Out of the Picture: On Tony Wood’s “Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War”

January 29, 2019   •   By Richard Lourie

Russia Without Putin

Tony Wood

BEGINNING WITH its very title, Tony Wood’s Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War is a maverick book. “Russia without Putin,” an actual battle cry of the opposition, is not used here to build a political case against Putin, nor does it seek to forecast Russia’s fate after Putin’s last term in office ends in 2024. Believing the media is “overly fixated” on Putin, Wood sets himself the task of describing today’s Russia not as the result of one man’s will and vision but of the greater forces that preceded his assumption of office, function independently of him in the present, and will outlast him. This a work of background, context, and systemics, not history as biography.

And that of course makes this book part of a centuries-old debate about who and what drives history — the heroic individual or impersonal forces. War and Peace, for example, was largely written to expose strutting egotists like Napoleon who can never see that history is just another name for life.

Tolstoy puts Napoleon in the foreground, whereas Wood takes Putin out of the picture. His central insight is the essential continuity of the system from the 1990s to the present day: “Politically the system that prevailed in the 2000s was not a perversion of Yeltsinism but its maturation […] The defining characteristic of the Putin system has been its commitment to defending the capitalist model put in place during the 1990s.”

Neither does Wood see the remnants of the Soviet past as an obstacle to post-Soviet development. Indeed, he regards them as a “massive boon,” which provided a balancing and stabilizing force that kept history’s swift currents from capsizing the ship of state, giving individuals reassurance. This was especially important because the collapse of Russia in 1991 was fundamentally different from the collapse of Russia in 1917. In 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were waiting in the wings with a complete new worldview — dogma, songs, symbols — whereas the collapse of 1991 caught everyone by surprise. Nobody was prepared with any alternative except for vague notions of free markets and free elections. Nothing has yet filled that void in society, which accounts for the zombie-like nature of much of Russia’s post-Soviet culture. As philosopher Mikhail Ryklin, quoted in the book, puts it: “After the death of the country in which we were born, we have already become dead people.”

What was born in the post-Soviet period was a middle class, something Russia had never really had before. Their very existence, like Putin’s hold on power, was largely the result of high oil prices. Without them Putin would never have had the run he had. To his credit, he was smart enough not to squander his luck on corruption alone but made sure enough was spread around to widen his base of support. Though, in a nice dialectical twist, that very newborn middle class would also prove his foe, taking to the streets of the big cities to protest corruption and rigged elections. And all along, there was something spectral about the middle class. As one Russian put it with sardonic absurdism: “I belong to the middle class, but it doesn’t exist.”

Russia has become its own version of the new 21st-century world, whose holy trinity is money, technology, and entertainment, though political power still predominates — as oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky learned the hard way, spending 10 years in prison after challenging Putin. Russia’s capitalism, launched under Yeltsin, has some very specific, local features, which obscure the fact that it is still very much about the profit motive and considerable private ownership of the means of production. In many developed economies there is a revolving door between government and business (and academia). Much the same holds true for Russia, though it takes a more distorted and extreme form there, e.g., the governor of a region may also be head of that region’s largest enterprise. Wood quotes analyst Dmitri Tremin: “It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that Russia is run and largely owned by the same people.” It is still a country where actual entrepreneurship is less important than connections, where people are “appointed” millionaires. Nevertheless, when a project has particular political importance — the Sochi Winter Olympics or the Kerch Bridge connecting the Russian mainland to Crimea — it will be finished on time, even ahead of schedule, though never, of course, under budget.

Wood is a contrarian when it comes to Russia’s foreign policy under Putin, whose cold-hearted boldness elicits involuntary envy in the West, which often sees him as a master strategist. Wood sees him as at best a canny tactician who is running scared most of the time because of the “huge imbalance in power and resources” between Russia and the United States — a country that is, for all intents and purposes, 10 times bigger, if maybe not 10 times stronger.

Wood’s contrarian spirit extends to the West as well. He apportions it a share of the blame for the current tensions with Russia. In 1990, Gorbachev had been assured by Baker and Bush that if the two Germanies were allowed to reunite, NATO would not move “one inch east.” To Gorbachev’s enduring chagrin, the major Warsaw Pact countries — Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic —were inducted into NATO nine years later, with seven others, including three former Soviet republics, following in 2004. George Kennan, former US ambassador to the USSR and author of the containment theory, was against the expansion. It would inevitably be taken as a hostile gesture, which would only increase nationalism and militarism in Russia. But the West was mighty, rich, and triumphant, and there was nothing Russia could do.

For that reason, it became imperative for Moscow not to “lose” Ukraine to the EU and NATO. It would seem that the annexation of Crimea, the proxy war in East Ukraine, and the recent naval clashes in the Black Sea would indicate that Russia has now achieved its principal objective — creating enough conflict in Ukraine to disqualify it for membership in NATO, which does not accept countries with frozen conflicts or ongoing hostilities. But, Wood argues, the price for this success was much too high: Ukraine is closer to the West than ever, NATO is stronger than ever, and the sanctions on Russia are more painful than ever. It all adds up to a “significant geo-political defeat for Putin.”

Sooner or later, Wood must take his own title literally and speculate about a post-2024, post-Putin Russia. But even here he manages to take the focus off Putin by widening his lens and analyzing the system itself: “Russia’s imitation democracy is capable of reproducing itself whether Putin is in charge or not.” This is because that imitation democracy is “fundamentally a system — that is, a set of power structures and political practices that has enabled Russia’s particular, post-Soviet form of capitalism to thrive.” And therefore “the question we should really be asking, in fact, is not whether the system can function without Putin, but how long it can keep functioning in the same way, regardless of who is in charge.”

In my opinion, Putin’s failure to switch from oil to high-tech in the early 2000s, when the price of oil was nearly $150 a barrel, will doom Russia to its next great collapse sometime in the middle of this century. Ecological crisis and breakthroughs in batteries and other forms of clean energy will deprive Russian oil of its value. Wood sees collapse in Russia’s future too, because of its recurrent failure to break free of a model of “a predatory, authoritarian elite presiding over a vastly unequal society.” One possibility Wood envisions is Russia becoming China’s “Mexico — economically integrated with and strategically subordinate to the giant next door.” But the little matter of Russia’s nuclear warheads seems likely to keep its standing from ever sinking quite that low.

For the most part Wood writes a clear and sturdy prose. Once in a while he will fashion a felicitous phrase, as when he calls Putin “ubiquitous and elusive.” He does, however, sometimes descend into that sludgy concoction of statistics and abstractions that passes for a style in some sociological and political circles, e.g., “what is already an ethnically segmented workforce will settle into a more permanent ethnicized social hierarchy.” That means at some points the readers will have to do a little work themselves. Let them. This indispensable book about post-Soviet Russia will more than repay any such effort.


Richard Lourie, for 10 years a columnist for The Moscow Times, is most recently the author of Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash.