A Lust for Suffering

A Lust for Suffering
" (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The original Russian title of this dazzling collection of essays by Sergei Medvedev, a social-science professor in Moscow and one of Russia’s leading political commentators, was “The Crimean Period Park” (Park krymskogo perioda). The echo of “Jurassic Park” was surely intended. Mr. Medvedev sees Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its war on Ukraine—both of which followed the ouster of Ukraine’s Russia-backed leader in 2014—as marking a new geologic era in Russian politics and foreign policy. This book is an invitation to explore the park.

A more astute, knowledgeable and eloquent guide is hard to imagine. Steeped in Russian culture and history, Mr. Medvedev is witty and sardonic in the laughter-through-tears (smekh skvoz slyozy) tradition of Russian literature. He draws on political sociology, linguistics and social psychology, yet his prose, even in translation, is sparkling.

Mr. Medvedev ranges widely over the many ways in which Vladimir Putin—he first was elected president in 2000 and, de facto, has been in charge ever since—has returned Russia to a corrupt, oppressive and illiberal past. The state—the “Leviathan” of the title—has been steadily extirpating all vestiges of Mikhail Gorbachev’s and Boris Yeltsin’s revolutions of the late 1980s and 1990s: uncensored media, fair courts, real political competition, freedom of speech, government transparency and, most of all, a civil society independent of the Kremlin.

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