Since the Russian invasion began on 24 February, thousands of people have died as a result of the hostilities. The war began much earlier, when Russia annexed Crimea and began occupying the eastern part of Ukraine in 2014. Our editors Kasia Krzyzanowska and Michal Matlak have selected 5 books that encourage a better understanding of the aggressor: Vladimir Putin and the system he has created. This list is not exhaustive and serves as an invitation to further explore Putinism and its sources.
Karen Dawisha, “Putin’s Kleptocracy. Who Owns Russia?” (Simon&Schuster 2014)
There is a plethora of books that discuss Putin’s oligarchic inner circle (see here, here or here, all of them highly recommended). However, a book by Karen Dawisha, an American scholar of Russia (who died in 2018) is one of the most comprehensive accounts of Putin’s rise to power. Dawisha’s book gives a massive, well-researched and detailed account of the origins of the Putin’s kleptocratic regime. Dawisha shows how the K.G.B., Putin’s cabal (dating back to the Soviet Eastern Germany), was integrated into the state’s structure,and how greed, corruption and mafia loyalty penetrated Russian governance. Many characters that appear on the pages of Dawisha’s book have been recently sanctioned by the EU. Dawisha wrote the book overseveral years, collecting data from the Stasi archives, interviews with Russian defectors, investigative journalists, and diplomats. She admits, “a democracy is easier to research than a dictatorship”, but she managed to name thousands of connections between business, politics and secret services. Moreover, Dawisha depicted how globalization helped Putin’s cronies to transfer gains into offshore deposits, where the rule of law architecture secured assets in Western banks. The author claimed, contrary to many scholars, that democracy was used as “a decoration rather than direction” in Russia and was never thought of as a path for this country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Writing such a detailed map of corruption and bribe-taking — spilling over to businesses with Western partners; head of Russian IKEA was told that a meeting with Putin would cost $5 to $10 million — led to the rejection of the manuscript of the book by Cambridge University Press, afraid of claimant-friendly libel laws.
Peter Pomerantsev, “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. The Surreal Heart of the New Russia” (Public Affairs, 2014)
Any list about Putinism would be incomplete without a position on the Kremlin propaganda. Peter Pomerantsev worked in the Russian media company TNT (sponsored by Gazprom) for several years since 2006, before he became an expert on information wars and global propaganda campaigns in social media. Thanks to his impeccable English accent and experience gained while working in the London media industry (the writer’s parents were political emigres from Kiev who settled in Great Britain in the late 1970s), Pomerantsev was able to infiltrate the Russian propaganda machine. What he discovered was that in Russian television there was no place for rationality nor truth; it only inflicted fear and it only inflicted fear and panic. The only way was to present the Russian point of view, which is, of course, the Kremlin point of view. This book shows how the production of ‘Russia Today’ looked before the EU and the US decided to impose sanctions on the RT outlets. Apart from producing fictional narratives when attacking Georgia or annexing Crimea (referring to the Ukrainian government as “fascist taking over Ukraine”), RT gave coverage to anti-US American academics, far-right European politicians (notably, Nigel Farage), and far left leaders like the supporter of Saddam Hussein, George Galloway. In short, Pomerantsev compellingly depicts how the Kremlin propaganda used Western personas to softly transmit its “antihegemonic” message, reaching outside Russian audience. A bit sarcastic, Pomerantsev nevertheless still manages to show how the TV propaganda managed to unify so diverse country as Russia and how easily it became “a new type of authoritarianism” bringing aid to Putin in his information wars.
Sergei Lebedev, “Untraceable”, transl. by Antonina W. Bouis (Apollo 2021)
Praised by Karl One Knausgard and Svetlana Alexievich, Lebedev is believed to be one of the finest Russian writers of the younger generation. Orlando Figes stated that Lebedev is the first writer since Alexander Solzhenitsyn who dives into the Russian collective consciousness and country’s history so deeply. “Untraceable”, constructed like a political thriller a lá John le Carré, is about a Russian scientists who flies to the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union, just to discover that the lethal poison he had developed might be used against governmental opponents like him. Lebedev wrote this book having in mind the recent poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury, but just one year later the Russian nerve agent was used against Alexei Navalny, proving that killing opposition leaders is a clear pattern for Russian operations. Lebedev shows how the hidden networks from the Soviet past are still influencing Russia’s present and how it is impossible to disentangle science from the service of totalitarian politics led by a former K.G.B officer.
Sergey Medvedev “The Return of the Russian Leviathan” (Polity 2019)
Few texts about Putin’s Russia show the wider context, Russian society and its culture without an exclusive focus on its gloomy president. Among the authors who have brilliantly painted this background is SergeyMedvedev, author of “The Return of the Russian Leviathan”. The book is a panorama of contemporary Russia which shows the author’s longing for Russia to become a European post-imperial state reconciled with its neighbours and its own history, but also the reasons why this is not possible. The short and superbly written texts grouped into four chapters (“War for space”, “War for symbols”, “War for the body” and “War for memory”) describe how Putin’s Russia is moving ever further away from the “normal” European path and towards a nightmarish dictatorship, for which the invasion of Ukraine seems a logical continuation. In the chapter “Moscow Maidan” on Yanayev’s failed 1991 putsch, Medvedev shows his moving hope for a European Russia (he himself took part in this demonstration). The whole book is one big cry of pain arising from regret that this did not happen.
Arkady Ostrovsky “The Invention of Russia. From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War” (Penguin Publishing Group 2017)
Arkady Ostrovsky, a long-time correspondent for The Economist and the Financial Times in Moscow, describes the last three decades of Russian history with special emphasis on the press, television and their relations with the authorities. According to Ostrovsky, Russia is an ideas-centered country and the media plays an extremely important role in it. As a result, the Soviet Union collapsed when Gorbachev first lifted censorship and allowed Russians to learn the truth about their own country. One element of this struggle is the struggle for memory, also described by Medvedev, which legitimises different visions of Russia. Ostrovsky shows the path from the freedom of speech in Gorbachev’s times to its almost complete obliteration by Vladimir Putin (“almost” became „completely” after the invasion of Ukraine). Ostrovsky brilliantly describes the lack of thinking in statist terms of the Russian oligarchs who own the media, which suits Putin, who wantsthe media to provide people with entertainment and the government’s vision of reality. And although Putin in Ostrovsky’s story is the culmination of the evils afflicting Russia, his success would not have been possible were it not for the weaknesses of the Russian elite, intelligentsia and society as a whole.
In collaboration with Karen Culver