Vlad Handing

Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War BY Tony Wood. Verso. Hardcover, 224 pages. $26.

The cover of Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War

For the past several decades, the overwhelming majority of Western reporting about Russia has rested on a specific historical narrative about the fall of the Soviet Union. In this story, the USSR collapsed largely from its own economic contradictions. But the heroes were the thousands of ordinary Russians who first supported perestroika and then, in August 1991, turned out in the streets of Moscow to successfully oppose a hard-line Communist coup, precipitating the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union. Though derived from the Cold War school of understanding Soviet citizens as liberal-democrats-in-waiting, this account acquired new influence in the 1990s. Its main adherents, Western investors and Clintonite supporters of the Yeltsin regime, celebrated the post-Soviet transition to capitalism as a model of freedom and civil rights, which saw the birth of a free press, a free market, and democratic elections. When Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, according to this view, he single-handedly reversed the forward march of progress, clamping down on electoral liberties, halting the otherwise successful process of economic liberalization, and turning Russia once more into a Soviet-style dictatorship. Only the residual weight of the democratic legacy of the 1990s now keeps the former KGB mastermind from crowning himself czar; the sole forces credibly opposing him are anticorruption neoliberals, who want to bring the decade’s nascent reforms to fruition.

In recent years, this myth has been increasingly challenged, by Russians themselves as well as by some Western observers. Academic researchers and a growing minority of reporters on the Russia beat have come to recognize that for many the post-Soviet decade was not a golden age but a terrifying descent into mass starvation and suicide. It was Boris Yeltsin and his supporters, including Clinton, who established the rigged elections and concentration of power Putin has inherited and built on. But few have been willing to make this case to a broad, nonacademic public, and as a result, the analysis in places like the New York Times has changed little since the early 2000s. A pervasive unreality has come to underlie public debate about the country, turning every conversation about what is happening or might happen there into a debate over what “we” should do about it. The Russiagate scandal that has dominated the liberal imagination since Trump’s election has only reinforced the prevailing image of Putin as a diabolical puppet master capable of manipulating events an ocean away.

Tony Wood’s Russia Without Putin is a notable exception to this complacent and self-serving consensus. As that title suggests, the main thrust of the book is to debunk the most cherished fantasy of Russian liberals and State Department Russia experts alike: that a Russia without Putin would be fundamentally transformed, liberated from the dead hand of authoritarianism and free to move toward clean and democratic government. Putin, Wood is at pains to emphasize, is not a throwback to the Soviet era. He has merely presided over an evolution of Yeltsin’s system; his regime is “less Putin’s individual creation than the cumulative outcome of Russia’s post-Communist transformations,” and if the figurehead were removed the apparatus would find a new one.

Wood shows how Western observers have persistently misunderstood the country’s post-Soviet economic and political situation. According to the standard account, the problem with the reforms of the ’90s was that they were not extensive enough. In this view, economic liberalization—assumed to lead inexorably to democratic governance—was initiated by Yeltsin, who opened previously state-run sectors to free-market competition. After Putin’s rise, these fragile gains were overturned and the Russian economy renationalized under the control of corrupt regime cronies nostalgic for Soviet times. The real story, Wood makes clear, is less straightforward. As it has elsewhere, capitalism in Russia has become firmly integrated into the political system. Putin did not reverse the shift away from Soviet-style state ownership; instead, he cannibalized the Soviet legacy to “actively facilitate the construction of the new capitalist order.”

This does not mean that Russian capitalism is merely Western capitalism with onion domes. The specific direction the country has taken since the 1980s, toward a “synthesis of the realms of government and business,” has created a governmental structure unusually dependent on elites and the illicit financial flows that keep them loyal. Drawing on the work of the economist Serguey Braguinsky, Wood distinguishes between “insiders,” people whose former position in the Soviet hierarchy gave them control over the industrial base of the party-state’s economy, and “outsiders,” the financiers and media magnates who first emerged in the perestroika years and anchor the anti-Putin opposition so favored by Western journalists today. In the ’90s, these outsiders were able to use their wealth to acquire ownership stakes in former resource monopolies and with them a kingmaking role in the chaotic Kremlin of the Yeltsin years. When Putin took office, he seized and redistributed the assets of Yeltsin’s supporters to insiders instead. Outsiders who had used their financial access to build independent political bases were expropriated and imprisoned, while the faithful ones were rewarded. In other words, the famous Russian “oligarchs” American journalists love to hate are a complex and differentiated capitalist ruling class. As Wood puts it, “The ‘kleptocracy’ targeted by Western sanctions is merely the flesh-and-blood manifestation of a systemic feature: the blurring of the boundary between the state and the private sector.” Putin is not exclusively responsible for this system, nor is it likely to unravel easily if he is replaced by a reformist leader.

Russia Without Putin explores the scholarly consensus of the past twenty years of Russian studies from an accessible left-wing perspective that never strays into what-aboutism or an apologia for Putin’s policies. In keeping with the traditions of the New Left Review, where Wood is on the editorial board, he outlines the contours of political and economic struggle as rigorously and impersonally as possible. His method is to identify deep social, political, and economic structures and de-emphasize “the swings of one individual’s mood or morality.” The message of the book, hammered home again and again, is that structures are important and Putin as a man is not.

This structural approach pays off. The book brings attention to details other commentators leave out, such as the massive post-1991 withdrawal of women from the middle-class workforce and the return of explicit patriarchal rhetoric in the 1990s. Wood is equally deft in not ceding ground to right-wing or imperialist arguments, offering nuanced analyses badly lacking in the world of Russia journalism today. And he is admirably clear-eyed about the prospects of the Russian opposition movement, avoiding wishful thinking and partisan overidentification at all costs. Though his analysis is intellectually aligned with the non–Communist Party Far Left, represented by figures like the socialist activist and poet Kirill Medvedev, Wood does not hold out much hope for its immediate success, given its “sheer numerical weakness.” If Putin’s order “is to be replaced by something substantively different,” he writes, “an alternative to the system as a whole will have to coalesce—not just an anti-Putin who can take the current president’s place.”

Yet because Russia Without Putin is organized around the crude, nakedly ideological caricature of Putin as totalitarian strongman, if only to deflate it, Wood struggles to describe what shape “an alternative to the system as a whole” might take. In his account of the liberal anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny, Wood, like other leftist commentators, criticizes the idea that his candidacy could provide a center of gravity for a real opposition movement. Throwing cold water on Western journalists’ fantasies of a cleaner, more Western-friendly Russian leader, Wood argues that, despite his slick image, Navalny is a racist hard-line nationalist with a Chicago School agenda driven by a “mixture of chauvinism and entrepreneurial frustration.” But even a flawed individual can catalyze a systemic critique. If a large-scale movement for social transformation does emerge in Russia, Navalny’s supporters, who have taken great risks to organize protests against pension cuts outside the bubbles of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, will play a key role.

Turning to foreign policy, Wood makes the necessary and important argument that the past decade of Russian policy in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria has constituted a series of frantic reactions to relative decline, rather than a sinister plot to rebuild the Soviet empire. “The rapid escalation of Russia’s response [in Ukraine] and the very crudity of its methods,” he writes, “were in themselves a measure of the asymmetry of power between it and the West.” As a reply to panicked conjectures about a Putinist plot against democracy everywhere, this is indispensable. But because he is largely confined to debunking the Russophobic narratives that dominate the Western media, Wood only vaguely gestures at the most significant development in Russian policy since 2013: the country’s movement away from the Western orbit and increasing economic integration with China as a junior partner. Over the past few years, signs in Moscow have begun to routinely carry Chinese translations, while China’s payment network UnionPay is now accepted by almost 90 percent of Russian merchants; these low-level changes are echoed by larger ones, such as the recent Gazprom–China National Petroleum Corp. pipeline agreement (on terms relatively unfavorable to Russia), which will constitute Russia’s largest energy project since the fall of the Soviet Union. But the impact of all this on the United States has so far been minimal, especially since China has not done much to defend its new client politically. As a result, pundits ignore it—and therefore Wood does too.

There are few journalistic books about Russia that take its complexity seriously enough not to fall back on simplistic, essentialist, or Orientalist frameworks. Russia Without Putin is unquestionably one of them. The interpretations it develops should already have been the baseline for a larger discussion, instead of a desperate response to a debate on the Putin menace that has come entirely unmoored from reality. Yet here we are, and the book is not only praiseworthy but vital.

Greg Afinogenov is Assistant Professor of Russian History at Georgetown University.