''What is Russia? Russia is the country where one can do the greatest things for the most insignificant results.'' In and of itself, such words remain surprisingly profound, disturbing and astonishing. When Marquis de Custine wrote them as part of his highly influential Journey Of Our Time (originally published in the early nineteenth century and quoted throughout this book), it was an altogether different time. Russia was without Lenin. Without the Revolution. Without Communism. Without the Decembrists. Without Stalin. Without collectivization. Without the loss of thirty million souls at the hands of Nazi Germany. Without Glasnost. Without Gorbachev. Without Putin. Yet it would appear that absolutely nothing has changed since. Russia remains a country where one can still do the greatest things, for the most insignificant results.
Quite why this is so, is anyone's guess, (probably) including that of Vladimir Putin himself. For although he steered Russia out of the chaos of the post-Yeltsin years, no mean feat admittedly, the country remains a quintessential quandary of both fantastic and frightening potential. The social, political and economic facets of which, this more than authoritative book, robustly addresses.
Written by Michael Stuermer (whose past books include Europe and the Middle East: Striking The Balance and The German Empire, 1870-1918), Putin and the Rise of Russia is an altogether, thorough account of the former President's tenure in charge of 140 million people (15 million of whom are Muslim), 10,000 nuclear weapons and – in that weren't enough – ten time zones.
Beginning with the trauma of Yeltsin's decline, Stuermer follows Putin's Machiavellian rise to power and beyond. From his early days in Leningrad (which has since reverted back to its original name of St. Petersburg) to the tempestuous corridors of power within the Kremlin administration, where in 1997, Putin was ''among twenty heads of department in the Kremlin's hierarchy'' – there is no fundamental stone left unturned. It's all here: from arms control to Azerbaijan, from Gaz de France to Gazprom itself, to which the author invariably refers to as: ''Gazprom is Russia, and Russia is Gazprom.''
As the continuing energy crisis in the Ukraine clearly validates, Gazprom is without doubt, mighty powerful. When it comes to football for instance, Vladimir Putin obviously supports Zenit St Petersburg (who in November 2007, won the national championship). And guess who the sponsor is?
On top of the above, the author also poses a number of tough ambiguities: ''Driving into Moscow recently from Sheremetyevo airport, when passing the rusty monument where the Wehrmacht's advance was halted in early December 1941, I noticed a huge billboard greeting visitors from the West and displaying an old man's familiar face. It was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, once a dissident and enemy of the Soviet system, then a refugee in America and now, in a nostalgic turn-around, a refugee from America [...]. Meanwhile, the Porsches, the BMWs and the Mercedes of the New Russians were racing by on the eight-lane motorway – how better to demonstrate the eternal ambiguity of Russia between the tortured spirituality of the East and the smart materialism of the West?''
If anything, this thoroughly well researched/documented book, lends those who want to find out about Putin's time in office, a helping hand. Although, unlike some of Stuermer's previous works, Putin and the Rise of Russia might be considered a tad dry in execution. But as our friend Marquis de Custine pointed out in his book: ''So much gold, so many diamonds... and so much dust.''