Fragile Empire
eBook - ePub

Fragile Empire

How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin

Ben Judah

  1. 403 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

Fragile Empire

How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin

Ben Judah

Book details
Book preview
Table of contents

About This Book

"A beautifully written and very lively study of Russia that argues that the political order created by Vladimir Putin is stagnating" ( Financial Times ). From Kaliningrad on the Baltic to the Russian Far East, journalist Ben Judah has traveled throughout Russia and the former Soviet republics, conducting extensive interviews with President Vladimir Putin's friends, foes, and colleagues, government officials, business tycoons, mobsters, and ordinary Russian citizens. Fragile Empire is the fruit of Judah's thorough research: A probing assessment of Putin's rise to power and what it has meant for Russia and her people. Despite a propaganda program intent on maintaining the cliché of stability, Putin's regime was suddenly confronted in December 2011 by a highly public protest movement that told a different side of the story. Judah argues that Putinism has brought economic growth to Russia but also weaker institutions, and this contradiction leads to instability. The author explores both Putin's successes and his failed promises, taking into account the impact of a new middle class and a new generation, the Internet, social activism, and globalization on the president's impending leadership crisis. Can Russia avoid the crisis of Putinism? Judah offers original and up-to-the-minute answers. "[A] dynamic account of the rise (and fall-in-progress) of Russian President Vladimir Putin." — Publishers Weekly "[Judah] 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 "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." — The Guardian

Frequently asked questions

How do I cancel my subscription?
Simply head over to the account section in settings and click on “Cancel Subscription” - it’s as simple as that. After you cancel, your membership will stay active for the remainder of the time you’ve paid for. Learn more here.
Can/how do I download books?
At the moment all of our mobile-responsive ePub books are available to download via the app. Most of our PDFs are also available to download and we're working on making the final remaining ones downloadable now. Learn more here.
What is the difference between the pricing plans?
Both plans give you full access to the library and all of Perlego’s features. The only differences are the price and subscription period: With the annual plan you’ll save around 30% compared to 12 months on the monthly plan.
What is Perlego?
We are an online textbook subscription service, where you can get access to an entire online library for less than the price of a single book per month. With over 1 million books across 1000+ topics, we’ve got you covered! Learn more here.
Do you support text-to-speech?
Look out for the read-aloud symbol on your next book to see if you can listen to it. The read-aloud tool reads text aloud for you, highlighting the text as it is being read. You can pause it, speed it up and slow it down. Learn more here.
Is Fragile Empire an online PDF/ePUB?
Yes, you can access Fragile Empire by Ben Judah in PDF and/or ePUB format, as well as other popular books in Politics & International Relations & Russian Politics. We have over one million books available in our catalogue for you to explore.


The Rise of the Lieutenant Colonel



PUTIN'S MOTHER is dead. So is his father. His wife Lyudmila is eerily absent. She is no longer by his side at the goose-step parades or the never-ending animal shoots. On the rare occasions that she appears in public, to show she is still alive, the woman is unsteady on her feet and seems to flinch at his touch. His daughters are a state secret. This television tsar seems lonely, exercising alone in echoing halls, as if terrified of physical decay.
But in St Petersburg, an elderly woman with concerned, maternal eyes still watches him strut on the evening news. Vera Gurevich, old but not frail, is the person who remembers his childhood best. Her voice wavers, suddenly on the edge of a cackle, then suddenly speeds up. Her eyes are bright blue, a pasty colour that you only seem to find among the very old. To everyone but her, he has become the state. In 2012, once the protests and jeers that shook the regime as he retuned himself the title of President abated, I felt I needed to speak to someone like this. I can imagine a day when there will be nobody who really knows Putin left.
Late one afternoon we sat and talked on a bench in Victory Park in beautiful summery weather. Not inside, of course not inside, anyone could be listening inside. We were in St Petersburg, surrounded by ugly brutalist architecture. These avenues are where the recent history of the place really is, where the front line was – no piecrust architecture or tour groups of elderly Germans in sight, only the concrete conformism of Soviet blocks, or bullying Stalinist baroque that renders it indistinguishable from anywhere else in Russia.
Vera was Putin's teacher and she thinks about him every day. Devoted to him, she talks about ‘Putka’, in a disorganized, aged way, as if he was her own son. We sat on a bench and talked. A bruised alcoholic dozed on another bench nearby. She says, ‘The government is something that should have nothing to do with you … it should be almost invisible. This government, it stays out of my way, it doesn't ask anything of me … you could say it was the best of governments.’
She tells me everything she remembers. When we started to walk towards the metro, the interview over, I ask her if she had voted for the governing party, United Russia in the rigged 2011 parliamentary elections that detonated mass protests. ‘Pah! I did not vote for United Russia. I voted for Just Russia … because I believe in justice.’
The conversation is confused. She is suspicious, her thoughts twist and turn back on themselves, but she clings to her memories of the little Putin she taught as his form teacher from age nine to seventeen. ‘I am so proud of him, I am proud of him like a son.’ Then she jerks her hand. How she wishes he was her son. ‘You have to understand what it was really like.’ But you can somehow tell that her thin memories of the boy fifty years ago have become mixed up with the man she has seen on television.
Her eyes suspect me of something, and as she put back on her baseball cap with ‘CHESS’ emblazoned on it, we turned back towards the noise of the main road. And Putin? Did she still see that little boy in him? Vera had voted for him, not for his party, but there was something she no longer recognized. For a second, she paused. ‘Now there is a sadness in his eyes … It is the harshness of it all. It wasn't always there.’
Little Putin
She met him when he was almost ten years old. It was 1962 and it seemed the Soviet Union might beat the Americans to the moon. She was a young schoolteacher and in the staff meeting Vera Gurevich was handed over the role of form teacher to Putin's class. She was warned that it was full of rough, ill-disciplined little boys. One of them she was told to watch out for was the one called ‘Putka’ by classmates. This was the Soviet 1960s and teachers were being told to pay more attention to individual pupils and not ‘the mass of the class’. With this in mind, she saw this disruptive boy as a child who needed special attention. ‘He was so stubborn. He was trouble.’ The boy tore in and out of the classroom shouting ‘coo-coo it's me’ and seemed never to do his homework. Or even realize that he should:
‘He did nothing. He didn't care about the results. He just scribbled something down on the paper during the test and then … ran away! He didn't care. He just ran away. He didn't care about the consequences.’
There were also fights – and he fought back: ‘But if people hurt him he reacted immediately, like a cat … He would fight like a cat – suddenly – with his arms and legs and teeth.’
Her concerns reached the point that she was visiting the boy's apartment regularly, to implore his parents to put him on the straight and narrow. She found ‘Putka’ had a weak mother:
‘She was not a very literate person. She didn't have a secondary school education. She'd only been to primary school. She was from the village. So I had to go and check on his homework, sometimes two or three times a week, to see they were paying attention. Putin's mother always said, “This is a topic for his father. He is a boy and this is a man's job.” She didn't see this as a woman's role … She was from the village you see. And Russia has always been a patriarchy.’
This boy had been born in 1952 and grown up in a hungry, crumbling post-war Leningrad: the ‘hero city’ of the blockade, where almost every adult he knew had lived through it. His childhood, even his physique, was shaped by the siege – he shares his slight frame with those whose mothers were also malnourished. Putin is the grandson of a chef who served Stalin, Lenin and even Rasputin, the mad monk who wielded enormous influence in the court of Nicholas II. This grandfather was not just a cook, but almost certainly a spy. The chef's job in the state dachas he worked in was reserved for NKVD agents, the political police later known as the KGB, to snoop on the guests. As a child Putin was taken to visit him, still cooking in his old age at a guesthouse of the Moscow party elite. Putin's father worked as a factory foreman, but fought in the war in an NKVD unit behind enemy lines. The war never left him. He suffered extensive wounds at the front but likely remained in the NKVD ‘active reserves’ throughout his career. This was the opposite of a family of dissidents. The Putins were conformists.
In Soviet Leningrad, a city of communal apartments, gossip travelled at lightning speed and personal privacy was near impossible. Families had a quasi-rural existence in tenement buildings, putting out their washing together, knowing all of each other's business and, on summer evenings, sitting out in the sun in a line of cheap deckchairs. The apartment that the Putins lived in was cramped, shared accommodation, with a communal kitchen and bathroom. By Western standards Putin grew up in poverty – but not by Soviet ones. ‘Out of my students,’ remembers Gurevich, ‘the apartment was far from the worst. He had a little desk to do his work. Many didn't even have that. He had everything he needed.’ It was a typical working-class childhood. This world of komunalka apartments was one without urban anonymity. ‘Putin's mother didn't want a child,’ smirks Gurevich. ‘He was born when she was forty-two. The others had died. She told her husband she didn't want another, and he replied, “But who will be there, who will look after us when we are old, we must have a child.” She indulged him. She fed him for two years on breast milk.’
As Putin's teacher, Gurevich fretted that his father was not disciplining him properly. She respected Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin (‘He was such an intelligent man’), but she found him odd and disturbingly introvert. ‘I once asked his father, “Why are you such a closed person?”, to which he replied: “In the ways we need to be we are open. But only a fool would open his soul to the world. You have to know who you are talking to.” ‘These were wise words, from a man who knew the NKVD well and had grown up during Stalin's terror. Yet his son was growing up in a rough city. Leningrad was overrun with street kids, hungry, violent gangs of near illiterate children brawling and skirting the edge of crime. Gurevich became increasingly worried that Putin was on the verge of joining them:
‘No one ever beat him. I know this because I once grabbed Putin by the scruff of his neck and he stammered: ‘How dare you, this is not your role, my father has never beaten me.’ He was in the courtyard, I saw him and said ‘go and do your homework’. He stayed there playing with these boys that had made a ball out of some cloth. He was the youngest – about eleven – and the rest were already fifteen or seventeen. They were street boys. Already drinking beer and smoking. It was dangerous to be with street boys. They were doing things like spitting to see who could spit the furthest. I asked him why he was hanging around with street boys and he replied, “In life you have to know everything.” ’
It was at this point that Putin did the strangest, most reckless thing of his childhood. Maybe, because he wanted to experience ‘everything’. He went to the KGB headquarters and asked how he could join. Was he play-acting his father, or grandfather? Politely, those in the office told him to study hard at school and read law at university. ‘You see, he was obsessed by the patriotic spy films that were being screened all over the city at the time. They got under his skin,’ remembers Gurevich. ‘But he kept it a secret from me. He never told us he had done this until he was grown up.’
Putin did not become a street urchin. He grew closer to his teacher, to the point that he was taken along on her family holidays. In his early teenage years he discovered what were to be his two passions – judo and German. ‘After he found these he really became better and better until he was really a well-behaved – but closed – young man.’ Martial arts gave Putin the discipline he needed. He quickly became obsessed by it, eventually going on to win all-city prizes in the sport. Yet, he was more reticent to take to German. This was the subject Gurevich taught and Putin's resistance was overcome by her insistence:
‘He once announced to me: “I don't want to study German anymore.” I asked, “Why?” He said, “My uncle died at the front and my father was made an invalid at the front by the Germans. I can't study German. I want to study English instead.” So, I said to him, “But all Germans are different.” I explained to him that the Germans at the front were just following orders, doing their patriotic duty. I said that there was not just the war to talk about but also German culture, German philosophy and that Germany was always a very cultured country. I said that if he studied German he would become a more learned person. To which he replied: “Fine then, so not all Germans are the same, so tell me about some interesting Germans then.” So I told him about the German communists. I asked, “Karl Marx, have you heard of him? You know he was German.” And Putin was surprised: “But I thought he was a Jew.” I said, “Yes, but he lived in Germany.”’
The nation whose war crimes hung over his childhood Leningrad came to fascinate him. Much later he would tell an audience: ‘I have two natures and one of them is German.’1 By that, he meant ordered, clean, organized and philosophical. By the time Putin left school he had turned from ‘Putka’ into a disciplined, if dour, careerist. He was admitted to Leningrad State University to study law – following the advice of the KGB headquarters. He was becoming ambitious. Gurevich, no longer his teacher but now a family friend, went to visit her former student to see how he was getting along:
‘When he was twenty-three I went to see him. He had a political map of the world on his wall. And I asked: “What do all these little flags you've stuck on this mean?” He replied: “The more I learn, the faster I mature.” What I did not know is that he was studying both to become a lawyer – but also trying to join the KGB. He claimed he was training to be a policeman. I suspected he was now training up for the KGB, as once I saw him with a military-style band running down his trouser leg. I thought – a regular copper, like you say you are … you most certainly are not.’
Conformists from this generation thought the Soviet Union was a successful, even wealthy country, albeit with profound problems. They knew it had ramshackle food supplies, appalling shortages and dreadful consumer goods, but they thought this could be fixed. Russians could not comprehend that a country with space stations, an intervention in Afghanistan and one-quarter of the world's scientists was a fragile empire on a precipice. They did not know that the central planners had made the budget so dependent on the booming price of oil that the latter's collapse would turn into a balance of payments crisis, then a fiscal crisis, then a food crisis as the USSR could not afford the imports that fed its cities, leaving it begging the West for credits – for which it would do anything in return. Worse still, even in the midst of this crisis, they were so confident that Russia was a first-rank nation that they believed the collapse of the USSR in 1991 meant everyone would be ‘living like an American’ in a few years.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was surrealist and ironic. The scientific-technical intelligentsia that had hoped for it, the shallow middle class, would live through a decade that could have come from the dystopian imagination of J.G. Ballard – turbo-consumerism amid the collapse of society. The end goal they had wished for, the economic programme they had wanted and the bureaucratic implosion they had cheered, suddenly turned Russia into a partially third-world country with memories of the space age.
The Double Disaster
Grainy footage focuses in on a young civil servant sitting on an uncomfortable chair, in 1996. He awkwardly looks at the floor, then away, just not into the lens. He eats his first words, then makes himself clear: ‘However sad and however frightening it may sound … I think that in our country a return to a certain period of totalitarian rule is possible.’ He sighs. Then for a second, a second too long, he can't seem to find the words. ‘The danger … is not to be found in the organs that provide order, the security organs, the police or even the army. It is a danger at our summit, in the mentality of our people, our nation … our own particular mentality.’ A poor jump cut takes us to the next frame:
‘We all think in a way … which we don't try and hide … and I sometimes think in this way … that if only there was a firm hand to provide order we would all live better, more comfortably and in safety. In fact … this comfort would be short-lived, because this firm hand will be tight and very quickly strangle us and … It will be instantly felt by every person, then in every family. Only in a democratic system where all the workers of the intelligence services, which we call KGB, MVD, NKVD and all the rest … when they know that within a year this political hand can change nationally, regionally and locally … will they ask themselves what are the laws of the country in which we live?’2
The interview is over. The young Putin's eyes fall to the floor. The world-view of this man is a pure product of the double disaster. He is a man whose career was defined by his experiences working in the KGB in Dresden in a failing authoritarian bloc, then by working as a senior official in St Petersburg town hall in a failing democracy.
Putin's rebaptized home town, like almost every other Russian city, was in social chaos in the 1990s. Euphoria gave way to an overwhelming feeling of anarchy. There was no promised, no anticipated, prosperity. Instead Russia was a country that felt so lost and confused that quack ‘faith healers’ became staggeringly popular. In the late 1980s and early 1990s one silent faith healer, who claimed to ‘charge’ creams, liquids and ointments, would make mute and packed halls of the sick and frightened hold up jars of water, to be electrified with his ‘healing’ power. He even had a daily morning show on television, during which tens of thousands of families in their living rooms held up pots and jars in front of their screens when he ordered them to. This could happen because St Petersburg and countless other cities shuddered through the winter of 1992, fearing famine – for the first time since the rule of Stalin...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright
  5. Contents
  6. List of Illustrations
  7. Plates
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. Dedication
  10. Epigraph
  11. Introduction: The Weakest Strongman
  12. Part One: The Rise of the Lieutenant Colonel
  13. Part Two: Watch the Throne
  14. Conclusion: The Ghosts
  15. Notes
  16. Bibliography
  17. Index
Citation styles for Fragile Empire

APA 6 Citation

Judah, B. (2013). Fragile Empire ([edition unavailable]). Yale University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)

Chicago Citation

Judah, Ben. (2013) 2013. Fragile Empire. [Edition unavailable]. Yale University Press.

Harvard Citation

Judah, B. (2013) Fragile Empire. [edition unavailable]. Yale University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Judah, Ben. Fragile Empire. [edition unavailable]. Yale University Press, 2013. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.