How Russia Slid Backwards


Vladimir Putin's Russia

and the End of Revolution

By Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

Scribner; 453pp; $27.50

( below)

Editor's Review

Three Stars
Star Rating

The Good A well-reported, kaleidoscopic portrait of today's Russia.

The Bad The authors seem to have selected topics that support a pessimistic view of the country.

The Bottom Line Offers a persuasive case that Putin--and the KGB--have reimposed authoritarian rule.

A few months after his election in March, 2000, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin attended a celebration at the Lubyanka, the notorious headquarters of the old KGB. Around 300 generals from the KGB and its present-day successor, the FSB, had gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Soviet secret police. Putin was in good form as he wisecracked to his fellow spies. "Instruction number one for the attaining of full power has been completed," he told them. It might have been a good joke except for one thing: As it turned out, Putin meant exactly what he said.

That, at least, is the central thesis of the revealing Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, who jointly served as Moscow bureau chiefs for The Washington Post from 2001 to 2004. Their book chronicles the steady concentration of political power under Putin. True to his KGB credentials, he has effectively reimposed authoritarian rule, finally curtailing the failed democratic revolution of the 1990s. Independent media have been crushed and replaced with crude state propaganda. Elections are routinely rigged, and the only political party that counts is the pro-Putin "Party of Power." The old KGB is back with a vengeance and filling many of the highest positions of state. Even school history textbooks are banned when they are too frank about the crimes of the Soviet past.

Despite its title, Kremlin Rising is not simply about Putin and politics. These are just the starting points for a much more ambitious project: a kaleidoscopic portrait of today's Russia. The book is organized thematically around a diverse collection of topics, from international relations to rock music, backed by an impressive amount of firsthand reporting. On top of Russia's screwed-up politics, Baker and Glasser show that the army is falling to pieces, the court system is an unreformed and corrupt shambles, and the populace is increasingly ravaged by AIDS in addition to its well-known rampant alcoholism. It's an approach reminiscent of Lenin's Tomb, an acclaimed 1993 best-seller on the dying years of the Soviet Union by David Remnick, also then of The Washington Post.

Baker and Glasser's interviewees range from high-ranking Russian officials and senior businessmen to ordinary people, from army deserters to underwear salesmen. Their stories all tell us something (usually something not very good) about the new Russia. The duo also have a canny eye for the dramatic. Putin's unlikely rise to power is the subject of an early chapter, which includes a striking number of details from political insiders. Two of the book's most powerful chapters recount the harrowing hostage dramas of the Beslan school siege of 2004 and the Moscow theater siege of 2002. Both draw extensively on talks with former hostages and their relatives, making for gripping, though sometimes uncomfortable, reading.

Putin himself comes across as a stubborn martinet whose main political credo is never to show weakness. "The weak get beaten" is Putin's simplistic mantra, which explains his hard-line policies toward Chechnya and his intolerance of critics. But Kremlin Rising also gives a sense of the tremendous constraints faced by Russia's leader, whose sometimes well-meaning reforms typically fail because of the intransigence of a reactionary bureaucracy. Then there are the conservative instincts of the Russian public, still confused by nostalgia for the imperial Soviet past. Putin's enemies, such as oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, don't fare much better. In an account of the Putin-Khodorkovsky feud, the authors resist the temptation to blame everything on Putin, noting the mysterious messiah complex that seems to have driven Khodorkovsky to self-destruction.

Kremlin Rising does have its flaws. Against a background of continuous carping about Putin and Russia by the Western media, some of the authors' criticisms sound like clichés. In Russia, nothing is ever as black or white as it is typically portrayed in the West. The authors clearly have selected the topics with a view to reinforcing their unabashedly pessimistic viewpoint. There's a single chapter on Moscow's booming economy but little real acknowledgement of Russia's economic recovery, which may ultimately be the most important development of the Putin era. Although the authors' sources are often plugged-in, one suspects they are not always objective. Many of the most damning revelations about Putin come from a seemingly well-informed, anonymous "senior official" -- possibly former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, given his current outspoken opposition to Putin.

Still, the revelations often have the ring of truth. Five years into Putin's presidency, even optimists are jaded, recognizing that Russia is a considerable distance from anything like a Western-style democracy. And they will probably enjoy Kremlin Rising, a trenchant reminder of what a perplexing and exciting country Russia still is.

By Jason Bush

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.