“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”.

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 to become “Russian”?

What does it take for a person who is born outside Russia, to get accepted as “one of us”, Russians?

Obviously, the highest authority on the matter of Russian-ness is President Putin. From his pronouncements at different occasions we can conclude the following:

  1. Our government wants to “create conditions” for return of “our compatriots” in foreign countries. In other words, our State is inclusive, not restrictive on the issue of accepting new people as our compatriots.
  2. At one of occasions, Putin called Ukrainians and Russians odin narod, or “same nation”. Interpreting his words, this means that even if you and your parents lived your entire life outside what is now Russia, your Russian cultural background means more than your ethnicity and the place of birth/residence.
  3. Putin refused to define Russian-ness by ethnic roots. Quoting geneticists, he said that then we would need to include Poles, but exclude great many “native” Russians, because there’s “too much Turkic blood in them”.
  4. Putin is very judicious in using words russkiye (“ethnic Russians”) and rossiyane (“Russian subjects”). The latter one is an ancient Napoleonic-era construct revived recently to accommodate the multi-ethnic nature of the Russian state in the post-imperial era. Both are bunched together in the English translation as “Russian”. This means that you as a Russian speaker in discussions with the most pigheaded immigration official who refuses to acknowledge that you are a russkiy, can firmly claim you identity as a rossiyanin on the basis of your ancestry and cultural background.
  5. Putin is a very firm opponent of radical nationalists who claim “Russia for Russians”, i.e. the russkiyes. Any ethnic tension threatens the stability of his power. This leaves plenty of room for technically non-ethnic Russian rossiyanes, like you. Not least because the radicals can’t agree between themselves who to count as a russkiy.

In practical terms, all this leaves the question of your affiliation with Russia in the hands of immigration officials. They certainly would be happy to discuss the matter with you: Putinist Russia loves to reconnect with lost souls among the Soviet diaspora. On the picture below, you see the French actor Gérard Depardieu who was given a Russian passport, not even being close to anything Russian in the past. On the other side, if there is a track record of you participating in such questionable activities as human rights activism, support of Ukraine, feminism, animal rights and nature protection activism (let alone sharing militant videos with quotes from Quran), your chances of being recognized as Russian are severely compromised.

Depardieu shows his new Russian passport
Photo: French actor Gérard Depardieu shows his new Russian passport

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

Putin’s ice hockey show

President Putin keeps his body fit, the face tight and perky. But is his head really as young as his face looks like?

President Putin defies his old age by practicing a lot of activities that are claimed to rejuvenate brains and bodies. He swims for hours in his private swimming pool, spends quality time with pretty women, goes hiking in Siberian wilderness, learns to play the piano.

In 2011, he publicly pledged to learn how to skate. Which he did. Ever since, he was a regular at the plays of so-called Night Hockey League, where select luminaries of certain age gather after hours for casual ice hockey plays.

Recently, they had a gala play for public. President Putin scored ten times (or, according to the opposition, eight). After the show, he took a victory lap, but carried away by the moment failed to notice a ceremonial carpet rolled out on the ice and took a fall (see below).

The reaction of Russian public focused on three things:

  1. The organizers that forgot to take away the carpet before Putin took the victory lap, have messed up their careers big time, irrespective of our President’s reaction to the mishap.
  2. The way President Putin fell and bounced back to his feet, has demonstrated an impressive core strength of his torso, considering his age.
  3. For a Master of Russia, taking a victory leap for scoring goals against play-along opponents before the public and the cameras, demonstrate a strange detachment from reality and possibly an early onset of senility.

Narcissism is a risky luxury in Russia

Russia provides a rather hostile environment for people too full of themselves.

In Russia’s millennium-long winner-takes-it-all history, the country has produced surprisingly few famous narcissists. Those who caught the public limelight, were brought down rather swiftly: Emperor Pavel I, Alexander Kerensky, Lev Trotsky, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Berezovsky.

It looks like the hammer and anvil of Russian self-doubt and imperial despotism kept weeding out the kindreds of Trump, Sarkozy, and Berlusconi in our neck of the woods. If you insist on putting your head high above the parapet, sooner or later the wrath of Russian gods takes you down. That’s the wisdom most Russian babies absorb with their mothers’ milk.

Stalin, for decades living in the sweetest spot of unrestrained glorification, never seemed to be relishing the moment. He just used it as a torchlight for spotting hidden enemies—those who either admired him too much, or too little.

The same is true for Putin. Watch Putin’s facial expression when someone tries to dissolve themselves in humility and awe before the Russian President: “Was that Judas’ kiss?”.

The brilliant Germa philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said: “If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” It seems, in Russia, you don’t need to stare into the abyss to get noticed. All it takes is to be full of yourself. If you bask in your own impossible awesomeness long enough, at the end of the day the abyss will find you.

In a recent Russian TV series about Trotsky, his alleged narcissism is shown as one of the major reasons he lost the power game against Stalin. The creators of the series also hold his narcissism agaisnt him as something that revealed his uncompatibility with Russia’s culture and hate of our country.

Apologies in the toolset of power management

Apologies are considered a sign of defeat or weakness in Russian political tradition. But President Putin often breaks with it.

Apologizing is believed to be a sign of weakness in the Russian political tradition. Our rulers don’t like to apologize, and their subject follow their example.

Putin an exception

President Putin often comes across as an exception from this. He apologized publicly several times—but he does it only before people he deems clearly below his station.

The most high-profiled apologies of Putin;

  • 2002: The most publicly known incidence of polictical apology on the part of President Putin, after the botched attempt to save the hostages of the so-called “Nord-Ost” terror act. It was before the arrest of Khodorkovsky and the subsequent recognition of Putin as an indisputed head and arbiter of all matters Russian, and he used the expression “forgive us”, instead of the more traditional “me” he stuck to afterwards.
  • 2004: Putin paid a birthday visit to a renown actress in St. Petersburg, and apologized for being too busy to attend her mono-play.
  • 2011: Putin apologized to residents of Sochi for the inconveniences caused by the preparations to the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
  • 2012: Apologies from Putin to Moscovites annoyed by the frequent traffic chaos caused by the government motorcades
  • 2013: An apology to people affected by a natural disaster in the Far East for a substandard effort on the part of the rescue services.
  • 2015: To Elton John, for two pranksters who called the pop-star and made him think he talked to Putin.
  • 2016: Putin apologized to WWII veterans for the modern youth who not always pay them the respect they deserve.
  • 2016: Putin apologized to the family of Boris Karlov, the assassinated Russian ambassador to Turkey, for not being able to protect the diplomat.
  • 2017, June: Putin apologized to his audience for not being able to answer all questions during his annual televized Q&A session
  • 2017, August: to the Japanese PM Abe, for being late from the meeting with President Trump


A few years back, the magazine Esquire set up a list of all known Putin’s apologies between 2000 and 2009 (Link in Russian, no later stats are available).

The picture below visualized how many times Putin apologized during official arrangements. Sum total: 145 apologies during 10 years. (Includes instances when Putin was heard using the Russian equivalents of “sorry”, “excuse me”, “forgive me”, “I beg your pardon” etc.)

President Putin public apologies in 2000-09
Infographics with the number of President Putin’s public apologies in 2000-09.

Where is Mr. Vladmir Putin on the political spectrum?

Where is Mr. Vladmir Putin on the political spectrum?

On the classical Policy Quadrants, he’s floating in no. 8.

  • Putin thinks that the future is dangerous. He’s an enemy of revolutions and radical reforms, irrespective of their color. Radical change is a good thing only when it happens to Putin’s enemies.
  • He doesn’t believe in the grand plans of progressives, but he neither thinks he needs to restore good old times in the spirit of national romanticism, like Fascists do.
  • He thinks the State works out things much better than private initiative. Yet, he doesn’t believe in selfless service for the best of nation. He sees a controlled degree of corruption as an oil that secures the frictionless functioning of society. Oligarchical, corporatist, state-centric market economy of the East-Asian mold is his model.
  • The world according to Putin is ultimately a zero-sum game, but he doesn’t have the blood-thirst of Duterte, or the Trump-like need to dominate, or the traditionalist zeal of Erdogan.
  • He thinks that freedom and liberties are not a problem, as long as people keep this sh1t private, and don’t interfere with the business of serious men who know better.
  • He believes that “values” is a fiction that people invent to pursue their own interest. In the imperfect world where everyone competes with everyone, the only thing that unites us all is money.