Review: Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia

Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia
Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia by Marshall I. Goldman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall, this was a REALLY good book. I appreciated how fair and balanced it was towards Russia. Usually, books written by Westerners are so anti-Russian that they ignore facts. (See: Edward Lucas’ work and Masha Gessen’s work, among others.) This book was overall very fair and balanced.

In particular, I wish I could force every Russia-watcher to read Chapter 5, titled “Putin Takes Over: The Return of the Czar.” Specifically, the section starting at “The Attack on Yukos” is very, very informative and important. This section makes some important points, namely: 1) Pretty much everyone who got rich in Russia in the 1990s did so illegally, so in this sense Putin’s prosecution of Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky was unfair, and 2) Khodorkovsky certainly was not the angel he’s been portrayed as in Western literature. He stole people’s money in the 1990s when his Menatep Bank folded (I’ve had Russia watchers tell me this never happened, but it did. The author of this book, who is definitely not pro-Putin, agrees with me and cites actual sources.) He was probably involved in some contract killings—if not directly, then by turning a blind eye to his subordinates who perpetrated them.

The author also dis-spells the myth that Khodorkovsky wanted to reform Russian business and make it transparent and “normal,” for lack of a better term, as it is in the United States. Westerners think this means he was a good businessman, crusading against corruption. Not so, according to the author. Instead, he says Khodorkovsky embraced rule of law so that no one could do to his business empire what he did to acquire it (i.e. steal it). For reference, this passage is at location 2136 in my Kindle edition of the book. I don’t have actual page numbers, unfortunately. In a somewhat delicious irony, this didn’t help, and Khodorkovsky was arrested and his business broken up and sold.

Anyway, that’s just one example of many from this book that’s so fascinating. The author really does a good job of keeping balanced. To continue the Yukos example, he criticizes the Russian government for jailing Yukos lawyer Svetlana Bakhmina, which I don’t fully agree with either.

The only criticism I could mount is the author’s position about the 1999 apartment bombings that let to a re-ignition of the Chechen War. He gives more credence to the theory that the FSB planted the bombs in order to blame them on the Chechens than is warranted. I am familiar with the theory and think it’s completely wrong. I suppose the author and I would have to agree to disagree on this. It is because of this that I downgraded the book by one star—otherwise, I probably would have given it five stars.

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8 thoughts on “Review: Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia

  1. This was a pleasure to read, Natalie! It’s very rare to get a fair book on Russia these days, so I think it’s great that you managed to find one. (I never would’ve guessed by looking at the title alone.) If you enjoyed this, you may enjoy The Return by Daniel Treisman. Treisman also does a good job of maintaining balance and dispelling some myths about Russian politics, but unfortunately it was published in 2011 and only analyzes Russian politics up to Medvedev’s term. Still very valuable, though.

    And girl, I know EXACTLY what you mean when you point out that facts take a backseat to fervent hatred in some Western books on Russia: I’ve read both Lucas’ The New Cold War and Gessen’s Man Without a Face, and I’m still trying to figure out how many brain cells I’ve lost…
    Promise me you’ll never read Winter Is Coming by Garry Kasparov…it’s somehow worse than Lucas’ and Gessen’s book put together!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, darling! This is why I look forward to seeing your comments show up on here. 🙂 I’ll have to take a look at the Treisman book.

      OMG The New Cold War and The Man Without a Face are just so bad! I once went to a speech by Garry Kasparov. Somehow my university managed to book him… It was even worse than you’re imagining. 😛 I tried to ask a question and somehow, they conveniently “ran out of time” before they could get to me. Awfully coincidental, if you ask me! I can’t promise I’ll never read his book because that could be a fun thing to refute and debate with people… 😉


      1. That’s hilarious…you actually went to a speech by Kasparov? What was the speech about? How Russia is a ‘one-man dictatorship spewing fascist propaganda’? How Putin is the Hitler of our age and needs to be stopped? Because that’s essentially all there is to his book…

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  2. My question is: who is listening to Kasparov? His writings/speeches are abt. 98% pathos and 2% logos (or at least they seem that way). Why would he be invited to speak at a university?


    1. Never underestimate how much the anti-Russia crowd wants to discredit Putin… And remember, universities in America are filled to the brim with such people! If you really want the details, I think the chess club invited him. I have zero interest in chess. I went to have a laugh. Much to the disappointment of the chess club, he didn’t really talk about chess in his speech, LOL!

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      1. Alas, I am a student, and I still have much to learn.
        I would argue, though, that he is trying to apply chess tactics to relations with Russia. If you read his book Winter is Coming, you’ll see that his view of Russia and the West is very black and white. The West is Pure and Putin is Hitler. We are the good guys and Russians are the bad guys. We have to stop Russia or they will destroy us. we must anticipate Russia’s moves. We must not negotiate with Russia or it will encourage more aggression. We must sever all ties with Russia and keep it that way until Putin is out of power, and we must resort to forceful regime change if we need to. There is no subtlety or middle ground.
        While it’s true that some governments are more oppressive than others, there isn’t a sharp contrast; between black and white there are many shades of gray. Not to Kasparov, though; he apparently sees only the grand chessboard.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. He actually wrote a book called “How Life Imitates Chess” or something to that extent, so you are EXACTLY right. I can’t deny that he knows a lot about chess, I’ll give him that. But as for politics? No. Just no. I think he should keep his nose out of things he doesn’t know (politics, international relations, etc.) and stick with what he does (chess, and that’s about it).

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