How best to approach an adequate understanding of contemporary Russia? For Timothy Frye, a leading Russianist at Columbia, the initial task is to dismantle the two paradigms that govern Western discourse about the country. The first of these is ‘Putinology’, which fetishizes Putin’s kgb background and personal will as the driving force in Russian politics. ‘Know Putin, know Russia’ is how Frye summarizes this approach, which reads Kremlin policy as an extension of the President’s worldview and assumes his omnipotence over society. From this perspective, ‘What is Putin really like?’ becomes the key question.
However, as Weak Strongman points out, there is a dearth of reliable evidence here. Putin’s speeches and self-presentation should be treated with caution, as should deductions from his reading matter; the memoirs of former aides may be coloured by their personal fortunes. The lack of hard information makes it difficult to pin down his views, which in any case seem highly adaptable to the circumstances. Putin has been cautious in some scenarios—building up Russia’s financial reserves during the oil boom of the early 2000s—while taking surprising risks in others, like the annexation of Crimea (and now, of course, the reckless invasion of Ukraine, launched some months after the publication of Frye’s book). Putin can be read as anti-Western, Frye argues, but equally as Washington’s opportunist assistant in the occupation of Afghanistan. While some, like Karen Dawisha in Putin’s Kleptocracy (2014), see his goal as personal wealth, for others, such as Timothy Snyder in The Road to Unfreedom (2018), he is an ascetic ultra-nationalist, an avid disciple of Ivan Ilyin and Aleksandr Dugin. Frye points out that one of the best biographies, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s Mr Putin (2011), detects six Putins: statist, history man, survivalist, outsider, free marketeer, case officer.
Moreover, Frye argues, Putin’s supposed kgb persona has been carefully cultivated by his spin doctors, starting with his ‘autobiography’, First Person, published in time for the 1999/2000 Russian elections. Though the kgb background is not irrelevant, Putin’s rise to power owed more to Sobchak and Yeltsin; he quit the intelligence service in 1990 to work for the powerful Mayor of St Petersburg, brokering foreign-trade deals, then moved to Moscow six years later as a Kremlin operative. Nor does Putin rule alone, but through a set of personal relationships and networks that political scientist Alena Ledeneva has called the sistema. Many of his closest associates—Yuri Kovalchuk, Vladimir Yakunin, Nikolai Shamalov—have links going back to the Ozero ‘cooperative’ in 1990s St Petersburg; all are fabulously rich. The ‘Putinology’ approach, then, requires significant qualification.
The other paradigm, which Frye dubs ‘exceptional Russia’, sees the country perpetually reverting to its historical type—its traditional role of continental great power, supplemented by centralized absolutist rule and Orthodox religiosity, with cycles of expansion and domestic repression followed by retrenchment and reform. A corollary, Frye thinks, are notions of a specific ‘Russian mentality’: tortured souls under Tsarism, or habits of cynical conformity and passivity supposedly instilled in Homo Sovieticus under the communist system. For Masha Gessen in The Future Is History (2017), Russians no longer have the intellectual tools with which to make sense of their world. Frye concedes that the legacies of the past shape the present, and that a deep grounding in Russian history is essential to understand the country today. But historicizing accounts need to explain why such patterns re-emerge when they do—and why in these particular versions. Weak Strongman counters negative stereotypes about the populace by noting that Russians voted in competitive elections in high numbers when given the chance in the 1990s, and cites an array of data suggesting that they are no better or worse than anyone else, including a ‘dropped wallet’ experiment which found that Russians returned cash at roughly the same rates as citizens of the us, Britain and Canada.
Frye has the benefit of decades of on-the-ground experience observing Russian society and politics. Caught up ‘in the excitement of the Cold War’, as he puts it, he began learning Russian at high school in the late seventies (in Utica, ny), and went on to study Russian language and literature at Middlebury College, Vermont. His first trip to Moscow was in 1985. He has a proud record of engagement with the us foreign service, beginning with a tour of duty for the us Information Agency that involved displaying American fax machines and cd players at exhibitions across the Soviet Union during perestroika. In the mid-90s he was a consultant for the Moscow stock market’s Securities and Exchange Commission, whose operations he studied for his PhD at Columbia. He has worked as a consultant for usaid, the ebrd and World Bank. The director of Columbia’s Harriman Institute in 2009–15, he co-edited The Policy World Meets Academia (2010) aiming to strengthen ties between Russia scholars and State Department officials in ‘crafting a response’ to Putin’s Russia. Other books have focused on privatization, corruption, protection rackets and property rights. The editor of Post-Soviet Affairs and senior figure at the political science department at Columbia, Frye also codirects a research institute at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics which specializes in opinion polling.
As he explains, Frye’s chief motivation in writing Weak Strongman was to counter prevailing American preconceptions about Russia, which he sees as both ignorant and over-politicized. On the first count, he cites a 2014 study which found that the less Americans knew about the region—only one in six of 2,000 respondents was able to locate Ukraine on a map—the more strongly they believed that Russia posed a threat to the us and favoured military intervention. On the second, he notes the reversal of what was once the most durable cleavage in American politics, with Democrats now more hawkish than Republicans—the type of rapid shift that tends to occur ‘where the public has little prior information and can easily be led by politicians.’ In place of ‘the disinformation, misinformation and simple misperceptions about Russia that cloud our vision,’ he offers the ‘solid evidence, clear logic and transparency of academic research.’ Frye is a man of science—specifically, political science and survey data, which he marshals through all manner of polls and peer-reviewed studies. Weak Strongman contains none of the analogies that readers might expect in a relatively popular book about ‘Putin’s Russia’. There are no neo-Soviet zombies reenacting collective traumas, no tsar and his boyars plotting to bring down the West. Frye is at pains to avoid the kind of rhetorical licence that can characterize the psychologistic or essentialized interpretations of Russia that he sets out to rebut.
According to Frye, the tendency to view Russia in a vacuum occludes recent comparative work that suggests inherent limits to Putin’s famed ‘vertical of power’—revealing it to be ‘creaky at best’. To understand Russia, he writes, we need to examine ‘the stuff of politics’: shifts in power between the ruler, the elites and the mass publics. Weak Strongman’s positive proposition is to place Russia in a comparative framework as one of a set of ‘personalist autocracies’, alongside Erdoğan’s Turkey and, somewhat more notionally, Orbán’s Hungary, Fujimori’s Peru, Duterte’s Philippines and Chávez’s Venezuela. ‘Personalist’ autocracies are to be distinguished from the ‘military’ or ‘single-party’ sort. Although they may have parties, an elected legislature, a functioning court system and a relatively plural press, in personalist autocracies key decisions over personnel and policy are taken by one person, usually reliant on an inner circle of loyalists. Though he (and it is always he) may be elected more or less democratically, once in power the autocrat begins to pack the courts and the legislature, harness the press, discredit opponents and extend his dominion, often setting up a new security service answering directly to himself.