Amazon's own synopsis (under "product information" on the main page) is excellent and reliable. An unexpected reward are the collected opinions of the Russian people themselves on the macro-topics presented, giving the results of population surveys on questions such as "Is democracy good or bad? What are its advantages and disadvantages? ('windbaggery & demogoguery" is the leading response to the latter in the survey quoted). Certainly the Russian people are not western democrats to the core who will gratefully come to full flower once authoritarian controls are removed. Historical developments have put the Russian experience in its own compartment and it's largely incomprehensible to westerners. In addition to emotionally neutral tables of statistics on a wide range of crucial topics, there's a generous helping of the paticularistic effects of crime, poverty, housing shortages, corruption of governmental agencies & the like on ordinary people. There's an immensely revealing profile of Yeltsin and his (very "Russian"?) character and way of governing & living that is startling in the amount of chaos it contains. Another sensational section provides heaps of human interest details on the extravagances and boorishness of oligarch behavior that is described in detailed terms recalling the unrestrained flood of chaos of Ivan the Terrible. One oligarch worth tens of billions had a custom-made yacht built that's 2/3 the size of the Titanic and has its own built-in anti missle system. Costs of restaurant and wine expenses have been documented ($650 a bottle, single cocktails at $100 each) and a maitre de observed, "Western guests don't come here, they can't afford it." Their sex drenched entertainment venues are also described. When this heedless and seemingly endless wealth is contrasted with the ghastly and worsening poverty that is described for particular cases, one is entitled to the suspicion that a sense of collective responsibility is not even a blip on the pattern of boisterously throwing money around by the bushel. Surprising to westerners is that these national patterns of vehemence and misery do not move the Russian population to want to desperately rush toward and embrace existing western democracy on its own terms. Sufficient facets of the Russian character are examined to shed light on the nature of Russian discontents, their views on reforms and their distinctive (and to us, obscurantist) response patterns riddled with the expectation of authoritarianism.
The nature and specifics of Putin's rule are well described and these, like the entire book are well chosen, deftly organized, lucidly written and offer smooth reading.
Despite its title this is not a book the focuses on the narrow topic of elites jockeying for power with boring lists of committee names, chairman's names and power chains. The material is of a broad nature rich with abundant insights into the Russian character and the otherwise unheard voices of the Russian people.
The book does not take the position that western reforms are indicated or even desirable (i.e., feasible). It treats the Russian experience as a phenomenon with its own distinctive trajectory and character. It is what it is. Some problems have no solutions and the politics described in this book seems to accept this, as do vast sectors of the population.
I don't see this as a reference book, but as more of an eye opener for the serious, general reader who will put together solid generalizations about Russia the Enigma and keep these intact as time passes. One fast moving reading will be enough.
This is an amazing book for anyone studying Russian or comparative politics.
Written by Professor Stephen White, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow who is a key voice in Russian politics, this book does not treat Russian politics with a typical western bias, rather a deep understanding of the sociology around Russia's politics.
In addition, the book references several other books in each chapter which provides you with the key texts you should be reading for each topic.
Especially worth a read is the chapters on the electoral system as this is his area of expertise!