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Reflections in the Russian Mirror

Russia without Putin:
Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War
by Tony Wood
Verso, 2018, 224 pages

Russia is like a rotten ball, a hideous ball of yarn with a little gold trim on top, but filled with all sorts of trash—trash-food, trash-ideology, trash-culture—and fragments of religion, fragments of “Sovok,” and fragments of a dead empire: all of it bulges and sticks out in all directions; the ball rolls and gains speed, ready to shatter into pieces or else crush anyone who gets in its way.
                —Kirill Medvedev, “My Fascism (A Few Truths),” 2004

Driving through Kaliningrad Oblast last summer, I came across a shining new piece of Russian deviousness: the government of Vladimir Putin has rebuilt Immanuel Kant’s old house, or at least a small red-brick building that Kant rented for a few years in the 1740s while working as a private tutor. The museum, paid for by the Presidential Reserve Fund, opened in 2018 and has already sprung onto the bucket lists of Chinese tourists. A more coy fuck-you to the West is hard to imagine. The same regime regularly singled out for its particularist pathologies and rabid revanchism has taken up the cause of conserving the legacy of the European father of universal moral law and perpetual peace. Of course, the reality may be more mundane. The museum might simply be spillover from hosting the World Cup or from the largesse Putin once lavished on the home region of his former wife, Lyudmila. But the Kremlin’s Kant House seems an apt enough metaphor for the regime’s relationship with the West: the way it long ago submitted to the law of the market, but still thought it could preserve its autonomy alongside it; the way Russia is less a power with an ideological agenda of its own than a vastly weakened state struggling to impose order on the peculiar form of capitalism it inherited in the 1990s; the way Russia is never quite the West but reflects a less and less distorted mirror image back to it.1

The title alone of Tony Wood’s book, Russia without Putin, will be enough to irritate standard-issue Putinologists. As one New York Times subheading recently put it: “The Problem with Russia Is Personal, Not Structural.” The idea that the psychology of Putin may be less significant than the features of the system over which he presides remains a heresy among many American commentators.2 But their track record of “takes” has never inspired much confidence. As Wood reminds us, long before Putin became an object of transference for a Democratic Party searching for someone to blame for its shortcomings in 2016, he was widely revered by Western politicians and journalists.3 Thomas Friedman advised the Times faithful to “keep rootin’ for Putin” in 2001, while Madeleine Albright called him a “can-do person,” and Bill Clinton praised his “businesslike” attitude. Wall Street was impressed by Putin’s determination to transform Moscow into a center of finance, while for Kofi Annan it was his commitment to civil society that demanded admiration. (As the accolades rolled in, Wood himself produced a meticulous and still valuable indictment of Putin’s war in Chechnya, itself a sequel to Yeltsin’s “small successful war,” both of which were politely passed over by Western governments as Russia’s “shrinking pains.”) In much the same way that Turkey’s Erdogan was once hailed as a strong reformer who would rein in the excesses of both Kemalists and Islamists, and play fair with the Kurds, so Putin was initially seen by Western—and many Russian—liberals as the dutiful caretaker who would pound the drunken idealism of the Yeltsin years into a healthy state.

But then Putin somehow became an enemy of progress. In the standard telling, he turned his back on Yeltsin’s liberalization program, took Russia in a “statist” direction, and connived to bring about the economic and political regression of the country, along with the worst trappings of Soviet rule: state repression and the destruction of free media, imprisonment of talented entrepreneurs, wars against Muslims, and a freshly configured “new class” that was once again above public scrutiny. For the motives behind these actions, pundits looked no further than Putin’s biography: here was a former KGB man returning to form, who considered the dissolution of the Soviet Union the crowning catastrophe of the twentieth century, and who was determined to reclaim the prestige and power that Russia had only recently forfeited on the world stage.

The trouble with this account is that it makes little attempt to understand the nature and constraints of the system Putin inherited. In Wood’s book, by contrast, the Yeltsin-Putin years appear together as a coherent unit. They are two successive phases in the development of a single system, in which Putin sees his role as stabilizing an often contradictory and tenuous political-economic model.

Putin’s curtailment of democratic processes has, to a remarkable extent, followed the path cut by Yeltsin: it was Yeltsin who originally granted himself complete authority over the Duma, which he could dismiss at will and bypass with executive orders. Putin, for his part, has expanded these powers, abolishing elections for regional governors and centralizing their tax revenue, but he has rarely questioned any of the ideological premises behind Yeltsin’s programs and actions. Implementation has been the more pressing problem for him.

Russian Oligarchy under Yeltsin and Putin

“Privatization” became a dirty word in Russia under Yeltsin, who took the country down a breakneck path of state asset sales with virtually zero popular mandate. As Wood notes, Yeltsin’s scheme of creating “popular capitalism” through the shattering of Russian industry into worker’s shares, which were then promptly hoovered up by old and new elites, was only the most well-known scandal of the transition years. A more reckless fire sale was the 1992 “privatization by decree,” when Yeltsin selected a group of magnates from the old Soviet elite to take charge of different sectors of Russian industry. Enamored of the market but unable to follow the most basic market dictates, Yeltsin’s government not only kept most of these transactions out of public view, but failed to value former Soviet assets at world market prices. And so the Yeltsin government destroyed a tremendous amount of wealth in the rush to prove themselves bona fide free marketeers. Wood quotes David Hoffman of the Washington Post, who estimated that nearly the entirety of ex-Soviet industry was sold off for $12 billion—less than the value of Kellogg’s. Let that fact settle in for a moment: the bulk of our Cold War adversary’s industrial stock was sold off for the value of a cereal company in Michigan.

But Yeltsin did not only transfer Soviet-era wealth into the hands of the old “red directors.” There was another category of oligarch that Wood singles out as distinct from former Soviet officials. These were the “outsiders”—men like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovsky, Oleg Deripaska, Viktor Vekselberg—who emerged not from the wreckage of state officialdom but from the intelligentsia, the engineering schools, the Russian diaspora, and the hinterland. By setting up new banks and other crucial conduits of capital for a Russian system that lacked even a central bank, they not only skimmed assets off budgetary flows, but sometimes directed the budgets of entire ministries. Taking advantage of runaway inflation, these more enterprising asset-strippers were able to cycle rubles through Wall Street and back to Russia for a higher return. They also picked off protected industries like oil and gas by lending the Russian state money with the proviso that, if it defaulted, the industries would be protected no more, and open to a Russian-oligarchs-only bidding war. Khodorkovsky went so far as to boast that his Menatep bank was designed to capture government assets, while another oligarch, Pyotry Aven, delivered the now notorious line about billionaires in Russia not being made by business, but appointed by the state. Oligarchs appointed by the state—as Wood sees it, this is the essence of the Russian system.

In 2005, however, Putin declared “war on the oligarchs as a class”—a deliberate echo of Stalin’s “war on the kulaks.” It was a risky proposition that threatened to pull out several of the newfangled pillars of the Russian economy. Predating the sweeping anti-corruption purges of Xi Jinping in China and Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, Putin’s own campaign focused less on the “red directors” with former state ties, but rather the “outsiders,” whose distance from ordinary people made them an easier target. When Putin had special forces dramatically wrest Khodorkovsky from his private plane on a Siberian runway and imprison him, the Russian public was mostly behind Putin. The Western press, meanwhile, took up the cause of Khodorkovsky, not merely on due process grounds, but because Khodorkovsky was the only well-known oligarch to refuse Putin’s ultimatum to stay out of politics and limit his business empire. But lost in the coverage at the time was Putin’s reason for taking a stand against certain oligarchs. The oil and gas companies they operated had once formed the backbone of the Soviet system. These enterprises had formerly provided housing, health care, even education for the many hundreds of thousands of Russians they employed. Putin recognized on some level that 1990s-style asset stripping—which threatened the livelihoods of large portions of the citizenry—could not go on indefinitely without imperiling the legitimacy of his government.

But at the same time he believed the state could only continue to function with some of the oligarchs—the oligarchs on his own side, that is. The goal was primarily stabilization, not reform. In this sense, Putin’s plight in some ways resembles that of the rulers in Seoul, who periodically shake up the elite segment who run the chaebols—the golden geese such as Samsung and Hyundai that drive the Korean economy—but ultimately believe that the county would unravel without them and the hierarchies they seem to require. Like Seoul, Moscow increasingly emphasized the collective sacrifice of the mid-twentieth century, when social equality was more real, all the while shutting off the possibility of its return. “Putin’s rule was from the outset constitutively riven,” Wood writes, “defending in practice the outcomes of free-market reforms its rhetoric repudiated, and making nostalgic appeals to a Communist system whose egalitarian principles it rejected.”

It is a true, if tedious, point that Putin’s political fortunes have tended to rise and fall with world oil prices. But there is another resource above ground that is arguably more valuable for sustaining Putin’s rule: the vestiges of infrastructure and a social welfare system left over from the Soviet period. Wood calls these remnants “Red bequests.” They include everything from now-decrepit housing stock to trade unions to social insurance programs. An emaciated version of the Soviet-era “Semashko” health system, for instance, hobbles on into the present. On taking power, Putin slowed some of the privatization of health care inaugurated by Yeltsin, pumping more funding into the old system. In his 2012 “May Decrees,” Putin simultaneously declared that more funding would be devoted to state health care, all the while vowing to gradually privatize the entire system.

What appears as straightforward statism under Putin—returning 45 percent of the oil industry to the state and centralizing the electric energy sector—has also been combined with an expansion of the duties of oligarch-run firms to provide at least some of the former social benefits that predecessor firms extended under Soviet rule. In recent years, a Russian studies subdiscipline examining “corporate social responsibility” has blossomed, though the phrase means something quite different in Russia, where social responsibility is not a question of burnishing a brand but of coercing profit-driven firms to provide basic services for their dependent populations.

Foreign Policy

The second of half of Russia without Putin is given over to foreign policy, on which Wood makes some striking observations. He argues that the Russian wish to integrate with the West, while lately dormant, has far from disappeared from the Kremlin’s overall orientation. There seems little reason to believe that Putin was not telling the truth, for instance, when he claimed that he once asked President Clinton if Russia could join NATO. Until the mid-2000s, it was difficult to say what the American consensus on NATO expansion around Russia’s perimeter was, with many old Russia watchers, from George Kennan to Henry Kissinger to . . . Thomas Friedman, all counseling against it. The irony of NATO expansion, for Wood, is that it turned out to be “an insurance policy against an outcome that expansion would ultimately help to create: the return to the world stage of an independent Russia, with interests distinct from those of the west.”

Within Russia, Wood sees a kind of seesawing between the pro- and anti-Western orientations continuing right through the present. The Kremlin either sulked on the sidelines or greenlighted the NATO interventions in Kosovo and more recently Libya, only later to regret that it had not more forcibly opposed them.4 (For those who argue that Putin is cheering on the refugee influx out of Syria into Europe as a weapon of disruption, then surely the Libyan catastrophe would also have served the same interest, as its implosion presents a major threat to European stability and consensus.) On the other hand, there have been a series of measures Wood sees as defensive, though hardly condonable reactions. He reads the Russian invasion of Georgia as a way of testing the limits of NATO (Georgia’s membership had been floated by George W. Bush at the 2008 Bucharest Summit).

More controversially, Wood argues that the Soviet invasion of Ukraine occurred after a series of Russian redlines had been openly flouted. The Kremlin then did what it does best and started an inconclusive civil war. “The rapid escalation of Russia’s response and the very crudity of its methods were in themselves a measure of the asymmetry of power between it and the West,” Wood writes, all the while condemning the means and outcome of Russia’s handiwork. In terms of strictly material interests, Wood suggests that there was perhaps an unbridgeable divide in Ukraine: young westerners were eager to travel to Europe and earn a decent living, while easterners suspected that closer ties to the EU could mean another round of devastation and obsolescence for local industries.

Particularly troubling for Wood are the western commentators who see a dark design of “grand strategy” behind Russia’s actions. The pundits who claim to explain Russia through the psychology of its leaders succumb to a distraction that has bedeviled western writing on Russia for more than a century. But so do those who attribute deep powers and influence to a shifting series of dark thinkers, such as Aleksandr Dugin or, further back, Ivan Ilyin. For liberals attracted to this kind of conviction-by-quotation, Putin is carrying out a master plan for Eurasian expansion that his philosophers have decreed is geographically destined. For Wood, the irony of such projections is that they play directly into the Kremlin’s hands, exaggerating Russia’s power in such a way that only increases its real influence. Such tropes might be a projection of fantasies of “grand strategy,” which actually do have purchase in the United States—and under the neocons in the second Bush administration were at least partly enacted—onto a Russian adversary whose position in the world is more tactically responsive than strategically creative.

Imitation Democracy

Russia without Putin draws on contemporary Russian film and literature with such agility that it leaves most other accounts of the Putin years feeling impoverished and hidebound by comparison. Wood’s central theoretical premise is that, in an addition to being an ongoing experiment in authoritarian capitalism, Russia is best described not as a “sovereign democracy,” as the Kremlin likes to call itself, but what the great Russian liberal sociologist Dmitri Furman called “an imitation democracy.” For Furman, imitation democracies have all the trimmings of democratic regimes—they have constitutions, elections, and courts—but beneath them lies the everyday reality of authoritarian rule. “Such systems,” Furman wrote, “arise when conditions in a given society are not ripe for democracy, and yet there is no ideological alternative to it.” Furman saw imitation democracy as the main type of regime in the post-Soviet space, as well as in the postcolonial world. The tricky element in running an imitation democracy is that, if you’re not careful, they can accidentally become more authentic: when Leonid Kuchma tried to set up an imitation democracy in post-Soviet Ukraine, his attempt backfired and triggered a genuine democratic outpouring, the “Orange Revolution” of 2004, which Furman believed set Ukraine on the democratic path it is still struggling down.5 But where the liberal Furman saw these potential reversals built into the form of imitation democracies—though he was never sanguine enough to describe them as “transitional”—much of Wood’s account shows how adept Putin is at running an imitation democracy, albeit with some notable stumbles. By ousting liberal parties from the Duma in 2003, and simultaneously embarking on what Alexander Etkind has dubbed a policy of “preemptive counterrevolution” abroad, Putin inadvertently radicalized protesters against his rule who no longer had a parliamentary arm. In Russia, Putin’s imitation democracy functions by subsuming all the pseudo-alternative candidates and parties into supports for the system.

But it gets worse: Russia’s evolution since Communism challenges standard democratic theory in other ways as well. A middle class of sorts did emerge in the 1990s, but it didn’t do what middle classes are supposed to do: it didn’t build democracy. “[F]ar from being the steel in the back of Russian democracy,” writes the radical poet Kirill Medvedev, this middle class “has turned out to be a neurotic, consumerist mass, full of social and national xenophobia, aggressively clinging to its privilege, ready to sacrifice more than just freedom.” For Medvedev, as for Wood—whose book is the cool prose complement to Medvedev’s free verse fusillades—the greater tragedy of the Russian middle class is that the very intelligentsia which was supposed to guide it had, in late Soviet times, in a fit of dissident fury, sold off their intellectual birthright. They no longer devoted themselves to thinking and building any social future, but instead became tutors of depoliticization.

As for the future, Wood finds the hopes for post-Putin Russia sorely misplaced. In his survey of the opposition movements against Putin, the only ones he finds attractive—the minuscule formations of the Left Bloc and the Russian Socialist Movement—are those that criticize the entire Russian system, rather than simply the character of Putin and his circle. The most charismatic leader of the Russian opposition, Alexei Navalny, is hardly an appealing figure in Wood’s portrait. After spending some time in prison—a more reliable site of conversion in today’s Russia than any Orthodox church—Navalny is no longer the free market enthusiast of yesteryear. Lately, he has been speaking of redistributing Russia’s natural resource wealth on the model of Norway. But Wood diagnoses something troubling in Navalny’s wide, but by no means decisive, level of support: the eschatology of anti-Putinism, just like Putinism itself, demands a lone heroic savior.

Mirror Images

The structural picture of the Russian regime that Wood lays out increasingly resembles or intersects at odd angles with our own. There is the same confusion in both the Kremlin and Washington about how to orient their countries toward Beijing: with the United States too dependent on China, and Russia perhaps not yet dependent enough. (Beijing rejected out of hand Moscow’s call to war against the U.S. dollar as a global reserve currency.) The situation with Europe is nearly reversed: the energy demands of Germany and Poland—not to mention Ukraine—make it difficult for the Europeans to respond to Russia in anything but a considered fashion, while Trump is free to taunt the Germans with bans on car exports. But perhaps the most telling diptych is comprised of the photos of Trump meeting with business leaders and Putin meeting with business leaders, both imploring the billionaires assembled to invest in the basic infrastructure that the state is no longer capable of or interested in providing. (Putin is the more convincing figure in these settings, as what he has given to business, he has on occasion taken away.)

I finished Wood’s book wondering why more terms from Russia’s political vocabulary haven’t yet entered the American and European lexicons. Prikhvatizatsiia (grabitization), for example: the privatization of state assets and state knowledge. Not even the Germans have soldered together an equivalent compound for this phenomenon, though down the street from where I write this in Berlin, an august Prussian-era school building is being turned into luxury condos, despite protests in the city over the lack of school capacity. And what about “oligarch”? What more does Jeff Bezos resemble—when he subjects American cities to a tax-concession bidding war for tech-sector employment—than one of the Russian chosen, on whom entire regions of the country depend for support. Another parallel emerges between Wood’s critique of the Russian opposition and mainstream American Democrats: they thirst for impeachment, but will likely be very comfortable with the political system once it is back in their hands.

Wood advises readers to give up on the parlor game of wondering whether Russia without Putin—and, implicitly, America without Trump—will be different. Unless leadership changes are accompanied by systemic reforms that address the structural legacies of 1990s capitalism, then little is likely to be accomplished. And until America’s Russia hands can answer the basic question of how to fit an inconveniently powerful Russia—too weak for the world, too strong for its neighborhood—into the international system, then they will continue to offer nothing.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume III, Number 1 (Spring 2019): 102–12.


Increasingly unable to define themselves in positive terms, western countries now often define themselves in the negative sense of “not being like Russia.” The Trump comment that attracted the most liberal ire in establishment foreign policy circles was his response to Putin’s targeted assassinations, when Trump declared America was “not so innocent” of such practices. An even more dramatic example is Slovakia, where thousands of citizens took to the streets of Bratislava last year after the murder of a local journalist investigating corruption, Ján Kuciak, and his girlfriend, Martina Kušnírová. The protest included many people shouting “This is not Russia!” and forced the resignation of the Slovakian President.

American academics and policymakers are a different story. Among academics, most leading authorities, whatever their assessments of the Kremlin’s depravity—from je-vous-ai-compris Stephen Cohen to they-be-evil Stephen Kotkin—still tend to counsel a “realistic” approach to Russia when they make public pronouncements. With policymakers, on the one hand, there is a loose alliance between neoconservatives and liberal internationalists, who are invariably hostile to the Kremlin, and on the other hand, realists of various stripes who eschew moralism when dealing with Russia, and counsel against ultimatums in favor of negotiations. The Trump administration’s new point person on Russian affairs, Fiona Hill, is the coauthor of an extended biography of Putin, Mr. Putin, which portrays him as a neo-Soviet statist parachuted into the present. Hill is likely to be one of the last chief Russia hands to privilege the pre-Revolutionary and Soviet past in her interpretation of Russia—she wrote her dissertation under Richard Pipes on the return of repressed pre-1917 thought and ideals in 1990s Russia. One might expect Russian policymakers of the future—those born after the Cold War—to be less instinctively antagonistic toward Russia, but this is likely an illusion. The batch of experts currently in the making may well come to see Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election as the most salient connection between the area of their expertise and the public interest. In other words, Russia is unlikely to become a dispassionate subject of study any sooner than Israel. For an incisive prosopography of America’s Russia hands, see Keith Gessen, “The Quiet Americans behind the U.S.-Russia Imbroglio,” New York Times Magazine, May 8, 2018.

My point is not that Russia did not interfere with the American presidential election of 2016—all the evidence suggests that it did. Nor is it much of an excuse to claim that the United States has regularly meddled in Russian elections, most notably the 1996 election of Yeltsin, which probably would have gone to the Communist Gennady Andreyevich Zyuganov. Rather, the point is simply that while much evidence remains to be discovered, it is virtually indisputable that the Russian interference did not significantly or decisively alter the results of the election in favor of Trump, and that liberal outrage has exaggerated the scale of the Russian threat, which is what the bots want.

Putin publicly came out against the intervention, lambasting it as “a medieval call to the Crusades,” but Medvedev was permitted, or able, to not veto the intervention in the UN out of the general hope of a “reset” with the Obama administration. Obama now regrets “failing to plan the day after” of the Libya intervention as “probably” his worst mistake as president.

Another example of an imitation democracy becoming seemingly more democratic happened in the Gambia in 2017. The authoritarian leader of twenty-one years, Yahya Jammeh, accidentally lost the election by not rigging it properly. At first he said he would accept defeat, but subsequently contested the result until he was forced to concede it all over again, then he fled into exile in Equatorial Guinea where he awaits extradition by the regime that succeeded him.

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