Book review: 'Fragile Empire', by Ben Judah

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 2:05pm

Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin

by Ben Judah

Yale University Press

These are gloomy days for Russia's liberals. Since becoming president for a second time in May last year, Vladimir Putin has launched a wave of repression.

In late 2011 and 2012, as protests gripped Moscow, it was dreamily possible to imagine that Putin might be forced out. These days, few think this. The opposition is demoralised, and the talented people are leaving. Putin still refuses to be budged.

Why did this revolution fail? In his lucid study of the never-ending Putin era, Ben Judah argues that the middle-class hipsters who gathered again in Moscow in May 2012 are themselves, in part, to blame. Moscow, Judah points out, isn't Russia: it is an affluent megacity disconnected from the impoverished small towns where most Russians live. The well-off activists who took to the streets in the wake of rigged 2011 elections show little interest in the regions.

So big is the gap between Moscow and the rest of the country that it resembles the historical gulf between Russia's French-speaking aristocracy and its serfs. There has been a revival of the "19th-century dialectic between the intelligentsia and the masses", Judah suggests.

Putin, by contrast, is a relentless domestic traveller. He has the "most punishing travel schedule of any leader in Russian history", as Judah puts it. The trips form an essential part of Putin's "videocracy", his TV-mediated autocracy, with federal channels under state control. In his travels to Russia's ignored corners, Judah discovers little support for the liberal opposition but almost universal discontent. He flies to Tuva in southern Siberia, takes the railway to the Far East, and visits the Urals tank factory town of Nizhny Tagil. Here the air "tastes metallic, thick, like toast". The roads are cracked; rotten wooden cottages sink beneath mud. Instead of too much state, Judah finds virtually no state, with Russia a "fragmented and feudalised society".

One of the Kremlin's recurrent nightmares lies in its Pacific territories. In Birobidzhan, near the Chinese border, Judah finds the Chinese farming Russian land.

The mass consent Putin enjoyed during his first eight years as president has now gone forever. Russians have fallen out of love with Putin but are unpersuaded that the opposition can deliver anything better. Judah concludes that sooner or later, an earthquake may bring down the fragile Kremlin. But then again, it might not happen at all.

Guardian News & Media


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