Damning verdict on Putin and 'his' Russia
"A vegetating catastrophe" would make an apt description of present-day Russia. The phrase – by the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine in the 1930s – came to mind reading 'Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin' by Ben Judah, a former Reuters correspondent in Moscow who is currently a fellow at the European Stability Initiative.
It is doom-laden – and also a vivid and enthralling picture of the country.
Its post-communist history reads like a three-part tragedy.
Between 1992 and 2007, 30pc of Russian males acquired a criminal record.
To help bring order after the chaotic days of Boris Yeltsin's presidency, the oligarch Boris Berezovsky persuaded him to make Putin his successor – and ended up a Russian exile in London for his pains.
Putin warned the oligarchs that to do business they should stay out of politics. The oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, too smart and too powerful for his own good, declined to play the game, and to this day languishes in prison.
After that, private ownership of oil fell from 90pc to 45pc in four years, creating a cash machine for the Kremlin.
Judah's portrait of Putin is devastating. For this "second-rate spy" cynicism, he says, is a world view. Putin is convinced that he combines the best of Czarist and Soviet Russia, and his self-image was boosted by the Russian Patriarch Kirill, who called him "a miracle of God".
Under Putin, the Kremlin has become a court, where favourites strain to please, and the price of a minister's post is $10m. Meanwhile, with 350,000 employees, the FSB, successor of the KGB, has grown bigger than some European armies.
In part two of the tragedy, as oil revenues soared, materially things improved. Yet while Russia was modernised as a society, Judah writes, it degenerated as a state, plagued by obscene and ubiquitous Mafia corruption and tight media control.
With no appetite for revolution, and the economy recovering, protests petered out. As Muscovites grumbled in fashionable cafes, Putin toured the country, where 53pc were dependent on state jobs or benefits, buying off opposition. In 2010-11, police pay soared and pensions rose by 60pc.
Part three of the tragedy is the status quo, with Putin and his court destined to stay in power for another decade and emigration increasing. Another spectre hanging over the country is China.
As China rises, Russia stagnates or declines.
"When we think of Russia," shrugs a Chinese scholar, "we think of Putin, vodka, guns and prostitutes."
Judah's book is the opposite of dry Kremlinology. Interviews with senior politicians, oligarchs' daughters, louts and petty criminals include revealing cameos, as when a politician throws down $30 to cover the $10 bill in a cafe – just for show.
So where is Russia heading? Publication of this powerful book in Moscow – if anyone dared – would certainly spice up the debate.