This chapter explores the reasons for the state of surprise, sketching them out from the starting point of the significant impact of the collapse of the USSR on Western understandings of Russia. It also explores the practical ramifications for the decline of Russia as a political priority on the wider political stage. The chapter outlines some of the problems of the current mainstream discussion of Russia, which is drowning in a discourse of speculation and rumour, 'Putinology' and historical analogies. Despite the dominance of transitological/regime question approach and the perceived eccentricity of Kremlinology, for many it has remained a truism of Russian political life that the final decisions are made behind the closed doors of the Kremlin. In fact, the collapse of the USSR has had serious ramifications for the study of Russia in the West, resulting in a major reassessment of Soviet studies, often bitter and acrimonious.
This chapter first sketches out an overview of the various understandings of the Russian political landscape, framing the considerable long-term continuity in post-Cold War Russian politics. Since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, 'Putinology' has dominated the mainstream Western discussion about Russia. The 'Solar system' or 'Planets' model depicts relationships as they relate to Putin, who is the 'sun' at the core of the system. 'Putinology' is thus entrenching an analytical context in which various assumptions are made about how 'Putin's Russia' and how it approaches its international actions. The chapter then turns to assess the vertical of power, framing it as a cascade from the core leadership team at the top, to 'federal locomotives', to those tasked with management. Finally, it looks at some of those who appear to be emerging figures, as managers and as players in the 'reset'.