Mark Galeotti’s highly recommended We Need to Talk About Putin (Penguin / Ebury, 2019) is a wonderfully compressed book that punctures our lazy preconceptions about Russia. Robust, reasonable and addictive, it should be read by anyone who wonders whether there’s more to Vladimir Putin than our politicians seem to think.
Rather than say more, I want to quote a single paragraph that might demolish a hundred lazy headlines. It comes in the middle of an argument about Putin’s capacity for political performance, his suppleness and flexibility in using power, and his lack of ideology. This makes possible a society whose complexity many observers either cannot see or refuse to explain.
I hope the publisher will forgive me for citing it in full.
This is one of the abiding themes of Putin’s politics: he is happy to play many roles to many audiences, as seems useful, but beyond those primal bedrock issues of power, security and respect, they are simply performances. The same pragmatism applies at home. According to some more hostile foreign commentators, Russia is near enough an earthly Mordor, North Korea with balalaikas. However, walk the streets of Moscow, and you’d find yourself in a modern, dynamic and frankly fun European city. Even out in the provinces, where money is tighter and the new middle class are rather thinner on the ground, there is ample evidence of change. By this I don’t just mean coffee houses, Wi-Fi and branches of Marks & Spencer (thirty-six in Russia so far) but also real debate, investigative journalism and even civil society.
Think about it.