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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