Sarah Gear reviews ‘The Putin System’ by Grigory Yavlinsky

26 April 2022

by Sarah Gear

Sarah Gear reviews The Putin System: An Opposing View by Grigory Yavlinsky, Columbia University Press, NY [Hardback 2019]. pp231. £22 ISBN 9780231190305.

Reading Grigory Yavlinsky’s The Putin System in April 2022 is to search for answers. It is impossible to approach this frank, and at times prescient history and analysis of the post-Soviet Russian government without scrutinising the text in an effort to understand Russia’s actions in 2022. Written in 2015, and bookended by a preface and afterword from 2018, for today’s reader it offers some context to Russia’s war ​in Ukraine, which Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, referred to in an interview in March as his country ‘committing suicide.’  

The Putin System pivots on Yavlinsky’s analysis of Russia as a ‘peripheral authoritarian state’. The most significant element of this peripherality manifests in the amount of influence the country is able to exert on the geopolitical stage. It is precisely this peripheral position that causes the feeling of resentment in Russia which has, in Yavlinsky’s analysis, contributed to declining relations with the West. The Yavlinsky of 2015 argues that this peripheral position is not the only one available to Russia, and in his preface offers his Anglophone readers a reminder of the more positive relationship between Russia and the West during Perestroika. The ability to turn the tide, however, depends in large part on a sea change within the Russian government, as Yavlinsky states:

‘[Russia] does not have to be ruled by an inward-looking, xenophobic government whose crony capitalists park their wealth overseas, in banks and real estate of the developed core counties, while their government hypocritically demonises and denounces Western ways of life from Russian television screens.’ (p.xi)

Yavlinsky’s appeal to his Western audience ​to alter how they view Russia, is followed by a thorough appraisal of the Russian government’s past, present and potential future. Russia’s authoritarianism, argues Yavlinsky, was constructed incrementally from 1992 onwards, was cemented in the elections of 1996, and showed its true, incontrovertible nature to the world in 2014 with the ​invasion of Ukraine. The spectre of totalitarianism as the next step in this retrograde evolution, or ‘demodernisation’, is raised a number of times as a possibility, but only in the worst of all possible worlds. One wonders how Yavlinsky would characterise Russia’s political system now.

The book’s first, short chapter sets the scene for The Putin System, describing Russia’s position in the world in 2015, before launching into a lengthy second chapter which charts the evolution of today’s Russian state. Yavlinsky argues that the 1990s saw Russia begin its move towards an authoritarian model – one that discouraged innovation and shed any impulse or desire to create a competitive political landscape. He follows with an analysis of the first decade of the 2000s, which cemented Russia’s conservative tendencies, and he highlights the aggravating role played by the West who, he argues, did not make attempts to reassure Russia over NATO. 

The mechanisms that support Putin’s power are thoroughly examined in Chapter Three. Yavlinsky discusses the role of sham elections, designed to confirm Putin as the only possible leader of Russia, and refers to him as the ‘supreme ruler’ (p.126), sparking flashes of Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik and its omniscient ruler ‘His Majesty’. Yavlinsky writes extensively about the role of the media, and ‘rent extraction’ in Russia – the complex system of bribery that supports Putin’s cronies and government officials. This he cites as one of the main reasons for lack of innovation in Russia, and a contributing factor in its increasing conservatism. If young people want to make money they are best working for the government where they can orchestrate kickbacks, rather than starting their own business and putting themselves in potential opposition to the state. Yavlinsky also makes a salient point about state institutions and the slow erosion of power they have endured over the past two decades. This, he argues, has resulted in all levers of control being held by one person – there are no state institutions able to limit Putin’s decision making. Ultimately, Yavlinsky argues, this makes the Russian state weaker, and he suggests that if Putin were to start making bad decisions, ‘there is a high risk of a major breakdown of state governance, with unpredictable consequences for the country.’ (p.128) 

The final chapter considers Russia’s possible futures as they stood at the time of writing. The most striking aspect of Yavlinsky’s analysis here is his discussion of state ideology, and Russia’s increasing reliance on an Orthodox, anti-Western, xenophobic stance. Yavlinsky wants to believe that there is a chance to stem this potentially totalitarian ideological turn. However, by the time he pens his afterword in 2018, he admits that time may be running out for free speech, and he views his attempts to divert official discourse away from anti-Western narratives and nationalism as perhaps one of the last chances he has to influence political debate.

It would seem that the translation of this book into English is a continuation of this approach. Although the translator is not named, Yavlinsky believes in the importance of translation, and cites the falling number of political analyses being brought into English from Russian as one of the reasons for a decline in mutual understanding. As the translation of Russian literature temporarily slows, an increase in the translation of political analyses such as The Putin System could lead to a greater understanding of a country that, to many at the moment, appears increasingly incomprehensible. 

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