Sunday, 14 August 2016

Non-Fiction Review: Kicking the Kremlin by Marc Bennetts

Kicking the Kremlin by Marc Bennetts covers Putin's rise to and consolidation of power, and dissidence against him. It was interesting and well constructed, but in many ways, I wish either that I'd picked a book with a slightly different focus, or that this book had been written later and, essentially, was a different book itself. 

Bennetts raised several key points that I hadn't necessarily explicitly understood about Russia. The first is the importance of the 'good tsar, bad boyars' mentality that has persisted throughout the ages, which allows Russians to be dissatisfied with aspects of their lives, and yet still support the man in charge, because localise this dissatisfaction on their regional officials. 

Related to this is the idea that Western-style democracy simply doesn't and won't work in Russia, justified by the great demographic and geographic spread of its people, and by historical example. 

All politicians aim to create an 'us' and a 'them', but Putin has been very successful at this. I wasn't familiar with the situation surrounding Putin's rise to power, but it was interesting to see how the war in Chechnya created an Other and a sense of fear, and how he leveraged this to increase his popularity and demonstrate that he was the man for the job. There are obvious parallels here to the war in Ukraine and the current NATO/Russia tension but the book can't draw them out because it concludes its narrative in 2013 and was published a month before the annexation of the Crimea in March 2014. 

In the West, our picture of protest in Russia is one of Pussy Riot and mass demonstrations, but Bennetts draws out the lack of unity amongst dissenters. There's the far right, the far left, and many small groups in between, but there isn't - or maybe I should say wasn't, as of the end of the book - any mass movement that was universally appealing to people dissatisfied with Putin. Even people who were successful rallying points, like anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, had trouble connecting with wider audiences and movements.   

Bennetts also highlights the 'why now?' aspect of to the dissidence faced by Putin, who has been in power (including the time he spent as Prime Minister with his ally Medvedev as President) since the turn of the century. After the societal trauma of the collapse of the USSR and the tumult of the Yeltsin years, people liked Putin because he brought stability and economic security. They weren't so concerned with abstract political freedoms so long as there was bread on the table. Now, however, there is an younger generation who only remember these times as a child, if they remember them at all, and some do not feel that it should be an either/or scenario.

Overall, I'm not sure how relevant the book's conclusions, made in 2013, actually are. So much has happened in the interim - Crimea, Ukraine, M17, Sochi, Syria, just general tension between Russia and NATO/the US - that, in many ways, Kicking the Kremlin has more of a historical feel than a current affairs one. As a result, I've come away feeling like I don't have solid understanding of dissidence in Russia, despite reading a whole book on it. Essentially, for whatever is happening today, all that I've read is just the backstory, and I guess that's why it was in the bargain bin at the bookshop.

EDIT: It was been brought to my attention in the comments that Bennetts released an updated version of Kicking the Kremlin this year entitled I'm Going to Ruin Their Lives. I haven't read it (yet), but if he grapples with everything as well as he does in Kicking the Kremlin while discussing the current situation in Russia, I imagine it would be well worth the time.


  1. It was updated and republished with a new title this year.

    1. That's excellent, thanks so much for bringing that to my attention! I've updated the post accordingly :)


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