That Russia's savviest political experts, including the contributors to this volume, still disagree radically about the stability or instability of the Putin regime reinforces their country's reputation as an enigma shrouded in mystery. Some Russia watchers colorfully suggest that the two bulldogs fighting under the carpet, immortalized by Churchill, are the siloviki's Party of Blood, a driving force behind Putin's adventurism in Ukraine, and the oligarchs' Party of Cash, increasingly apprehensive about Putin's poisoned relations with the West. This is no doubt a cartoonish oversimplification, but it also typifies the anxious search to discover some sort of key to an inherently bewildering situation. If the best-informed diagnoses are so uncertain, it is no surprise that politically feasible remedies remain elusive to the point that they are not even seriously discussed.
To make matters worse, when Americans and West Europeans come to analyze Russia's rollercoaster trends punctuated by sinister palace intrigue, the country's fabled illegibility acquires a gratuitous layer of inscrutability. This additional obscurity derives in part from the forty-five-year standoff of the Cold War and the compulsion it bequeathed on the Western side to shoehorn all observed conflicts into the democracy–authoritarianism polarity. That such a dichotomy feeds American nostalgia for a moral showdown between the virtuous and the wicked is not its greatest defect, even though it is important to notice the inadequacy of idealizing one side and demonizing the other when studying, say, conflicts between an imperfect Russian government and unscrupulous privatization billionaires or violent Chechen separatists.
A PROCRUSTIAN DICHOTOMY
The problem lies not with the stock distinction between democracy and authoritarianism but with the two-part suggestion that it sometimes conveys: first, that when an authoritarian system collapses, democracy will naturally arise by default and, second, if democracy fails to develop, authoritarian forces must be to blame. Although seldom articulated with sufficient clarity to allow for refutation, these half-baked causal intuitions have had a pernicious influence on the understanding of democratic development and failure, especially in the Russian case. The first intuition bred unrealistic expectations about Russia in the early 1990s; the second spreads confusion among interpreters of Russia today.