Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin by Ben Judah, 330 pages
In 1998, Vladimir Putin was the former deputy mayor of St Petersburg. By 2000, through the connivance of the oligarchs who rose to power under Yeltsin, he was the President of Russia. By 2004, he was the acknowledged master of the country, having broken the opposition by fair means and foul, meanwhile enjoying an approval rating that hovered in the sixty percent range. By 2012, hundreds of thousands of Russians were protesting against his policies, while his cronies resorted to blatant election fraud to preserve his regime.
The path of Putin traced by Judah is that of a man who set out to strengthen authority and preserve national unity in a time of crisis, but who ultimately centralized power in a corrupt court centered around himself, compounding rather than solving his country's problems. The men surrounding him are personally loyal to him, not to any party or ideology. Even Putin's political party is dedicated to supporting the "Putin plan", which is defined as whatever Putin plans. The boom years made the Kremlin courtiers fabulously wealthy and ingrained in them the habits of corruption, but they also created an independent, cosmopolitan, internet-savvy middle class which, in leaner times, is impatient with that corruption. The prognosis: Putin "cannot change - and as long as he is in power, neither can Russia." The catch is that the opposition choices are not necessarily preferable.
There are a few problems with this book. Judah's chapters read like independent reports, so that the same information is repeated, or matters are covered in one chapter when they seem to organically belong to another. Worse, the reader gets the impression that the author is somewhat dependent on his own circle of acquaintances - "I enjoyed watching the ambivalent, dismissive reactions of my friends..." - raising questions about how representative that circle really is. Finally, there is the implication in the enjoyment present in that quote - Judah is so relentlessly negative about everything related to Putin, from his policies to his marriage to his skill at judo, that his objectivity is very much in doubt.
Despite these problems, Fragile Empire is immersive in a way few books are, truly giving a sense of what it is like to live - whether in hope or despair - in Russia today.