Russian President Vladimir Putin has earned Western fascination with his over-the-top motorcycle riding and judo-fighting public persona, aggressive foreign policy, and his seemingly captivating power over the Russian people. However, Putin’s third term has quickly proven that, with a restless Moscow middle class increasingly discontent with his authoritarianism and local activists fed up with the corruption of the capital, the love affair between Russia and Putin may not be one for the ages. In his new book, Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin (Yale University Press) Ben Judah, who grew up the son of a Balkans reporter and whose earliest memories are of the collapse of communism in Bulgaria, explains Putin’s fall from popularity and its context in the greater narrative of modern Russia. Judah, a former reporter and current Russia analyst for the European Stability Initiative, spoke to the Prospect about Syria, dissent outside of Moscow, and what the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games mean to one of the most enigmatic and athletic world leaders.
Why write a book focused on Putin specifically? Is there a greater narrative about modern Russia that Putin plays into?
What I didn’t find was a compelling book on the Putin phenomenon. How Russia as a nation become so enthralled with this man and allowed him to stamp his name to the first two decades of Russia’s 21st century—as the Putin period. So the book is more than Putin himself. It’s about Putin’s use of power.
How much should we attribute Putin’s success to his leadership style and how much credit should we give to Yeltsin’s defining of the Russian presidency as this very authoritarian office?
Russia began to evolve into a “managed democracy” long before Putin assumed the presidency. The construction of imperial presidency began with the bombing of the rebellious Russian parliament in 1993. However, unlike Putin, Yeltsin’s Russia had an independent parliament, independent governors independent media barons.
It is clear to me that Putin inherited this political system half built. This means we did see Putin’s personality, his identity as a politician playing a very decisive role [in crafting Russia’s political system]. His steps toward authoritarianism were cumulative reactions to challenges to his rule that brought out his instincts—and these instincts turned out to be authoritarian.
So why did Russia fall out of love with Putin?
Putin told Russians what they desperately wanted even needed to hear. This was that Soviet achievements—those achievements were still Russian achievements. This is how he made a Putin majority out of vengeful losers whose status had been ripped to shreds in the Soviet breakdown.
But where I think Putin failed is that he was a terrible state builder and his institutions turned out to be bunk, corrupt and incompetent. United Russia is now almost universally cursed in Russia as “the party of crooks and thieves.” Putin, in choosing to establish United Russia and encourage bureaucrats, governors or police officers to join his party, associated the corruption and misdeeds of these officials with his own name while simultaneously destroying institutions that create accountability—independent tax collectors, independent parliament, independent governors.
At the height of his popularity in the early 2000s, from the outside Russia actually seemed to be doing quite well economically. How closely is Putin’s popularity tied to Russia’s economy?
I find there’s a big hole in the Western understanding of why Russians supported Putin. It’s kind of dismissed as if most Russians had been rendered brain dead by state TV propaganda that is pumping out these ridiculous images of bare-chested strong men and they’re not intellectually strong enough to resist. People ignore that between 1998 and 2008, Russia experienced the best decade in its economic history. You saw Russia go through an incredible consumer revolution and become what it had craved to be since the early 1960s and maybe earlier. This incredible boom ushered a good third of Russia into a new middle class. So for those last eight years of the Putin regime, Putin was popular because Putin was delivering on part of his promise, which was to make Russia a country of fully stocked fridges, tourists, and IKEA malls.
There is a strong link between consumerism and support for Putinism. The main opposition clusters can be found in those very cities, like Moscow, where Russians have achieved a basic middle class lifestyle.
But if one goes to areas where most are living ten to twenty years behind Moscow in consumption levels the Putin consumer revolution is still enough to legitimize the system. One of the moments that brought this home to me was when I spent some time in Birobidzhan. This is one of the poorest ethnic Slavic regions in Russia, right on the Chinese border. When I asked people why they supported Putin, they would take me to the newly opened supermarket to show me the frozen food aisles. “Before Putin …. Nobody in Birobidzhan could ever buy whatever you wanted.”
In the book you mention some of the local dissent and vigilantism in these regions that are farther removed from Moscow. How do these groups fit into the protest narrative?
Right away across Russia you find people reacting against bad bureaucracy. You find local heroes and underground opposition activists sprouting in all different parts of the country. Russia essentially doesn’t have local politics, only a Kremlin script and Kremlin appointees. The most popular activists are usually militant vigilantes such as Evgeny Roizman the anti-drugs warrior in the Urals. If you spend time the Urals and you find that amongst normal people—factory workers, farmers, petty businessmen—Moscow is seen as a bloodsucker.
Why has no coalition formed between these regional protests movements and those in Moscow?
There is a gigantic discrepancy in the way Russians are living in one country. In Moscow you have people earning salaries similar to those in Poland, with Western life expectancies. However if you go to Siberia or central Russia, you have African male life expectancies in their fifties, the overall level of human development scores similarly to Central America. These regions are as a result very cut off from Moscow culturally and this makes it very difficult for the Moscow opposition to reach them.
Putin is extremely well aware of this. His entire propaganda strategy has been about painting himself as a defender of the majority and the defender of conservative, traditional rural values against deviant, foreign influence, and mink-wearing opposition in Moscow. For example, he has made himself an enemy of gay rights, forcing the opposition to defend them with the goal that it will cut them off from the majority in the regions.
The reason we don’t have more protests and leaders springing up in this regions is because 1) they’re too poor and 2) the organs of the state oppress them in ways they never would treat Muscovites. In lots of these kind of regions, how people are forced to vote for United Russia is they work in state factories so if they want their bonus or to keep their jobs, that’s how they're instructed to vote.
You make the analogy that Putin was shaped as much by the Chechen war and the terrorism stemming from that conflict as George W. Bush was by 9/11. In what ways do we see this in Putin's foreign policy today, especially regarding Syria?
Putin came to power in a period in which Russia was hit by successive, gigantic terrorist attacks. These bombings had a cumulative terror effect in Russia far greater than 9/11 in the U.S. That fear helped sweep Putin to power. Putin saw the war in Chechnya through an apocalyptic lens. He feared an explosion of insurgencies ripping through the Muslim regions of Russia. Putin claims that as he launched his campaign on Chechnya he was literally counting in his head how many Russian refugees the U.S. and Europe could absorb.
When Putin views the Middle East, it’s through the lens of Chechnya and his own experience fighting Islamic insurgencies. This is why Putin is so skeptical of talk of Muslim democracy and doesn’t share any of the enthusiasm found in Paris, London, and Washington for the Arab Spring. Concerning Syria, when you speak to Russian officials working with Putin on this issue, they think that the west is suffering from illusions about democracy in the region. Brute force alone prevailed in Chechnya, they think, and [they] see other Muslim societies are essentially the same.
Interestingly, Putin’s domestic policies are no longer popular in Russia, but his foreign policies still are. There’s a consensus in Russia that Putin’s actions in Syria and even Putin’s actions in Georgia were correct.
The Olympics tend to put host nations under international scrutiny. What do you think the significance of the Winter Games coming back to Russia will be?
Putin had consistently tried to host as many spotlight international sporting events as he could. The first of these is the Sochi Olympics in 2014. For Putin, this is his Berlin Olympics. He has staked his name in the Russian establishment on pulling this off. This is his great moment. Putin is trying to mimic what the Chinese achieved in the Beijing Olympics—the coming out party for a revived superpower. But, again, Putin is a very bad bureaucrat. Over $50 billions has already been spent and Sochi is still not ready. There’s this growing risk of humiliation like what happened to India in 2010 when its Commonwealth Games were marred by collapsing venues. For the international media it highlighted that India was not China, and Putin’s greatest fear is that it will do the same to Russia.
This interview has been edited for clarity.