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on 24 December 2013
'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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on 18 April 2014
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.

Having said the above, the book can be a bit annoying at times: the author describes Russia as a place where *everything* is wrong. People are either corrupted crooks or a bunch of blabbering idiots. Nothing works. Putin is an incapable idiot. No silver lining whatsoever.

The above nihilism reaches its peak at the final section of the book, where the author calls Russia "one of histories greatest failures" - a country that sent men to the moon and gave birth to some of the greatest scientists and artists. Sorry Ben, that's pure BS.

Therefore, if you are a person who lives in Russia and is fed up of hearing from state TV how great Putin is, then this book offers a good counter-balance. But for non-Russians like me, it can be frustrating at times.

There are still some great stories in this book though!
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VINE VOICEon 12 July 2013
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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on 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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on 15 September 2013
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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 August 2013
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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on 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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on 10 August 2014
An interesting insight into Putin's world - the latter part is the most interesting part as the author travels across Russia, interviewing all sorts of people along the way and comes to the conclusion that, contrary to perceived wisdom, those out in the sticks are pretty cynical with regards to Putin and his cronies
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on 29 November 2014
This is a detailed and well researched account of Vladimir Putin's rise to power and consequent career as president. Ben Judah has no illusions of the man with whom he is dealing, but at the same time this is not an attempt at character assassination or vindictiveness. Putin is not presented as some kind of antichrist figure, but he is shown to be man with deep personal insecurities and control issues. A leader who, by putting his closest friends and aides in power has re-created a different kind of autocracy, not so different in effect from the Tsarist one. The question Judah asks through the book is whether, after the initial euphoria of Putin's arrival and stabilization of affairs following the disastrous Yeltsin decade, and his good fortune with rising oil values that injected huge amounts of money into the Russian economy, the bubble has burst. Is Putin having to go to more and more extreme lengths to hold onto power, and to what lengths might he go? We have a portrait of a leader who is calculating and ruthless - very much in the Eastern totalitarian mode - uncluttered by conscience; a man who believes passionately that Russia should be a great nation on the world stage and that individual rights and liberties are of lesser importance. To begin with, it would seem, his people supported him . The issue is for how long that will continue. If you want to better understand Russia and get behind the simplistic media cliches surrounding Vladimir Putin, this is a book to be recommended.
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on 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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