Stephen White‘s Understanding Russian Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2011) begins simply enough: “Russia is no longer the Soviet Union.” While this is a well-known fact, the details of Russia’s postcommunist transition — the emergence of a party system and presidential government, as well as the dismantling of the planned economy and construction of modern political communication — have rarely been as consciously and seamlessly fit into the setting of Russia’s immediate present. Stephen White’s ambitious text tracks the most significant developments in Russia’s post-Soviet formation, and more importantly plugs those events back into the framework of today, equipping readers with the context required for a deeper reading of contemporary Russian politics.
Understanding Russian Politics tackles all the biggest components of Russian statecraft and social transformation over the past twenty-five years. In my interview with Professor White, we discussed topics as current as President Medvedev’s 2012 legal initiative to liberalize political party registration in Russia, as well as the role the previous winter’s street demonstrations played in prompting such reforms offered by the Kremlin. In this context, White addressed the constitutional legacy of Yeltsin’s super presidential state, and explained why Putin’s economic policies have deviated from the extreme market liberalism of Russia in the early 1990s. Our conversation finished on the subject of Russian foreign policy and domestic interest groups, highlighting the roles that competing schools of thought play in policymaking today.