Book Review: The New Politics of Russia

Given the hyperbolic hysteria which characterizes so much analysis of Russia, it is good to come across a book which studiously avoids all that and instead calls for ‘a sophisticated, empathetic understanding of Russia and how it works.’ In The New Politics of Russia: Interpreting Change, published this year by Manchester University Press, Andrew Monaghan of St Antony’s College, Oxford, denounces what he calls ‘the mainstream view of Russia in the West’, which he calls ‘narrow, simplistic, and repetitive.’ He analyzes the reasons why Western observers have continually been surprised by Russian actions and finishes by laying out his own model of how the Russian political system works. His book challenges Russian ‘experts’ to reconsider their assumptions.


Monaghan posits a number of causes for the poor quality of Western analyses of Russia.

First, government support for Russian studies declined following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The result, Monaghan says, is that ‘the practical capacity to understand Russia is much reduced in policy-making circles’, with ‘very few experienced Russia specialists at the heart of high-level decision-making in the West.’ I have some doubts about this idea. Monaghan is certainly correct about the decline in Russian studies in the West – the 1990s in particular saw numerous Russian departments closing in Western universities. But I’m not sure that Sovietologists were much more accurate in their predictions than the current generation of Russian experts, even though there were many more of them. Moreover, the problems we have in understanding Russia today appear to have more to do with the quality of analysis than the quantity of experts. To be fair to Monaghan, he acknowledges this, saying that, ‘a simple increase in resources and the number of analysts will not necessarily facilitate the correction of analytical mistakes.’ Instead, ‘there is a need to reassess the conceptual approach’.

Second, Monaghan says that there is an excessive tendency to view Russia in terms of ‘transition’ from communism to Western-style liberal democracy and free market capitalism, and to evaluate Russia according to its supposed progress in this transition. Consequently, ‘the focus of mainstream attention narrowed to support for the (liberal) opposition to Putin and objections to the Kremlin’s oppressive measures against it, in effect the story of embattled and threatened democracy.’ Because of this, Monaghan continues, ‘many who discuss Russia tend towards using a limited range of sources … most of which have a more liberal or Western orientation. … thus shining a distorting light on how Russia works.’ During the wars in Georgia and Ukraine, ‘Georgian and Ukrainian sources were often not critically examined before being absorbed and deployed in assessments of Russia and Russian intentions’, and Western analysts have championed those who oppose Putin as ‘charismatic, “crusaders”, and democratic’, even though they are often nothing of the sort. The result is that ‘advocacy and analysis become conflated.’ Thus, Western commentators greatly exaggerated the numbers who protested against the Russian government in 2011-2012 and overestimated the significance of the protests, the likelihood of ‘regime change’, and the fact that the government response to the protests was not purely repressive. The companion of ‘transitionology’ is wishful thinking.

Third, Monaghan says that Western views of Russia are characterized by ‘pronounced ethnocentrism and “mirror imaging”.’ He writes that, ‘The assumption that the Russians are not so different and see the world and react in the same way as Westerners has obstructed understanding Russian intentions, prejudices, hopes, fears and motivations.’ Monaghan argues that one of the great problems in Russian-Western relations is that the two sides do not in fact see the world in the same way. They also apply different meanings to the same words. Russia and the West have had very different views on subjects such as Iran, ballistic missile defence, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. They draw ‘different conclusions’ from the ‘same body of evidence.’ And while the two sides were at one point able to agree that they were committed to the ‘indivisibility of security’, they interpreted this terminology very differently. To the West, ‘indivisibility of security’ meant that military and political security were intimately connected to human security, and thus to issues of democracy and human rights. Russia, however, interpreted the phrase as meaning that the European security structure should embrace all the countries of Europe, including Russia. The differing interpretations of what had been agreed inevitably led to disenchantment when it became clear that the other side was not actually committed to things which it had been supposed that it was committed to.

In the final part of his book, Monaghan examines various models of the Russian political system, and develops one of his own. This divides the ruling class into three layers: the key ‘leadership team’ of a relatively small number of people surrounding Putin; the ‘federal locomotives’, who are a ‘larger group of those who are trusted to carry out the strategic agenda’; and finally, ‘a third category, the largest and most diverse,[which] consists of proven managers.’ The value of this model is open to debate, but Monaghan makes a good case that we need a ‘more sophisticated understanding of the wider political landscape and political culture.’

For the most part, I concur with Monaghan’s approach. The New Politics of Russia expertly dismantles the way the West views Russia. The book is a refreshing addition to the literature on Russian-Western relations.

If I were to add anything to Monaghan’s analysis, it would be to say that one of the reasons why we misperceive Russia is because we misperceive ourselves and so misperceive how Russians see us. We do not take seriously their objections to what we do; and we do not take those objections seriously because of our inability to regard ourselves as anything other than the ‘good guys’. If we are to improve our understanding of Russia, we perhaps first need to improve our understanding of ourselves.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The New Politics of Russia”

  1. This seems like a useful dose of sober analysis to counteract the comically anti-Russian rhetoric that passes as expert opinion.

    As a tangential point with respect to liberalism and notions of ‘good guys’, it is worth noting that RT had it’s accounts in the UK frozen today. The ever progressive Guardian can barely contain its glee.

    Luke Harding tells us that RT is a ‘propaganda tool’, citing the fact that it often features people like Jeremy Corbyn and Ken Livingstone. Apart from the fact that Corbyn is the leader of HM Official Opposition and therefore hardly a fringe figure, RT has featured contributions from Geoffrey Roberts, Robert Gellately and other esteemed experts. By contrast, Luke Harding’s contribution to the public’s understanding of Russia has been to present Pussy Riot as paragons of political virtue.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul,

    You write:

    ‘Second, Monaghan says that there is an excessive tendency to view Russia in terms of “transition” from communism to Western-style liberal democracy and free market capitalism, and to evaluate Russia according to its supposed progress in this transition.’

    Let me put this a different way. To venture into fantasy for a moment, it sometimes seems to me as though, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the evil bird of messianic ideology realised that – for the time being at least – it no longer had a home in Moscow.

    So it flapped its wings, and flew over to Washington. And there, it found all the materials needed to build itself a superlative nest. A bit of comfortably woolly ‘city on a hill’ material, with some refurbished Trotskyism, from Irving Kristol and his like, to add, as it were, the lining.

    In London, it had thought there might still be a few troublesome ‘conservatives’ left, in the country of Burke. But, as it turned out, they were almost extinct. And there was plenty of nesting material here, also.

    And so, the project for ‘world revolution’ found a new home, and also a new slogan: ‘human rights’, in the name of which to wreak devastation.

    Reverting to the world of mundane fact, there was a time, not so very long ago, when in Britain not simply a lot of Tories, but many who would have thought themselves as being on the left, but in a cautious and pragmatic way, believed that to think that the claim that history had some kind of intelligible ‘direction’ was the ultimate heresy.

    So ‘historicism’ in Sir Karl Popper’s sense, seemed to lead naturally to a viciously authoritarian politics: after all, if a ‘vanguard’ (a term Fukuyama was happy to take over from Marxists) possesses ‘consciousness’ of the true direction of the historical process, how can anyone who opposes it be other than either ignorant or evil?

    Obviously, for a genuine Popperian (I am not talking of pseudo-Popperians like Martin Wolf, the chief economics columnist of the ‘Financial Times’) Fukuyama is little better than Trotsky – and indeed, arguably might be judged much worse.

    But post-Cold War Western policy is clearly only intelligible in terms of a practically universal acceptance among Western élites of some version or other of the ‘end of history’ nonsense.

    And now, the evil bird of messianic ideology is having his revenge.

    In 1989, the prestige of Western ideas and political models was, globally, at something close to an all-time high.

    At the moment it is, frankly low and sinking. The problem is not simply that ‘regime change’ projects have, repeatedly caused chaos. It is that, to be blunt, ‘democracy’ does not any longer seem capable of producing reasonably competent government.

    Of course, quite a few people in Russia may have reservations about the Putin ‘sistema’.

    But can any rational person any longer think that a political system which generates a contest between Hillary Clinton and Trump for supreme power, where John Kerry is Secretary of State and Ashton B. Carter Secretary of Defense, is self-evidently admirable?

    I do not think so.

    And, given a choice between any of those figures and Putin, Lavrov, and Shoigu, are not a lot of normal people going to say: democracy did seem a very nice idea, but, better the devil we know?


    1. Sheesh, if we are to resort to poetic comparisons and metaphors, let’s water down them with some facts, okay?

      Your “evil bird of messianic ideology” in Moscow probably died well before 1991 – the historians are still arguing when exactly. The West didn’t notice that though and continued to scare its easily manipulated “free people” with the stories about monstrous communistic “evil bird”, blissfully (un)aware that they have their own mutant of avian variety, an oversized “dove” crossed with “hawk” with steel beak, talons, pooping smartbombs wherever and whenever it flies to bring the Free-doom and ‘Mockracy to some unfortunate part of the word.

      Messianic ideology of the West was right there all the time – there was no need for the “evil bird” to get the green card in early 90s and migrate to the Chosen Land of the Free.

      “America is indispensable—and exceptional—because of our values’

      There’s always been something special about the United States of America. President Abraham Lincoln called us the “last, best hope of earth.” President Ronald Reagan said we are a “shining city on a hill.” And Robert Kennedy called us a great, unselfish, compassionate country.

      I couldn’t agree more.


      Most of all, America is ¬indispensable—and exceptional—because of our values. As Secretary of State, I was proud to represent our country’s commitment to freedom, equality and opportunity. The world looks to us to stand up for human rights, LGBT rights, religious and ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities and people everywhere who yearn for peace. We challenge ourselves and other nations to do better. It’s why so many people from around the world want to become Americans too.
      But with all of these advantages comes ¬responsibility—we need to continue leading the world. Because when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that lets extremism take root, emboldens our adversaries and discourages our friends.


      So let’s never stop doing good and being great. Let’s keep America exceptional.”

      – from the the “Time” article Why America is Exceptional by Hillary R. Clinton

      What can say? After the Democratic Convention aka “The Triumph of the Well 2: Electric Boogaloo” I think no one in their right mind could mistake the current regime in the USA with its faux-parties for anything but nationalistic militaristic aggressive destructive force, hell bent on dominating the world while using aggressive propaganda, narrow ideological indoctrination and militancy in all possible spheres. Cue – the Exceptionalism which is truly indispensible for the Indispensible Nation.

      Here Ian Tyrell gives a quick history of the formation of this supremacist ideology.

      “As the leader of the free world, the chief victor in the Second World War over ‘totalitarian’ Germany, and by far the world’s most prosperous economy, the US seemed in all these ways an exceptional nation. Seymour Martin Lipset, the eminent Stanford political sociologist, made a career investigating the many factors that led to this American exceptionalism. Until his death in 2006, Lipset continued to hold that the US was not subject to the historical norms of all other nations.

      No one did more than Ronald Reagan to amplify and popularise the US as exceptional. Refusing to accept the doldrums of the Jimmy Carter presidency or the transgressions of Richard Nixon as the best that Americans could do, Reagan promoted the image of the US as a shining ‘city upon a hill’. This reference is to a 1630 sermon by John Winthrop, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop was calling on the new Pilgrim settlers heading for Massachusetts to stick to the narrow path of Puritanism.

      Reagan and his followers wrongly attributed American exceptionalism to this Puritan injunction, and added ‘shining’ to the original, which gave the phrase a distinctly different connotation. Nor was Winthrop referring to any nation, but rather a discrete community of English Protestant believers. Notably, Winthrop’s sermon had been neglected for centuries. It was resurrected only in the 1940s by a few Harvard academics who were engaged in an intellectual rehabilitation of Puritan thought. In a 1961 speech, John F Kennedy, who had been a Harvard student and was influenced by that university’s Americanists, used the ‘city upon a hill’ phrase. The idea of the US as a ‘city upon a hill’, however, really gained purchase in political rhetoric in the 1970s and ’80s, as Reagan sought to reinvent the country.”


  3. “The assumption that the Russians are not so different and see the world and react in the same way as Westerners has obstructed understanding Russian intentions”

    In this case, Russians really are not so different. And they react in the same way as Westerners. Anti-Western turn Russia was absolutely predictable, and “Westerners” on the site Russian would have done the same


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s