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.
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