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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First class account of contemporary Russian history.
'Fragile Empire' is a copiously researched (from travel and interviews as well as written sources), meticulously footnoted, and comprehensively indexed account of how Vladimir Putin's stated intentions, upon becoming President of Russia in 2000, to construct a 'dictatorship of law' and 'vertical of power' failed. More than that, it provides snapshots of often overlooked,...
Published 8 months ago by D. Heaney

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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Informative and insightful - but "Russia is one of history's greatest failures"? Come on.
I enjoyed reading this book. It masterfully combines everyday personal stories with macro-scale political, social and economic events.

The final chapters of the book, where the author takes the Trans-siberian express to the Russian Far-east, are the absolute highlight - full of fascinating, revealing and insightful personal accounts and analyses...
Published 4 months ago by Yannis


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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First class account of contemporary Russian history., 24 Dec 2013
By 
D. Heaney "idiosyncratic" (Wantage, Occupied Berkshire) - See all my reviews
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'Fragile Empire' is a copiously researched (from travel and interviews as well as written sources), meticulously footnoted, and comprehensively indexed account of how Vladimir Putin's stated intentions, upon becoming President of Russia in 2000, to construct a 'dictatorship of law' and 'vertical of power' failed. More than that, it provides snapshots of often overlooked, out-of-the-way places deep within the Russian Federation, presenting evidence of both the relative weakness of state structures and the pervasiveness of corruption and disorder; and shows clearly how living standards and the social expectations voiced in the provinces are a world away from those of the liberal intelligentsia in Moscow. The book's conclusions, while bleak, are not apocalyptic, and the author appears to have a strong gap of the subject, demonstrating good judgement throughout. The one section in which I found the arguments presented not to be altogether compelling was that concerning the 'Orange Revolution' in Ukraine: I this was approached rather too much from a Russocentric/geopolitical perspective, downplaying non-geopolitical motivations for the protests that resulted in a rigged election being annulled. But it is perhaps unfair to expect an author with such a depth and breadth of knowledge about Russia, writing principally about Russia, to have an immediate grasp of the Byzantine complexities of its neighbour and mother... But: all in all, this is an outstanding work, and perhaps the best presentation of 'where Russia is today, and why it is there' that I have read, and I greatly look forward to reading more from the author in future.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Is Russia somehow cursed?, 2 Aug 2013
By 
Antenna (UK) - See all my reviews
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Aged barely three when the Soviet Union collapsed, how did Ben Judah manage to interview so many people, from oligarchs and former leading politicians to the destitute unemployed of the failed collective farms near the Chinese border? Clearly, he must have enormous energy and confidence, aided by fluency in Russian.

He covers quite effectively Putin's sudden and unexpected rise to power. For years an unremarkable KGB official, Putin was in the "right place at the right time" when Russia needed a strong leader after the "Wild West" capitalism of the 1990s in which many people lost their secure jobs or savings to become destitute, law and order broke down and outlying republics began to revolt. "After ten years of total chaos....he brought social order and economic stability", with a marked rise in living standards for many, aided by the rising revenue from oil exports.

The strongest section is the very topical information on how Russians have fallen out of love with their modern "Tsar". The opposition slogan, "a party of crooks and thieves" has adhered firmly to Putin's "United Russia". Shocked by corruption and the inefficiency of the over-centralised "vertical" control of power from Moscow, with its lack of concern for peripheral regions treated like colonies, many people have become disgusted by Putin's personal enrichment, his transparently devious moves to wangle a third term or more as President. They begin to see through the PR fantasies which portray him as an athletic sex symbol catching outsize pike and guiding flocks of geese to safety.

Judah does not try to conceal the flaws and divisions in the opposition. The charismatic Navalny sounds like a bigoted skinhead in his Islamophobia. He is bitterly attacked for his lack of interest in visiting neglected areas like Birobidzhan near the Chinese border. Demonstrators in Moscow are widely dismissed as privileged middle classes who feel more in common with Europe where they holiday frequently than with the rest of Russia. To show how "Moscow is not Russia," Judah travels to some of the least developed areas like Siberian Tuva, where male life expectancy is lower than Gabon in Africa, and murder rates exceed those of Central America. "To stay in power Putin knows he must divide the nation, preventing the Moscow opposition from linking up with the discontent in the rest of the country". Portraying Russia as one of history's greatest failures, he makes fascinating comparisons with China which he sees as managing its economic transition more effectively.

Too young to be saddled with baggage from the Soviet era, Judah's focus on the last two decades gives the book a sense of immediacy. However, there is a need for a bit more context, as regards explaining more clearly why communism collapsed with such apparent speed, the reasons for Gorbachev's sudden demise, the policies of the main "opposition" parties and the names of their leaders. A glossary would have been useful.

The main and rather serious shortcoming of this book is the slapdash journalistic style. The lack of editing is revealed where some paragraphs are repeated verbatim, but it matters more where the meaning is obscured by dodgy syntax, non sequiturs and misuse of words. I'm sure Ben Judah has a great future but he could learn a thing or two from the style of "the old Russian hand", Angus Roxburgh's "The Strongman" to which I have now resorted to fill some of the gaps. We need more of the coherent analysis evident in Judah's concluding chapter.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The tragic legacy of autocratic rule, 12 July 2013
By 
T. Burkard (Norwich, England) - See all my reviews
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Ben Judah's portrait of Putin's Russia is an uncomfortable read. Despite the affluence of the middle class--especially in Moscow--Russia remains a deeply divided country where corruption, alcoholism, drug addiction and racial divisions have created a seething sense of doom. Although Putin's United Russia 'party' controls television, the internet and press are still free. Moscow has a lively liberal opposition, but it is excluded from the Duma (the Russian parliament) and has no legal foothold in the system. Putin has become an impotent czar, who has little control over his corrupt officials. Had it not been for the massive improvements in living standards and incomes since Yeltsin's days, Putin would never have reached the peak of popularity he achieved in at the end of his second term in 2008. Now that he is back after the Medvedev interim, his support has dwindled to the point where it is assumed that there was massive fraud in the 2012 elections. One of the key issues that has driven down his popularity is the amount of money he has transferred to the Muslim areas like Chechenya: the vast majority of Russians would like to cast them adrift. Putin's recent adventures in Ukraine are no doubt driven in part by his need to recapture public support; it may well prove successful, as Russians are nationalistic to a degree that western Europeans find difficult to fathom.

Putin comes in for a lot of criticism, and admittedly it's hard to feel too much sympathy with a former KGB man. Judah recognises the difficulties he faces, but he offers very little in the way of hope. The opposition is fragmented, and there is no other leader of national stature. Enduring civic institutions cannot be built overnight, and it's hard to see that Putin has many options.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Inside Story, 29 Nov 2013
Knowing practically nothing about Russian politics, this book is an eye-opener. The author astutely analyses Russia under Putin, taking the reader on a frenetic journey into the heart of a scarred, figuratively and physically, country. Well written and researched, it seldom flags and is a good example of modern reportage. Highly recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb, 18 May 2014
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A very accessible and in depth assessment of the state if the nation in Russia. Would love to read his thoughts on the current Ukraine crisis.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling, hugely informative, 15 Sep 2013
By 
jsm (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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If you want to know what's been happening in Russia during the Putin years and where things might be heading, this book is highly recommended. It's full of interesting information and views grounded in first-hand experience. A gripping and often frightening read.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Read, 2 May 2013
I found this book highly readable. It is a fascinating and colourful account. It is different from any of the other books I have read on Russia as the author spent a considerable ammount of time in the regions and not just in Moscow. It is a vivid account that explains what has really been happening in Russia in the last decade. I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in modern Russia and seeks an answer to why Putin has ruled so long and why the opposition have proved so ineffective. This is not a morality tale but written with considerable sensitivity.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping insight into Russia for both the expert and the layman, 30 May 2013
Fascinating analysis on the state of Russia - an empire as diverse as it is vast - today. The lively and compelling narrative style makes this book accessible for the reader with a casual interest in Russia, while the depth of sophisticated insight renders it a 'must read' for the Russophile specialist. I'd recommend it to all.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quite extraordinary., 23 April 2013
This book really encouraged me to follow up on my fascination with modern Russia and et almost colonial regions. The chapter where Judah embarks on his quest to hunt or the Chinese farmers in the Far East is really some of the best travel writing I have ever read-it reminded me of the book 'Good Night Mr.Lenin', although it seems that Judah has started to show the western world what Putin's Russia is really like, through the people who are so often overlooked in the news as analytical writings of Modern Russia. Honestly, a must read for any budding person interested in Russia and her people.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Russian puzzle, 14 May 2014
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This is an essential - and moderately comforting - read for anyone trying to come to terms with the latest Russian expansionism -
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Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin
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