While waiting for the Moscow archives to deliver up their secrets last week, I popped into the Russian capital’s largest bookstore, Biblio Globus, to check out the history section—and while there, I took a very quick look at the politics books on most prominent display. This is, given its cursory nature, far from being a scientific method; but on the assumption that the books given greatest prominence are the ones being bought and read, here are a couple of observations.
One, the most popular books on domestic politics appear to consist of denunciations of Vladimir Putin, the powers behind the throne, oligarchs, Gazprom, and corruption. Two, books on foreign policy apparently revolve around the theme that the West is trying to take Russia down.
Bearing the limitations of the survey, one can nevertheless make a stab at some conclusions. First, there is obviously a degree of discontent, at least in Moscow, with the system of power. Second, Putin’s Russia isn’t quite the evil dictatorship the Western press often make it out to be. If you want to write a book denouncing Putin, not only can you do so, but you can also get it distributed and displayed in Moscow’s leading bookstore. No surprise there—this has always been the case. Managed democracy, as it is known, permits dissent, at least in certain places. The problem is probably not so much that people can’t complain as that it doesn’t make any difference if they do.
And third, Russian suspicions of Western foreign policy run very deep and are more than a product of the individuals who happen to be in power. Do not imagine that if Putin were to leave office, Russians would suddenly start doing what we want them to. In fact, given that the most prominent opposition comes from the Communist Party and the nationalist ‘Liberal Democratic’ party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the alternative could well be somewhat more hostile. Advocates of regime change in Russia and elsewhere should take note.