Comrades who learnt to act in a capital role

Contemporary Russian Politics. First edition - Developments in Russian Politics. Fifth edition
November 30, 2001

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation in its place of 15 independent states give rise to novel problems for the teacher of Soviet and Russian politics. Not only do the teacher and student have to grapple with the intricate problems of the system of government and the formation of a new Russian state but also with the concurrent transformation of the social and economic systems of state socialism. Such has been the scope and speed of change that single-authored textbooks - notably Mary McAuley's Russia's Politics of Uncertainty (1997) and Richard Sakwa's Russian Politics and Society (1996) - are the exception. In grappling with the legacy of state socialism, the process of transition and the structure and institutions of post-communism, most teachers use multi-authored texts, such as the two reviewed here, and recommend articles in a diverse range of journals.

Now in its fifth edition, Developments in Russian Politics , the collection edited by Stephen White, Alex Pravda and Zvi Gitelman, began life in 1990 as Developments in Soviet Politics . The new edition can be recommended as a new book, having three additional chapters (on crime, mass media and the Russian "national identity") and three new contributors. It brings the fourth edition up to date and includes discussion of Vladimir Putin's leadership. With 15 chapters, written by Anglo-American contributors, the book is aimed at an undergraduate Russian politics audience.

The scene is set by White with, as always, an accessible chapter on the political background that covers the failure of communist politics, the changes under Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapse of the USSR. It concludes with a brief introduction to the problems of the post-communist system. The rest of the collection falls into three parts and a conclusion. Part one focuses on the "Framework of government" with well-crafted chapters by John Willerton Jr, Thomas Remington, Matthew Wyman, Sakwa, Gordon Smith, James Hughes and Darrel Slider. This is the strongest section in the book and could be used as a supplement to a lecture course on Russian political processes. There are particularly strong chapters by Wyman on elections and Hughes on federalisation.

Part two is directed to "Patterns of public policy". Here is a well-argued chapter on economic policy under Boris Yeltsin and Putin by William Tompson, who shows how the problems of economic reform were embedded in the political economy of change. As he puts it: "For the (capitalist) revolution to succeed, the reformers had to create a capitalist class, or at least facilitate its speedy emergence - an attempt at social engineering on a scale previously seen only in the creation and consolidation of the Stalinist command economy". Other chapters follow on healthcare and, perhaps not wholly in keeping with the heading, on "foreign policy", by Pravda. This last chapter is a good overview of Russian foreign policy, clearly demarcating Russia's policies in different geographical areas (the "far abroad", Commonwealth of Independent States, Europe, Far East and Middle East). Possibly the more global aspects of policy, such as the role of international organisations and the hegemony of the United States, though not ignored, could have formed the subject of a separate chapter.

Part three is concerned with "Current issues". This is not very well named as other chapters also dwell at length on important issues, for instance chapters seven and eight on Chechnya and the regions. Louise Shelley appraises crime and corruption, Sarah Oates the media, and there is an interesting chapter by Vera Tolz on "Values and the construction of a national identity", which could well have been integrated with the other regional ones. In the concluding chapter, which might have been more developed, Gitelman addresses some of the themes introduced in White's opening chapter. He provides a useful outline for students on the literature on transition, democratisation and consolidation. He applies some of the consolidation literature to Russian conditions and concludes that Russia lacks some of the necessary conditions to ensure its "consolidation" into a democracy. Russia, he concludes, "seems to have been haltedI at the creation stage".

The book is well referenced and will be useful to students wishing to follow up its themes. There is a good guide to further reading at the end of the book as well as a list of the books cited in the text. Better still would have been a short list at the end of each chapter. Some authors include references to internet sites, and the guide lists some major sources. Overall, this is now a firmly established introductory text that can be recommended to students seeking an introduction to Russian politics.

The second edited collection, Archie Brown's new reader, Contemporary Russian Politics , brings together 40 recently published and newly commissioned articles under 12 sections ranging from "Institutional design" to "Is Russia becoming a democracy?" with an average of three readings per section, plus the editor's own short introduction to the book. This carefully selected and well-organised book - the only such reader on post-Soviet Russian politics - is complementary to the first book. Besides seeking to assemble the "most illuminating published articles of recent years", it offers 15 commissioned papers. It could be used successfully for courses on Russian politics and the politics of transformation with an interest in Russia.

The readings are research-based articles that can best be utilised by students with some knowledge of Russian politics, having mastered an introductory course of lectures at the level of the White, Pravda and Gitelman collection. Brown also prefaces each section with a three to four-page introduction signposting the readings. These introductions are uneven: the better ones (for instance that on "Economic reform" in section six) have useful references to more general literature, whereas others (eg "The presidency" in section two) do not. Undergraduates will have to be advised which of the readings are likely to be appropriate for the differently structured courses that constitute the study of Russian politics.

The content follows many of the themes of the first book, though social problems (crime, health) find no place. Two concluding sections are on topics raised by Gitelman in the first book: transition in comparative perspective and whether Russia is becoming more democratic. There is also new and recent data on contemporary politics including discussions of the changes introduced by Putin.

As with the first book, many chapters dwell on the Soviet legacy. Generally speaking, the published articles are adeptly chosen and skilfully organised, and the commissioned ones are good contributions to the literature. There are particularly competent papers by Eugene Huskey (on political reform), Vladimir Gelman (on regime transition), Margot Light and Roy Allison (on foreign policy) and Richard Rose and Stephen Whitefield (on party formation and consolidation). The debate between Terry Lynn Karl and Philippe Schmitter and Valerie Bunce on transitology and consolidology is reprinted in full (four articles).

The inclusion of writing by Russian writers, most of whom will be unknown to western students of Russian politics, is a useful introduction to Russian viewpoints. Alexander Lukin, for example, calls for a shift of emphasis from elections and "abstract monetarist schemes" to strengthening the government, more respect for "law and order" and the "independence of the courts and mass media". Many of these chapters will be valuable to postgraduates who read Russian, giving a useful guide to further reading in Russian.

As a course book, Contemporary Russian Politics is weak on economic reform, with little on the peculiarities of the political economy of Russia. It would have gained from including the concept of a "virtual economy" (discussed by C. G. Gaddy and B. W. Ickes in Foreign Affairs in 1998), and sections from David Woodruff's discussion of the role of non-money and barter in Money Unmade (1999).

Although the articles are well referenced and provide pointers for further work, the book would have been even more useful if the editor had given some recommended reading in the introductions to the sections. The "index of names" is adequate, but a further edition might include a systematic index. The Russian Constitution of 1993, referred to by writers in both collections, would also make a useful addition to the reader. But overall, this is an excellent reader bringing together papers from a wide variety of sources. It will be widely used by teachers and students of contemporary Russian politics.

David Lane is senior research associate, faculty of social and political sciences, University of Cambridge.

Contemporary Russian Politics. First edition

Editor - Archie Brown
ISBN - 0 19 829999 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £17.99
Pages - 574

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most commented

Recent controversy over the future directions of both Stanford and Melbourne university presses have raised questions about the role of in-house publishing arms in a world of commercialisation, impact agendas, alternative facts – and ever-diminishing monograph sales. Anna McKie reports

3 October


Featured jobs