Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Analyzing Russia for the Confused

After the certainties of the Soviet era, new Russia is confusing to foreigners. Most of them get their news about it in small doses, which only serve to make them even more confused. "That Boris Yeltsin," they often ask, "isn't he drunk or half-dead? But then why is he still in charge? And when parliament passes those resolutions on Iraq or the Black Sea Fleet, what happens to them?" Even the most sophisticated analysis of contemporary Russia often omits one vital part of the picture.

Rebirth of a Nation: An Anatomy of Russia by the associate editor of Britain's New Statesman journal, John Lloyd, is intended as medicine for the bewildered. The scope of the book's ambitions is suggested by the anatomical subtitle; for Lloyd takes nothing for granted. And in five substantial parts he seeks to anatomize the condition of quite simply the whole of Russian society: Yeltsin, the economy, NATO expansion, Chechnya, the television networks, the bankers, the film industry -- it is all here.

Although this approach makes for a book which is engrossing, magisterial in its sweep and authoritative in its judgments, it is also a little pedantic. And Lloyd is prevented from adding some of the more exotic personal impressions, which could spice up a book like this. Few people, I imagine, will read it from cover to cover. But for my part I fell greedily on the chapters about the economy.

As the Financial Times bureau chief in Moscow for five years from 1991 to 1996, Lloyd had an unparalleled opportunity to watch the reform program from the beginning, and he has used it well. No one has written better about the team of reformers, led by Yegor Gaidar, who took control over the economy in 1992. They were both naive and arrogant -- the stars of the Soviet intelligentsia who had spent their youth reading Western books and academic articles and arguing into the night. Almost overnight they were given a country to run.

Lloyd argues strongly against two critiques of the reformers. The first is that somehow a little tinkering would have created a smoothly functioning market economy. The second is that the Gaidar "gang" (as he calls them) destroyed the economy. In fact the rot had set in long before 1992. The distribution system had collapsed, the shops were empty, the budget deficit was ballooning out of control. What the gang had to perform was a risky act of salvage with very few instruments of control.

Two men were at the heart of this process. Gaidar, a brilliant economist, set the agenda for reform in the first few months of 1992, but lacked the political skills required to stay the course. When the correspondent of The Economist introduced himself to Gaidar at a press conference, for example, he said "Ah, my favorite," confirming himself to be a cosmopolitan intellectual who implicitly despised Russian publications. This mistake, which played right into the hands of his detractors, was one that the most inexperienced of Western politicians would never make. The gang was part of a paper-thin layer in society, utterly out of step with most of their fellow citizens. They were always living on borrowed time.

Anatoly Chubais is the most fascinating gang member because he was the only one who made the transition to becoming a full-fledged politician. Early on, he picked his battles and his enemies carefully. His privatization had a dark side. Huge industries were snapped up at bargain prices without any prospect of restructuring. But in the long term, Lloyd suggests, this has probably been the least bad option: "For what he had succeeded in doing was more than simply running with the grain of a corrupted managerial-government class: he had, in tempting them on to greater and greater wealth, made them dizzy with greed and betrayed them into losing control of a process they thought under their thumb."

If there is a thematic thread running through the book, it is the disentangling of the Soviet from the Russian. While some aspects of life have shed the Soviet heritage and have been truly "reborn," others are depressingly stuck in a Soviet groove. The chapters on the energy sector and industry make the most dispiriting reading because they show how these most basic parts of the economy have remained Soviet in their closed corporate thinking and their insular managerial practices.

The section on culture, co-written with Arkady Ostrovsky, a young Russian journalist, makes an interesting variation on this theme. Contemporary Russian culture has somehow blended the Soviet and the old Russian into a muddled synthesis, as the 850th anniversary celebrations in Moscow last year illustrated so well. The festive imagery could embrace as easily an icon of the Virgin Mary as the Soviet Marshal Zhukov. The remorselessly cheerful music and banners were reminiscent of May Day parades, but with Orthodox priests in tow. Everything is acceptable and everyone is forgiven was the underlying message -- which makes good politics, perhaps, but bad art.

Unfortunately the book has been marred by some extremely sloppy editing. It is strewn with misprints and small errors. To list but a few: Alexei Golovkov is mistakenly called Sergei; Alexei Kazannik, the public prosecutor, is elevated to justice minister and renamed Kazannikov; the name of the Chechen opposition leader Umar Avturkhanov is mangled; the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the Tatar president Shaimiyev and the Greek banker Kivelidi are all misspelled; Viktor Chernomyrdin worked in Orsk, not Omsk, and Valery Tishkov resigned as nationalities minister in 1992, not 1993. Even the names of Lloyd's fellow correspondents Steve LeVine, Alan Philps, Jonathan Steele, Alessandra Stanley and Anatol Lieven are misspelled. I mention this only because the paperback edition of this book deserves to be pristine and because it mistakenly creates the impression that Lloyd does not know his material. He does -- better than almost anyone else.

"Rebirth of a Nation: An Anatomy of Russia" by John Lloyd. Michael Joseph. 478 pages, pounds 20 or $32.