- - Wednesday, January 7, 2015


By Karen Dawisha

Simon & Schuster, $30, 445 pages

Beware of historians bearing analogies. If every two-bit dictator whom post-World War II pundits and scholars have compared to Hitler or Stalin packed even a tenth of the wallop of the originals, we would all have been engulfed in World War III years ago. The latest dictator to come in for the Hitler-Stalin treatment is that indubitably bad, more than a little power-mad master of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin.

On the other hand, Mr. Putin and ardent acolytes of his Russian “imperial presidency” have likened this former secret policeman and backroom apparatchik to, among others, Peter the Great (another eager grabber of neighboring real estate), Catherine the Great (responsible for the first Russian annexation of the Crimea), and Nicholas I (a brutal believer in Russia’s imperial mission who blundered into, and botched, the Crimean War). As historian Orlando Figes pointed out in his excellent history of the latter conflict a few years ago, “on Putin’s orders, Nicholas’ portrait [now] hangs in the antechamber of the presidential office in the Kremlin.”

To the extent that Mr. Putin is a zealous Russophile bent on restoring the power and prestige once attached to the Russian Empire and its Soviet successor state, the comparison to Nicholas I makes sense. But there is another aspect to Mr. Putin’s style of personal rule open to yet another analogy. Describing the corrupt autocracy of an earlier day, the great 19th century Russian historian Vasiliy Klyuchevsky wrote: “The state grew fat while the people grew thin.” As Karen Dawisha illustrates in “Putin’s Kleptocracy,” the most defining characteristic of the Russian state under Vladimir Putin may be its pervasive corruption rather than its chauvinistic militarism. Thus, “the gap between rich and poor has become the greatest in the world … the midpoint of wealth for Russians is only $871 — as compared to $5,117 for Brazil, $8,023 for China, and $1,040 for India, all energy importers.”

Meanwhile, Russia’s vast energy resources and the rest of her commercial assets are arguably even more concentrated in a few hands than they were at the height of Czarist or Communist central planning: 35 percent of the total wealth in the country is owned by 110 billionaires. Russia, Ms. Dawisha writes, “has become the country where the super-rich receive the greatest protection from the state. None of this would be possible without the personal involvement of Putin.”

In “Putin’s Kleptocracy,” Ms. Dawisha has given us not so much a settled history of how and why Vladimir Putin has emerged as the corrupt dictator of a corrupt state, as a raw prosecutor’s file of facts, circumstantial evidence and well-founded rumors threaded together to build the case for a sustained, criminal conspiracy to undermine post-Soviet Russia’s admittedly flawed attempt to create an open, prosperous society based on human rights and the rule of law. But even if Vladimir Putin had never been born, that attempt might have been doomed. Where countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have all made substantial progress toward the transition, Russia has failed at least in part because, unlike these former subject states, it had virtually no pre-Soviet democratic institutional memory or foundation to build upon.

The degree to which Mr. Putin and his oligarchic puppeteers cunningly planned all of this in advance is debatable. More often than not, in periods of great social, political and economic upheaval, the winners are quick-witted, improvisational opportunists rather than large, far-seeing conspiratorial movements; thus there are moments when Ms. Dawisha seems to make connections between dubious or non-existent dots. But even allowing for a certain amount of overkill, she has compiled a devastating dossier on what history may recognize as a state system that served mainly as a cover for the criminal looting and victimization of the people whose self-sacrificing patriotism it so cynically and shamelessly manipulated.

Which, analogy-wise, leads us to a comparison with yet another figure from the murky East European past: Prince Vlad III of Wallachia, a particularly nasty 15th-century despot who earned the nickname “Vlad the Impaler” because of his preferred method of dealing with political opponents. Vlad would later serve as inspiration for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” known for draining the life out of his victims. Perhaps, at the end of the day, Mr. Putin, who also has a penchant for crushing all opposition and siphoning off vital resources, will be remembered in his turn as “Vlad the Embezzler.”

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, is a contributing editor to The National Interest.

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