Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution
By Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

Russia is no longer the “evil empire” as Ronald Reagan famously described the Soviet Union, but the qualities attributed to it by Winston Churchill, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” more than fifty years ago remain relevant. Russian political culture is deliberately Byzantine; we foreigners are not supposed to understand who in the Kremlin is really calling the shots or why.  There was a greater degree of transparency under Boris Yeltsin’s disorderly tenure, but as his health deteriorated the fog thickened around the Kremlin.  The ailing Russian president then surprised virtually everybody on the last day of the last century when he announced his retirement, and the still relatively obscure prime minister and former KGB lieutenant colonel Vladimir Putin became acting president.

Putin has now been president of the Russian Federation for more than five years, and while we know more about him and his style, he remains a highly controversial and complicated figure.  For some he is an authoritarian throwback who has further weakened Russia’s frail democratic institutions, destabilizing the country more than ever while simultaneously undermining political authority.  Others argue that Putin has brought an end to the instability and disorder of the 1990s, when state power collapsed and policymaking was a private affair managed by a very narrow and greedy oligarchy.

Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution, by former Washington Post Moscow correspondents Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, helps to clear much of the fog surrounding Putin’s Kremlin. Their direct and engaging account confronts the cognitive dissonance emanating from Russia head-on.  Each chapter is a richly researched description of many of the key developments and personalities of the eventful years these correspondents spent in Moscow from 2001 to 2004. 

Kremlin Rising is not an uplifting account; in fact it is a very depressing and relentlessly negative account of contemporary Russia. Whole chapters are devoted to the tragedy of Beslan, the hellish war in Chechnya, the hostage taking at the theatre in the center of Moscow in 2002, the attack on Russia’s best independent national television station, NTV, in 2001 (now there are none), horrific conditions in the military, the health and demographic crisis, and a host of other desultory topics.  In each chapter Baker and Glasser illuminate the events and the personalities behind the events in sparkling prose, in many cases bringing new information to bear; they are excellent journalists and fluid writers.  But as an analyst of Russia, I question whether this book gives a fair overall account of where Russia is and how and why it got there.

In some ways this is an “angry” book, written by authors who were admittedly mystified to find a country and people very different from what they expected when they arrived in Moscow in January 2001.  Why were so many of their interlocutors so jaded and apathetic about democracy after the tortuous decades of totalitarian Soviet rule? Why were the majority of Russians ready to trade political freedom for order? At the heart of this tale stands Vladimir Putin. In the view of the authors, he has undertaken a counterrevolution, seeing his task as “not about completing the transition to democracy; it was about rolling it back.”  After the terrorist attack of fall 2004 in Beslan, the Russian President announced as “counter-terrorist” measures the cancellation of gubernatorial elections and fully proportional representation in the Duma. Commenting on these changes, the authors declare, “The counterrevolution was over, and Putin had won.”

The problem with this narrative is that the seeds for an anti-democratic counterrevolution were planted long before the rise of Mr. Putin.  Without a doubt, Czar Boris Yeltsin’s dissolution and bombing of the Supreme Soviet in 1993 and the introduction of a new superpresidential constitution were more consequential blows to Russia’s nascent democracy than Putin’s post-Beslan measures.  The December 1993 constitution did more to remove checks and balances in Russian politics than any other measure taken subsequently.

The authors also make much of the term “managed democracy” and the use of administrative resources to ensure Putin’s election in 2000 and 2004.  But certainly no fewer resources were brought to bear in the re-election of Boris Yeltsin in the summer of 1996, when at the start of the year his popularity rating was less than 5%.  The election results in the 1996 presidential race as well as the 1993 referendum on the new constitution probably witnessed greater falsification than in any parliamentary or presidential campaign during the Putin years.  And let’s also remember the results of perhaps the least “managed” post-Soviet election— the alarming victory of the buffoonish fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in 1993.  It is true that Vladimir Putin has further eroded democratic institutions in Russia, nationwide Kremlin control of TV being the most disturbing measure.  But given the badly warped democratization of the 1990s, the suggestion that Mr. Putin started a counterrevolution lacks perspective.

The collapse of the Soviet Union marked not only a political revolution but an economic revolution as well.  The emergence of the institution of private property is the most significant development in modern Russian history, and it is strengthening, albeit in fits and starts.  The jailing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the destruction of his highly successful company Yukos marked a disturbing blow to private property, and Baker and Glasser provide the most balanced and insightful account to date of this affair.  The sale of Yukos’ most valuable asset, Yuganskneftgaz, to state-controlled Rosneft, along with the more recent sale of Sibneft to the state-dominated giant Gazprom, reflect the desire of the Kremlin to assert greater control over the commanding heights of the Russian economy.  There is no question that Vladimir Putin believes that the energy sector must serve the interests of the Russian state and that the fire-sale of some of these assets in the 1990s was a major blow to the power of the Russian state.  Whether the Russian state will effectively manage these massive resources remains to be seen.

Still, while the Kremlin has been rising in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the revolutionary changes that consigned the Soviet Union to the dust-heap of history for the most part have not been overturned.  The Russian Federation is not an empire as its predecessor was; the institution of private property endures and is arguably strengthening.  Of the three components of Russia’s triple-headed revolutionary transformation, democracy undoubtedly remains the most weakly institutionalized, and Vladimir Putin has unquestionably taken measures to further weaken those institutions. 

Baker and Glasser never clarify the phrase “the end of revolution,” and since this is a journalistic account, albeit an excellent one, they make no pretensions to formulating a rigorous argument about the supposed demise of the most recent Russian revolution.  In the introduction they quote Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky, who told them “Putin has said he wants to end the revolution…not to start a new one.”  However, ending a period of revolutionary transformation is one thing; embarking on a counterrevolution is quite another. 

Putin’s supporters contend that he has brought a necessary period of stabil’nost’ (stability) and poryadok (order), while his detractors argue that he has embarked on a counterrevolution, thereby weakening the state and making Russia a more unstable country today.  The reality is, of course, far more complex.  The Russian state under Putin has committed serious policy errors and displayed egregious incompetence on a number of occasions including Beslan, the Ukrainian presidential elections, the Kursk and a host of others which Baker and Glasser ably document in their book.  But is Russia really a more poorly run country today than during the 1990s?  That conclusion hardly seems merited.  Can one imagine that the Russian government would have been able to create a Stabilization Fund ten years ago to husband windfall oil profits without them being ripped off and sent out of the country into offshore accounts?  Even the farcical auction of Yuganskneftgaz in December 2004—an event that Andrei Illarionov, the economic advisor to the Russian President, termed the “scam of the year”—pales in comparison to the monumentally corrupt loans-for-shares scheme of the 1990s.  Rosneft may have paid less than market value for Yuganskneftgaz, but it did actually have to pay. If that was the “scam of the year,” then loans-for-shares was the “scam of the century”!

That Russia is a better place to live today than when I first visited in 1979 is indisputable.  That Russia is a better place to live today than ten years ago is a more arguable proposition, but one I would on balance endorse.  I cannot help but think that if Peter Baker and Susan Glasser had spent some time in Russia during the Soviet or immediate post-Soviet period, perhaps their perspective on Russia in 2005 would not be quite so bleak.  Ironically, their account begins and ends with the story of Tatiana Shamilova, a young woman now in her 30s who came to Moscow from the provinces and made a successful break from the past, the town of Mokshan where her brother and parents continue to live in nearly 19th century conditions.  Her experience and that of her family reflect the transitional status of current-day Russia, a partial transformation replete with contradictions.  As one long-time Russian politician quipped to me, “Russia is in a transitional period between two transitional periods.”  The focal point of Baker and Glasser’s account is Putin’s Russia, but fortunately most of what is taking place in the country is effectively beyond Putin’s Russia.  Tatiana Shamilova symbolizes the positive side and the new opportunities created by Russia’s transformation.  And though her personal success serves as bookends for Kremlin Rising, there is precious little in the book to give the reader the least bit of hope for Russia’s future.

This article will appear in the spring 2006 issue of SAIS Review.