The late, great historian of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Leonard Schapiro, used to argue that of all the factors distinguishing democracies from autocracies, the most important was the rule of law, writes John Thornhill, deputy editor of the Financial Times and a former Moscow bureau chief.
“The law has always been and, I believe, always must be the acid test of a free society,” he wrote.
The three books on Russia reviewed here, although very different in focus, substance and style, have one thing in common: all highlight just how far Russia remains from Schapiro’s ideal, Thornhill adds:
Buoyed by the commodities boom in the early part of this century, Russia earned $1.6tn in oil and gas revenues between 2000 and 2011, leading to a rapid rise in average GDP per capita. During that time, Putin restored state capitalism, but with a difference. “The state nationalises the risk but continues to privatise the rewards to those closest to the president in return for their loyalty,” Karen Dawisha writes in Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?
This has resulted in a vastly unequal economy in which 110 Kremlin-connected billionaires control 35 per cent of the country’s assets, 110,000 independent entrepreneurs languish in jail, and median household wealth in 2013 was just $871 in 2013, compared with $1,040 in India. The people experienced a repeat of the phenomenon first identified by the 19th-century historian Vasily Klyuchevsky: “The state grew fat while the people grew thin.”
In Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s No. 1 Enemy, Bill Browder pays fitting tribute to Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who was angered by the criminality he saw around him and was determined to do something about it, Thornhill notes:
… Ignoring pleas to flee Russia, Magnitsky had insisted on staying in Moscow and fighting his case. “The law will protect me. This isn’t 1937,” he said, in reference to Stalin’s purges….. As a result of his extraordinary tenacity, Browder succeeded in achieving something that even the US president has struggled to do: persuading Congress to pass legislation. In 2012 the US Congress passed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, enshrining a new method for fighting human rights abuses in authoritarian regimes in the 21st century: targeted visa sanctions and asset freezes.
“What had started out as a Bill about Sergei had morphed into a historic piece of global human rights legislation,” Browder writes.
The brilliance of this new system, Peter Pomerantsev argues in Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, is that it climbs inside all ideologies and movements and renders them absurd, making it impossible to know what to believe, Thornhill adds:
“The Kremlin has finally mastered the art of fusing reality TV and authoritarianism to keep the great 140m-strong population entertained, distracted, constantly exposed to geopolitical nightmares that if repeated enough times can become infectious.”
“Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime,” he writes.