Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20 (253pp) £18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Putin and the Rise of Russia, By Michael Stuermer

Behind the scenes of the Russian revival

Michael Stuermer's survey begins and ends with what was expected to be a defining moment in Russia's chequered post-Soviet history: the departure of Vladimir Putin from the presidency after two four-year terms, and the ascent to power this spring of his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev. In the event, the closing of one Russian chapter and the opening of another turned out to be so predictable, routine almost, that the overriding impression was of continuity rather than change – which is doubtless how Putin intended it, and the vast majority of Russians, desperate for stability after so much upheaval, hoped it would be.

Yet the peaceful transfer of power – through the form, if not substance, of an election – was a defining moment in Russian history. Stuermer uses it to assess the enormous changes that took place during Putin's eight years in the Kremlin. Living standards for most Russians soared; the state's near-bankruptcy was transformed into reserves of $500bn; Russia started to cut a figure on the world stage again.

But Stuermer is not starry eyed. Prefacing each chapter with an epigraph taken from the Marquis de Custine's classic travelogue, he tries to show just how much Russia also remains the same. The contradictions between the strong and fragile state, between captive minds and free, between how things are and how Russians would like them to be, are no less infuriating to Stuermer now than they were to the 19th-century French traveller.

As a scholar, author and journalist of long standing, Stuermer has ranged widely. The broader perspective, historical and geographical, that he brings to this period of Russian history is refreshing. Most of all, his book provides a salutary corrective to the transatlantic assumptions underlying so much writing in English, where the West is a monolith on one side opposed to a Russian monolith on the other.

Stuermer's European and German prism is less ideological, more practical and more conscious of proximity. The other great merit of his book is his acceptance of Putin for what he is, someone both shaped by his Russian experience and a conscious shaper of Russia's future – not just, as in too many Western interpretations, a diehard KGB man true only to Soviet-era roots. Instead of trying to read ulterior motives and Kremlinological messages into Putin's utterances, Stuermer takes the trouble to listen.

For his portrait of Putin he draws liberally from his participation in the "Valdai Club" of Western academics and journalists, invited to meet Putin for an extensive question-and-answer session each autumn for the past five years.

For me, as a British member of that group, Stuermer's judgements ring true. At these extraordinary unscripted encounters, described in some detail, Putin came across as master of the Kremlin; a stickler for detail, with firm ideas about Russia and its national interests. Those who hope for anything different from him as Prime Minister – or from his successor as President – delude themselves. Putin is more complex, less Soviet and more Russian than the easy dismissal of him as a "Chekist" suggests.

For these reasons alone, Stuermer's book is worth reading. But it should come with a few warnings. It is not a particularly easy or elegant read. Stuermer also likes his clichés. Churchill on Russia, the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; Churchill on democracy, Palmerston on nations having permanent interests not permanent allies – they are all here. On the editing front, there are shocking inconsistencies in the transliteration, with German and English versions of the same Russian name occurring sometimes on the same page.

Stuermer should probably not be your first port of call either if you want to find out what actually happened, rather than what it might mean. Among signal omissions is the way Putin became President – not, in the first instance, by election, but as a result of Yeltsin's precipitate resignation on the last day of 1999. Other quibbles concern interpretation, notably, for me at least, the potential threat he sees to Russia from fundamentalist Islam and his focus on energy at the expense of other developments in the domestic economy, such as agriculture and retailing. Others might contest his view of Russia's "lone wolf" foreign policy.

But the validity of different interpretations is surely what discussions of Russia should be about, not sterile point-scoring. And in emphasising, as he does, how far post-Soviet Russia is still a work in progress, Stuermer offers a message that deserves to be heeded.

Click here to purchase this book

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas