Considering that this is a memoir of a woman whose claim to fame is being a Russia expert and a celebrated biographer of Putin, I was expecting substantive discussion of contemporary Russia to be a significant part of the book. That was not the case, however, as her real experience with Russia seems to have occurred from the late 1980’s through the early 2000’s. This experience is weaved into her general biography but it doesn’t provide the necessary insight to understand the current state of affairs in the country or the problems that have come to a head recently between Russia and the west.
Hill did not start out as a privileged insider but came from a hardscrabble working class background in Northeast England, which makes her down-to-earth and relatable. She describes how the neoliberal and deindustrialization policies of the 1970’s and 1980’s personally affected her family and many others in the UK and how she observed similarities in certain regions of the U.S. after she moved there. She draws parallels on the dynamics behind this and the economic collapse Russia went through in the 90’s – a theme I have also explored. She is to be lauded for bringing the details of this topic to the professional educated class that will most likely be reading her book. Where she tends to go off the rails is what she says – and doesn’t say – about Putin era Russia.
From what I can ascertain from her telling, she spent significant time on the ground in Russia off and on from 1987 through the early 2000’s. She goes into the most detail about her travels to Russia as an exchange student during the Gorbachev era and then again while pursuing her PhD during the 1990’s. During the former, she describes Moscow as bleak and run-down with crumbling infrastructure and food shortages but an impressive public transportation system. During the latter, she describes the effects of the Shock Therapy program that transitioned Russia to a free market economy. She also goes into the travails of being a woman during this period of economic collapse and chaos where many Russian women turned to prostitution servicing relatively well-heeled western men. She relates an anecdote in which an elevator man at the Moscow hotel where she was bringing a delegation of Japanese businessmen to visit her academic sponsor assumed she was a call girl and was aggressively intent on getting a cut until the reality of the situation was explained to him – by a man, of course.
However, it doesn’t seem that she has spent any real time in Russia for most of the Putin era, with the exception of attendance at a couple of Valdai conferences. This leads me to believe that she is relying on information from the usual dubious sources in the political and media establishment about what contemporary Russia is like. This is evident from the few remarks she makes in passing.
First, she uses the term autocratic when referring to Putin’s Russia, which is inaccurate. Autocracy is absolute rule by one person. Anyone who has any depth of understanding of Putin era Russia knows that Putin does not rule absolutely. Similarly she uses the term populist in a somewhat pejorative sense to compare Putin to Donald Trump and Brexit cheerleader Nigel Farage: "They were charismatic leaders who dealt in pithy slogans that offered promises, not programs." This is a gross oversimplification of Putin’s politics over the past two decades and implies that Putin has had a lack of political substance in his approach to addressing the numerous crises he inherited when taking over Russia. Putin is a pragmatist who had to learn on the job. There are still many problems to tackle but the command of many details of different areas of governance he has developed over time as demonstrated during lengthy Q&A sessions, speeches and press appearances, along with the concrete improvements he oversaw in poverty reduction, infrastructure investment, lowering crime and rebuilding a dilapidated military reveals this observation by Hill to be quite laughable.
She also repeats the same tropes about Russia under Putin that we’ve all heard from establishment hacks: democracy was taking root under Gorbachev and Yeltsin and then Putin reversed it. This is underscored by her comment framing the current issues of economic inequality and immobility in the US as a cautionary tale that we may end up like Russia with its "slide into authoritarianism since 2000."
Again, anyone who has any substantive knowledge of Russia knows this is a distortion of the Yeltsin and Putin eras. She conveniently leaves out important facts that undermine her narrative. First is Yeltsin’s handling of the constitutional crisis with parliament in 1993 which ended in the destruction of the parliament building by government forces. Yeltsin subsequently oversaw the drafting of a constitution that removed meaningful checks and balances by rendering parliament a rubber stamp that could never again effectively challenge the president’s prerogatives. By contrast, Putin oversaw some policies that strengthened the legal system in Russia during his first two terms as president as documented by scholars Nicolai Petro and Kathryn Hendley. He also encouraged the emergence of some form of civil society, however flawed and subservient it may be, with the first Civic Forum in 2001. This was progress compared to his predecessor who did virtually nothing in this area. Putin also stripped the ultra-wealthy oligarchs – who had not even the pretense of accountability afforded by elections – of their ability to dictate policy to the Kremlin.
There has definitely been backsliding on some of these issues in recent years, but Hill leaves out the context in which some of that backsliding has occurred, leaving the reader to think that the Putin government woke up one day and became paranoid haters of the things they’d encouraged to varying degrees in previous years. It’s not unusual for a government, feeling under threat from an outside power, to close off and become more repressive. There have been many examples of this throughout history, including the US after 9/11, which led to the passing of the Patriot Act and the official sanction of torture. If the country that sees itself as the freest and most democratic in the world can backslide on its democratic values based on one major incident of terrorism, how might it react to decades of hostility from a superpower which has demonstratively interfered in its internal affairs and controls a major military alliance creeping up on its borders?
In another passing jab, she parenthetically declares that the conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine is all Russia’s fault and leaves the reader with no context whatsoever: "[Donbas] now in Ukraine but mired in a conflict provoked by Russia at the time of this writing."
I find it strange that as an expert on Russia, she doesn’t take the opportunity to offer any recommendations on what the US might do to improve relations with Russia. There is also no attempt to understand or explain Russia’s current perspective on foreign or domestic policy. She simply offers up hit and run comments that implicitly blame all problems on Russia in its relations with the west as well as suggesting that Russia is an autocracy. She also repeats many of the assertions of the Russiagate narrative that have been found to be either greatly exaggerated or debunked. This is particularly interesting due to recent revelations that Igor Danchenko, the alleged source of the salacious fabrications in the Steele Dossier, was a protégé of hers at the Brookings Institution. Moreover she admits the disgraced Danchenko was a major source about Putin for her 2015 biography of the Russian leader. Once the credibility of the Steele Dossier collapsed, Hill became a public champion of the illogical theory that it was disinformation from Russia.
In one passage of her book, Hill relates being seated next to Putin at a Valdai conference, in which she did not actually interact with him. Her great observation was that he appears to be nearsighted based on the size of the print on his notecards. That’s the big takeaway this Russia hand gleaned from seeing Putin up close and participating in such a conference.
This shallow and unsatisfying insight seems to encapsulate her proffered expertise on contemporary Russia and its leadership. The most frustrating aspect of the book is that one gets the sense that Hill, based on her reflections on her background and her unusual path to politics, has the intellectual capacity and sensitivity to know better. But it would appear that she goes along to get along for the sake of maintaining a career in Washington where a particular distorted narrative about Russia is required.
Natylie Baldwin is the author of The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations, available on Amazon. Her writing has appeared in various publications including Consortium News, RT, OpEd News, The Globe Post, Antiwar.com, The New York Journal of Books, and Dissident Voice.