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The New Russia by the Old Russia

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A review of Mikhail Gorbachev's new book The New Russia

By Karlijn Jans

Following his 1996 book Memoires, Mikhail Gorbachev's new book The New Russia is the most recent account of his political heritage and analysis. With Gorbachev as the sole author, this book provides an exclusive insight into the personal analysis and thinking of the elder statesman of the USSR. In this book, Gorbachev advocates a radical reform of politics and a new fostering of pluralism, the return of international dialogues and social democracy in the Russian Federation. The publication is timely considering the strained relations between the West and Vladimir Putin's Russia. Gorbachev shares his thoughts on the recent developments in Putin's leadership and his policies that continue to puzzle experts around the world. His personal way of describing events provides an attractive and fascinating setup, but is not always easy to follow. The book includes collections of speeches, letters, and media contributions from different time periods, and Gorbachev frequently inserts long quotes from those periods rather than provide current analysis of those events. While these referrals are valid, it makes it difficult for the reader to follow the detailed sequence of his arguments.

Gorbachev begins the book by going back to the basics of his Perestroika policy in late December 1991, during which the USSR transitioned and fell apart. He played an arbitration role in the 'brief civil war' in October 1993 after being forced from power. Being 'exiled' by the new leadership and running his own foundation, Gorbachev continues to take an outsider perspective, while having unique personal experience as the leader of a crumbling system.

Gorbachev describes the rise of Vladimir Putin in 1999 after Boris Yeltsin named him his successor. Gorbachev admits that Putin obtained power in a chaotic situation: the economy was facing turbulent times, unrest in the social sphere, and disarray in the layers of state administration and regions of the Russian Federation. He is open about his initial, though not unconditional, support for Putin. He describes Putin's December 1999 declaration in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta as a proclamation intended to rid the feeling of dismay in Russian society and promote a stronger state structure in order to catalyze economic growth and social progress. Gorbachev at first welcomed this vision, but reflects upon it as the first documented step towards an authoritarian regime. It is fascinating to read his observations of events and decisions that have resulted in the current Russian political environment: a Russia that has wandered from the path of democracy and his perestroika. Gorbachev criticizes the overly centralized system in Moscow that in his view presents a difficult and dangerous future for the Russian Federation.

The most interesting part of the book is Gorbachev's view of current events. He combines his historic experiences built upon in the previous chapters and extrapolates it to current affairs and the future. Gorbachev hypothesizes that Western powers have contributed to the recent revival of Cold War sentiments. Expanding NATO and thereby pushing the Russian Federation into a corner was an antagonizing decision by Western powers, Gorbachev concludes. In his view, this decision isolated and excluded Russia from regional security dealings, damaging relations for years to come. While this is a common understanding from a Russian point of view, the author does not address the intrinsic reason that NATO expanded: a sovereign decision by new member states to request membership. It was not a strategy to aggressively expand eastward.

For those who have not lived through the Cold War, the book provides a unique insider's perspective of the development of the Russian Federation and the current volatile position Russia finds itself in. Gorbachev's book is a worthwhile read as it offers a thorough chronological analysis and a collection of detailed descriptions of the Russian political developments that followed his tenure at the helm of the Soviet Union. Being a known Putin critic, his insights do not necessarily provide something new. Yet his thorough analysis of the effects of a failed perestroika on the current situation provides a different and unique viewpoint, setting this book apart from other books addressing Russian domestic developments against a more historical and international backdrop. Gorbachev provides intriguing and additional relevant material for Putin-versteher (those who study Putin) and people wishing to understand Russian society and politics.

Karlijn Jans specializes in defense and German politics. She received an LL.M in European Law from Maastricht University and MA in European Studies from King's College London. Karlijn is a part-time modular student at the Netherlands Defence Academy and chairs the Netherlands Atlantic Youth Association. She is also a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

The New Russia, published by Polity (May 23, 2016)

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