Book Critique Of Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia By Karen Dawisha

In Karen Dawisha’s informative account of Putin’s rise to power, she exposes the many scandals and events that happened behind closed doors or were turned a blind eye to under the Putin Administration. She defines the Russian regime as a ‘kleptocracy’ in the early pages of the book and stands behind that statement for the entirety of her writing. For a general definition of the term, Merriam Webster defines ‘kleptocracy’ as a “government by those who seek chiefly status and personal gain at the expense of the governed.” This was regarded as a harsh definition of the Russian regime, and Dawisha even tells readers in her Acknowledgements that Cambridge University Press refused to publish her work due to fear of a lawsuit. Dawisha proved to be resilient and brave in publishing information that would surely receive very different responses from different people. Dawisha successfully exposes Vladimir Putin’s intent in being the President of Russia by analyzing his background and political upbringing while proving the negative actions of the Russian government that are often overlooked throughout the country. 

Putin’s Kleptocracy is divided into seven consecutive chapters. Dawisha mentions in her Introduction that she needs to begin with an analysis and account of the initial fall of the USSR in order to set the stage for the rest of her description of Putin and Russia; this is the focus of the first chapter. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 each analyze a different point in Putin’s political career, beginning with the history of his involvement in the KGB and his presence in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia. Dawisha then gives details of Putin’s activity once moving to Moscow, making sure to note that just because he was no longer in St. Petersburg did not mean that he lacked a presence there.[footnoteRef:4] Multiple different scandals and connections that Putin was a part of are described in these chapters. Chapters 5 and 6 then give details on Putin’s Presidential election and his first one hundred days in office, including what he did (and did not) accomplish. Dawisha describes the system set in place as “The Putin System” in Chapter 6. The last Chapter wraps up all the details that Dawisha revealed throughout the book and analyzes corruption and Putin’s efforts to rise to power with his colleagues while lying to the general public. Dawisha concludes with her opinions on the future of Russia if Putin continues to represent the country. 

Dawisha’s main idea throughout her writing is to prove that those who are in positions of high power work secretly for Putin because loyalty to the President will promise safety and prosperity to the detriment of regular class people. She also claims that the people who still hold high positions in Putin’s regime are the same people who worked with him in the KGB and his early days in St. Petersburg. The research question that could be developed after reading this book, since Dawisha does not clearly print a research question, is: Does a democracy truly exist under the Putin Administration, and are the activities of oligarchs and government officials honest, transparent, and in the best interest of the people of Russia? Dawisha writes her findings in her Introduction: “I conclude that from the beginning Putin and his circle sought to create an authoritarian regime ruled by a close-knit cabal with embedded interests…who used democracy for decoration rather than direction…Russia is both a democratic failure and a resounding success – that is, a success for Putin and his cronies and a success on their terms.” It is important to analyze certain statements in Dawisha’s writing in order to gain a sense of the key arguments she makes to back up her conclusions. 

Dawisha’s first argument is that in order to understand the rise of Putin’s power in Russia, an analysis of events during the fall of the USSR is necessary. Dawisha makes the connection between the fall of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) under Boris Yeltsin and the rise of the KBG in foreign affairs, which Putin was a member of. She states that:

[P]resident Boris Yeltsin banned the CPSU…the CPSU’s guidance ceased, and the control over this vast mountain of foreign money fell into KGB agents who had access to foreign operations and accounts. Some of the money stayed abroad and disappeared, but when the USSR collapsed and assets became available for purchase inside the country, this money was available for investment to those who controlled the accounts. Thus were born…most of Russia’s oligarchs and commercial banks.

It is commonly known that Putin’s career began when he served in the KGB, and Dawisha’s account of the above events allows readers to make a connection between the information she provides and Putin’s beginnings of power. When required to watch a film titled The President for class discussion, it was mentioned in the documentary that the earliest information many people have about Vladimir Putin is that he worked for the KGB. At another point in the film, it was mentioned that Boris Yeltsin highly recommended Putin to be the next President of Russia. After watching the film and reading this book, connections were easily made between the two forms of information. Based on the information gathered in the documentary, it is no surprise that Yeltsin would recommend someone from the KGB, who was in charge of large sums of money during his administration. It was useful for Dawisha to give an account of various events during and after the fall of the USSR because it gave readers who may not be familiar with Russian Politics a good background to have before reading the rest of her work. In the first chapter, Dawisha successfully backed her initial argument of defining Putin’s Russia as a kleptocracy by showing the early ties Putin had that allowed him to continue to gain power on the way to his Presidency. 

In the following chapters, Dawisha gives multiple examples of Putin’s corruption through his relationship with companies such as Bank Rossiya and his criminal activity throughout his career in St. Petersburg. Dawisha claimed that “Putin’s St. Petersburg days underline this style of work, building overlapping networks of people in which he is at the center…assisting each other in personal gain.” An example of this is Putin’s connection with Bank Rossiya. Dawisha shows that Putin had support from the bank numerous times; for example, the bank funded a film about Putin in the 90s. Dawisha also stated that “Putin was close friends with many people who had large shares in Bank Rossiya.” This relationship between Putin and Bank Rossiya was analyzed in an article by the Financial Times, in which the writers claim that the reason why so many people believe Putin is closely connected to the bank is because many of its large shareholders and supporters are longtime friends and colleagues of the President. Putin’s relationship with Bank Rossiya is just one of the many examples Dawisha uses to describe his rise to power. Dawisha describes many relationships that Putin had with people that either gave people massive prosperity in Russia, or extreme suffering if they publicly worked against the President. Dawisha successfully used the Bank Rossiya example in her writing to prove that Putin, in fact, was running a kleptocracy and was taking advantage of many people in order to stay in power. 

Dawisha’s final chapters offered a discussion of Putin’s current presidency, election scandals, as well as the control of the media, which have all been discussed in lecture. Her concluding statement was: “Russians have a long history of great contributions to world culture , literature , and arts . They deserve better.” Dawisha ended her work with a bold and inspiring statement that successfully closed out her writing and included a call to action to stop the regime she self-defined as a kleptocracy. 

Putin’s Kleptocracy could be compared to Building Big Business in Russia, written by Yuko Adachi. A summary of the book concludes that “Overall, the book shows that we cannot understand the nature of current economic changes in Russia without recognising the crucial role played by informal corporate governance practices in the creation and development of big business in post-Soviet Russia.” This book gives more detailed information on the corporate businesses that rose to power in Russia. This could be read to supplement Dawisha’s information on Putin’s role in the corporate role to give more of a business-oriented side of the story; however, Dawisha’s book would prove to be more useful to read to get a more holistic view of events in Russia that were directly linked to Putin while simultaneously giving information on different scandals and development of companies and oligarchs throughout the 2000s. 

Overall, this essay aimed to support Karen Dawisha’s writing and agree with her claims that Russia is currently showing clear signs of a kleptocracy rather than a democracy, all due to the activities of President Vladimir Putin. I enjoyed Dawisha’s work and believe it was a great supplement to the rest of the Russian Politics course. It was also interesting to read after watching The President, because the documentary was clearly pro-Putin propaganda while Dawisha’s novel gave a completely opposite account of Putin and painted him in a very negative light. The one critique I would offer is the author’s clear bias against Vladimir Putin. With little background information, readers would easily create anti-Putin sentiments by the end of her book; however, with other research and information to supplement Dawisha’s book, readers would see the reliability in Dawisha’s words and be able to form their own opinions on Putin. Overall, the aim of Dawisha’s writing was to prove the selfish intent of Putin’s actions throughout his career to create a kleptocracy with those who supported him, and she successfully proved just that.

10 Jun 2021
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