Books: Riding the Russian rollercoaster - Life and Style - The Independent

Books: Riding the Russian rollercoaster

Steve Crawshaw discovers there is more to modern Russia than poverty, murder and the Mafia

Rebirth of a Nation: an anatomy of Russia

by John Lloyd

Michael Joseph, pounds 20

Conventional wisdoms come and go, with spectacular zigzags from one side of the political road to the other. Saddam Hussein can go in a short space of time from bulwark against fundamentalism to pantomime villain; Yasser Arafat can progress from unshaven terrorist to dignified statesman. Mikhail Gorbachev was a good example of such variable geometry. While in power, it was hard to find any Western politician who could imagine there could be a more saintly man. Only when he was gone did they notice the shortcomings that had long driven Gorbachev's democratic allies to distraction.

Most contradictory of all, however, is Boris Yeltsin. When reform was just getting under way, he was briefly the hero. When he and Gorbachev quarrelled, he was seen as a troublemaker. Then, after the August coup in 1991, Yeltsin became the ultimate hero.

Judgments about Russia itself have, if anything, been even more roller- coaster than those about the Russian leader. Gushing optimism about perestroika gave way to pessimism about the Soviet coup. Its collapse after 72 hours was followed by yet more optimism. This, in turn, was followed by a heavy dose of pessimism. Poverty, mafia and murder were all that Russia seemed to offer.

Time, then, for something more considered. Which is what John Lloyd, a distinguished former Moscow correspondent and now associate editor of the New Statesman, provides. As his subtitle suggests, this is a painstaking dissection of a confusing body politic. It gives plenty of reasons for deep pessimism - but hints at the reasons for optimism, too. Above all, it vividly demonstrates how Russian politicians can often seem like those gloriously tacky postcards which show different scenes (now she's dressed up, now she's baring all) according to angle and light. Yesterday's democratic hero turns out to be today's pro-Communist anti-Semite; yesterday's dull apparatchik turns out to be today's doughty fighter for reform. Sometimes, a real change has taken place. Sometimes, we are just seeing two sides of the same character.

Lloyd has produced some of the most balanced reporting from the former Soviet Union in recent years, and the book reflects that. The chapters on the giant leaps and strange hiccups in the moves towards a market economy are both knowledgeable and fascinating, even if the reader is sometimes hungry for more of the anecdotes tantalisingly dangled in the text. What else happened on the "comically useless trip" organised by the the European Union to see Surgut Oil and Gas? And what about the "liquid tour" and "vodka-soaked banquets" at the Lukoil installations in Siberia, where alcohol flowed but facts didn't?

Lloyd's contacts with the economic reformers are unmatched. Above all, he makes it clear that there is no point hankering after easy what-might- have-been solutions. "The illusion was that crime could only be curbed by controls and tougher policing. In fact, crime could only be dealt with by continuing market reforms."

Anyone who is confident about which way Russia is going has understood nothing. The contradictions are far too many to unravel. Yeltsin is sometimes mad, sometimes bad, and has been brilliant. It would be brave and foolish to guess whether his legacy will be eternally poisoned or the first tentative step on the path to greater health. Wait a couple of generations; and we might have a clue.

Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
music
News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Voices
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
filmMatt Damon in talks to return
News
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Life and Style
tech... and together they're worth at least £100 million
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig is believed to be donning skies as 007 for the first time
Arts and Entertainment
Fringe show: 'Cilla', with Sheridan Smith in the title role and Aneurin Barnard as her future husband Bobby Willis
tvEllen E Jones on ITV's 'Cilla'
Life and Style
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
tech(but you can't escape: Bono is always on your iPhone)
Sport
Tim Wiese
sport
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Programme Test Manager

    £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

    IT Network Manager - Shepherd's Bush, London

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Network Manager - Shepherd's Bush...

    Secondary supply teachers needed in Peterborough

    £21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary supply teac...

    Modern Foreign Languages Teacher

    £100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Full time German Supply Teacher...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week