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Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin Hardcover – June 18, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Judah's dynamic account of the rise (and fall-in-progress) of Russian President Vladimir Putin convincingly addresses just why and how Putin became so popular, and traces the decisions and realizations that seem to be leading to his undoing. The former Reuters Moscow reporter maps Putin's career and impact on modern Russia through wide-ranging research and has an eye for illuminating and devastating quotes, as when a reporter in dialogue with Putin says, "I lost the feeling that I lived in a free country. I have not started to feel fear." To which Putin responds, "Did you not think that this was what I was aiming for: that one feeling disappeared, but the other did not appear?" His style, however, feels hurried, an effect of which is occasional losses of narrative clarity. In some cases limited information is available, and his pace-maintaining reliance on euphemistic, metaphorical, and journalistic language can leave readers underserved and confused. Judah is at his best when being very specific, and perhaps the book's achievement is that it makes comprehensible how Putin got to where he is; those wondering how Putin became and remained so popular will benefit from this sober, well-researched case. (June)


"Ben Judah, a young freelance writer, paints a more journalistic – and more passionate – picture in ‘Fragile Empire’. He shuttles to and fro across Russia’s vast terrain, finding criminals, liars, fascists and crooked politicians, as well as the occasional saintly figure." —The Economist
(The Economist 2013-05-09)

"A beautifully written and very lively study of Russia that argues that the political order created by Vladimir Putin is stagnating – undermined by corruption and a failure to modernise economically. Judah’s reporting stretches from the Kremlin to Siberia and has a clear moral sense, without being preachy." — Gideon Rachman, Financial Times
(Gideon Rachman Financial Times 2013-06-29)

"Judah is an intrepid reporter and classy political scientist [...] His lively account of his remote adventures forms the most enjoyable part of Fragile Empire, and puts me in mind of Chekhov's famous 1890 journey to Sakhalin Island." — Luke Harding, The Guardian
(Luke Harding The Guardian 2013-06-27)

"The best of a recent crop of books on the Russian president, it describes the essential corruption of the system Putin created (supposedly) to clean up the country. It spans the extent of this huge country as well as the decade and a half that Putin has been in power." — Oliver Bullough, The Telegraph
(Oliver Bullough The Telegraph 2013-07-11)

“Judah’s outstanding Fragile Empire travels up and down the curve of Putin’s popularity. . .This is a familiar narrative but Judah, only in his mid-twenties, explains it all with economy and panache. . .What makes Fragile Empire important, however, is its dissection of Putin’s decline in popularity in 2008. It is the first to tell the story not just of the Moscow protest movement but of the less visible, but no less real, dissatisfaction beyond the capital.”—Neil Buckley, Financial Times
(Neil Buckley Financial Times 2013-07-20)

“[Judah’s] excellent book provides a wide-ranging and highly critical account of the current state of Russia. . . He also gives an insightful historical perspective on the rise of Putin.”—Amy Knight, New York Review of Books
(Amy Knight New York Review of Books)

"Fragile Empire [is] a fluent and plausible account of Russian politics and society in the wake of the recent protests."—Andrew Monaghan, TLS
(Andrew Monaghan Times Literary Review 2013-11-08)

“[An] astute new book on Russia.”—David Frum, The Atlantic
(David Frum The Atlantic)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (June 18, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300181213
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300181210
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.5 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #116,384 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Carl from Chicago on July 27, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I picked up this book based on positive reviews in Bloomberg and elsewhere and was very impressed. I have a reasonably good understanding of Russia based on military history and a decent understanding of the global energy business.

The first thing that comes to my mind is how brave the author must be to go around Russia asking questions about Putin. From my understanding and this book that is a very risky thing to do since the primary purpose of the security apparatus in Russia is to keep Putin in power.

The book follows Putin from the chaos in post-collapse St Petersburg where he worked for a local politician through his election to presidency, the Medvedev years (which were actually the Putin years), and then back into his current stint in charge.

The book is not all negative about Putin, which is what I find most interesting. The oligarchs that took control of the energy and media companies were extremely un popular and Putin brought them to heel. This was in fact popular among much of the population. He also took energy revenues and used them to pay some salaries and pensions and bring some modest amount of stability to the poor. And Moscow was substantially re built with sky scrapers and other elements. He also resolved (for the time being) the situation in Chechnya by allying with the current warlord and this momentarily resolved a horrible active war that was being fought in an embarrasing way for Russia.

It is very interesting to see how close associates of Putin, even those in his Judo club and KGB days, have become billionaires. They have taken control of the energy infrastructure and then a swiss trading function is another source of his supposed vast personal wealth (unproven).
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Paul E. Richardson VINE VOICE on January 16, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The subtitle of this book, “How Russia fell in and out of love with Vladimir Putin” is an apt summary. Judah chronicles the rise of Putin from virtual nobody (1991), to lionized tsar (2008), to a putative Tsar Nicholas II or Boris Gudonov (2012). It is a compelling account, based on thousands of interviews with ordinary Russians, and dozens with “influentials” past and present.

Judah shows Putin to be a man who has assumed the guise demanded of him by events and history: a Chekist in the last days of the USSR, a democrat under Sobchak, a loyal servant under Yeltsin, a militant war president riding a popular tide that wanted security and stability above freedom. But, in the process of that last bit, Judah argues, Putin and his coterie built centralizing institutions that eviscerated civil society and the democratic accomplishments of the Yeltsin era. The manipulative interim presidency of Medvedev, followed by the re-re-election of Putin showed that the Vertical of Power had no clothes, that “managed democracy” had only “the formal institutions of democracy... gutted of meaning,” that the Party of Power was in fact the “party of crooks and thieves.”

The vertical of power turned into a vertical of corruption, United Russia turned into a patronage network not a party, and the ‘dictatorship of law’ turned out to be a dictatorship of predatory officials. They left Russia a fragmented and feudalized country in which all corrupt policeman, inspectors and governors had been signed up into Putin’s party.

The mass demonstrations of 2011-12, Judah says, were signs of a discontent that he says is far from limited to the capital. The discontent “is vast,” he says, “but resistance is tiny.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By jbd on August 20, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Judah has done his homework, through hundreds of interviews with Russians from all walks of life. And he is a perceptive observer of people and institutions. In Fragile Empire, he retells recent Russian history from two perspectives: that of the traumatized population, desperate for some stability and national pride after the collapse and shame of the Yeltsin years; and that of the officials, who felt besieged by a series of disasters from the sinking of the Kursk to the terrorist attack on children at Beslan and the westward lurch of Ukraine.

Many of the stories Judah tells are familiar to close Russia watchers, but he reassembles the pieces to paint a convincing picture of Putin's regime as ruled by fear--of loss of power and wealth, of humiliation, of a possible breakup of Russia just like the Soviet Union or, worse, Yugoslavia. He shows that Putin's big moves, including the neutering of the governors, the capture of the press, and the attack on Khodorkovsky, were essentially improvisational and reactionary, stamping out challenges as they arose rather than following some preconceived plan to create an authoritarian regime. Along the way, Judah makes many trenchant comments about how people in power think and how power works.

I'd like to give this book five stars, because I enjoyed it and learned a great deal from it. But the quality of the writing and editing are too uneven. Judah does not seem to understand how to tell a story in the right sequence. He jumps in and out of chronological order in an arbitrary and often jarring way. His seques are often clumsy. He mentions new characters in the story without first introducing them to the reader, and then introduces them pages later. Sentences are often poorly constructed. Word choices are often inapt.
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