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Russia without Putin

Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the Cold War
Forfatter: Tony Wood
Forlag: Verso Books (USA)
RUSSIA / One day Putin will leave the Kremlin – but that will not change anything, writes Tony Wood in his book on power and continuity in today's Russia, in which he attacks several well-known myths.


Putin's opponents and supporters of an open democracy will probably think the title of Tony Wood's book on power in Russia is exciting – this is what is being called for from many anti-Kremlin demonstrations in Moscow, Khabarovsk, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. But the devil is in the details – Wood's tightly packed but easy – to – read dissertation is not a call to get rid of Putin – take a closer look at the subtitle, because the key word here is myths.

New York-based Wood is an editorial board member of the New Left Review, a regular contributor to the London Review of Books and a specialist in Russia and Latin America – countries with features that are compatible with a corrupt form of government. His central point is the influence of continuity on Russia's development, which he explores through chapters on Putin, money and power, the legacy of the Soviet past and the major shifts in politics since the Maidan revolution in Ukraine 2014, followed by the annexation of Crimea.

Too much attention

"We have given Putin too much attention, and not looked carefully enough at the system he rules," Wood claims. And then the reader thinks: Well, Putin created this system, did he not?

Wood systematically sabotages many of the sacred cows in the analysis of Russia over the past three decades, and makes short work of popular terms such as "mafia state" and "kleptocracy". He highlights Putin's background and history to show that the man is neither a James Bond villain nor as omnipotent as many claim – and that he is as much a product of circumstances as any leader trying to radiate a kind of divine right to rule.

Putin's alleged interference in US (or British) elections is simply a reflection of
American and Western interference in Russian politics in the 90s, the author claims.

"My argument […] is that the media coverage in the West and the analyzes of Russia, are too fixated on Putin's personality. "Time and time again, Putin's characteristics are used to explain the country's interests or actions," Wood wrote.

For journalists looking for a story to write about, Putin's idiosyncrasies have often been the story itself. The gray, characterless and clumsy figure who stood by Boris Yeltsin's side on state television on December 31, 1999 and became acting president when Yeltsin stepped down, we will never forget – but Putin quickly created an image of a leader who was both technocratic and sympathetic. : The resumption of the war in Chechnya (a policy that under Yeltsin was rooted in death and disaster) and the much-publicized remark about Chechen rebels: "We will smoke them out of the barn," signaled a new type of leader. A leader who is both able to host foreign dignitaries, but who can also make a vulgar comment with a mischievous smile that falls into good soil with the people.

While Soviet leaders were often frail, older men or peasants – apparatchik (member of the Communist Party) – with bad manners, Putin appeared with a clean, healthy and smooth-polished image.

Men policy Putin leads, was initiated under Yeltsin or was part of the Soviet legacy. It lies like a steady iceberg under the turbulent waters of modern Kremlin policy, Wood claims.

Yeltsin and Putin

The book is built around Wood's critique of well-known analyzes and misconceptions about Russia: The widespread perception that Putin is heading for a nostalgic return to Soviet times; the idea that Putin and a small core decide everything; that the country's problems are largely due to the repercussions of the Soviet past, and that when these disappear, Russia could be incorporated into the ranks of "normal" capitalist countries; that a weak opposition is due to a strong central power; that Putin's foreign policy makes the country an aggressor state determined to destroy the West.

None of this is true, Wood claims: "Putin continued what Yeltsin had started." Wood compares Yeltsin's attacks on parliament in 1993 (which culminated in the dissolution of the National Assembly and attacks on the White House in Moscow on October 4, 1993) with Putin's streamlining of the party system, which in 2007 secured him a responsive Duma. "Politically, the system that prevailed in the 2000s was a maturation, not a perversion of Yeltsinism," Wood writes.

Money and power

In the 90s, Yeltsin unleashed market forces and created a new affluent class that received discount cards for the privatization of Soviet industry – the oligarchs – who secured large national values ​​for small change, but Putin's changes have shifted more of his wealth to the political elite unruly oligarchs on their knees.

In foreign policy, Wood shows that Putin was originally concerned about Russia joining NATO, that he repeatedly tried to position Russia in European cooperation, but that it was the West's resistance and superiority that slowly but surely made him an enemy of The West.


Putin's alleged interference in US (or British) elections is simply a reflection of US and Western interference in Russian politics in the 90s, the author claims.

But it is perhaps the author's detailed analysis of the extent to which Soviet heritage has provided continuity and stability that will arouse the most debate. Without the hybrid state that is still a feature of today's Russia – a mixture of lush capitalism and socialist state subsidies – the changes, and Putin's image as a wise head of state, would not have been possible, Wood claims.

How long can Putin be in power?

"While the urge to speculate on Putin's personal fate is understandable, this is a blind spot […]. The question we should really ask is actually not whether the system can work without Putin, but how long it can continue to work in the same way, regardless of who is responsible ", writes Wood.

And this is the question the opposition should ponder, instead of just messing with "Russia without Putin."

"Russia's imitation democracy is capable of reproducing itself whether Putin is responsible or not. If it is to be replaced by something significantly different, an alternative to the system must be holistic and cohesive, not just united around an anti-Putin who can take the place of the current president. "A period of stagnation can also be a valuable interval for opponents, so that the Russians can have the opportunity to think about what kind of country can expect them beyond an imitation democracy, and imagine what a future without Putin will look like."

Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Holdsworth is a writer, journalist and filmmaker.

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