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on 5 November 2003
No book written only a decade after Russia's emergence as an independent state can do more than provide tentative conclusions as to how things may turn out. Robert Service acknowledges that but nevertheless delivers a pretty damning verdict on Boris Yeltsin's presidency, commenting that the opportunity for a genuine democratic corruption-free transformation of Russia has probably already been squandered. He may well be right, but his argument would be a lot stronger if he gave detailed examples of exactly how elections have been fixed, how the privatisation of the economy has been manipulated, and how the new legal framework has proved unsatisfactory. The reader needs more hard facts, and the holes in his account suggest he wrote this in rather a hurry. He asserts that most foreign journalists and other observers fail to convey a sense of what is happening across Russia's vast territory, preferring to concentrate on Moscow and the members of the Russian elite they know there. But this is a case of the pot and the kettle: there's not much close-to-the-ground detail in this book on Russia's far-flung provinces. There is enough solid analysis in Service's book to make it worth reading, but overall the opportunity for a good hard detailed look at contemporary Russia has probably been squandered.
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on 8 October 2003
This book gives real descriptions about the thoughts and ideas of ordinary Russians, the faceless people, the people you see walking in the streets, the people that had to go thru all the changes in the lives. A good description of what Russians thoughts and beliefs about life around them.

Having heard about all the experiences myself from my Russian girlfriend... beliefs.. black salaries, corruption, in goverment. I was there to get a small experience of it all for myself. This book gives accurate description of actual life in Russia.

Beliefs that wealthy people 'stole' money, corruption on every level of society, the unofficial bribes..

Having been to St Petersburg and small villages around the city I can assure you that a visit to Russia is well worth it. A complete cultural shock, but people that will welcome you in their homes. Down-to-earth and used to getting by with very littke, never complain about anything, very thankful for anything that comes their way.

if you have any interest in Russian history or have been following Russian affairs by the sideline, this book will give you the in-depth about what is current in Russia and in the minds of ordinary Russians.

No other country offers such good value for money for a tourist.. if you are with someone that can speak Russian that is ! Otherwise you will have to pay tourist price (double!) wich still is cheap compared to other European countries.
Russia is now unmistakenly capitalist. To find out how it all started, read this book.

Don't be put of by anything negative you ever heard about the Russia or Russians. It is a amazingly beautiful country with amazingly beautiful people, amzing beautufl nature scenes and beautiful cities, castles and palaces.

To experience Russian life, don't do it from a fancy hotel or a airconditioned tourbus. Be on the street, on the underground train, and in the house of an ordanry Russian family. You will come to appreciate what you have and see how people cope with the little they have.

For Russians, things can only get better.

Poka !

I've now been to St Petersburg 4 times. Living standards keep improving every year. Considering to study another foreign language ? Consider Russian, sure to be a economic superpower in the foreseeable future.
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on 12 January 2011
Service's account of the Transition makes for interesting reading given the speed with which the currency of the content has become history. In a mere eight years many of the issues he discusses as serious concerns for the Russians have dissipated, been resolved or turned out to be trivial, with one major exception. Of course, the Russian Federation couldn't have been more unlucky in having Yeltsin as its first President. Feckless, destructive and devoid of vision, his behaviour ushered in the return of the Strong Leader, in the shape of Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin and his controlled version of managed democracy.

The West has rarely given Putin much credit for what has been achieved since Service wrote this book. He is barely a democrat, it is true, but has done much of what Service was demanding: restoring national pride, stabilising law and order and the tax system, going after the Oligarchs, asserting the power (and therefore the effectiveness) of central government (where the talent gravitates) and seeing some improvement in living standards beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg. The boom in oil prices undoubtedly assisted hugely in paying for this, in much the same way as their collapse did for Gorbachov, of whom Service is clearly a fan. But Putin hung on to the benefits for hard times rather than to splurge on much needed infrastructure, and this balance remains difficult.

Service's writing style always seems fairly mechanical, with regular repetitions of the conditions or circumstances of earlier times, but he knows his subject well. He cares about the Idea of Russia without sliding into the sentimentality or finger-pointing that characterises most other books on this subject. As contemporary observations of what is now an historical moment, Service remains worth a read.

Western commentators invariably highlight the limitations of Putin's democracy, and they are there to see in all their authoritarian glory, but in doing so they make the same mistake as the idiotic Yeltsin: that waking up the day after it was over was all it would take to develop a market economy with a mature democracy informing it.
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