Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution
by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser
Scribner, 464 pp., $27.50
FOR DECADES, MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF for the Washington Post was a coveted assignment, occupied by some of the paper's superstar reporters.
The Soviet era was fascinating, and it was Page One news during the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union offered riveting drama, and the creation of a new political and economic system in Russia throughout the 1990s also provided great stories, colorful personalities, tough analytical puzzles, and bursts of high-octane politics--be it the shelling of the parliament in 1993, the invasion of Chechnya in 1994, Boris Yeltsin's difficult reelection in 1996, or the financial meltdown in 1998. It is not surprising that Post correspondents have written some of the best books that we have in English on Soviet and Russian politics.
Against this awesome legacy, I felt sorry for Peter Baker and Susan Glasser when I first met them, in the summer of 2000, as they prepared to assume their positions as Post bureau chiefs for the next four years. By then, all the drama in Russia seemed over. The Russian economy had recovered splendidly from the 1998 crash to record serious economic growth in the last two years before Baker and Glasser arrived. This economic growth is good for Russians, but less so for reporters: Chronicling the massive expansion of IKEA is a great story once, but does not make it into the paper if you try to write about it a second time.
Politics in Russia also seemed stable and boring. At the time, Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, was trying hard to distance himself from his former boss, Boris Yeltsin. The conventional wisdom, however, was that Putin represented continuity with the Yeltsin era, not change. Putin was a political novice with no independent political base. Therefore, the analysts predicted, he would be constrained by the complicated weave of relations between the state and the oligarchs, who had so dominated Russian politics in the final years of Yeltsin's rule.
How boring is that? About what would these newcomers write? When would they ever get on Page One? I pitied them.
Moreover, upon taking this assignment, Glasser and Baker knew next to nothing about Russia, or the old (and tired) debates between optimists and pessimists about its future. They were truly clean slates, and this seemed to me, on first encounter, to be a real disadvantage, which would compel them to wander about Russia, both literally and figuratively, writing about the same cliché topics that all new foreign correspondents seem to write about soon after arrival in Moscow: crime and corruption, the wealth of Moscow, the apathy of the Russian people, and so on.
I could not have been more wrong about both Russia and Baker and Glasser. With serious hiccups such as the arrest of billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the confiscation of his assets, the economic story has continued along much the same trajectory that it was on when Glasser and Baker first arrived. But the political story has turned out to be anything but muddling through.
Instead, as brilliantly chronicled and meticulously documented in Kremlin Rising, the drift towards authoritarian rule has emerged as the central drama in Russia over the last several years. And rather than being an impediment to reporting, Glasser and Baker's fresh perspective on this story gives the book life as a narrative, but also credibility as an account. Baker and Glasser did not go to Russia chomping at the bit to write about growing autocracy. Instead, growing autocracy became the overwhelming story that, as honest journalists, they had to cover. For a comprehensive understanding of Putin's Russia, this is our best account to date.
Putin's struggle to tame NTV, Russia's largest independent television company at the time, presented Baker and Glasser with their first big reporting challenge. The details of the story were complicated, involving complex ownership structures, anachronistic legal statutes and interpretations, and a victim--Vladimir Gusinsky--who was not the next Andrei Sakharov but a wealthy businessman. The essence of the story, however, was very straightforward: Gusinsky's television station (as well as his newspaper and weekly magazine) broadcast news and promoted opinions that the Kremlin did not like, so the Kremlin and its allies deployed the legal system to chase him out of the country and force new, Kremlin-friendly owners to take control.