Turning our understanding of Russian politics upside down

While watching the roller coaster that is the Russian ruble, I recalled how much I liked this NYRB review of Karen Dawisha’s new book, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?

An excerpt:

For twenty years now, the Western politicians, journalists, businessmen, and academics who observe and describe the post-Soviet evolution of Russia have almost all followed the same narrative.

We begin with the assumption that the Soviet Union ended in 1991…

We continue with an account of the early 1990s, an era of “reform,” when some Russian leaders tried to create a democratic political system and a liberal capitalist economy.

We follow the trials and tribulations of the reformers, analyze the attempts at privatization, discuss the ebb and flow of political parties and the growth and decline of an independent media.

Mostly we agree that those reforms failed, and sometimes we blame ourselves for those failures: we gave the wrong advice, we sent naive Harvard economists who should have known better, we didn’t have a Marshall Plan.

Sometimes we blame the Russians: the economists didn’t follow our advice, the public was apathetic, President Yeltsin was indecisive, then drunk, then ill.

Sometimes we hope that reforms will return, as many believed they might during the short reign of President Dmitry Medvedev.

Whatever their conclusion, almost all of these analysts seek an explanation in the reform process itself, asking whether it was effective, or whether it was flawed, or whether it could have been designed differently. But what if it never mattered at all?

…the most important story of the past twenty years might not, in fact, have been the failure of democracy, but the rise of a new form of Russian authoritarianism.

Instead of attempting to explain the failures of the reformers and intellectuals who tried to carry out radical change, we ought instead to focus on the remarkable story of one group of unrepentant, single-minded, revanchist KGB officers who were horrified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prospect of their own loss of influence. In league with Russian organized crime, starting at the end of the 1980s, they successfully plotted a return to power. Assisted by the unscrupulous international offshore banking industry, they stole money that belonged to the Russian state, took it abroad for safety, reinvested it in Russia, and then, piece by piece, took over the state themselves.

Once in charge, they brought back Soviet methods of political control—the only ones they knew—updated for the modern era.

The whole review is fascinating. Book is here.

Some miscellaneous thoughts:

  • There’s a nice parallel here to the failures of foreign aid. Western observers, especially the donors, look at the collapse of democracy and growth in the 70s and 80s, and the rebound in the 90s and 00s, and give blame or praise to aid policy and institutions like the World Bank. All the while ignoring the mismatch between the institutions and policy reforms on paper, and the actual incentives and sources of power that drive politics. (Here is a book that makes this argument for Africa.)
  • There’s also a nice parallel to my long-running rant against anti-corruption policies. They attack the symptom (theft) not the disease (few constraints on power).
  • Although I’ve not read the book, this is the kind of book that I think political scientists can write better than anyone. When I see graduate students all rushing to write applied micrometric papers, especially field experiments, I worry that too few people are getting trained to do this more traditional analytical, historical, and comparative work well.
  • All is not lost. It’s partly a fad. There was too little micrometric work, possibly now there is too much, and it will balance out in the next decade. I predict a lot of the people who started the micrometric revolution, and are recently tenured, are going to exit first and follow the old ways. The people who could get crushed in future job markets and journals are the grad students and recent grads who rushed to the fad.

21 thoughts on “Turning our understanding of Russian politics upside down

  1. I have no formal training in political science, but I grew up in a Russian family, speak Russian, visited the Soviet Union as a kid, and can follow events there about as well as anyone who reads the news.

    With that background, I could never understand why the US was always blathering on about “democracy” or “free markets” in Russia. Starting with Yeltsin, it was always neither. With Putin, the return to business as usual was more or less complete. It didn’t seem at all hard to see. Dawisha is 100% right.

    Read Gogol’s “The Inspector” (which is funny, well-written, and short) to see the 19th century version of the current system. Little has changed, except that the current Russian mafia is more ruthless.

  2. So disappointing. I’ve only read the article referenced, but if it’s faithful to the book it’s abysmal. Poor historiography, implausible grand narrative, charlatan-grade sourcing, and the cherry on the cake is that completely farcical idea that the KGB anticipated the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. It’s about as credible as the result of the Crimea referendum…

    It’s not that it’s an inaccurate narrative for the Russian story, it’s an innacurate narrative for any historical episode in the history of mankind, past and future. Human societies just never work in such a neat organised way. Sigh.

    Perhaps it’s the curse of people studying Russia that they often catch the love of historical quackery that’s such a pillar of Russian culture.

  3. Dawisha may or may not have attributed too much foresight to the KGB. But Blattman is surely persuasive to suggest a parallel between the Russian leadership’s insincerity about democracy and liberal economics and—as documented in the Nicolas van de Walle book about Africa’s politics of a permanent crisis of underdevelopment—the art of bait and switch mastered by African regimes that have pursued their own interests rather than those of their countries.

  4. cig, I visited the Soviet Union as a kid in the 1960s. Even at that age, and that long before the fall, it was obvious to me it was an unsustainable system. I don’t find it at all implausible that the KGB in the late 80s would have feared losing power. They would have had to have been dumber than doorknobs *not* to fear it.