The Essential Reading List on Putin and Russia

The best books to read to be up-to-speed on the country and its president

Fri, May 27, 2016
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Some of my favorite books on Russia. I'll continue adding to this list with any more worth reading as I get through them.

Moscow, December 25, 1991 - Conor O'Clery

One of my favorites (and by an Irish journalist). "...a unique and truly suspenseful thriller of the day the Soviet Union died." 

Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War - Stephen F. Cohen

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Cohen argues that the Soviet Union was "capable of reform" and that Washington was the first to squander the opportunity to build a new and fundamentally different US-Russian relationship.

Putin and the Rise of Russia - Michael Stürmer

The quote on the top left of this page comes from Stürmer's book on Putin and Russia, which I would recommend as one of the best. As one of the reviews says, "fair accounts of Putin are hard to come by" and in that context, this book is one to read. By no means is Stürmer a Putin fan, but he understands the Russian perspective. In Germany, he is what they not so lovingly refer to as a 'Putinversteher' (an 'understander' of Putin), although it's not too difficult to earn that title these days. Rants about the Russian bear being a grave threat to the West, are therefore, thankfully, absent from his book.

Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia - Anne Garrels

"Correcting the misconceptions of Putin’s supporters and critics alike, Garrels’s portrait of Russia’s silent majority is both essential and engaging reading at a time when cold war tensions are resurgent." (my own full review of Garrels' book can be read here)

A Journey Into Russia - Jens Mühling

Not your average travel book. Muhling goes on a journey deep into "a portion of the world whose contradictions, attractions, and absurdities are still largely unknown to people outside its borders". It is brilliantly and gorgeously written. You can read a pretty good review of ithere.

"...the Polish-Ukrainian border was the first of many more or less arbitrary dividing lines between Europe and that nameless, unstructured hinterland that did not, or no longer, or not yet, or not entirely, belong to Europe, or did not want to, or was not permitted to, or should, or could, or must belong to Europe – God only knows."

A Russian Journal (1948)- John Steinbeck, pictures by Robert Capa

This is one of my all time favorites: "Just after the Iron Curtain fell on Eastern Europe, Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Steinbeck and acclaimed war photographer Robert Capa ventured into the Soviet Union to report for the New York Herald Tribune -- unlike other Western reporting about Russia at the time, A Russian Journal is free of ideological obsessions."

My favorite quote in the book, because it could easily have been written today, but was actually written in 1948:

"We found that thousands of people were suffering from acute Moscowitis—a state which permits the belief of any absurdity and the shoving away of any facts. Eventually, of course, we found that the Russians are suffering from Washingtonitis, the same disease. We discovered that just as we are growing horns and tails on the Russians, so the Russians are growing horns and tails on us."

The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia - Angus Roxburgh

Written by a former BBC correspondent, this is (unsurprisingly) not a flattering portrait of Putin, nor is it the fairest or most balanced account out there, but it's fascinating and worth reading nonetheless. There are also elements similar to Stürmer's Putin and the Rise of Russia mentioned above, and Roxburgh does make the case that the West failed "to understand Russia's fears and aspirations following the collapse of communism".

Russophobia - Dominic Basulto

A good, short book which looks at the recent spate of Russophobia in Western media. This book "attempts to understand how Russophobia during the Putin era (2000-2015) led to a new Cold War between Russia and the West that includes elements of information, cyber and economic warfare." 

Near and Distant Neighbors: A New History of Soviet Intelligence - Jonathan Haslam

Fascinating stuff. A bit heavy, but definitely recommend for anyone interested in intelligence. "...a surprising and unprecedented portrayal of Soviet success that is not only fascinating but also essential to understanding Vladimir Putin's power today."

Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands - Richard Sakwa

This is a must-read account of the Ukraine crisis. I initially left it off this list, having somehow forgotten it, but it is really probably the best book out there on the conflict. Sakwa "unravels the myths and misunderstandings of the situation, providing an essential and highly-readable account of the struggle for Europe’s contested borderlands".

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