Should I Waste My Time Reading Karen Dawisha’s “Putin’s Kleptocracy”?

I have admittedly not yet read Karen Dawisha’s new book, Putin’s Kleptocracy; however, a few things about the author, including her own words written recently in attempts to plug the book, raise some red flags and make me wonder if it would be worth my time – or anyone’s – to read it.

On December 4th, Dawisha wrote a piece for the International edition of the New York Times called “Bad Mannered Russians in the West.” It essentially argues, as does her book presumably, that Russia is a hopelessly brutal and corrupt nation and that it really got this way under Putin’s leadership. It also accuses Putin himself of being very corrupt.


The first red flag I noticed was during a basic background search on Ms. Dawisha. A previous work of hers was touted by pathological Russia-hater Zbigniew Brzezinski in a review published at Foreign Affairs. If Zbig thinks Dawisha’s work, which focuses on Eastern European studies, is good, then this tells you something about Dawisha’s tone and attitude in her writing. Not one positive word will be uttered about any Russian government that attempts to be independent of Washington or Zbig’s Grand Imperial Strategy as outlined in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard.   And certainly, nothing remotely positive will be contemplated about Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the warped Brzezinski/Neocon/Mainstream Media world, if Putin were to pull an old lady who was about to get hit by a bus to safety, it would be spun as attempted murder by that sinister ex-KGB agent with the steely blue eyes. Any observation to the contrary would be met with “who are you going to be believe, us or your eyes?” And if one were to have the audacity to believe their own eyes, then they would simply be accused of being paid by the Kremlin or of being one of Putin’s many bedmates when he isn’t rolling in the hay with that famous Olympic gymnast during his numerous hours of free time. After all, it doesn’t take much time and energy to run that vast nation that bridges Europe and Asia.


But I digress…


There were indeed a few other causes for concern related to Ms. Dawisha’s overall credibility when I read her NYT piece. For example, in the fourth paragraph she states:


The market increasingly recognizes the risk of dealing with Russian companies, the largest of which is Gazprom. Despite having the world’s largest net profits, Gazprom was trading at one-third the stock market valuation of Exxon Mobil, due to what is widely regarded as rampant and Kremlin-directed corruption.


This allegation is particularly interesting when one considers that Transparency International’s most recent report states that Russian companies, Gazprom and Rosneft, scored higher than Exxon Mobil as well as Apple and Google, which are notorious for having poor scores. Furthermore, the report recognized a consistent upward trend in transparency and good corporate governance for the two Russian state-run fossil fuel companies.   Is Transparency International a tool of the Kremlin now, Ms. Dawisha?


In the seventh paragraph, the author says:


Mr. Putin has said he wants an end to corruption and bureaucratic bullying. If he is serious, this would be good news for Russia, as it might show that he is actually willing to lay down laws that everyone will have to abide by. But thus far he has only increased the power of the state at home, while treating the West like an a la carte menu – with public goods of his own choosing to be freely consumed. What he doesn’t understand, however, is that “the West” is a prix fixe menu: Its values and obligations must be consumed along with its pleasures.


It’s hard to know where to even begin with this one.   First of all, being treated like an a la carte menu – with public goods of one’s own choosing to be freely consumed — sounds like an awful good description of how the West, particularly the US, viewed Russia’s resources during the 1990’s when Jeffrey Sachs and his cabal of neo-liberal carpetbaggers from the Harvard School of Economics colluded with a few Russian predators to plunder Russia’s assets, the proceeds of which were funneled out of Russia and into foreign banks by the new crop of oligarchs, while the Russian people were left with an inflation rate of 2500% at its height, loss of life savings, food deprivation and mass poverty. Millions of Russians simply did not survive the decade as alcoholism and violent crime skyrocketed.


While Russia is not yet Utopia, under Putin’s governance, the oligarchs were brought to heel, made to pay taxes and actually contribute something to Russia, there are budget surpluses, no IMF debt, low unemployment, massive investments in infrastructure, a poverty rate cut in half and wages that have quintupled. Is it any wonder that he is so popular among the Russian people?


One of the things Putin did in order to facilitate this set of reforms and improvements to the lives of many Russians was taking the fire sale sign down from Russia. The elites of the West, especially the US and Britain, have never forgiven him for this. No longer able to penetrate Russia at will, the western elites have bided their time, waiting to exact revenge and have their way once again with that beautiful resource-rich nation.


But in Dawisha’s NYT narrative, the horrible conditions of the 1990’s are not mentioned. I guess she’d like everyone to implicitly believe that the decade of Yeltsin’s rule represented a paragon of democracy with all Russians dancing and singing along to REM’s “Shiny Happy People.” And then Vladimir “Satan” Putin came along and installed the oligarch system himself, personally stole everything in sight and made all Russians cower in a dark corner, deprived of the profound political and cultural insights of Pussy Riot.


As for the assertion that Putin has done little to nothing about corruption, the author clearly doesn’t keep up with current Russian politics or is intentionally withholding pertinent facts. In the past year, an official portal or registry of all government inspections has been implemented where the public can look up all relevant details with respect to inspections on businesses.   If one is informed about the nature of corruption in Russia, they will know that 90% of corruption occurs at the local level and has a history all the way back to the Czarist era when local officials were paid tribute in exchange for getting things done. Time will tell how this policy works out.


As for Putin’s personal integrity, I admittedly don’t have access to his personal bank accounts, but a credible source has told me that, during a meeting with the then unknown bureaucrat named Vladimir Putin from whom she needed approval for a business development proposal in the early 1990’s, Putin made a lasting impression due to the fact that he was one of the few Russian bureaucrats that she’d encountered who did not ask for a bribe or any other kind of favor during the interaction. This fact was confirmed by many other people she came to know in St. Petersburg who had to register a business during his time there. If Putin wasn’t on the take while he was relatively poor and living in a small apartment with his wife, two daughters and mother, why would he be on the take now when he has a much higher salary?


The point here is that, just from the bits and pieces I’m getting about Dawisha’s work, I’m deeply skeptical of her claims. Much of what is offered as her strongest points are highly questionable. In a predictably glowing review of Dawisha’s book by none other than paid hack and Russophobe Anne Applebaum in the New York Review of Books, it is conceded in the 8th paragraph:


To tell this story, Dawisha uses many sources, including the evidence presented in several major court cases, a number of which fizzled out for political reasons; material collected by Russian and European investigative reporters, some of which has now vanished from the Web; and Russian legal journals, many of which are now out of print.


Well, gee, isn’t it convenient that this information is not available to be verified? Continuing on:


As noted, some of what she digs up has already been described elsewhere, not only in Masha Gessen’s emotive account of Putin’s rise to power, The Man Without a Face (2012), but also in Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill’s Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (2013) and Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s Kremlin Rising (2005).


Masha Gessen writes for the Moscow Times, and for any other outlet that will publish her drivel. Her stock in trade is her passionate hatred of Putin and anything that is not represented by the Liberals who don’t have much traction among the Russian population. I have written elsewhere about Peter Baker’s attitude toward Russia and Putin. So Dawisha’s work ultimately sounds like a lot of innuendo along with rehashed chaff that’s already been published.


It should also be noted that Dawisha’s book was ultimately dropped by its original British publisher due to concerns over libel laws. Considering the fact that Britain isn’t exactly fond of Putin and his government and has repeated – like a good little doggie – the worst of Washington’s unsubstantiated and reckless claims about the Ukraine crisis, why wouldn’t they just go ahead and publish it? Unless, of course, there were real concerns about the credibility of the claims?

*Update:  In late 2015, John Batchelor interviewed Ms. Dawisha on his radio program.  While airing her claims, Dawisha used so many qualifiers and weasel words as to render what she was saying completely meaningless.

Here are a few of my thoughts on the interview:

*Dawisha’s claim (approx. 5 minutes, 15 seconds):  Putin came to the attention of higher up KGB officials due to his performance.  This is contradicted by Allen Lynch’s political biography where he states that officials higher up in the KGB did not seem to be aware of Putin and characterized his time in E. Germany as being a mid-level analyst.  Dawisha: “I think he probably was involved in…” Probably?

*(approximately 7 minutes):  In the introduction of a photo from the book that supposedly shows Putin with a bunch of other intelligence and military people, it is noted to be 1989 — stating the anniversary of the establishment of the checka and the Soviet Union would fall that year.  The Soviet Union fell in 1991, not 1989 

*Dawisha claim (approx. 7 minutes, 40 seconds):   Putin recruited a high-ranking member of the Stasi to the KGB in the dying days of the East German government — Dawisha: “of course, we don’t have any proof of this…”  Enough said.
*(approx. 11 minutes):  What basis is there that Sobchak knew that hiring someone from the KGB was just the way that things were?  There is no evidence provided for her assertion that that is why Putn was hired by Sobchak.  Again, a very different story is told by Allen Lynch in his biography — I went into more detail about this in my critique of the Frontline program based on Dawisha‘s narrative.
*(approx 13 minutes):  Dawisha talks as though Putin was still in the KGB while he was working for Sobchak.  According to the Lynch book, Putin had voluntarily quit the KGB by this time and even gone public in a news segment about his KGB past so that no one would be able to use it as fodder for blackmail down the road.
*Dawisha claim (approx 24 minutes):  Putin’s wife never worked because she had to — in other words, they didn’t need money because Putin was getting wealthy off of his corruption; this is not the way they lived during that time as Putin’s wife stated that he was hardly ever home, they had hardly a stick of furniture or any extra money.  Dawisha never says where she is getting any of this information.
*(approx 25 minutes):  Dawisha cites the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky when discussing that Putin had played a “double game” and that he had in mind to take money away from the 90’s oligarchs and give it to his own — a British judge presiding over the lawsuit between Berezovsky and fellow Russian oligarch Abramovich, stated on the record that Berezovsky was a non-credible witness, that his testimony contradicted his written statements, that he was basically a liar and had an ax to grind.
*(approx 26-27 minutes):  Dawisha is still talking about the Moscow apartment bombings as a false flag with the FSB and implicitly Putin behind it to win a war and use the popularity to become president meme.  This was debunked long ago.  The Chechens had already invaded Dagestan and Putin did not need any sort of false flag operation to justify military action.  If memory serves me correctly, this allegation originated with Berezovsky and when pressed for evidence, he could provide none.  Again, I discussed this in more detail in my article critiquing the Frontline program.  I’m not sure why John Batchelor was being so gullible and not questioning any of this
For those interested in scholarly political biographies of Putin, I recommend:
1) Putin: Russia’s Choice by Richard Sakwa