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.