My last couple of posts have focused on bad writing about Russia, so today I’d like to talk about something rather better – Timothy Frye’s new book Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia. I have my quibbles with some of what Frye has to say, but in general this is a big step up in quality from most of what I read about modern Russia.
Frye is a political scientist who divides his time between Columbia University in New York and the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. As might be expected of someone working in such respectably liberal institutions, Frye isn’t altogether a fan of the Russian state. It would be wrong to say that his book is a positive take on contemporary Russian government. But it is, one might say, a sort of nuanced negativity. For it avoids, and even confronts, the more extreme condemnations of Russia that have become the norm in Western discourse. And that makes it a little unusual.
Weak Strongman is an attempt to show how Russian government works. My quibble number one would be that it very much assumes that Western liberal democracy is both liberal and democratic and constitutes if not the optimal form of government then as least the optimum we’ve come up with yet, and that the Russian state is a deviation from this norm and as such sub-optimal. Frye takes it for granted that we all agree that Russia is ‘non-democratic’, but never defines what he means by democracy. All of which is to say that he approaches the problem of Russian government very much from the perspective of Western liberalism. That doesn’t mean that he’s wrong – I’m a Western liberal myself, and I kind of share his assumptions, but still, people who don’t, might find themselves objecting.
Anyway, Frye notes that most Western analysts resort to one of two explanations as to why Russia is ‘non-democratic’. The first is that it is all the fault of the evil dictator, Vladimir Putin. The second is that it is an inevitable product of Russia’s history and culture – Russia is simply doomed to authoritarianism. Frye dismissses both of these and instead argues that it is better to look at Russia through the lens of political theory as an example of a ‘personalist autocracy’. Seen this way, he says, Russian government displays characteristics that are common to the breed, and can be seen in other personalist autocracies such as Venezuela and Hungary.
Here, I must butt in with quibble no. 2. ‘Personalist autocracy’ seems an awfully broad phenomenon to me. Can you really lump Russia and, say, Turkmenistan, in one model? Or Hungary and Turkmenistan? And wouldn’t Tsarist Russia count as a personalist autocracy? But to say that Tsarist Russia and 21st century Russia have similar polities strikes me as way off the mark. The differences far outweigh the similarities, I think.
That said, I’m not an expert in poli. sci. models, so these are just thoughts that came into my head as I went along. They’d need deeper discussion than I can manage here. Suffice it to say that Frye says that Russia is typical of the personalist autocratic model and that this explains a lot about how it operates.
In particular, he says, personalist autocracies are not totalitarian states in which the ruler has absolute power and seeks to control all of society. Rather, autocrats have to balance multiple factors and make trade-offs that severely constrain what they can do. For instance, they have to trade off the need for freedom and personal initiative with the danger that too much freedom will lead to their downfall; the needs of the economy as a whole with the need to pay off the important persons and institutions that keep them in power; the need for free elections to legitimize their rule with the danger that too free elections will provide the wrong result; and so on.
Here, I have to mention quibble no. 3. Don’t the leaders of liberal democracies have to engage in very similar trade-offs? Between say, the economic benefit of the nation as a whole, and the economic interests of core voters and lobby groups?
It would be useful to know what the difference is in this regard between different types of political systems. That said, Frye does provide some interesting examples of how these trade-offs operate in a Russian context – how, for instance, the Kremlin tries to keep electoral cheating to a minimum but doesn’t avoid it entirely, and also resorts to methods of manipulation that don’t constitute direct electoral fraud but do artificially constrain opposition – for instance, by preventing unwanted candidates from registering.
Along the way, Frye tells some fascinating stories. For instance, he cites research that shows that ‘firms with CEOs who won a seat in the regional legislature boosted their company’s revenue over a term in office by 60 percent and their profitability by 15 percent relative to those firm owners who also ran for a seat and lost.’ This was because their firms were much more successful in winning state contracts. Power and profit, in other words, are intimately connected. They are everywhere, of course, but I suspect not always quite so blatantly.
Frye makes sure not to overstate the problems he highlights. There is political repression in modern Russia, he says, but ‘it does not reach into every corner of daily life.’ ‘Moscow is in many respects a more pleasant place to live and work than it was even ten years ago. … Outside Moscow, progress has been slower yet still tangible.’ Yes, the state manipulates the media, says Frye, but its not that effective – you can manipulate the way people think about foreign affairs but not about things they know about – e.g. the state of the economy. And in any case, some free media still exists. And yes, Russia does try to ‘influence’ and ‘interfere’ in other countries’ politics, but it’s very marginal – ‘vastly more disinformation about US elections emanates from domestic than from foreign sources’; etc.
So, you see what I meant by ‘nuanced negativity’. Frye’s definitely of the view that all is not well in the state of Russia, but he’s careful to stick to what he can justify with proper data and not to resort to the kind of extreme exaggerations that typify so much contemporary commentary.
The overall conclusion is that Russia suffers from the same weaknesses as other personalist autocracies, above all weak institutions. The result is widespread inefficiency.
I’m happy enough with that as a conclusion. After all, the idea that Russia is a weak state not a strong one is an argument I’ve used myself. But the historian in me does feel a need to quibble again. Is it really the case that autocracy creates weak institutions, or is the other way around, that autocracy is the reaction to weak institutions? Of course, it could be a bit of both, but I tend to view it more the second way.
Quibbles, though, are just quibbles, not outright objections. As studies of Russia go, this is one of the better ones I’ve read of late – well-informed and relatively balanced, avoiding extremes. I’m not 100% convinced by the model, but it’s not without value, and there are some useful snippets of information in the book. I certainly learnt from it. That’s good enough for me.