Prominent 19th century Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin famously described the Russian government in one word: voruyut—they steal. This description remains true today.
Russian scholar Karen Dawisha's new book, Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? covers the latest episode in Russia's long and painful history of government venality: Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime.
Putin is "both a product and a producer" of Russia's pervasive corruption, according to Dawisha. The decay is on a scale few in the West truly understand. "In the West it might seem remarkable that anyone whose whole career is marked by allegations of corruption should rise to become a three-term president of any country," she writes about Putin, "In Russia it is less surprising."
Putin's Kleptocracy should be on the reading list of anyone who wishes to understand the true nature of Putin's regime, which, as Dawisha correctly states, is "committed to a life of looting without parallel." The timing of this book is especially important, after Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March and the West subsequently enacted sanctions against those in his inner circle.
Dawisha describes how this inner circle formed. Her work is based on years of research into Russia's criminal circles and the KGB. Her sources include Russia's insiders, Russian and Western investigative journalists, government officials, and archival records.
When Putin became Russia's prime minister in 1999 and then assumed his first presidential term in 2000, he was a little-known former KGB officer. Yet, as Dawisha argues, it was already possible to discern his true intentions during his first 100 days as president—a period during which he began to crack down on Russia's free press and to curtail other civil liberties on the pretext of preserving "order" in the face of rising terrorism in the North Caucasus.
Dawisha begins her story of Putin in the years shortly before the breakup of the Soviet Union when Putin—along with many other KGB members—understood that the Soviet system was bound to collapse, and looked for ways to maintain political influence and create their own wealth at others' expense. The 1990s for Putin were "a time when a group of former KGB, mafia, and political and economic elites joined forces, combining their money, connections, and positions to create the basis for Putin's spectacular success in building an authoritarian and kleptocratic regime."
Putin and his circle, in Dawisha's account, used their public positions to attain wealth and influence in these years. Many of these individuals continued to maintain links with Russia's organized crime. Dawisha traces how Putin built a mafia-style system where "profound access to riches is provided in return for absolute loyalty," and where "Putin alone decides who and what will be profitable."
The West itself is a critical element to the story of Putin's rise. It is in the West that Putin's cronies stash their money. They vacation there, and send their children to study in western schools. In this context, it is especially telling that Cambridge University Press (CUP), which had published several of Dawisha's previous books, declined to publish this one.
The quality of Dawisha's research was not the issue. CUP feared that the United Kingdom's plaintiff-friendly libel laws could be used to bankrupt the company should they publish Dawisha's book. "It is simply a question of risk tolerance in light of our limited resources," wrote John Haslam, executive publisher at CUP to Dawisha in March 2014.
Dawisha has repeatedly stressed that she's not angry with CUP, but rather with "the growing trend in the book world, where the rich and corrupt from many different countries use the U.K. courts for libel tourism as a way of suppressing investigative work into their worlds." Simon & Schuster, which published Putin's Kleptocracy, did not publish it in the U.K.
Dawisha dedicates her book to "free Russian journalism." Russian investigative journalists are among her prominent sources.
Vladimir Vysotsky, Russia's Bob Dylan of the Soviet period, poignantly commented in one of his songs on the Soviet system's destruction of spirit and life: "How much faith and trees have been toppled." Today, in Putin's Russia, many have lost faith too. Russia's educated and young elites increasingly look to leave the country, while many who remain continue to be fooled by the Kremlin.
In the West, however, where speech is still free, there are few excuses—and even fewer today with the publication of Dawisha's book.