Simon Pirani has written a terrific book. His careful dissection of modern Russia moves from those at the top to the fate of the masses of Russian people in the last two decades. Few can equal Pirani’s expertise gained as a political activist, a semi-academic, and a jobbing journalist whose interviews stretch from striking car workers to oil oligarchs.
Change in Putin’s Russia has four big themes. The first is that, although Putin’s nationalism is now a thorn in the side of the West, neither the US nor Britain has a principled objection to Putin or gives real support to “democracy”. Nor should we be misled by the campaigns of Putin’s opponents abroad – notably the London-based exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, “Russia’s strangest democrat”.
The murder of Berezovksy’s protégé Aleksandr Litvinenko in London, may have been the result of his falling out with the Kremlin but it may equally have been the result of his falling out with his other unsavoury contacts.
Within Russia, while not neglecting the ugly power of the Russian state – seen most bloodily in Chechnya – Putin has restored a semblance of state power, consistent with the pattern in a number of other states. Most oil producers, for example, have state-controlled energy sectors. Putin has attacked some oligarchs but his relationship with them as a group is much more conciliatory and in less sensitive areas of the economy privatisation has continued.
The third theme is Putin’s “good luck” in coming to power when the oil price was $12 a barrel and then being able to use the revenues generated as the price rose to above $130 in 2008. This enabled him to preside over a significant recovery which by 2007-8 was beginning to spread to the wider economy. But then the global financial crisis hit, cutting away much of the basis of this progress.
The fourth theme is the impact of all of this on the Russian people. Pirani has seen first-hand how the authorities pick on opposition, especially in the provinces, and he makes two important points.
The first is that the Russian people emerged from Stalinism with no organised political traditions at all, so that those wanting to build a labour movement have had to start from square one – and we have to be realistic about what can be achieved.
The second is that there have been some remarkable movements which range from protesting pensioners, allotment holders, car workers striking in the old Soviet-era plant in Togliatti, to workers in the new Ford plant near St Petersburg trying to ensure that they are not victims of the alliance of Western multinationals with the Putin regime.
In each chapter the book bristles with information. It should be read by anyone wanting to know what Russia today is really like.
Women between revolution and counter-revolution
Animated film retells Anne Frank’s story
A pick of the highlights