A kleptocracy is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "government by those who seek chiefly status and personal gain at the expense of the governed." Many anti-Russian commentators today have no problem with classifying Vladamir Putin's government as kleptocratic but Richard Sakwa, a Russian expert at the University of Kent, is not one of them. He gives his reasons in "Grey - area Gold," an analysis of Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia a book by Karen Dawisha, published in the TLS of February 6, 2015. What follows are some comments and observations on Sakwa's article. I have italicized my own views to avoid confusion.
Dawisha obviously thinks Russia is a kleptocracy. She paints a picture of rampant corruption and abuse of power by those involved in the overthrow of soviet power and the transfer of the collective wealth and property of the soviet people into the hands of private individuals. The security forces of the soviet state played a major role in this betrayal. Sakwa says her arguments are so "incendiary" that Cambridge University Press backed off from publishing the book and it cannot be bought in the UK. It is available in the US from Simon and Schuster.
"The fundamental picture that emerges," Sakwa writes, "is of a Russia that has been hijacked by an elite that quite consciously set out from the beginning of its rule to increase its wealth, and needed to take over full political control to safeguard this process." In Marxist terms this would have been a counter-revolution led by elements of the leadership in collusion with the state security apparatus. However, it does not account for the acquiescence of the Red Army nor the passivity of the soviet people.
Dawisha's picture shows that Putin and his circle have certainly taken advantage of the end of soviet power and have enriched themselves at the expense of the general population (''behaviour typical of nouveaux riches throughout the ages") and have supported acts of corruption but her analysis also results "in obscuring complexity and counter trends."
That is to say, Sakwa contends, there is more to Putin's Russia than just the kleptocratic features Dawisha highlights. When the bigger picture is taken into consideration Russia turns out to be, while having some of the kleptocratic features found in many other countries [including the United States ] "not a kleptocracy tout court."
This is because the Putin government plays a much bigger role than just the enrichment of its elite supporters. It maintains social peace at home and is active on the world stage supporting Russian interests and "meets the basic needs of the Russian people" by furthering a "dirigiste" model of capitalism.* Instead of hiding its revenues overseas the Russian government invests its tax money and oil revenues in public works projects and investments "for a rainy day." *[Dirigiste: characterized by state control of economic and social policy]
That day is here, Sakwa says. Since Russia is being run in the interests of the Russians rather than the Germans or Americans this has caused the "west" to over react and initiate policies against Russia with which the Russians cannot possibly comply. One of these is the "sanctions" regime imposed on "Putin's cronies" (and now the threat of direct involvement in the Ukrainian civil war by arming the Kiev regime). These will have no effect on the Putin leadership but are now "affecting the whole population in a form of collective punishment". As could have been expected (If Obama and the American leadership knew anything about the real history and sentiments of the Russians) these ham-fisted reactions have only increased Putin's popularity at home and "the people have rallied around the flag." The US is on a collision course of its own choosing with Russia. [Now in 2022 we are seeing the disastrous results of Western policy.]
Sakwa lists four reasons why Dawsha’s book as well as the so-called liberal domestic opposition to Putin (and the Western supporters of anti-Putinism allied with them) should not be taken at face value. They are:
1.) The portrait of Putin presented “is often circumstantial, conjectural,
and partial.” Do we really want to base our foreign policy on this
kind of evidence?
2.) There is evidence of a “deep state” at work in Russia [we have one
too] made up of sections of the military and security operatives (the siloviki or (‘force-men’)” and “former Party resources” but the
evidence given does not prove that it functions simply as a force
for “kleptocracy.” It has been used against the Russian “mafia” and
for the creation of state owned enterprises which “struggle to
achieve at least a modicum of good corporate governance.”
Western sanctions actually thwart the forces that are trying to
integrate Russia into the international system.
3.) Unlike what is to be expected from kleptomaniacs, the Putin
government has “delivered significant public goods” and supported
“neoclassical liberal nostrums.” Russia followed policies that allowed
it to get through the 2008-09 world economic downturn and has
since it began “to invest in some major infrastructural projects". All
in all we see “a developmental dynamic” which “does not look like
the policies of a kleptocracy” but, Sakwa says, the country might
have been in even better shape without the elite skimming off
social wealth for itself (this includes Putin) and “the misguided
dirigisme.” [Since the alternative to “dirigisme” is unregulated
privatization I can’t agree with this last suggestion.]
4.) Russian foreign policy is not conducted on the basis of what is good
for kleptocrats but rather on the vision that Russia is a “great
“power and should be “an equal partner of the West.” Needless to
say “the West” [ i.e., basically the US ] doesn’t want to accord to
Russia “equality.” Russia is treated as a second rate power that
must comply with US dictates. The Ukraine is a test case and the
Russians must be seen to give in to American demands. This
fully accords with the dynamic of inter-imperialist rivalry which has
come to the fore since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has
been so well described by Lenin in his work on “Imperialism the
Highest Stage of Capitalism.” American “over-reach” here could
result in Obama’s policies leading to an unprecedented flare up of
violence and destruction on a continental scale, or worse. [Well, we see that in spades now— the sanctions, NATO advances to the Russian border, the Western subversion of the elected government in Ukraine and its replacement with anti-Russian elements (2014). The anti Russian Cold War hostility carried out by Obama, Trump, and now Biden has goaded Putin into a massive tragic over reaction with unforeseen consequences.]
In concluding his review, Sakwa says Dawisha’s book “is one of many books that contribute to a misleading paradigm of how Russia actually works.” The reality is more complex. Dawisha’s book will give you a good insight into the elite and how their wealth was acquired but there is much more going on in Putin’s Russia than you will find in this book, so “when it comes to shaping policy towards Russia, it is a deeply deceptive guide.”
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.