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Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? Paperback – September 22, 2015
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“[A] copiously researched account . . . the most persuasive account we have of corruption in contemporary Russia. Dawisha won’t be getting a Russian visa anytime soon. Her indictment—event if it wouldn’t stand up in a court of law—hits Putin where it really hurts.” (New York Times Book Review)
“[An] unblinking scholarly exposé.” (Forbes)
“An important and valuable work” (The Wall Street Journal)
“[Dawisha] makes extensive use of the work of others, both fellow political scientists as well as journalists working across the US and Europe. . . . the resulting work has a certain admirable relentlessness. For by tying all of these disparate investigations together so thoroughly, so pedantically, and with so many extended footnotes—and by tracking down Western copies of documents that vanished from Russia long ago—the extent of what has always been a murky story suddenly becomes more clear. . . . [Dawisha] turns a relentless focus on the financial story of Putin’s rise to power: page after page contains the gritty details of criminal operation after criminal operation, including names, dates, and figures. Many of these details had never been put together before.” (Anne Applebaum New York Review of Books)
“A who’s who of the people on the sanctions lists drawn up by America and the EU. It is also a guide to the crony capitalism that grew out of the nexus of Mr. Putin’s plutocratic interests, his shady past and authoritarian rule.” (The Economist)
“Putin’s Kleptocracy should be on the reading list of anyone who wishes to understand the true nature of Putin’s regime, which, as Dawisha correctly states, is ‘committed to a life of looting without parallel.’” (Washington Free Beacon)
“A rich and exhaustive account of Putin and his regime . . . Among Dawisha’s many contributions to our understanding of post-Soviet politics, this book may be the most significant, as the author combines an analysis of such politics and a biography of Russian president Vladimir Putin in unrivaled detail. . . . The notes in this volume represent one of the finest and most imaginative uses of published source materials that this reviewer has ever seen in a book on post-Soviet politics.” (Library Journal (starred review))
“A damning account of Vladimir Putin's rise to power and of the vast dimensions of the corruption—political and economic—that both reigns and rots in Russia. . . . Dawisha's research is extremely impressive. . . . The light of Dawisha's research penetrates a deep moral darkness, revealing something ugly—and dangerous.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))
“A devastating dossier on what history may recognize as a state system that served mainly as a cover for the criminal looting and victimization of the people whose self-sacrificing patriotism it so cynically and shamelessly manipulated.” (The Washington Times)
“[An] important new book . . . [Dawisha] has compiled an extraordinary dossier of malfeasance and political corruption on an epic scale. . . . Dawisha is the first Western author to have pieced together all the relevant material . . . Above all, she charts the extraordinary accumulation of wealth and power by Putin’s associates and friends over a period of two decades. . . . Dawisha has done us all a service in her meticulous account . . . Putin’s Kleptocracy is a courageous and scrupulously judicious investigation into the sinews of wealth and power in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.” (Richard Sakwa The Times Literary Supplement)
About the Author
Karen Dawisha is the Walter E. Havighurst Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and the director of the University’s Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies. She has written five previous books, eight edited volumes, and numerous journal articles, and continues to do research and teaching in the areas of post-communist transitions and Russian politics.
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A principle aid in this endeavor is the US sanctions list, first issued in March 2014, targeting a great many of Putin's team (what she calls his `circle'). While the author does not confine herself to that list, she refers to it extensively throughout the book. It seems clear that she herself was not its author, nor even an assistant in its creation, but only a lucky user - the book could have been published without it, but would have been much poorer, much less authoritative, for its absence.
My own involvement with Russian business in the period 1979-2003 when I made a hundred trips there (usually of 3 weeks duration), when I had a business selling western - chiefly American - made medical and laboratory equipment, as a manufacturer's representative for many companies, gives me, I dare say, a unique perspective on this period. Naturally, I was not dealing with the top, with Putin and his `circle', but the view from below was, I submit, also relevant: the chaos after the fall of the Soviet Regime, which continued for many years, was something quite amazing, and frightening, just to behold. In our case, we had to also grapple with it. Law and order, so tightly controlled under the dreaded KGB and internal police, had virtually disappeared. Whereas in the years leading to the `revolution' of 1991 - the disappearance of the Soviet Union - we never engaged in a single act of anything that could be considered bribery (tho we did give away alcohol, of various sorts, to nearly everyone, but in very limited quantities to any one individual), after 1991 it became more and more difficult to conduct business without `rebates', or `otkaty', worth up to a few percent of the contract. We welcomed Putin's arrival, in 2000, as he promised, it seemed, to put an end to this distasteful, tho still exceptional, activity, as he pronounced repeatedly and loudly his intension to put an end to the `Wild East', and bring order and respect back to business and to Russia. Nothing of the sort occurred - even worse, the demands were to become not only more insistent and more common, but larger. So it was with great relief that I left the business in mid-2003. In short, from the street level I personally experienced an early example of Putin's duplicity, his ability to say one thing publicly, but in practice actually to do something else entirely, in this case nothing.
Not that his stated goal, attacking corruption, was a simple task, quite the opposite, as its ubiquity made clear. Indeed, I would argue that this is a significant weakness of the book, the author's ignoring of the depth of the cultural roots for theft and disrespect for the law. The reader is led to believe that all that is required, to turn Russia into a functioning, law-abiding democracy, is the proper leadership. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The decades of Soviet rule, where law was commonly regarded as simply a tool of coercion in the hands of the Party from which certain `better people' were exempt, fatally undermined any notion of law as sacred, as outside the limits of the often messy, daily struggle for existence - it was, instead, just another barrier to be overcome. Moreover, this law was most often employed to protect the assets of the state, ie of virtually everything material in Soviet Russia, objects that did not `belong' to any concrete, individual, identifiable person, but rather to this abstract entity. Thus, its acquisition, its `privatization', in other words its theft, was banal, not something fraught with moral significance, a petty infraction against an abstraction. Theft became a daily occurrence, experienced by, and for, nearly everyone. Needless to say, a free market and democratic institutions simply cannot abide such a psychology. How to root that out of the consciousness of the new Russian? Unclear. But, what is clear: It could not be done overnight. Add to that the institution that needed to protect the law, the judiciary. There had never been, in the Soviet period, any pretense of its independence: It had been totally dependent for the entire existence of the Soviet Union, ie more than 70 years, under the complete control of the Party apparatus. Respect for the law is only as good, as extensive, in the best of times, as the institutions that enforce and interpret it. That too did not exist. Just from these examples alone one can begin to get a picture of the magnitude of the problem, and I have not even touched the problem of free and fair elections (where both the `free' and the `fair' can only be assured by a real judiciary). For the new system of a law-based democratic state to function, virtually all of this needed to be corrected simultaneously. Moreover, even these problems, being attributed above largely to Soviet rule, did not necessarily start there: some of them stretched back over centuries into the Old Regime. To cite just one other: the habit of employing the instruments of governance to acquire the tools for `rent', for personal enrichment, is traceable to the earliest foundation of the Russian state, and was never overcome, nor even recognized as a significant problem, right down to the Revolution, after which it intensified. To put it another way: the trouble with Russia is not simply `elite predation' (p. 317).
The standard retort to the argument above is that other Communist regimes did not have this difficulty, eg Poland, the Czech Republic, possibly Hungary (tho that is increasingly in question). The problem with this argument is that Poland and the others are not equivalent, these countries did not start - borrowing a useful phrase and concept from mathematics - from the same `initial conditions' as in Russia. There are three major differences that make these cases non-analogous: first, communism in Russia is home grown and not externally imposed. Except for the Germanic origins of Das Kapital, it could almost be termed indigenous to Russia, as the first translation of this seminal work was into Russian, by Mikhail Bakunin (however bizarre that may sound)! This means that in Poland and elsewhere it was always regarded - except, perhaps, among a narrow band at the top of the government structure - as foreign, alien, something to be discarded at the first opportunity. Second, these countries had a very different pre-Communist history, one of markets and a much more open political system - if not democracy, a tradition that included some major elements of the population in the mechanism of governance, which was not the case with Russia (except for the short decade before the Revolution). Third, what for want of a better term we might call the Pipes thesis (see his "Russia Under the Old Regime", and elsewhere): property was much less secure, and much more a function of the whims of the monarch, in Russia than anywhere else (and one reason why Communism triumphed there, and nowhere else in Europe).
Returning to our book, given the wealth of documentation and hundreds of pages of argumentation, the author makes a stunning admission: "despite what must have been a huge effort to find concrete evidence of Putin's own bribe taking, there is none." (p. 125) Nevertheless, this admission notwithstanding, there is plenty of evidence of his duplicity, of his dissembling, and Dawisha provides it, especially in his dealings in St. Petersburg. We also know it, though she does not cite it very clearly, in his public statements about Babitskii, where he lied publicly about his whereabouts very early in his Presidency, in 2000. It has been clear on numerous other occasions, from the Kursk disaster to Litvinenko, and now repeatedly relative to the Crimea and Ukraine. This practice of effortless prevarication, this penchant for mendacity, no doubt something he regarded as an essential virtue of any successful KGB operative - and Putin has never wavered in his idealization of this, his former, profession - significantly increases the likelihood of the story, the complex and infinitely devious story of massive theft, repression, and violence related in this work. Moreover, by citing his own words (tho from a secondary source): "We know ourselves...we know that as soon as we move aside, you will destroy us...you'll put us to the wall and execute us" (p. 349) she made me understand and believe, for the first time, that, yes, he could really have been behind those unsolved explosions in Russia in 1999, criminal terrorist acts that killed over 300 people and led, ostensibly, to the second Chechen War...
There will doubtless be those - and not just in the Kremlin - who will regard this work as a CIA inspired hatchet job. However, the absence here, in this book, of an in-depth discussion of the Alexander Litvinenko poisoning in London in 2006, a case that leads right to Putin's doorstep, militates against such a view. To reiterate a few of the facts: Polonium, atomic number 84, isotope Po210, has a half-life of only 138 days. Ingesting a few nanograms can be fatal, its low radioactivity can be easily shielded (as its principal decay mode is low-energy alpha particle emission) so is undetectable through airports or other standard screening and is perfectly safe outside the body, ie it is an almost ideal poison. Because of its exotic nature, however, serious problems arise in the unlikely event it is detected and/or is handled sloppily, as it was in Litvinenko's case (there is circumstantial evidence that it was used earlier, in at least two other murders - Tsepov, p. 30, and Shchekochikin, p.283 are both cited by Prof. Dawisha, yet inexplicably not connected by her to Litvinenko - but they will always remain circumstantial, as the short half-life insured that it cannot now be detected). Though quite late in his illness, shortly before his death, the London hospital did succeed in making a definitive diagnosis, that Litvinenko had somehow ingested Polonium 210. This isotope was then found not only in him, but in the teapot at the hotel where he had lunch with Lugovoi and Kovtun, as well as in the hotel rooms occupied by them in both London and Hamburg (a residence of Kovtun), and on the BA plane that they took from Moscow. Polonium 210 can be obtained from only a very few, governmentally controlled, sources, one of the largest being in Russia. It is inconceivable that Putin did not know about this, and approve it. It is exceedingly likely, though more speculative, that he also initiated it, as it fits almost perfectly with his character as illustrated in this book: his preference for setting examples, his affection for demonstrations of force (both in its magnitude and in its reach) and the more graphic the better (Khodorkovskii being only one of them), to instill fear and thus insure proper behavior from his minions. Dawisha explores hardly any of this Litvinenko case, one of the most damning and outrageous crimes - because of its international implications - of Putin's years. Were this book CIA inspired, such an omission would not have occurred.
Besides her facile belief that basic Russian culture is similar enough to Western to lead relatively easily over to western capitalism - a belief, as I have noted above, that is fundamentally flawed - there are other elements of this book that grate (though, I hasten to add, they do not ultimately negate the central thesis of colossal corruption and the recrudescence of Soviet style governance):
a) Her repeated characterization, for example, of Putin's acquisition of an apartment on the `prestigious' Vasilevskii Island (pp. 121, 153, 179) as a `scandal' is just nonsense: gifts of living quarters were a common supplement to (often pathetically low) official compensation, even if such acts were formally illegal. Furthermore, Vasilevskii Island, and the 2nd line in particular (where his apartment is located) is anything but `prestigious'. Finally, the building, visible on Google Maps, is rather ordinary. She is baying at, if not the wrong, then a very common tree here. She is on much more solid, and much more significant, ground with GasProm;
b) In citing this case, and others, the author appears to lose sight of a critical distinction. Yes, there were criminal cases filed against Putin, but we cannot look upon those in the way we do here, in the West. The judicial system in Russia, and its instruments, such as indictment, hardly qualify for consideration as sacrosanct. Instead, the judiciary is only one more arm of the executive (as seen so clearly in the Khodorkovskii and Navalny cases), and therefore the Sobchak case (pp. 152-3) and others (pp. 154-157) filed against Putin must be tempered with a strong dose of skepticism. Their suppression once Putin became President can hence be seen not as necessarily a perversion of justice, but rather as a simple matter of self-defense, a view that this author, unfortunately, does not appear to recognize;
c) The Putin Palace in Gelendzhik (setting an example, perhaps, for Yanukhovich's also secret and phenomenal Mezhyhirya palace?, a topic the author, unfortunately, does not explore): the author portrays it as not Putin's personal property, on p. 10, but on p. 304 as a private residence. Does she mean that it is in someone else's name (Shamalov)? Considering that as nothing but a formality, which is correct?
d) Were no-bid state contracts (p. 102) a sign of corruption, Bush and his cronies, who issued scores of them for Iraq, should be in jail.
e) Her criticism of his apparent crippling of the transition to democracy in St. Petersburg by citing statistics showing its inferiority, in this regard, to Moscow (p. 162) in fact, to my mind at least, show just the opposite, given the immense, even indecent, concentration of resources in the Soviet period to Moscow, to the detriment of everywhere else, something felt with intense bitterness in Leningrad.
f) The author carries no further than one sentence (p. 94) a very important use of cronyism: obligating the recipient to the giver. In a state without a fully functioning judiciary, appeals to that branch for enforcing contractual obligations is useless. It is for this reason that grants from the sovereign in Russia have been critical for management of the State from time immemorial. Why then this is condemned from Putin is not clear.
g) While it is implicit in her entire argument, it needs to be made much more explicit: how difficult, indeed nearly impossible it is, once you have embarked on the use of illegal means, to turn back, in particular to engage for example in a campaign to reform the judiciary, an institution that could, if it were to actually function, be your undoing. Yet more evidence of how reform needed to happen nearly simultaneously, from the beginning. Thus Putin's continuing calls for that very thing can be taken with a grain of salt.
h) Patents are few in Russia not because the state owns them (? p. 350 first time I had heard of this), but because, once again, of the dysfunctional judiciary, and thus the practical impossibility of protecting patent rights. You can see this everywhere in Russia in an allied case, that of copyright: there is virtually no independent film, software, or music industry due to rampant copying. It is said that 95% of DVDs sold there are pirated, likely the highest percentage in the world (tho, like everything else illegal, there are no official, fully reliable, statistics).
And, a couple of minor quibbles:
i) Occasionally, to increase emphasis, the author employs adjectives or expresses outrage that is excessive - the repeated objection to his St. Petersburg apartment is one example, but not the only. "Russia was not able to build a single interstate (?!) highway during this time [2000-2011]", and 43,600 miles is not 3 times around the circumference of the earth (p. 314) - it is closer to half that.
j) The US sanctions began in March not April (p. 4), 2014, surely something the author is intimately aware of, an error perhaps attributable to time pressures to publish while Ukraine continues to burn.
Finally, I would like to object to her use of the terms "mafia" and "organized crime". While this is quite common, and began very early in western journalism about post-Soviet Russia, even early in the 1990s, it is wrong. There was, and is, no "mafia" in Russia. The real mafia, the Italian version, is a clan organization based on local geography in Italy and Sicily, rooted in family and local politics, with secret initiation rites, with generations of adepts. By its quick rise, Russian criminal activity cannot therefore, on that count alone, be "Mafia", nor did it have anything in common with clan or family. The author virtually admits this when she has trouble differentiating `gangsters' from mafia, on page 38: "some of the gangsters were mafia, some were ex-security people now in the private sector" but never bothers to define them, and continues to use this term merely as a general pejorative. In addition, there was nothing "organized" about Russian crime - it was, and continues to be, largely anarchic, the very opposite of "organized". I hasten to add that none of this should be interpreted as lessening its impact or belittling its effect. In fact, Russia criminal activity after 1991 very likely exceeded in cruelty, violence, and pervasiveness anything that Italy had ever seen. In one case in Germany that I recall, the investigators deduced that the perpetrators were Russians simply from the horrific, gratuitous violence of the crimes.
In sum, Professor Dawisha has done us all a great service, aiding us in seeing this complex man more clearly. The question remains, given how thoroughly Putin is compromised: What is to be done?
For the expert reader who can distinguish between the dozens of Russian intel agencies (KGB, GRU, FSB, MKVD, FAPSI, FSO, SVR) and public ministries, I'm assuming the book is great. I'd give it four stars for those readers. It's throughly documented and though the writing is dry, it sounds like the author has done her homework. I just couldn't get through it.
As a UK reader I had to buy this book from the USA for reasons outlined in the Acknowledgements section that UK libel laws meant any UK publisher was at risk of being sued. Given a number of litigious cases already seen before the UK Courts involving Russian oligarchs with their “deep pockets” that is definitely not a remote fear! Which is a pity as this is definitely the most fully researched book I have read to date on Putin, deserving a wider audience.
Covering Putin’s rise from obscurity as an unemployed KGB career officer in 1990 post Glasnost St Petersburg to Russian President in 2000, the book explains in great detail each stage he took in his rise to untrammelled power, using the extensive research by either Russian journalists or criminal investigators before Putin had the powers to close down such critics. The allying of KGB colleagues and Russian Mafioso gangs from the outset to build a system that milked the Russian business system as it struggled to develop post the collapse of the USSR is covered in meticulous detail. The scale of the corruption shown and its long-term effect on Russian society alongside the reluctant and belated responses of Western governments as the rewards were largely stored in the Western financial system explains how the arrangement has perpetuated for so long.
My enthusiasm for the story the book tells is however tempered by a writing style that is both dense given all the complicated data being conveyed and reads too often like an academic tome or legal brief. Given the prime sources used that is understandable but does not make for an easy read. Failure to give a better initial biography of Putin the individual (accepting that any history of the man has already been subject to a lot of controlled revision) leaves you understanding “how” and “where” but not “why”.
Alongside that the author by being focused on Putin’s rise often assumes a fuller knowledge of Russian history by the reader. This is especially the case when covering Putin’s “palace revolution” against Yeltsin. But ultimately this book is a masterpiece of detective work – hopefully the author will eventually write the next chapter covering post-2000 events in more detail.