Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin, written by Ben Judah, explores the life of Putin, his rise to political power, and the problems his regime is causing for Russia today. Putin brought about some positive changes for Russia including turning a bankrupt state into an energy superpower, building a strong middle class, halting NATO expansion, and helping incomes rise over one hundred and forty percent. Putin’s political career can be considered successful, but as Judah argues, he has failed to build a modern state and has instead created a regime that can be considered synonymous with ineptitude and corruption. To fully comprehend what is wrong with Russia today, Judah says we must first understand why Russia fell in love with Putin in the first place.
Judah begins by describing Putin’s early life, his rise to power and how he gained the public’s admiration through telepopularism and videocracy. By seizing control of the airwaves, the Kremlin was able to make Putin into a TV tsar creating all different guises for Putin to wear. There was one to appeal to all the different groups of Russia: the housewives, the unemployed, those nostalgic of the USSR, rural Russians, military men, and extremists. All of these groups were able to identify with Putin in some way, and saw in him not a wounded Russia, but a healthy, athletic, and proud Russia. Putin’s popularity with the public was able to continue for a time. The economy was on the rise, a new middle class was thriving, and the people loved him.
The protest movement in Moscow during the winter of 2011 to 2012, however, finally exposed the reality behind the regime’s power. The movement showed how the regime relied on the control of television, the media, huge assets, and security organs, not legitimacy and the approval of the elites as many had believed. Judah describes how under Putin’s leadership, Russia became a country wrought with contradictions. At the same time Russia was both highly sophisticated and deeply backward, housed formal institutions of democracy but stripped them of any meaning, and was a videocracy pumping censored television to the masses but still allowed free newspapers and blogs for the intellectuals. Corruption caused elections to become a joke. The same tactics that had won over the public had also created a regime with a defunct and outdated power structure. Russia became a patronage network filled with corrupt individuals who are all a part of Putin’s oligarchy.
As Judah explains, the movement has cost Putin the support of the most advanced part of society, and has forced him to seek it out instead in the most backward. Putin is now holding back Russia instead of propelling it forward. We must now question if Putin can still control the new middle class, if he can win over the first post-soviet generation, and whether his Kremlin can still hold onto a Siberia overshadowed by China. By looking at Putin’s life from his childhood to the present, Judah offers an intriguing look into the life of Russia’s leader and Russia’s uncertain future. Gathered from research and hundreds of interviews collected over five years, Judah offers an insightful look into the thoughts and lives of many ordinary Russians as well as their leader in Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin.