“Weak Strongman” by Timothy Frye: why you should read this book

If you want to understand Russia better, here are the reasons why you should read this book.

1. Deflating Putinology

Putinology, i.e. the approach “Know Putin, Know Russia”, has dominated the newsfeed from Russia and research about it. This Putin-centricity assumes that the man is motivated by a core set of beliefs—and if you can decipher them, you can make sense of his policy, as well as predict what’s the future has in store for us.

Tim Frye demonstrates that the worldview of President Putin and his personal power is hugely exaggerated as a policy factor. He faces a wealth of constraints we can’t even imagine. Studying his tactical thinking and his reactive frame of mind is much more relevant.

2. Stress on quantitative research

The author doesn’t go down the beaten path of profusely quoting newsmakers, activists, media persons, dissidents, and tidbits from past newsfeeds to prove his points. Quantitative research, with a lot of figures and summaries of opinion polls, takes much place in the book. I wish this would be a golden standard for those who make a claim to explaining Russia’s current policies to the public.

3. Cross-cultural context

Tim Frye pulls together much international research about countries with political traditions comparable to Russia. It shows that what happens here is rather mainstream in the global context. If you believe the author, Russia is no longer the “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” like it was in the era of Churchill and Stalin.

My favorite quotes:

Former leader of the Soviet Union Khrushchev… described governing Russia to Fidel Castro as follows:

“You’d think I could change anything in this country. Like hell, I can. No matter what changes I propose and carry out, everything stays the same. Russia is like a tub full of dough, you put your hand down in it, down to the bottom, and think you are master of the situation. When you first pull out your hand, a little hole remains, but then, before your very eyes, the dough expands into a spongy, puffy mass. That’s what Russia is like.”

Russians have long since abandoned hope that the government will help solve their problems… Russians continue to rely heavily on friends and family to find jobs, earn a living, and solve their daily problems. They turn to the state and politics primarily when all other options have failed. As Greene argues, “The general quiescence [of the Russian public] coexists with a deep-seated antipathy toward the country’s ruling elite.”

“As late as June 2002, Putin stated that NATO enlargement to include the Baltics was “no tragedy” so long as no new military infrastructure was introduced.”

Three reasons not to read Tim Frye’s book

1. The yawn factor. The language is approachable alright, the topics are fully in trend. But the more you read it, the less exceptional modern Russia looks to you. If you believe Mr. Frye, almost all that’s going on here in our neck of the woods, has been observed someplace else in the world, time and time again.

2. Ideological non-alignment. If you belong to Putin’s fan club or are a Putin-hater, little in the book really gets you excited. Our beloved President mostly comes across as a shrewd guy who just minds his own business of getting the best out of his stay in the Kremlin for himself, his friends, and his family.

3. The book is a bit too light on Russian sources for empirical research data. I would expect more from someone with “fluent Russian” as his CV has it.

The picture below shows a half pint of dark ale at the bar Pig and Rose in Moscow. It teaches us to better tell foam from beer in President Putin’s policies—the way Tim Frye does in his book.

Tim Frye tells foam from beer in President Putin’s policies.

Putin as a fashion statement

The photo below shows a creation of a Putin fan, a UAE designer Mona al Mansouri.

President Putin is presented on the dress as a winged angel in his signature white judo getup. He is surrounded by cherub, one of which holds above his head a laurel wreath. The orb of the Earth he’s holding in his hand suggests the wreath is being given to him by heavenly powers as a savior of the world.

We had a lot of friends across the world in the Soviet era, too. But this is something new, what appeared first in the post-Soviet period.

Back during Soviet rule, the sympathy to our country was mostly ideologically based—because we promoted the anti-Capitalist, anti-Imperialist politics.

Today, it’s much more focused on Putin personally, or on the image of Russian military might, or the picture of Russia as a guardian of “white European” legacy. I don’t remember a single case in my time in the 1970s of 1980s when someone loved what we do because our General Secretaries “looked like real men”, or our military was considered “cool”.

Soviet WW2 propaganda and the Allies’ war effort

The Allied war effort in WW2 was the area where Soviet propaganda always observed factual accuracy. However, it was always framed as an auxiliary chapter, incomparable to the role of the USSR. Information about the lend-lease was patchy, and presented in such a way where only specialists could assess its significance.

The guidelines for the Soviet propaganda concerning the Allies and their contribution to the victory in WWII were rather unchanged throughout the whole post-war history:

  • The outcome of the war was decided by the USSR, with some help from the Allies. Their fear of Hitler made them overcome their previous anti-Sovietism. (But not for long).
  • The whole thing was called The Great Patriotic War 1941–1945. WWII before that was a separate war between Germany and the Capitalist France and Great Britain who unsuccessfully had tried to direct the German aggression toward the USSR. The Western front was opened in Bretagne in 1944, not in France 1939.
  • There was some delivery of weapons, equipment and food, on a commercial basis, called lend-lease. Many British and American men died transporting it over the Atlantic. We appreciate their sacrifice.

Below, you see a typical Soviet propaganda poster about the Allied effort in WWII at the bottom of my posting. The Soviet soldier takes the central, most prominent place, the American and British are sort of escorting him to battle, or trying to cover behind his back. No sign of anything suggesting the lend-lease deliveries.

The lend-lease itself was not a secret. But it was largely reduced to footnotes and short secondary chapters in the history books. The whole scale of it, especially the food component of the help, became known to the public first in the late 1980s, right before the USSR collapsed.

If my memory serves me right, my dad mentioned once or twice Soviet posters in English that were made in the USSR celebrating the British military transports to Arkhangelsk. They were intended for display in places visited during the war by the Allied diplomats and military. So far, I haven’t seen any of them.

Picture: “The Red Army, together with the armies of our allies will break the back of the Fascist beast (Iosif Stalin)“.

“Girl and her Red Army Trooper”

The picture below “Girl and her Red Army Trooper” was painted in 1920 by Samuel Adlivankin. It shows a Communist soldier spending quality time with a working lady over a Marxist study book.

The book cover says: “Politics 101”. The man is wearing the distinctive uniform of the Red Army. Red troopers inherited it from the Imperial army in WW1. The nationalist designers made a pointy hat to mimic the medieval helms of Rus warriors. The red razgovóry across the chest also mimicked the ethnic decoration from the pre-Imperial era of Muscovy.

The man’s boots are most probably taken from the military supplies sent by the Allied powers to the Czar and the Provisional Government, and taken by local Soviet troops from busted warehouses around the country. The wall is adorned by a portrait of Karl Marx. The phonograph and the sofa were most probably confiscated from counter-revolutionary elements for the benefit of exploited masses.

Is there “Putin’s Doctrine” in Russia’s foreign policy?

Russia’s policy is patently free of ideologies. It’s highly transactional, seeks tactical wins wherever possible and aims at disrupting the policies of the US and other “hostile” Western powers across the world.

When it comes for Russia’s foreign policy, unlike the former Soviet Union, it’s not based on a coherent ideology. What makes it distinct, it’s shaped by our President and has Putin’s fingerprints all over it.

President Putin is known as an accomplished tactician, with a visceral distaste for ideologies. His line is best described by the word disruption. He reads into the strategic intent of his opponents—for the time being, the US and NATO—and takes measures to disrupt their actions. Its initial objective has been to enforce a sort of a New Yalta deal on the US and NATO.

Deploying the instruments of disruptive power, Putin and his aides often call it “asymmetrical response”. The idea is to annoy and weaken the enemy to the point when he gives up and decides it makes more sense to sit down and negotiate than to continue the confrontation.

You can see it in the stuff produced by RT and Sputnik, in the heightened activity of the radical left and far right in Europe and USA, in the consequent Russian obstruction of Western global agenda, the hacker attacks. This is all ways to compensate for our economic weakness and lack of international allies.

The Germans showed considerable disruptive power in their submarine war in the Atlantic during WWII. Submarines can’t win wars, but they hugely facilitate strategic wins, as they did for the US in the grand Pacific battle of WWII. You may want to read more about disruptive power if you google the name of researcher Frances Fox Piven.

Stalinism and Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky’s works are often quoted by Stalinists and anti-Communists alike to score points against each other.

Dostoevsky didn’t know much about radical Marxism, at the time just an obscure strand of a wide plethora of Socialist ideas. Instead, it was Anarchism and the accompanying concept of individual terror that captivated many minds among the urban youth. The edge of Dostoevsky’s social critique was directed against its Russian followers, who he generally associated with Liberals and other admirers of the contemporary Europe.

The novel Demons is dedicated particularly against what Dostoevsky viewed as the blight of progressivism. The piece was written by Dostoevsky some 50 years before Stalin came to power. The story is about a group of revolutionaries who plot to kill one of them, suspected of intended treason.

The novel has been profusely quoted by Stalinists and anti-Communists alike to score points against each other.

  • Stalinists of the imperial bend agree with Dostoyevsky’s view that progressism typically germinates in people from some kind of a deep psychological issue, a fundamental personality flaw, and reveals an ongoing moral rot in those affected
  • Nationalists hold against Stalin his allegiance to Communism, a Western idea imported by haters and detractors of the traditional Russia. Dostoyevsky didn’t spare bad words in Demons to express his repulsion at admirers of all things European.
  • Liberals love Dostoyevsky’s signature expression “the administrative bliss” (elation that bureaucrats experience when exersising their power on commoners). They use it to stress the potential of unlimited power abuse inherent to Stalin’s totalitarianism, and the vestiges of it in Putinist Russia.

Dostoevsky pioneered the Russian expression demokratícheskaya svóloch (“democratic scum”) that many Stalin admirers and Putin loyalists like to apply to our liberals and their foreign soulmates. Stalin himself never used it—but it adequately describes his opinion of the proponents of Western-style democracies.

Picture: “Demons”, Sarra Shor’s attempt to visualize Dostoevsky’s idea of Russian liberals, anarchists, and admirers of the West. Stalin didn’t like the book. The entire edition with her illustrations was destroyed in 1935.

No “empty threats” from Putin

Detractors of President Putin sometimes refer to his showroom weapons, CGI-generated missile launches and blistering rhetorics as empty threats. This is misguiding. Threats from President Putin have layers of meaning beneath them.

In effect, “empty threats” as a term bunches together a lot of totally different power moves on the part of Putin, each appropriate only under a certain set of circumstances. If you mix them up, you totally misread what is happening and most likely make wrong conclusions.

To start with, President Putin is an alumnus of a highly professional special service and spy agency called KGB. This is a line of business where “threats”, if used unwisely, can easily ruin your career or get you killed. When Putin comes with threats, they are very well calculated. Therefore, they are never empty. There’s always something behind them that you can dismiss or accept, but should never ignore.

“He who offends us, won’t live three days”

This was one of Putin’s memes during his early presidency. At the time, most of what happened in the country was outside his control. Oligarchs ran their game over his head, the state functionaries paid little attention to his orders, and the local elites badmouthed the Kremlin at every occasion. This was a concise political declaration from the President: “A challenge to my power may be lethal for you, even if you are not a Chechen.”

Wonder weapon

The Russian military might, apart from the nuclear capability, is only a shade of what it was during the Soviet era. Even the newly-acquired oil wealth invested in Putin’s re-organization of the army, could not rectify much. Recently, it caused much hilarity in Russia when someone calculated that the combined tonnage of the oligarchs’ yachts has surpassed the one of Russia’s ocean-going Navy. This mixes poorly with the self-assured stance President Putin is taking as the world champion of anti-liberal resistance. Hence, the need for a few power moves.

  • Doomsday weapon. The chances that we really have the weapon are impossible to assess. But the certain fact that we possess a nuclear capability to cause the US unacceptable damage gives this ghost weapon much more credibility than if it came from, say, Zimbabwe.
  • Future weapon. Announcements that in a few years’ time, Russia will deploy a certain system, unmatched by anyone else.
  • Showroom weapon. Kind of weapons that exist as a proof of concept. Also, the ones that we technologically can manufacture, but which will bankrupt us if we launch their serial production.

Message amplifier

Soft-spoken messages of strength rarely make an impact in Russian politics. Stalin, who was famously soft-voiced, slow and slurred in his speech, in order to be recognized as a great orator and man of outstanding wisdom, had first to destroy both the “left” and “right” opposition in the Party. The most impactful communicators in our history, like Lenin, Khrushchev and Yeltsin, talked with their fists and palms as much as their mouths. Putin’s stature and voice are nor made for a show of physical might, so he needs to compensate for it by tough talk.

Warning shots

Ukraine is a good example of what once was considered by the West as empty threats and goofy talk on the part of Vladimir Putin. He repeatedly shot warning shots to the US and Germans that he is willing to go pretty far in order to prevent Ukraine from joining the Western fold. The West ignored it every time—until it was too late.


If you are a man of power and don’t throw tantrums from time to time—preferably with torrents of obscenities—this is seen by many as a sign of weakness. The life of a Russian luminary is full of constant stress. Not venting from time to time the ton of frustrations you’re carrying around day after day on those weaker than you is unnatural and suspicious. People start asking themselves: maybe deep down inside, you’re weaker than them.

Below, a photo of the famous Tzar Cannon in the Kremlin. It’s a 5.3 m long barrel with 0.89m caliber . When I worked as a guide at the 1980 Olympics, I described it not much unlike President Putin presents nowadays new items of in Russia’s weapon arsenals: “a piece of art”, “a gem of metalworking”, “nothing comparable anywhere in the world”. However, the cannon was never used in battle—and experts say, for a good reason: the first shot would have exploded the barrel and killed the crew. Was this an “empty threat”? Definitely not. This was an excellent tool in the hands of skilled diplomats, politicians and propagandists.

Tzar Cannon in the Kremlin
Photo: Tzar Cannon in the Kremlin

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rough gem of propaganda

Irrespective of AOC’s political views and the public persona, we need to recognize her unique PR talent.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a rare gem. She has the full potential to become a shining star of propaganda of Donald Trump’s caliber. No wonder anyone slightly more moderate than Bernie Sanders runs around scared.

Irrespective of her political views and the public persona, we need to recognize AOC’s unique PR talent.

  • She has the drive and energy of a firebrand leader of peasant uprising. Bleach her hair and give her turquoise contact lenses-and send her to audition to any Jeanne d’Arc role she wants.
  • She combines the vocabulary and panache of an Ivy League graduate with the decibel level, hand-flailing and obnoxiousness of a Middle-Eastern bazaar lady.
  • Like President Trump, she speaks in short, strongly modulated sentences that just stick to the listener’s brains. But unlike Trump, she also knows grammar. Which allows her to reach out to simple folks and angry intellectuals at the same time.
  • AOC uses President Trump’s technique of shortcutting logic by stringing sentences by association. Like him, she picks short, simple, emotionally charged words, and never shirks from repeating them, hammering them down throughout the speech.
  • Like Trump, she is preternaturally attuned to the media reality where no one wants to hear speeches longer than three sentences.

The concept art below expresses my thrill when I imagine a public debate between President Trump and AOC sometime. “Alien vs Predator of Propaganda” would be a show of the century.

Battle of propaganda titans

Pictures that describe the difference between Communist and Capitalist ideology

Posters and propaganda art give a clear idea of the core values behind their ideologies. Communism versus Capitalism illustrate this clearly.

Art celebrating state power is interesting to compare and contrast between Socialist and Capitalist societies.

Soviet Union

The poster below was printed for the 22nd Party Congress. This was in 1961, when NikitaKhrushchev promised the nation to build Communism by 1980. It shows a procession of Soviet people marching toward a bright future of social justice, spiritual perfection and material cornucopia.

The decisions of the 22nd party congress will be fulfilled
Poster “The decisions of the 22nd party congress will be fulfilled!”

What makes it uniquely pertaining to Real Socialism?

  • The dominating presence of a sanctified person who is not a religious saint or an immortal being (Lenin)
  • The importance of industrial scenery in the bottom right corner. Under Socialism, it’s a reassuring symbol of progressivist development, self-reliance, security and future wealth.
  • In the center, a peasant is tasked with carrying around a sheaf of wheat, in plain sight for everyone. The Soviet Union experienced at least four famines during the first 30 years of its existence. I belong to the first generation of Soviet citizens who were not a “hungry generation”. It’s important that food here is presented in its basic form, as grain. Socialism acknowledges people’s need not to go hungry but frowns on foodies and drink connoisseurs.
  • People walk in a very determined way in one direction, but have no map. Instead of a map, they use a Program of the Communist Party printed on an oversized sheet of paper. The only person who seems to have an item useful for orientation and measurements is the land surveyor with a theodolite to the right. But even he is looking for directions at the metal worker and harvester operator who are holding the Party Program.
  • The journey to Communism is expected to be short. The welder didn’t even take off his headgear. Some wear their Sunday clothes. Women especially don’t want to be caught out with bad hair and in ugly dresses at the destination.
  • One of the kids is bringing cut flowers for the big occasion. The other is carrying a huge model of a nuclear-propelled ice breaker he likely made himself. The little girl in her mother’s arms is preparing to cheer and wave her hands in excitement. Real Socialism is not a place for useless people. “He who doesn’t work, shall not eat.”
  • Apart from the Scientist, no 2 from the right, no one seems to be older than 30. This is no land for old people.

United States

Below, the painting “You are not forgotten”, by Jon McNaughton, from “The Empowered Man” series.

You are not forgotten by Jon McNaughton

“You are not forgotten”, by Jon McNaughton
  • The congregation is static. Under Capitalism, everyone is free to walk, run and crawl in any direction they want. The only way to achieve synchronicity is for everyone to stop.
  • The nation’s leader does not need to physically show a direction. Holding speeches and showing up at ceremonies is most often enough to show leadership.
  • President Trump is trampling a serpent of liberal treason. This is unusual for socialist-themed motifs in the USSR. In our place, the secret police were required to take care of traitors and enemies of the people well before the patriotic crowds entered the scene.
  • There are many seniors in the picture. Under Socialism, if you are old, you are not allowed to enter such an artistic motif, even if you are the highest-ranking government official. (To depict Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, painters needed special permission.) Even more surprising is the wheel-chaired veteran in front of the public. There was not a single piece of patriotic art in the USSR where you could see someone with a disability.
  • The gathering stands on bone-dry earth. This is strange. Under Real Socialism, even in devastated surroundings, the soil always remained full of energy, ready to rebound in a sudden burst of vegetation. It symbolized the bottomless creative force of workers and peasants—none of whom seem to be present here outside the White House.
  • The family of three, front and center, are too melancholic—as is the President. It’s as if they are not sure if the tiny green plant they are watering is going to survive. Only the two police officers are applauding, the rest look like there is a burial going on. This lack of faith and enthusiasm is what always puzzled Soviet people about Capitalist ideologies.
  • Apart from a few government persons, there doesn’t seem to be anyone with a college education. There are no signs of American industrial and technological might in the picture. An alien who doesn’t know anything about the country might deduce from this piece of art that America is a pastoral, not too educated country that mainly consists of the military, firefighters, police officers, elderly politicians, and silver-haired bikers.

Everything is propaganda. Occasionally, it’s not

Propaganda in 21st century is no longer an exclusive domain of top players like the state, national media, church and political parties. It’s now everyone’s game

Human are social animals. Whatever we strive to achieve in life, is dependent on cooperation from other people. Consciously or unconsciously, all of us strive to instrumentalize others in order to get through another day.

Therefore, as a propaganda veteran, I believe that hardly anything people tell each other, is ever unbiased. To be on the safe side, you always must assume that every piece of information passed around by humans is propaganda— you just have to accept that, like death and taxes.

And only then you may have a luxury to pick occasional bits that are not propaganda. Because around humans, non-propaganda happens, too.

  1. Propaganda is communication. It must involve at least two persons. That means the propaganda poster I put up on the inside of my bathroom door to admire while taking a dump is not a propaganda. The communication bit is missing. I’m alone with myself.
  2. Propaganda is a human communication. That means that the dog repellent I sprayed along my fence is not propaganda. While the sign “Trespassers will be shot, survivors will be shot again” propagates the message of inviolability of my territory.
  3. Propaganda has an intention to impact. Teacher writing 2+2=4 on the chalkboard in front of the class, doesn’t do that with the intent to impact the kids’ behavior. Simple acts of education don’t impact behavior in predictable ways. But a poster saying “2+2=5” is propaganda because it tries to convince the target to work 25% more productively for the same pay. In the same way, telling kids to clear their mess under the threat of being grounded is propaganda of parental control, not education.
  4. Propaganda wants to impact the target in a very specific way. The proverbial weather talk among true Englishmen has the explicit meaning of communication without any hidden agenda. At the same time, a Jewish mother insisting that her son takes on a cap when going to an open-air rock concert is a propaganda of maternal control over her son’s well-being.
  5. Propaganda must serve the source’s objective. Telling a girl about a boy “He loves you” is not a propaganda if it just confirms something she already knows and won’t change anything for her. At the same time, it is a propaganda if your name is Iago, the girl’s name is Desdemona, and your objective is to surreptitiously record a video with Desdemona’s private parts in lively action that you can use later to ruin her relationship with Othello.

In my time in propaganda, people believed that propaganda is something that only flows in the top-down direction. That is, it’s something only those in power do: governments, the church, political parties, established gurus, religious cults. The classic Marxist definition of propaganda is:

popularization and dissemination of political, philosophical, religious, scientific, artistic or other ideas in society through oral speech, the media, visual or other means of influencing public consciousness”.

The arrival of the Internet and social media made this definition outdated. The new tools of mass communication made each of us capable of what earlier only governments could do. Nowadays, words of many celebrities on the Facebook and Twitter make more impact that of presidents, prime ministers and the Pope. This makes it necessary to modify the XX-century definition. The new one, that takes the 360-degree impact of today’s communication, would be comething like that:

Propaganda is any act of human communication intended to impact the behavior of the target to suit the source’s objective.

The photo below shows an example of 360-degree propaganda in the XXI century. The shoelaces of this Twitter user are tied to form Cyrillic letters ПТН ПНХ. This is an improvised attempt to communicate an anti-Putinist message in terms of the urban youth subculture: the letters are known to be the code for a subversive rally cry Pútin, poshól nákhui (“Putin, f*ck off”), which can get you a couple years in a Russian prison for “extremism”.

shoelaces tied in anti-Putinist knots
A young Russian uses his shoelaces to broadcast an anti-loyalist message. An obscure pattern reveals coded words in Cyrillic “Putin, f*ck off” familiar to anyone in the target group.