by Brian D. Taylor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 373pp. Cloth $99.95. ISBN: 9780521760881.

Reviewed by Matthew Light, Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, University of Toronto. Email: matthew.light [at]


This book is a study of the evolution of policing in contemporary Russia under President Vladimir Putin (in office 2000-2008 and 2012-present). Taylor’s claim in a nutshell is that Putin has improved the capacity of the Russian police to reinforce the regime’s hold on society, without making significant improvements in their capacity to provide routine law-enforcement functions needed by citizens, or making progress in limiting police abuse and corruption.

State-building in Putin’s Russia is meticulously researched and makes extensive of use of Russian primary sources and interviews. Taylor is equally familiar with the social science literatures on state formation and policing. He argues forcefully for integrating the study of police forces into the study of states, noting that police help provide the initial basis for public order that in turn makes possible the creation of democracy, civil rights, and the welfare state. He categorizes states, based on two parameters: “state quality” and “state capacity.” The former refers to the state’s ability to provide major public goods to its population; the latter to its ability to maintain its own authority as well as public order. While a “weak state” (low capacity and low quality) may be repressive in some ways, it does not follow that all “high capacity” states will provide such public goods to their citizens. Taylor distinguishes between “police states” (high capacity, low quality) and “civil states (high capacity, high quality) (p.20).

This book is thus not simply a study of Russia’s Ministry of Interior, which administers most law enforcement services, but of the broader phenomenon of policing, including a variety of agencies that are engaged in providing security for the state or citizens, such as FSB (the secret police, formerly known as the KGB, which Putin once headed), and the “procuracy,” an investigative agency roughly equivalent to the U.S. Department of Justice and regional U.S. attorney’s offices. Taylor modifies the widespread view that Putin’s Russia is dominated by “siloviki,” or representatives of the military, secret police, and law enforcement agencies. As Taylor notes, this is too simple. Rather, under Putin, the President’s former colleagues in the FSB have partially colonized other government agencies by. Even this FSB dominance conceals an ongoing struggle between different agencies and individuals over control of resources.

Taylor distinguishes between “routine” and “exceptional” law enforcement (p.108). The former includes functions that citizens actually consume, such as the repression of crime and terrorism and the protection of property rights, whereas the latter constitutes the regime’s capacity for keeping power, whether through manipulating elections,[*354] suppressing opposition marches, or using the procuracy and courts to imprison opponents, such as the wealthy magnate, or “oligarch,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The book demonstrates through extensive case studies that Putin’s government has improved “exceptional” law enforcement much more than it has improved “routine” services. An obvious question is why. Taylor notes that under Putin, the Russian government has made major investments in law enforcement and criminal justice. Thus, while inadequate funding may have caused the decline of Russian policing in the 1990s, it is harder to make this argument today, as revenues have improved considerably, thanks to economic growth and improved tax collection. Indeed, Russia has a large police force, with the ratio of officers to citizens higher than in most western countries. The problem is rather that “Russia does not seem to be getting good value from such a large police force” (p.47). To anticipate one possible answer, the problem is also not lack of central control over law enforcement: as Taylor argues in Chapter 4, Putin has largely succeeded in wresting control over the police, procuracy, and other law enforcement ministries from regional governments, and has brought them under effective control of the Kremlin. In effect, Putin has created law enforcement mechanisms that follow his orders, but need not attain any standard of quality of service to citizens.

This point is also demonstrated through an extended discussion of personnel policies and corruption. As Taylor notes, according to many studies, Russia is not simply a corrupt middle-income state – it is considerably more corrupt than most other countries at roughly its income level (p.159). Law enforcement malfeasance in Russia is not limited to the crudest variety, shakedowns of civilians for bribes, but also extends to high-level infractions such as illegal sale of state assets and involvement in organized crime and even, it is widely believed, to the assassination of regime opponents. Taylor distinguishes between more purely “predatory” agencies, such as the police, and more “repressive” ones, such as the FSB and procuracy, in which the problem of direct corruption is less salient than politically motivated rights violations (p.181). A related problem is the government’s failure to improve the standards of professionalism within law enforcement. Again, lack of funding is not the problem, or at least not the whole problem. Police salaries doubled between 2004 and 2008, admittedly from a low base (p.195). Rather, the problem seems to be recruiting public-spirited people into Russian law enforcement. At the highest ranks, positions tend to be filled based on connections, whereas at lower ranks, they tend to be filled by “whoever is willing to serve, with little quality control” (p.193). Low morale has led to a high rate of attrition among mid-level police officers (p.198).

The book’s later chapters show what Putin has done with his remade law enforcement services. Chapter 6 addresses relations between the state and civil society. Putin has used both new legislation and targeted use of law enforcement to put pressure on NGOs, and to harass those that the government finds uncongenial. Taylor enriches the discussion by discussing related developments that are less spectacular than the well-publicized raids and closures of prominent NGOs. These include the creation of rival “GONGOs,” or government-organized NGOs, intended to support the government rather than to hold it to account (pp.243- [*355] 244), as well as the creeping takeover of civil society by “siloviki.” An example is the re-staffing of the executive agency responsible for pardons and commutations with new personnel from law enforcement, who have dramatically reduced remission of sentences (pp.233-34). A further result of such trends is the diminishing ability of society to monitor or enforce standards on state agencies. Taylor distinguishes between “police patrol” methods of identifying corruption and malfeasance (internal review, which Putin permits) and “fire alarms” (external criticism, which he resists) (p.246).

In Chapter 7, a case study of policing in the troubled North Caucasus illustrates many of the broader themes of the book. As Taylor argues, Putin has successfully repressed anti-state terrorism in the North Caucasus (particularly in Chechnya, the site of a bloody intermittent insurgency since the 1990s), but has done so in ways that actually impair “state quality” and may even undermine the Russian government’s long-term control of the region. This has included the effective contracting-out of administration in Chechnya to a strongman governor, Ramzan Kadyrov. In exchange for Kadyrov’s (somewhat dubious) loyalty to Putin, the government has allowed Kadyrov to rule Chechnya as his personal fiefdom, in which the most egregious forms of corruption and abuse of citizens go unpunished. It is revealing that most Chechen police are allegedly former rebels, whose loyalty to the Russian state is highly questionable (p.277).

As Taylor notes, Russia is not an impoverished country, but an upper middle-income one. Yet, it has so far not matched the level of state quality (and arguably even state capacity) achieved by other states that are no richer than Russia (p.292). He explains this discrepancy via Putin’s emphasis on coercion and centralization as the solution to Russia’s governance problems. One of Taylor’s most interesting insights is that ultimately a state that is fully unmoored from society weakens itself in a variety of ways. By depriving itself of feedback from civil society, the press, and citizens, law enforcement becomes less able to correct its own deficiencies – leading in Russia to extreme public anger with the police and related agencies that even the Russian government has been forced to acknowledge (p.306). At a more mundane level, Taylor argues that Putin’s attempts to strengthen the Russian state through coercion have created a highly cynical professional subculture in the police and related agencies that is not marked by desire to serve the public, or even the state (p.314). Thus, Taylor elegantly demonstrates that state capacity and quality are closely linked, rather than exogenous, so that efforts to improve capacity without quality are likely to prove disappointing.

State-building in Putin’s Russia is carefully argued and thoroughly documented. It represents a major study of post-Soviet law enforcement, and should be of interest to scholars of comparative policing, especially those interested in the relationship between police forces and the broader political regime.

Copyright by the author, Matthew Light.