Relief at the end of the Cold War lasted barely a decade before observers began wondering if it was returning, this time under a pugnacious, quasi-Stalin: Vladimir Putin.
This is not true, writes distinguished historian Laqueur (After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent, 2012, etc.), but no one should take comfort. In this astute, timely analysis of recent Russian politics and ideology, the author, former longtime director of the Institute of Contemporary History in London, emphasizes that the dissolution of the Soviet Union produced an unreasonable optimism about the chance for democracy. “Most Russians have come to believe that democracy is what happened to their country between 1990 and 2000,” writes the author, “and they do not want any more of it.” When Putin came to power in 2000, he seemed like a tough leader determined to stabilize a nation mired in chaos and economic collapse. No one denies his spectacular success, but the resulting “Putinism”—a mixture of chauvinism, social conservatism, state capitalism, government domination of the media, and the pervasive sense of a nation surrounded by enemies—brings to mind the Soviet Union. In fact, Russia’s leaders believe that “the victory of the Reds in the civil war was a disaster,” and they hold a low opinion of Lenin. Although admitting that Stalin committed too many unjustifiable actions during his time in power, they admire him because he made his nation strong. Minus the mass murder or any pretense of internationalism, that is Putin’s goal as well.
An erudite and unsettling but convincing argument that the new Russia is a dictatorship “approved by the majority as long as the going is good,” and if Putin were to vanish today, his successor would make few changes.