Listen to this article
Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin, by Ben Judah, Yale, RRP£20/$30, 400 pages
In Ekaterinburg, capital of Russia’s grimy industrial Urals region, the journalist Ben Judah finds a man he suggests may represent the future of Russian politics. His name is Evgeny Roizman; Judah calls him a “vigilante king”. He is a Russian nationalist, a “social activist with a criminal past” – a conviction in his youth for theft. He runs an anti-drugs group whose methods are far from pretty.
Finding Ekaterinburg and nearby towns transformed a decade ago into “shooting galleries” by drugs flowing north from Afghanistan, Roizman set up “City Without Drugs”. His group not only intimidated the mainly immigrant drug dealers but handcuffed addicts to beds in clinics (that practice has stopped), fed them on bread and water, then made them work restoring churches.
As Judah notes, Roizman, and not President Vladimir Putin, is today the most popular politician in these Urals towns. That sends jitters through the “liberal” opposition that took to Moscow’s streets after 2011 elections widely condemned as rigged. But, as one liberal leader tells Judah: “This is Russia! What did you think democratic politics would look like here?”
Judah’s outstanding Fragile Empire travels up and down the curve of Putin’s popularity. Part One takes us from the broken Russia of the post-communist 1990s through the oil-fuelled consumer boom of the 2000s to the peak of Putin’s ratings, during the Georgian war of 2008. This is a familiar narrative but Judah, only in his mid-twenties, explains it all with economy and panache.
What makes Fragile Empire important, however, is its dissection of Putin’s decline in popularity after 2008. It is the first to tell the story not just of the Moscow protest movement but of the less visible, but no less real, dissatisfaction beyond the capital.
The 2008-2009 global recession hit Russia hard, exposing the flaws of Putinist economics and governance. The “vertical of power” Putin created to order after the chaotic 1990s became, in the absence of functioning institutions, a “vertical of loyalty” and corruption, binding together incompetent but venal bureaucrats.
So, for all the boom of the 2000s, Judah portrays a dysfunctional, decaying Russia. Many of its towns are yoked to single industries that are barely viable, its dying villages peopled by pensioners and alcoholics.
But the opposition is deeply divided. The young Muscovites who protested in 2011 were motivated, suggests Judah, by “romantic” ideals of freedom, wanting Russia to be more like the west. Out in the regions, a different discontent simmers. This is a society fed up with crumbling public services, drug addiction and rapacious officials – explaining the popularity of a figure such as Roizman.
The discontent is shot through with nationalism – resentment of immigrants from central Asia and state funds lavished on rebuilding Chechnya after its independence war. But there is also deep resentment of Moscow, seen as a quasi-colonial power sucking in wealth to redistribute among a crooked elite.
Neither group wants revolution. Moscow protesters want “managed democracy” to evolve into democracy. The provincial masses want an efficient state, and do not trust the Moscow-based opposition to deliver. They have lost faith in Putin but see no alternative.
Putin’s overwhelming priority, says Judah, is to prevent these axes of discontent from coming together. So he has launched a “culture war” pitching the hicks against the hipsters. Last year’s imprisonment of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot was not, Judah astutely observes, designed to intimidate protesters. Instead, the group’s prancing around a Moscow cathedral was cleverly exploited by Kremlin strategists to persuade the conservative masses that the capital’s opposition are a depraved and godless bunch.
Putin has, too, loosened the fiscal discipline of his first two terms and promised big spending increases. This poses risks should oil prices fall sharply – perhaps the only scenario that could finally see the regions erupt.
Unless that happens, most Russians, whatever their resentments, seem likely to cleave to the stoicism of a young accountant Judah meets at a dinner party. “Putin’s Russia is not the best Russia,” she tells him. “But we work. We eat ... Do you really think Putin is the worst leader? Compared to the others we followed from time to time?”
Neil Buckley is the FT’s eastern Europe editor