“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.

What are the best films with conservative themes?

Conservative Themes on Screen in nutshell.

My Top Three Films to turn you into a conservative.

(The list below is based on my understanding of conservatism as a life strategy focused on detecting incoming threats and defending your perimeter.

As a conservative, I don’t believe in “good news”. The good news is no news. No news is good news. Change is mostly about things turning bad, or worse. Death is the ultimate Change Agent. Nor do I trust progress. “Progress” is an illusion, a mere projection of spiraling complexity of the outside world, cold and indifferent to man.)

1. “Black Hawk Down”, by Ridley Scott

The tale of President Clinton’s misfired “humanitarian mission” in Somalia in 1993. A brilliant exposé on how the best of plans to help out people in need turns into an orgy of death and destruction, where the bravest and the innocent are the first to get killed.

The bluish color palette is bled for light. The ageless ethnic-inspired musical theme is soaked with pain and sorrow. The final scene where heavily armed Americans run home to their base through a devastated cityscape peppered by rounds from ghost-like locals clearly tells you the bottom line. In this world, consider just staying alive for another day as a success. Anything above that is a precious blessing that won’t last long.

2. “The Wire” (TV series)

It’s the best TV series of all time to me. It’s a paradox how strongly the team of its liberal creators projects the central message of conservatism: the mission of man is to keep the Devil down in the hole, for as long as possible. At the end of the day, the Devil always breaks out—but don’t let it happen on your watch!

The iconic Clay Davis’ line is a hilarious soundbite to illustrate how progressives almost always play the Devil’s hand in the best-intentioned of their endeavors. Sorting out their mess falls on the conservatives. But never mind. As Murphy’s Combat Laws postulate, “Anything you do can get you killed. Including doing nothing.”

3. “Hard to be a god”, by late Alexei German

A dark, depressing piece for select film connoisseurs.

A progressive Earthling tries to save few feeble shoots of science and enlightenment among humanoids in some medieval extra-terrestrial universe. People there live unhappy lives in squalor and dirt. The black-and-white scenery reeks of stale sewage, an unkept slaughterhouse, smoke from damp firewood, and vintage BO.

It takes a particular passion for art movies to sit it out for the movie’s entire length. In keeping with Russian storytelling traditions, it’s protracted, verbose, loaded with attempts at collateral storylines and obscure cultural allusions. “If you’re bored, this is not made for the likes of you”.

What the movie does though, is vividly show life through the lenses of Russian progressives. Over many centuries, they’ve been agonizing finding themselves in an ocean of poor, uneducated, apathetic, often hostile and downright sadistic commoners, and their thieving, arrogant, ruthless rulers. A few bold attempts to profoundly make a difference ended in misery for millions, like in 1917 and 1991.

This slow-moving train wreck of a universe is suffused with conservative wisdom. Some houses cannot be put back in order, no matter how much resources and firepower you have. Let them burn if they want to. But for God’s sake keep them from burning your house!

What happened to the Communist Party members after the fall of the USSR?

Almost the entire top tier of Russian politics consists of former members of the ruling Communist party of the Soviet Union. They have proved their conversion to champions of Capitalism. They all are very wealthy now.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was banned by Yeltsin in 1991, and remained illegal for about a year. Hardcore Communists, who still believed in the ideology, formed the Communist party of Russian Federation as well as a few smaller parties and fractions.

Technically, it makes Putin and the other rulers past members of an illegal far-left political entity as per Nov 6, 1991. There are no records of their Communist allegiance after that date.

Boris Yeltsin, his team and other Communists who eyed new, bigger opportunities in the Capitalist Russia, threw out their membership cards and went on building their new careers. Some of them, like President Putin and his friends, ultimately became the super rich rulers of the modern Russian state-oligarchical system.

Here’s an abridged list of top politicians, bureaucrats and managers in today’s Russia who were card-carrying Party members under Soviet rule.

  • President Putin, member of the Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU) since 1975.
  • Valentina Matviyenko, head of the upper chamber of Russian parliament: member of the CPSU since 1972.
  • Sergey Naryshkin, Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service: member of the CPSU since 1976.
  • Dmitry Medvedev, PM: member of the CPSU since 1986
  • Sergey Shoygu, defense minister: member of the CPSU since 1979.
  • Sergey Lavrov, foreign minister: member of the CPSU since 1972.
  • Sergey Sobyanin, mayor of Moscow: member of the CPSU since 1986.
  • Alexander Bortnikov, FSB chief: member of the CPSU since 1975.
  • Yury Chaika, Putin’s chief prosecutor: member of the CPSU since 1976.
  • Igor Sechin, Putin’s oil czar: member of the CPSU since 1990.
  • Anatoly Chubais, Putin’s innovation czar: member of the CPSU since 1980.
  • Anton Siluanov, Putin’s economy czar: member of the CPSU since 1989.
  • Vyacheslav Volodin, Putin’s former spin master, now chairman in the lower chamber of Duma: member of the CPSU since 1985.
  • Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s special envoy in charge of Ukraine, former spin master: member of the CPSU since 1985.
  • Tatyana Golikova, Putin’s chief auditor: member of the CPSU since 1986.
  • Valery Zorkin, Chairman of the Constitutional Court: member of the CPSU since 1970.

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.

How to spot Putin’s hidden successor

Predictive analysis of recent Russian and Soviet history points at three attributes that the future master of the Kremlin is required to have.

The name of Putin’s possible successor in the Kremlin is impossible to know, because the man himself doesn’t seem to prepare his exit. Anyone serious enough to claim their ambition would subject themselves to serious adversity.

However, based on the Russian and Soviet history, we may predict where to look for this person’s name. This will be someone who combines all of the following three attributes:

  1. He knows how to lie low and bid his/her time. “Don’t look conspicuous, it draws fire / Try to look unimportant, they may be low on ammo.” (—Murphy’s Laws of Combat).
  2. He is a part of Putin’s inner circle, or someone a step or two lower on the ladder, with a noticeable performance record in the state bureaucracy.
  3. He is personally very wealthy, or has access to an ample war chest through his family or personal friends.

This person may come to power either immediately after Putin, or as a successor after one or two transitional figures, like Dmitri Medvedev. Medvedev himself is too weak and doesn’t have his own power base).

There is also some chance of a “non-systemic” opposition leader coming to power (think Alexey Navalny). But this requires a physical removal of Putin from the Kremlin, which may happen only as a result of a dramatic split in his inner circle. Right now, I consider the chance of it considerably less than 0.1.

USSR 2.0: A possibility?

Saving the country by ditching the Communist project was a project that the Soviet reformers ran aground. Putin had great success in turning Russia the way they tried to change the USSR.

Soviet Communism has compromised itself to the degree that even hard-boiled Stalinists find it necessary to recreate it with a serious upgrade. A multi-ethnic empire without the Communists is a different matter, though.

President Putin has been recreating on the territory of Russia something we could for simplicity call a sort of a Soviet-Union-with-shopping-malls-instead-of-Communism for some time now. Looking back, we discern parallels between today’s Russia and long-term visions of Andropovites. They were technocrats and intellectuals in the service of the KGB in the 1960s-80s who prepared a kind of China-like transition to Capitalism in “Socialist” clothes.

President Putin has achieved a considerable success where the Andropovites failed. This proves that some form of the “old USSR” in 1990s was salvageable.

Three big caveats, though:

  1. Ethnic nationalism in the colonies around the southern and western rim. This is what brought down the USSR in 1991. China didn’t have to grapple with that. Ukraine and Belarus could have been retained, but hardly the rest.
  2. Oil prices. Everyone is blaming Yeltsin and his dodgy American counselors for the chaos in the 1990s. The question is how someone like Putin would have made it with his state pockets empty back then. Putin’s approach to every problem has always ample money in it. I seriously question Putin’s ability to manage serious challenges on a shoestring.
  3. If Communists and radical nationalists (“the Red-Browns” of Khasbulatov, Rutskoy, or Ziuganov variation) had reclaimed power in 1992, 1993 or 1996, the USSR 2.0 wouldn’t have a chance by now. Imagine everything what Yeltsin is now blamed for, plastered all over the Soviet old-timers. Russia would have been in NATO and EU by now.

Where the rivalry between Russia and Poland comes from?

Historically, Poland long occupied the central position in Eastern Europe that made it in the eyes of Russia a rival as the “main Slav nation”.

The relationship between Russia/Soviet and Poland changed several times. “Rivalry” would be the most fitting word to describe it.

The fundamental reason for the rivalry is geography. After the demise of the Bysantine empire, the main connection with Europe for us was Poland. Further south, sit the Carpathian mountains that separate us from the rest of Slavs. Poles occupy the plains between us and Germany.

This central position gave Poland a unique role as the “main” Slav nation in Europe for many centuries. What is now Ukraine and Belarus, was long a part of the Polish-Lithuanian state. Much of the German influence came to us through Poland, before the Russian empire began a wholesale import of German officers and engineers from the Baltics and Prussia in the XVIII century.

In other words, the role of the great Slav empire required of Russia to get rid of Poland. Poles, on their part, in the XVI and XVII got an appetite for the lucrative Russian fur exports. This resulted in several wars, and the funny situation when Poles for a short period of time became nominal Czars of Russia.

The rivalry twice culminated in a destruction of the Polish state, with Russia and the Soviet Union annexing the eastern part of their country. Many Poles were included in our ruling elites, but many more actively fought for independence. Uprisings in the XIX century, the revolutionary war of 1919–1920, Stalin’s ethnic cleansings during the Great Terror, and the partition of Poland between Hitler and Stalin created a lot of bad blood.

Now, with the creation of independent Belarus and Ukraine as a buffer between us in 1991, much of this tension has faded. In the mind of many nationalistic Russians, the place of Poland as the “evil Slav” is taken over by Ukraine.

Poland, along with Austria and Hungary, is also considered the place in the Central Europe with the most powerful Russian agents of influence. In addition to that, many among the Polish elite share Putin’s views on the EU as a liberal bureaucratic project, and the Anglo-Saxon globalism as a threat to the national identity. If the current tensions between the illiberal Polish leadership and the EU continue to gain strength, we may expect an emerging accord between Russia and Poland, in line with the existing one between Hungary and Russia.

In which ways President Putin is unusual as Russia’s ruler?

If Putin continues to rule Russia the way he does now, with no friendly or hostile “Black Swans” arriving before he goes, this is what will go down in history:

  • Under Putin, due to the windfall of historically high oil prices, Russia experienced the wealth and stability unprecedented in our history.
  • Putin stopped the process of Russia shedding our dependencies after the break up of the Soviet Union. By unilaterally taking Crimea from Ukraine, he also put an end to the post-WWII security system in Europe.
  • Putin is the first Russian ruler during the last 100 years who did not try to modernize the country. He views modernity as a factor of instability. As a counterweight, he reinforces the elements of Russian imperial, orthodox political tradition, an assertive military and the economy based on large-scale extraction and export of natural resources. Internationally, he aligns himself with China who he considers as a politically and socially conservative, but economically successful force.
  • Putin successfully introduced—in Europe, for the first time since the Venetian Republic—a system where the secret police forms the core of the national political system, and secret operatives are the backbone of the ruling class.

Did the Western sanctions on Russia have an effect on Putin’s policies?

Weakening Putin is an auxiliary objective of the Western sanctions. Creating a cumulative incentive to get rid him to his circle, as well as collecting trading cards for the day when normalization talks start is more important.

Western sanctions applied to targeted industries and persons in Putin’s circle have so far produced zero effect. So far, the sanctions only changed him for worse. He became more obstinate.

Bear in mind that none of the Western sanctions have targeted Putin, his assets or his closest family. Putin himself is the last name on the list of targeted individuals, for two reasons.

  • Putin is not an enemy of the West. He’s just a recalcitrant player, elbowing his way to a better place at the global table of power. No need to antagonize him more than necessary.
  • Hitting Putin directly would be the most painful of sanctions. Good players keep the strongest card to play it last.

Consider this example. According to a report, Putin’s decision to mess up the 2016 electoral campaign in the US was triggered by the Panama Papers revelations about his personal friend stashing for him 2 billion USD in an offshore fund. The uproar was about mere revealing of the fact. Imagine what kind of hullabaloo would have happened if Putin’s money were actually frozen or confiscated.

The greatest threat to Putin and his family are not Western politicians. It’s rich and powerful vultures that will go after them and his assets the moment he loses power. He knows he made a lot of powerful enemies along the way, but not always who they are, or how they can hit back. This is why the fall of Qaddafi made such an impact on him.

The pressure on Putin’s circle is more important than on himself. Behind the scenes, it can be scaled down by allowing or rejecting visas to them and their families, disrupting their business deals in the West, harassing their point men. The message sent would be “Staying close to the boss is your liability, not an assets–as long as he’s messing up the Eastern Ukraine.”

How do Russians consider Putin’s rule?

President Putin may not measure up to the standards of Western liberal democracy. But in the grand scheme of Russian civilization, he’s the best ruler ever.

Putin is the best leader Russia has ever had.

  • He’s the first since Stalin who knows how to run the country. And in comparison with Stalin, he does the job with immensely less blood and suffering, and to much better result. At last, we have a competent leader who doesn’t kill and torment people at industrial scale.
  • He´s not a sadist, or power maniac, or a simple thief, or conqueror. With the power he has amassed, he could be Ivan the Terrible, or Caligula, or Lenin, – and he chooses not to. What a welcome, wonderful change.
  • He has little time for liberal niceties like rule of law, or civil rights, or human dignity. But he is very legalistic. “To my friends, everything; to my enemies, the law.” He wants to win elections, not abolish them, tweak and change the law, not ignore it. That´s very fresh, very new, very empowering.
  • He has a sense of fairness, and he values loyalty. His enemies die or disappear, often in a horrible way, but not before they had declared themselves to be his enemies. He doesn’t betray. As long as he thinks you honestly hold your end of bargain, he does´t lie or cheat. Totally out of character for someone who spent formative years in the twilight world of Soviet secret services.
  • He´s not tormented by inner demons that he lets act out onto other people, like many in his entourage do. He’s pragmatic, calculating, rational. “Why kill when you can make a deal? Why steal when you can buy? Why make a scene when you can sit down and have a talk?” He´s a rock of reason in the neurotic sea of post-Soviet politics.
  • He realizes his power mandate comes from people, not from brute force, or God, or ideological sophistry. He´s obsessed by polls figures and popular acclaim. He says what people like to hear, and he knows how to cater to his power base. He shares. He and his friends stole billions from the oil-fueled bonanza, but down here, we got many fat morsels, too. We´ve never been that well off. That´s so new. We´re amazed. Simply amazed.

Russia is a declining power. For many different reasons, this decline seems impossible to reverse. But Putin might be the best to make it a rather smooth, long, uneventful decline.