In This Review

Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia
Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia
By Timothy Frye
Princeton University Press, 2021, 288 pp

The prevailing narrative about Russia, Frye writes, is overpoliticized and oversimplified. All too often, outside observers reduce Russian politics either to “Putinism,” defined by the character and background of Russian President Vladimir Putin, or to Russia’s unique history and culture. They neglect the numerous comparative studies that portray Russia as a personalist autocracy with much in common with other contemporary regimes in Hungary, Turkey, or Venezuela. Standard political commentary on Russia also gives little importance to dynamics within Russian society. But survey-based academic research—including Frye’s own—illustrates the impact of Russian public opinion on the Kremlin’s decision-making process. Frye seeks to show how the Kremlin’s actions are the result of countless tradeoffs and difficult choices, rather than the expression of an omnipotent ruler’s whims or an insuperable historical legacy. The book makes sophisticated social science accessible to a broad audience. It seems especially timely, too, as Russia’s rising public discontent, economic decline, and confrontation with the West are heightening the dilemmas facing the Kremlin.