The following post was written by department work study Rachel Bauman.
Russia has been a frequent focal point of international attention since the days of the Soviet Union. The actions of the Russian government continue to confound and frustrate the international community. A recent example is Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, which continues despite ceasefire agreements and international sanctions. Yet Putin remains very popular among Russians, perhaps a partial reflection of Russians’ desire to be taken seriously in the global community, even if it means sacrificing freedoms to a more authoritarian leader.
I am of the opinion that Russia, and its political system, can best be understood through the prism of history and culture. And so, with a semester of post-Soviet Russian politics under my belt and an intense (perhaps obsessive) interest in understanding the Russian people, I picked up Gregory Feifer’s 2014 book, Russians: The People Behind the Power, for a little leisure reading. Feifer, a journalist and former NPR correspondent, has a unique perspective: his American father and Russian mother met at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. Though he grew up in London and Connecticut, he spent years traveling and living in Russia, experiencing part of his heritage firsthand. There is nothing detached about Feifer’s relationship with Russians—it is peppered with stories of his mother and her family, his parents’ relationship, and his own observations experiencing and writing about Russia.
That being said, Feifer still draws on outside sources—including recent surveys, historical accounts, and literature—for his background information as he argues that the factors shaping Russia today have been doing so for years. Each chapter serves to address one of these factors. Of particular interest is his exploration of “extravagance” in Russian culture—much of it a holdover from the rise of the oligarchs in the early 1990s who capitalized on the privatization of state-owned enterprises and amassed huge amounts of wealth. Moscow alone is home to more billionaires than any other city in the world. Economic inequality in Russia is a source of resentment for many Russians, who rightly conclude that many of the wealthy obtained and retain their wealth due to collusion with the government and other corrupt practices.
Feifer focuses heavily on corruption as a deeply-rooted problem in Russian society. In general, political institutions are nothing more than a front for the “informal networks of crony arrangements” which rule behind the scenes. Personal loyalties take precedence just as they did in medieval Muscovy, during which time, Feifer notes, tsars would distribute their powers among ruling clans. In Putin’s Russia today, power and influence are contingent on support for the President, at least outwardly. Dissidence is easily punished in a society where bribes and threats are more influential than the rule of law, which has little historical precedent in Russia.
Russia’s problems are indeed deeply entrenched, but Feifer reminds his readers that Russia is still grappling with the legacy of 70 years of Soviet rule and cannot be expected to come out of that experience without some trauma. He calls for the West to confront Russia with an understanding that the way Russia operates, and the assumptions its leaders make, are often radically different than our own. Although this book is more than a list of things that are wrong with Russia and the origins of these problems, I found it to be a very bleak read, perhaps too colored by the negative personal experiences of Feifer and his family in the past. Nonetheless, the book is engagingly written and provides many excellent insights into Russian culture and its influence on politics. It is by no means a textbook, but I recommend it as a timely supplement to more academic analyses of contemporary Russia.