Russian reforms have been like a roll of linoleum stretched over a floor riddled with woodworm. Many rulers – tsars, commissars and presidents – have had some understanding that the floorboards required replacement but most of them only patched up the lino and left untouched what lay underneath.
There is a difference between Russian and English linguistic usages. ‘Reform’ in the Anglosphere suggests an expansion of fairness and freedoms. In Russia it has never automatically been so. Tsar Peter the Great, a brutish moderniser, is known as a reformer. Pyotr Stolypin, the conservative premier who stamped violently on peasant rebels and gave privileges to the Russians over the other peoples in the empire, is also labelled a reformer. Communist Party general secretary Yuri Andropov tinkered with reforms of Soviet communism during his brief tenure as supreme leader (1982–4), and there has been some speculation that he might have attempted a more substantial assault on the communist status quo if he had lived longer.
Vladislav Zubok has a preference for reformers who used authoritarian methods. He picks out Stolypin and Andropov for commendation. At the heart of this book about the final Soviet years is the idea that Russia fell into the hands of two bodgers, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, who tore