Russia’s 20th-century history can effectively be summarised as a list of individuals: Nicholas II, Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev. Each man strove to remake the country in his own image, wielding the full power of the state against his enemies, either failing or succeeding in the attempt.
There is one ruler who does not make the list: Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin had his faults: drunkenness, irascibility, inattention to detail, bankrupting the country, launching a genocidal war in Chechnya, giving Russia’s most valuable resources to a half-dozen spivs, handing over the country to a successor about whom he knew almost nothing. But one thing you could not accuse him of was being a control freak – rather the opposite.
Some observers overlooked his faults and hoped this one great virtue might prove a new beginning, that he would be gatekeeper to a land of government by consensus rather than by decree. The 21st century has dashed such hopes, however: Russian politics is once again all about one man, Vladimir Putin. So it is not surprising that journalists and biographers queue up to write about him in a way no one did about Yeltsin. Ben Judah’s Fragile Empire is the third such book by a Russia-focused reporter in the last year. It is also by far the best. Having worked as a Reuters reporter, a think-tank analyst and a freelance journalist, Judah has the skills to prep the dirty ingredients of Russian politics and cook up a narrative feast. His book is unashamedly expert. It expects its readers to remember the names of administration officials and opposition foot soldiers, but those who make the effort will find no better account of how Putin bent Russia to his will.