- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 16, 2005


By Andrew Jack Oxford,

$30, 384 pages


Russia is very much back in the news these days and lately. President Vladimir Putin has been on the receiving end of some harsh criticism. It may well be deserved. The man who brought his country back from the political and economic grave is now being derided in the West as some kind of proto-fascist, ready to return Russia to its dark past.

The Putin, in short, who was the first to call the American president after September 11 has long been forgotten. More recently, Mr. Putin has been severely criticized for his attack on Russia’s tycoons, the men who grew unimaginably wealthy in the immediate post-Soviet period, because they crossed him politically. His clumsy endorsement of the first Ukraine election earned him even greater scorn.

Consequently, there is much to be said for the case of a Putin-gone-wrong, which incidentally explains President Bush’s recent attempt to take his Russian counterpart to the woodshed. But news stories often don’t tell us much about the man and what makes him tick. Andrew Jack, a British bureau chief for the Financial Times who has spent some time in Moscow covering these transition years in Russian history, does.

In fact, he gives even experienced Russia-watchers a better perspective on the man and the milieu he operates in. And he writes with care, more like an historian than an anecdote laden, self-important journalist a la Americaine. There are small pleasures from Mr. Jack’s reportage as well. His description of an oil town in Western Siberia is dead-on and since he is British we are spared misleading references to a Wild West atmosphere. Nizhnevartosk is not Dodge.

The Putin story has been told before, but not in such detail and nuance. The Russian president’s career in the KGB is fairly well known, but how he emerged from being a relatively obscure figure in St. Petersburg politics to the top of the ladder in the Kremlin is not and Mr. Jack fills in the story succinctly and convincingly although Mr. Putin’s rise from advisor to the mayor of St. Petersburg to Russian president is as swift as it was unlikely.

In so doing, the author demonstrates how difficult it is running, especially democratically, a shattered nation like Russia. One effect of 80 plus years of Soviet communism is the utter lack of civil institutions at a time when they were maturing in Western Europe and North America. Which is to say while the West developed representative democracy, respect for human rights, a functioning legal system, a free and responsible press, labor unions, etc., the Russians ended up with a parody of the above, thanks to V. I. Lenin and J. V. Stalin. That legacy is difficult to overcome, especially in a few years, and it is hard to see how any Russian ruler can get much help from the things democratic rulers simply assume will always be there.

There is trust, for example, from the people who you are both governing and being held accountable. It is difficult, if not impossible for a democratic leader to comprehend the kind of snake pit his Russian counterpart is living in. Still, we in the West do no favors to Russia by ignoring what the current Kremlin is doing — or not doing — when it comes to democratic governance, but surely an understanding of where Russia is coming from helps nurture both patience and determination.

It also helps to remember a recent time when American presidents of either party rarely lectured their Soviet adversaries on their political and economic sins. But the author, at least, is not giving the Russian president a pass. Mr. Jack is thoroughly acquainted with Russian and Soviet history and understands where the non-communist Russian federation is coming from. He has, for example, a better grasp of Chechnya than most commentators. Nevertheless, Mr. Putin has too many shortcomings not to notice. His prosecution (or is it persecution?) of Russian oligarchs got some good press initially. But now nearly everyone, including Mr. Jack, has had some second thoughts.

In the first place, as the author spells out, Mr. Putin’s attack on the oil giant Yukos and its boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky was a whole lot less about corruption and more about a preemptive attack on a potential political rival. The recent dust-up over Ukraine’s election says even more about Mr. Putin’s real agenda about Russia’s Near Abroad — an agenda that should disturb not only those in the Near Abroad, but everyone else as well.

Now that the United States has planted the flag in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Russia’s Near Abroad has suddenly become a direct American interest. Since that’s the case, we have little choice but to learn more about where we do our planting. Mr. Jack makes clear that traditional Russian aspirations to dominate the Eurasian land mass is hardly a matter of the past. Mr. Putin is very much a Big Russian nationalist.

Just ask the Moldavians, Georgians and Ukrainians, among others. In some cases, however, a little Russian push and shove might actually be welcome. Belarus comes to mind with its autocratic president and Stalinist bullyboy, Alexander Lukashenko. But it is Russia itself that should be of greatest concern.

Will Mr. Putin have advanced that country in the direction of law, order, civility and democracy — or not? The answer is likely to be very complicated and one historians will debate for at least a century. In some ways, the answer is clear and the answer is no. As the author points out, Russia’s parliament, the Duma, is hardly more than the old Supreme Soviet, a rubberstamp in the hands of the Vlad. And yet the Duma in Boris Yeltsin’s day was hardly more than a group of factions struggling for perks and power and nothing more. Representative? You jest, stir. As for Russian liberal reformers, they have, as the current Russian leader knows, fared poorly in the past and their present and future don’t seem especially bright either. Yet, that says little about Mr. Putin as an institution builder, even a less than energetic one. Russia does not really need a Peter the Great. Just someone who in his time will make Russia slightly better off after he leaves office. Moreover his phrase “dictatorship of the law” does not encourage cheerful views of Russia’s future. Whose law exactly?

George W. Bush, a while ago claimed prematurely to have gotten a sense of Mr. Putin’s soul. But Andrew Jack has seen and understood more leaving us with a better sense of that soul.

Roger Fontaine was a member of the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.

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