Anyone looking for a contemporary example of the silent gravitational pull of an ideological hegemony would do well to take the political scientists and economists who, a decade and a half after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, continue to frame their inquiries into the region in terms of so many transitions to democracy and a market economy. The results are not merely odd, but often downright embarrassing. The accumulation of awkward, indeed generally dismaying, facts at variance with this conception has required the introduction of a panoply of theoretical epicycles such as ‘challenged’ or ‘stalled’ transitions, blamed on ‘legacies of the Communist past’, popular apathy, lack of civic instincts, atavistic yearnings for a ‘strong hand’ and ‘bad old habits’ of despotism and corruption. It is a more than revealing historical irony that the contemporary problems in the neoliberal project of global transformation, which Hobsbawm pointedly calls the ‘last Great Utopia of the twentieth century’, have come to resemble the discursive contradictions of its vanquished predecessor—Marxism–Leninism.

The ‘transitions’ debate is now recapitulating the various moves to be found in the erstwhile attempts of progressive intellectuals to explain away the ‘deformations’ of Eastern socialisms, invoking quite similar factors: inherited obstacles, unfortunate choice of leaders, unspecified backwardness, insufficiently conscientious peoples. In both historical instances, for the duration of socialisms and after their disappearance, analyses of East European politics and societies remained stuck in what Pierre Bourdieu derided as a normative–juridical approach. The East was, and remains, measured against the teleological claim of what these countries should—and what their rulers declared them to—become, rather than trying to understand the actual evolutionary emergence and metabolism of these political species and their proper place in the world’s comparative taxonomy of states.

Andrew Wilson’s book makes a hole in the logjam, which is its principal merit. Admittedly, Wilson has simply described with a wealth of detail how elections of the last decade were actually run in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. But the state of the field is such that even a mere depiction, of minimal theoretical ambition, can yield shattering results. Let us consider, for example, my old friends and favourite opponents Andrei Illarionov—who recently resigned as President Putin’s economic advisor, after boldly denouncing the Yukos takeover—and Michael McFaul, who spent the nineties as the neoliberal International’s resident commissar in Moscow. Their ideological convictions are no less deep or sincere than their insider knowledge of post-Soviet politics. Neither would find anything new in Wilson’s description of these. Very likely, they could tell us even more about ‘faking democracy’ in Russia and elsewhere. In fact, McFaul admits as much in his own praise for Virtual Politics, which he reviewed in the Moscow Times in September 2005. Yet they both regard the hijacking of post-Communist elections by venal operators as an outrageous aberration rather than a central object of study—as it ought to be—of what became of Gorbachev’s perestroika.

Wilson’s book is squarely an exposé. Its main thrust is to reveal the dirty mechanisms and actors behind the façades of the electoral process in the post-Soviet republics, mainly in Russia and Ukraine (Wilson’s most recent data have gone into his companion volume on Ukraine’sOrange Revolution). Other republics like Kazakhstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Belarus also feature in his account, though to a much lesser degree. Wilson’s central claim is that in post-Communist politics things are not necessarily what they seem. The political arena is saturated with decoys, fakes and impostors: ‘Parties and politicians . . . launched as tv projects . . . who have a double life as virtual objects that have little or no relation to their real selves. “Virtual politics” therefore seems an appropriate metaphor’. Perhaps Wilson’s most provocative claim is that no answer exists to the famous question, ‘Who is Mr Putin?’ Thus he writes: ‘As a virtual object, Putin was not a politician, not even a human life history as such, just a template’—even if, later in his book, he seems to recognize that Putin has become more real as a ruler as he has slowly pulled on the reins of power.

Virtual Politics offers a cornucopia of detail, whose sheer volume must delight an expert but risks overwhelming the uninitiated reader; the book carries far in excess of a thousand endnotes, if mostly references to newspapers and websites which could themselves be suspected of engaging in virtual intrigues. He describes particular manœuvres, ploys and tricks used in various electoral races, and in the post-election wranglings for the distribution of parliamentary and ministerial portfolios. The tactics are grouped and described according to their key tools and purposes. First and foremost is the ‘administrative resource’, in other words, the typical power of incumbency. Adminresurs has many uses, beginning with old-fashioned ballot forgery. The prime example is Yeltsin’s constitutional referendum of December 1993, supposedly intended to bring stability and entirely revamp the political spectrum in the wake of the bloody dismissal of Russia’s last Supreme Soviet in October. On that occasion the forgery was rather amateurish, allowing a few inquisitive statisticians to demonstrate without much trouble (but equally without much effect) that less than the fifty per cent of voters required to approve the document came to the ballot box. Many Russians at the time felt baffled and bitterly disillusioned by the increasingly Bonapartist Yeltsin and his totally discredited promise to normalize life through shock therapy. But the West had no compunction about upholding the result as a bulwark against the menace of a Communist restoration of Russian fascism (Yeltsin’s Russia being then compared to Weimar Germany); and this bogey would subsequently become a fixture of Russian elections for the rest of the nineties, artificially reducing the choice to either Yeltsin or horror.

The several million ‘dead souls’ that appeared in December 1993 in the last couple of hours before polling stations closed salvaged Yeltsin’s ultra-presidential constitution. What might seem more puzzling is the well-founded allegation that these additional votes also served to nearly double the representation of Zhirinovsky’s outrageously mislabelled ‘liberal democrats’ in the new/old State Duma (the latter name conveying, of course, a very virtual continuity with pre-1917 traditions). In effect, the first Russian president dealt a covert coup against what was ostensibly his own team, led by Gaidar, and nudged Zhirinovsky’s impostors towards triumph. Like many commentators before him, Wilson believes that in December 1993 Yeltsin sought to liberate himself from a too elitist and ideological neoliberal intelligentsia and, just in case, to obtain a clownish and less legitimate parliament that would be easier to disband.

Other uses of adminresurs followed. Local authorities arbitrarily increased rents for the buildings of unwanted newspapers and political groups, barred entry to premises for violations of the fire code, and switched off the lights at the rallies of opposition candidates. By contrast, favoured candidates got every organizational assistance, not to speak of covert funding, from the local bureaucrats. Tax inspectors demanded payments (naturally, excluding the better-connected businessmen) months in advance, in order to help the incumbents disburse pensions among elderly voters who always diligently showed up at the polls. Judges and ultra-rigorous electoral officials conducted cleansing sweeps of the rolls to leave the field clear for the right candidates. In 1999 Russia’s former Prosecutor General (or, since this was never proved, rather ‘a man bearing close resemblance to the former Prosecutor General’) was shown on late-night tv frolicking with two prostitutes, and subsequently removed from the ballot for lying; in papers submitted to the electoral commission, he had failed to disclose that he possessed the rank of law professor.