Media and public discussion tends to understand Russian politics as a direct reflection of Vladimir Putin’s seeming omnipotence or Russia’s unique history and culture. Yet Russia is remarkably similar to other autocracies—and recognizing this illuminates the inherent limits to Putin’s power. Weak Strongman challenges the conventional wisdom about Putin’s Russia, highlighting the difficult trade-offs that confront the Kremlin on issues ranging from election fraud and repression to propaganda and foreign policy.
Drawing on three decades of his own on-the-ground experience and research as well as insights from a new generation of social scientists that have received little attention outside academia, Timothy Frye reveals how much we overlook about today’s Russia when we focus solely on Putin or Russian exceptionalism. Frye brings a new understanding to a host of crucial questions: How popular is Putin? Is Russian propaganda effective? Why are relations with the West so fraught? Can Russian cyber warriors really swing foreign elections? In answering these and other questions, Frye offers a highly accessible reassessment of Russian politics that highlights the challenges of governing Russia and the nature of modern autocracy.
Rich in personal anecdotes and cutting-edge social science, Weak Strongman offers the best evidence available about how Russia actually works.
Timothy Frye is the Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy at Columbia University and a research director at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. His books include Property Rights and Property Wrongs: How Power, Institutions, and Norms Shape Economic Conflict in Russia and Building States and Markets after Communism: The Perils of Polarized Democracy. He lives in New York City. Twitter @timothymfrye
"Timothy Frye doesn't buy the theory that Vladimir Putin is an exceptional ruler governing an exceptional country. Putin's Russia, he says, is an autocratic regime that has a lot in common with Erdoğan's Turkey, Chávez's Venezuela, and Orban's Hungary. Mustering recent academic research to shift the focus from Putin-gazing to the broader forces shaping such personalist autocracies around the world, Frye offers a welcome contribution to our deeper understanding of Russia."—Jill Dougherty, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute, former CNN Moscow bureau chief
"Timothy Frye's Weak Strongman will become a classic and one of the definitive studies of Putin's rule in Russia for decades to come. Digging deep into the paradoxes of personalistic autocracy, Frye explains why Putin is both the unquestioned strongman ruler of Russia, but also a weak, constrained, and ineffective autocrat. Everyone interested in contemporary Russia should read this book; failure to assign it to students of Russian politics is dereliction of duty for any professor in the field."—Michael McFaul, Stanford University
"At last, the book on Russia we have all desperately needed. Amid the often overheated debates in media and political circles, Weak Strongman provides an objective, informed, and always engaging account of what is actually known about the country's politics."—Daniel Treisman, author of The Return: Russia's Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev
"Russia is complicated but not unknowable, and policymakers need to understand and know Russia to protect American interests. Frye's book helps American policymakers, and citizens, know and understand Russia."—Celeste A. Wallander, former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia in the Obama White House
"A subtle, illuminating work. With lively narration, Frye fills us in on the latest research coming out of Moscow about how Russians really think and act, and also describes his own colorful experiences in the country. This book will complicate what you think you know about how Putin's Russia works, and that's a very good thing."—Joshua Yaffa, author of Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin's Russia