The Practice and Pathos of Power: ruminations on Anna Arutunyan’s ‘The Putin Mystique’

PutinMystiqueAnna Arutunyan’s The Putin Mystique (Skyscraper, 2014) has appeared in a variety of languages before being released in English—a good call on a small publisher’s part to pick this title up—and is a fascinating exegesis of power in Russia. It is also a very Russian book. Indeed, about the only way it could be any more Russian would be if it were written on birch bark by a balalaika-strumming bear wearing a fur hat, drunk on vodka. What does this actually mean? For a start, the prose style weaves seamlessly between political reportage, literary and historical discursion and absurdity (she opens the book “I want the President of the Russian Federation to decree what I should think, what religion to profess, where to live, the number of children to bear, how to live, and when to die.” [p. 9]) in a way subtly distinct from the more clearly compartmentalized writing of the Anglo-Saxon non-fiction tradition. The product is a book that is as entertaining and readable as it is informative, very deserving of a place on every Russia-wonk’s shelves.

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‘Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991′: writings and thoughts

One of Johnny Shumate's preliminary sketches for color plates in my forthcoming Osprey Publishing title Elite 197 'Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991', ISBN 978 1 78096105 7, to be published in August 2013

One of Johnny Shumate’s preliminary sketches for color plates in my forthcoming Osprey Publishing title Elite 197 ‘Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991′, ISBN 978 1 78096105 7, to be published in August 2013

Having been the kind of nerdy kid who frequented the library to scour the Osprey military history titles, who predictably enough grew up to be the kind of nerdy adult who buys them instead, it was a thorough delight to be able to write my first Osprey book, Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991, which is due to be published August 2013. (Elite series number 197,  ISBN 978 1 78096105 7). In part it gave me new respect for the series given the extensive detail and fact-checking involved, as well as the way the artists need to have a distinctive combination of the meticulous and the imaginative when producing the color plates which are such a feature of the books. The accompanying sketch, from the talented Johnny Shumate, is just the first rendering of an operator from the Saturn special forces group of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) in full riot kit. The color version is even more stunning…but you’ll have to wait and buy the book to see that!

However, the exercise also led me to think more about the rise in Russian security, special and paramilitary forces since the collapse of the USSR. The Soviets, after all, were hardly averse to maintaining large parallel armies and also sundry elite forces. However, there has been not just an increase in the numbers of many of these forces, there has also been a proliferation. There are OMON riot police (who do more than just quell riots), KSN/OMSN/SOBR special police response units, various special forces within the MVD’s Interior Troops, numerous commando ‘spetsgruppy’ within the security apparatus, from the FSB’s Alfa and Vympel to the SVR’s Zaslon. As if that were not enough, there are special forces within the FSIN, the FSKN anti-narcotics service, even of a kind within the MChS Ministry of Emergency Situations.

The irony is that the only special forces elements which have shrunk of late have been the regular military’s Spetsnaz — and even then, they still proportionately make up a larger share of the army than in Soviet times. The same is true of the security troops of the Interior Troops: there are fewer than in the Soviet VV, but more compared with the smaller size of Russia’s population.

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A Short Review of ‘Expelled: a journalist’s descent into the Russian mafia state’ by Luke Harding

It shouldn’t be so, I know, but when – as in this case – a publisher reaches out to offer me a review copy, I can’t help feeling there’s an implicit social contract that I’ll speak well of it. What can I say, then? Well, Harding, who was the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent 2007-11 before his expulsion, was in some interesting places and spoke to some interesting people, from Lugovoi to Lebedev. His account of an interview inside the infamous Lefortovo prison shed some light on how much has changed there since Soviet times – nothing at all – and his tales of intimidation by the FSB shows how much has changed in the tactics of Russian state security – very little.

All that said, though, this is a rather insubstantial and superficial book, alas. In some ways, the title says it all, with its emphasis on Harding’s personal travails and this handy but dangerous ‘mafia state’ caricature. (more…)

‘State Building in Putin’s Russia: policing and coercion after Communism’ by Brian Taylor (2011)

Another quick foreshadowing of a forthcoming review, this time in the Russian Review. Read the review for my full comments, but in brief, State Building in Putin’s Russia: policing and coercion after Communism is an excellent and deeply-researched book on the MVD and other institutions of internal control under Putin. Brian Taylor (Maxwell School, Syracuse University) very usefully conceptualizes the siloviki of the military and security interests as at once a cohort (a distinct social body with certain common traits and values), clans (competing factions) and corporate (bureaucratic and institutional) interests. However, the core of this book is devoted to assessing the overall contribution of the police and security institutions to the development of the Russian state, demonstrating that state capacity only improved to a very slightly, a process largely limited by an inattention to what he calls “state quality” – essentially, good governance and the satisfaction of society’s needs. Taylor doesn’t really dig into how far poor governance reflects a failure of Putin’s state-building project and how far it is because Putin wasn’t interested in this kind of thing but wanted to create a centralized hybrid state. What this first-class book proves, though, is that even if Putin thinks he got what he wanted from the siloviki, if his aim was lasting, effective and reliable state building, then he was wrong.

(In fairness, though, I’d in any case always be a sucker for a book that declares itself to be committed to “bringing the gun back in” to the comparative literature on states.)

Taylor, Brian D. State Building in Putin’s Russia: Policing and Coercion after Communism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xviii + 373 pp. $95.00. ISBN 978-0-521-76088-1.

‘The KGB Campaign against Corruption in Moscow, 1982-1987′ by Luc Duhamel

While mentioning book reviews in the pipeline, I ought also to mention Luc Duhamel’s The KGB Campaign against Corruption in Moscow, 1982-1987 (Pittsburg UP, 2010), which I’ve reviewed for the re-launched Soviet & Post-Soviet Review. Duhamel looks at Moscow’s two largest trade organizations: the Chief Administration of Trade (Glavtorg) and the Administration of the Moscow Fruit and Vegetable Office (Glavmosplodovoshprom – gotta love these Soviet-era constructions), which became engines of embezzlement, corruption and clientelism, and thus obvious targets for the KGB once its former chief, Yuri Andropov, had become General Secretary of the CPSU in 1982. After all, Andropov was not only something of a puritan Leninist, he also had a much greater awareness of the delegitimizing and dysfunctional impacts of corruption on the Soviet system. The campaign was also a handy way of removing and intimidating the Brezhnevites still dominant within the apparat and those who resisted Andropov’s program for limited reform. As Duhamel shows, early victories petered out before the trade organizations’ counter-attack, with accusations of abuses of investigative powers, dark allusions to Stalinist repression and careful exploitation of their networks and powers. The irony is that many of these venal but able wheeler-dealers were to be rehabilitated in the perestroika era precisely for their entrepreneurial skills.

Duhamel knows the trade organizations inside out, but although in the main I think his portrayal of the investigations and their political context is good, I was less comfortable accepting their detail in every respect. He draws on official court and investigation records, newspaper accounts and interviews, but I know from my own experiences researching crime and security issues that these are not always as reliable as we might hope. This was a time, after all, when the press was an organ of propaganda, when the courts were thoroughly politicized and when investigations often retailed rumor as fact when it was politically expedient. (It would be easy to make a cheap dig here about the modern situation, but in fairness however great the limitations of the modern Russia media and judiciary, they are a world away from the pre-glasnost’ Soviet model.)

As a rather surreal first, I even found myself quoting Rumsfeld on “known knowns” when asking the question of quite what can we be sure we know? These are the inevitable caveats of any attempt to research the underbelly of such a society, and it does not at all invalidate the book. I think Duhamel has done the scholarship a service with this study, which still has a great deal to commend it: I think it is better on the trade organizations and their corruption than about the politics and operational methods of the KGB, but there is much here for anyone who wants to understand quite how the late Soviet system really worked (or didn’t).

Luc Duhamel, The KGB Campaign against Corruption in Moscow, 1982-1987. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010, xviii + 249pp., $26.95.

‘Afgantsy’ by Rodric Braithwaite

I’ve just reviewed this book for Europe-Asia Studies and so eventually my lengthier thoughts will see the light of day, but in the interim I just wanted to note how good this new study of the Soviet war on Afghanistan turns out to be. In essence, it doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been said elsewhere, albeit often in Russian-language treatments of the war, but it brings everything together in a judicious, comprehensive and wonderfully-readable way that in my opinion make it the best overall history of the war (from the Soviet side) to date. Title notwithstanding, it doesn’t focus specifically on the actual afgantsy, the veterans (though where it does, I was personally pleased to see it drawing on my Afghanistan: the Soviet Union’s last war), but it is nonetheless full of fascinating personal experiences and anecdotes, many recounted personally to the author. A first-rate history.

Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy: the Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89. London: Profile Books, 2011 and New York: OUP (USA), xiv + 418pp.

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