progress from the Soviet period. (p. 88)
….In foreign affairs, Russia has no ideologically based conflicts with the outside world and has pursued a mainly pragmatic diplomacy, not always successful, aimed at maximizing Russian revenues and minimizing Russia’s enemies.” (p. 133)
In terms of the legal system, Lynch confirms what I’ve heard from other credible sources – that there is a dual track in some limited circumstances:
“In the overwhelming majority of the millions of legal cases that are handled in Russia each year, the outcomes are decided on the basis of codified law as interpreted by judges and without political pressure. This situation changes, however, when the political and economic interests of the Kremlin are involved. ” (p. 84)
I do have a couple of quibbles with the book which prevented me from giving it 5 starts. The first is that it would have been useful for Lynch to have provided some analysis and discussion of two historical Russian figures that are known to be influential to Putin’s political thinking: Ivan Ilyn (1) and Pyotr Stolypin (2). Both were anti-Revolutionary reformers and/or political philosophers who were interested in advancing Russia toward a developed nation based on the rule of law via gradual and thoughtful reform.
I suspect the reason that this was not done was due to the tendency to view and judge both Putin and Russia through a Western lens with the implicit assumption that the way the West does things represents the supreme way of doing things, best summed up by Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that “There is no alternative (TINA).”
This attitude was even more prominent in Angus Roxburgh’s The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, in which Roxburgh’s Western bias at times bordered on the patronizing. However, he was more even-handed than many others and provided much valuable behind-the-scenes insight of Russia’s relations with the West from 2000 to 2012. I recommend that book, along with this one, for those interested in serious political biographies of Putin.
The other quibble with Lynch’s book was the occasional use of non-credible sources like Freedom House which gets 80% of its funding from the US government via the National Endowment for Democracy and, as I have written elsewhere, has a tendency to assess a country’s level of freedom, not based on consistent and objective criteria, but based on whether the country is an ally of the US and/or receptive to US corporate interests.
2) Pyotr Stolypin: