Book Review: “The Return of the Russian Leviathan” Reaches Uncomfortably Close to Home

Book Review: “The Return of the Russian Leviathan” Reaches Uncomfortably Close to Home

I haven’t read any of the the dozens of books chronicling Donald Trump’s White House. What I gather from reviews is that they all tell the same story, and it’s a story that surprises no one who’s been paying attention since Trump became the 2016 Republican nominee. Nor have I read any of the accounts exploring his voters, from the much-discussed rural whites to the Miami BIPOC who prove that “BIPOC” isn’t a voting bloc.

Sergei Medvedev’s darkly absorbing new book, though, may answer a crucial question about 21st century America: one that its author sets out to explain with respect to 21st century Russia, that country of such special fascination and still-mysterious conciliation on the part of our 45th president. What’s the appeal of the strongman?

At the outset of The Return of the Russian Leviathan, the Muscovite scholar makes clear that it’s not because a strongman actually makes a country stronger. In virtually every realm of life, he argues, Vladimir Putin’s rule has led to a state of decay. Medvedev opens his account on the M9 “Baltiya” federal highway: the main roadway leading from Russia to Europe. Corrupt contractors, freed of accountability to the citizens who drive on the highway and ultimately pay their salaries, have left it a sodden mess.

For the author, that’s a ripe metaphor. Russia has squandered the opportunity of the 1990s, Medvedev argues: the opportunity, having peacefully disbanded the U.S.S.R., to rejoin the international community as a respected and trusted partner. The West has its own culpability in dragging its feet on the steps needed to save Russia’s newborn capitalist economy, but the author leaves that side of the story for others to tell.

Medvedev is concerned with chronicling what he sees as the 21st-century fallout of a tendency longstanding in the Russian body politic: blaming outsiders for any woes, rather than taking responsibility and making tough choices. Hence the appeal of a leader who plays the role of a stereotypically proud Russian, directing his constituents’ attention to foreign nations it’s easy to hate while he quietly lines his own pockets and entrenches his own power.

I’ve never been to Russia, and don’t have any particular ties to the country, except that I grew up in the United States of the 1980s, when we lived in fear of the “evil empire” our own aging strongman described. Despite his saber-rattling rhetoric and burgeoning arms program, though — and despite his quixotic, almost entirely science fictional “Star Wars” anti-missile program — Reagan genuinely feared nuclear war, and wanted peace.

That created an opening for the remarkable Mikhail Gorbachev, who successfully raised the Iron Curtain but ultimately couldn’t survive the political aftershocks. Boris Yeltsin, who seemed to many Westerners (as well as, it seems, his predecessor) a clumsy drunken bear lacking in vision and competence, emerges as an unlikely hero of Medvedev’s account. In one essay, the author describes the Yeltsin Centre, in Yekaterinburg, as nearly a rebel headquarters — merely because its exhibits and monuments suggest that Yeltsin’s support for democracy and engagement with the broader world might not have been bad things.

It was Yeltsin, of course, who handed the reins of power to Putin in the twilight of the 20th century. Though Medvedev describes Putin as initially a man who was “confused and couldn’t believe his luck,” the younger man quickly seized an opportunity to play on Russians’ frustrations and leverage what the author describes as a profoundly misplaced nostalgia for the Soviet era. Because Russia has never truly grappled with Stalin’s terror or the life-wasting nature of conflicts like its adventure in Afghanistan, argues Medvedev, it’s all too easy for today’s Russians to glorify the era when their country was an “evil empire” rather than simply a very large rogue state.

Where the book begins to feel uncanny, for Americans who’ve just survived this year’s nerve-wracking election night, is in its boundlessly bitter frustration with a populace that all too willingly martyrs itself to the likes of Putin. While Medvedev holds out a measure of hope for the future — citing, for example, the “flower revolution” being peacefully fomented by Russians who leave memorials for slain opposition politician Boris Nemtsov — the professor of social science grapples in agony with the fact that Putin does in fact enjoy the support of a substantial majority of Russian voters.

In two of the book’s four sections, “The War for Space” and “The War for the Body,” Medvedev details just what Russians are costing themselves through this indulgence in their iconically shirtless ex-KGB leader. While Russia literally plants flags on the ocean floor to stake out territory in the melting Arctic, he notes, the country loses sight of the fact that climate change is set to devastate vast swaths of the territory they control above sea level. In annexing Crimea, Medvedev argues, Russia drove Ukraine into the arms of the West. Because Russia couldn’t tolerate risking Olympic defeat, they perpetrated a clumsy doping program that disgraced the country’s athletes far more than any fair competition ever could have.

In one essay after another, American readers will find it hard to avoid seeing the Russian Leviathan as a beast whose trans-Atlantic kin has its tentacles poised all too near to our democratic institutions. Medvedev describes the eponymous leviathan — the Russian state — as a beast that inflames baseless conspiracy theories, traffics in dangerously deluded nostalgia, squanders resources of all kinds, and seeks to extend its dominion over its subjects’ bedrooms and bodies.

Gorbachev also has a new book, and like Joe Biden’s pandemic pronouncements in the face of Trump’s stubborn denialism, it presents an alternate-universe version of what a real leader might say and do in a situation where the powers that be would prefer to have you watch their wildly waving left hands so you don’t see what their right hands are grabbing at. “When you’re a star,” as Putin’s American friend once put it, “they let you do it. You can do anything.”

Jay Gabler