KREMLIN RISING *
Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution
By Peter Baker and Susan Glasser
Scribner. 453 pp. $27.50
In 1931, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gave a speech explaining that his country needed to industrialize rapidly to avoid repeating an old pattern: Russia being beaten because of its backwardness. He walked his audience through a litany of invaders: Mongol khans, Turkish beys, Swedish feudal lords, Polish and Lithuanian gentry, British and French capitalists, Japanese barons. "They beat her," he concluded, "because to do so was profitable and could be done with impunity."
In their brilliant study of Vladimir Putin's rule over contemporary Russia, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser come back again and again to the current Russian president's eerily Stalinist rhetoric about the need to avoid looking weak so as not to be beaten (whether by oligarchs or Chechen rebels) and his resulting Bolshevik-like obsession with control. Putin's aim has been to pursue economic growth and re-create a strong state in order to rebuild Russia's place in the world.
Baker and Glasser, whose nearly four years as The Washington Post's correspondents in Moscow coincided with most of Putin's first term as president, provide an extraordinarily comprehensive account of Russian politics and society, illuminating everything from the machinations in the Kremlin's inner corridors to life in the provinces. The picture they paint is not a pretty one. They chronicle not only government lies and incompetence but the overwhelming problems of AIDS, alcohol, military hazing and environmental degradation.
At the heart of this tale is "Project Putin," the president's crusade to remove all challenges to his authority. It includes the elimination of independent television networks and elections for regional governors, as well as the jailing of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the destruction of his private company, Yukos. To get a sense of how obsessive Putin can be, consider his behavior in the run-up to his reelection in 2004. After he ensured that he faced no serious opposition, Putin's only fear was that turnout might be below the 50-percent threshold required to validate the results -- which would trigger a new election, making Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who had served as Boris Yeltsin's finance minister, acting president in the interim. So Putin fired Kasyanov and gave the job to Mikhail Fradkov, who was unknown and unthreatening.
Ironically, despite his periodic denunciations of the collapse of the Soviet Union as a national tragedy (a collapse that brought freedom to millions), Putin would not be where he is today absent those historic events. During the Soviet period, he seemed destined to remain a mid-level KGB functionary. But after the collapse, he used connections built while working for his former law professor, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, to begin his rise. Putin became head of the FSB (the KGB's domestic successor) in 1998, prime minister in 1999 and Yeltsin's chosen successor as president in 2000.
During the Yeltsin years, Russia had experienced a traumatic decline in its economic, political and military stature and fallen from the front rank of great powers. Despite both Russian and Western efforts to help build democracy in the aftermath of Soviet rule, the average Russian citizen equated the 1990s less with freedom than with chaos. While Putin's popularity at home (and for a while, abroad) stemmed from the stability he brought to Russian life, that stability has come at a steep price.
Encapsulating much of Baker and Glasser's views of modern Russia is the gut-wrenching story of the events of Sept. 1, 2004, in School No. 1 in Beslan, when militants held hostage an estimated 1,200 schoolchildren and adults; the official death toll exceeded 300. We see the bravery of the hostages, including 15-year-old Kazbek Dzaragasov, who escaped at the start only to go back in to try to save his 8-year-old sister, Agunda. But we also see the callousness of the captors, the incompetence of the security forces and, above all, the dishonesty of the government. Putin's behavior in this crisis, write Baker and Glasser, was typical: "long silence followed by a brief, heavily staged appearance shown over and over on television, a pattern of official deception by his government, and finally a lengthy if overdue presidential speech filled with tough talk about hunting down the perpetrators even if it required more trade-offs of Russia's already fragile freedoms."
Methodical in its approach, as riveting as a novel in its depiction of modern Russian life, Kremlin Rising is a powerful indictment of Putin's years as president. In his obsessive quest for control and a stronger Russian state, Putin is undermining Russia's long-term future just as Soviet leaders did in their own repressive days. Given how often President Bush has spoken of Putin's commitment to democracy, one can only hope that this book is on the must-read list for those vacationing in Crawford, Tex., this summer. *
James M. Goldgeier is a professor of political science at George Washington University and co-author, with Michael McFaul, of "Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy Toward Russia After the Cold War."