This bit comes from a review of the book L’Envers du Pouvoir by Marie Mendras (Odile Jacob, 2008) by Dr. Fraser Cameron of the EU-Russia Centre.
Mendras begins by noting that Russia was always an empire state as opposed to a nation state. This constant expansion, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, has had consequences for how most Russians view the state and how they view foreigners.
After a sober assessment of the pluses and minuses of the Yeltsin years, the main part of the book covers the Putin period. Mendras highlights the devastating consequences that the Chechnya conflict had on the body politic in Russia and how Putin and the security forces used the threat of terrorism to increase their grip on power. She points to the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 as a key turning point. No one was allowed to challenge the new rulers. Yukos was sold off to benefit the clients of the ruling elite. There followed a period of further repression with the judiciary cowed, the media intimidated and NGOs threatened. Putin also basked in a new cult of personality, unseen since Stalinist times.
Mendras concludes that the current power system is not transitory but structural. It will be difficult to change but she notes there are many challenges facing the regime – from coping with the economic crisis, to the catastrophic demographic predictions, to rising dissatisfaction of the middle classes. Europe can help by saying united and stressing the importance of the rule of law in Russia.