Book review: Weak strongmen: The limits of power in Putin’s Russia

Published date01 December 2021
Date01 December 2021
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Timothy Frye
Weak Strongmen: The Limits of Power in Putins Russia.
New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2021. 269 pp. $24.95 USD (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0-69121-698-0
Reviewed by: Jeffrey Rice (, MacEwan University, Edmonton, Canada
To what extent can we attribute the behaviour of autocratic states to the personalities
and proclivities of their rulers? And to what extent are these rulers bound by the
structures of the state that they themselves have either created or inherited? These two
questions are the central focus of Timothy FryesWeakStrongmen: The Limits of Power
in Putins Russia. In challenging the conventional wisdom surrounding elite rule in
Russia, Frye argues that Putins success in governing Russia is less a product of his own
political competence, which is often the source of popular myth owing to his
mythologicalbackground in the KGB, and more the result of favourable domestic
and economic conditions that any politically competent autocrat would have been able
to exploit.
To arrive at this conclusion, in the eleven chapters comprising the work, Frye
examines topics ranging from misinformation (both foreign and domestic), media
control, election meddling (from the local to the national level), great power politics and
foreign policy, and more. One may worry that such a large scope might dilute the
quality of analysis, but thankfully this is not the case. In keeping with the expansive
scope of the book, the contributions of this work are numerous, both empirically and
analytically. Rich personal vignettesthe type that can only come from decades of
close personal experience with the subject matterinform a rigorous and theoretically
robust analysis of contemporary Russian politics. And, while Fryes empirically rich
analysis of Russian politics is a rather large contribution in and of itself, perhaps the
most signif‌icant takeaway of this book is Fryes repudiation of how Russian politics and
its foreign policy are currently understoodor misunderstood, as the case may be.
Indeed, Frye goes to great lengths to try and dispel the oft-cited notion that there is
something altogether unique and incomprehensible about Russian politicsshattering
intellectual artifacts found in once-dominant ideas like Homo Sovieticus as well as
assumptions of a natural imperialism in Russias culture. By looking at other postCold
War autocracies including in Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, as well as hybrid authoritarian
regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, Frye demonstrates that the patterns of
behaviour that are frequently thought of as being manifestly unique to Russia are not in
short supply in other autocratic states around the world. The grand revelation in this
book isnt that Putins Russia is unique, but that, in fact, it is not.
As Frye delves into the particularities and idiosyncrasies of Russian politics, what
emerges is a rather counterintuitive claim: the deeper you go, the more it looks the
same. While Putin does have his own particular brand of leadership, his rule is still
predicated on being able to manage the same trade-offs that all autocratic rulers have to
manage. For Putin, and other autocrats, this means appeasing members of a fragmented
620 International Journal 76(4)

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