Two Ways of Approaching Russia: reviewing new books by Sergei Medvedev and Grigory Yavlinsky7 min read

 In Review, Reviews, Russia
Sign up for a class in Russian politics at any university in North America or Europe, and chances are good you’ll be assigned more Western authors than Russian ones. For every Lebedeva, it seems, you’ll read a Johnson, a Herrera, and a Greene. It’s a shame, because in recent years, Russian authors have produced a bounty of insightful and authentic research on their country’s politics, some of which eventually finds its way to English translators. In 2019 alone, we gained two important new translations from two important Russian writers: The Putin System, by Grigory Yavlinsky (Columbia) and The Return of the Russian Leviathan, by Sergei Medvedev (Wiley).  

Grigory Yavlinsky is an economist and politician best known for his leadership of Yabloko, Russia’s oldest opposition party, and his numerous bids at the presidency of the Russian Federation. Yavlinksy’s writing is closely informed by his training as an economist; his latest book, The Putin System: An opposing view, is less about Vladimir Putin and more about the system. 

Russia’s decline, according to Yavlinsky, owes not to the scheming of one individual but to a systemic failure, namely, the lack of political competition in the Russian Federation. It is a system which began in the time of Boris Yeltsin, whom Yavlinsky views no more favourably than Putin. Unlike Western liberals, who reminisce on the Yeltsin years as Russia’s only real stab at democracy, Yavlinsky is eager to point out that Yeltsin led an army against the Supreme Soviet parliament, tearing down the strongest balance against the power of the president. Moreover, Yeltsin forced through a constitution which, to this day, albeit with some strategic alterations, grants the president of the Russian Federation nearly unchecked power. Thus, in Yavlinsky’s view, the Putin System is not so much a system of Putin’s creation but rather the system of “peripheral authoritarianism” that created Putin. 

Sergei Medvedev is an historian, journalist, and international relations scholar whose academic writing and teaching have focused mainly on political identity in Europe. His latest book, The Return of the Russian Leviathan, is an anthology of sprightly micro-essays, mostly 2-4 pages long, in which he describes the cultural and historical causes of Russia’s decline in the 21st century. 

Medvedev does not present one unifying thesis; rather, his short essays form a mosaic picture of a frightened, apathetic Russian populace whose cultural vices have turned self-destructive. The Russian people as Medvedev depicts them fear change – even positive change – and refuse to hold the powerful responsible for their offenses.

It is worth noting that Yavlinsky and Medvedev, who are both affiliated with Russia’s Higher School of Economics, agree more often than they disagree. They both interpret Russia as being in decline, and both predict further deterioration. Although Yavlinsky and Medvedev are unambiguously anti-establishment figures, neither directly blames Putin nor his government for their country’s woes. In this regard, they stand opposed to many Western critics, who tend to write about Putin as a capo, a dictator, and the mastermind of his country’s political renaissance. (To the assumption that Russia is rising, Yavlinsky cheekily suggests that perhaps it is simply the West that is falling. I am inclined to agree).

Although they reach the same conclusions, Yavlinsky and Medvedev arrive in very different vehicles. Medvedev draws mainly on culture theory to build his notion of Russia. He delights in metaphor, and easily extends the domestic to the national, the interpersonal to the political. Apparently, Russians burn rubbish in the springtime because they are “inexplicably drawn to demonstrative and exuberant self-destruction.”

“Today,” Medvedev continues, “Russia is voluntarily torching all that was created over a quarter of a century of reform and change.” 

I find the connection unconvincing and, moreover, reductive. But it is difficult to argue against the subconscious, which, by its nature, can only be theorised, never proven, and therefore never disproven.

Medvedev moreover refuses to contain his ideas within any numeric scope. He doesn’t write how many Russians burn their rubbish, support violence in Eastern Ukraine, or “search everywhere for Russophobia and a worldwide conspiracy against Russia.” Medvedev writes about the Russian people en masse, generally ignoring the variation of a diverse, multi-ethnic nation of some 140 million people. In doing so he misses, or perhaps ignores, the dissenters. 

When Medvedev does present figures, they usually tell only half the story. For example, to condemn Russia as homophobic, he cites the statistic that 88% of Russians support their country’s ban on ‘gay propaganda’. But a 2019 survey by the research organisation Levada showed that 47% of respondents either completely agree or somewhat agree that gays and lesbians should be afforded equal rights. How does Medvedev make sense of the paradoxical 29% of Russians who oppose ‘gay propaganda’ but support gay rights? Unfortunately, it’s not an issue he gets around to in his three-page “Test for Homophobia”.

In “An Ode to Shuvalov’s Dogs”, Medvedev describes the outrageous wealth and exorbitant spending of former Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov. Medevdev asks, “Why does society fail to react to information about corruption or about the excesses of state officials?”

The answer, of course, is that people do react: on social media, in Telegram channels, in frequent protests on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg and across the country. In 2017, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in 97 Russian cities against corruption in the highest echelons of government.

In his demand for coherence, Medvedev ignores difference, and, in doing so, misrepresents the nuance of his subject.

Grigory Yavlinsky is not interested in culture. He is singularly focused on the structure of modern-day Russia, a structure he theorises using the tools of economics and political science. The actors in the structure include the public and the private sector, the wealthy and the poor, the dominant and the dominated. Yavlinsky’s analysis is full of categories, some of which are adapted from other fields but all of which pass through his own critical lens. 

I doubt Yavlinsky would consider himself an optimist, but he has a tendency to assume order instead of randomness and rationality instead of impulse.  The annexation of Crimea, Russia’s show-elections, and the propensity of the Russian people to balk at regime change are all attributed to plain self-interest. Even when describing ideology, perhaps the only thing more amorphous than culture, Yavlinsky declares the rise of Russo-nationalism a top-down rhetorical strategy implemented by the government to facilitate the centralisation of political power. 

In Yavlinsky’s world, every decision is governed by some kind of internal logic. Whereas Medvedev writes that Russians are “inexplicably drawn to” fire, Yavlinsky would surely pall at the notion of inexplicability: Russians must be drawn to fire for a reason!

The most obvious problem with the rational assumption is that people are not, in fact, rational. Richard Thaler, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2017, notably called the imaginary subject of most economics research a “social moron” and a “rational fool”; indeed, Yavlinsky’s book abounds with sensible idiots. His arguments rest mainly on the shaky premise of human rationality, and run the risk of collapse at any psychic or social tremor.

Individually, The Putin System and The Return of the Russian Leviathan are vulnerable to nitpick. Taken together, however, the two perform a kind of profound dialogue. The global, faceless bodies of Grigory Yavlinsky’s book are given identities by Sergei Medvedev’s rich descriptions of national culture. Likewise, Medvedev’s infinite, abstract rendering of Russian thought is neatly framed by Yavlinsky’s structures and systems. 

Together, Yavlinsky and Medvedev paint a portrait of a nation obsessed with its past and future prosperity but limited in its means to grow. In this nation, a highly centralised government lashes out against the West out of both resentment towards Western policy and dependence on Western money. The populace of this country by and large do not resist the federal government and its leader, since the people respect the usefulness of authority and respond to the symbols issued by their government to signify its strength. Despite the government’s limited success in rebuilding the country since the 1990s, a stalling economy could lead to greater recession in the future.

Course convenors take note: you can skip Kennan this year and try something new. 

Grigory Yavlinsky’s The Putin System was published in 2019 by Columbia University Press. It is available on Amazon.

Sergei Medvedev’s The Return of the Russian Leviathan was published in 2019 by Wiley. It is available on Amazon.

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