Some Books to Make Sense of Putin’s War

It’s been a dark few weeks in the world, hasn’t it? Everything still feels surreal, and the news brings fresh horrors every day.

I try to keep this blog solely book-related, but of course the world doesn’t compartmentalize so neatly. It feels worthwhile right now to point people towards some books that can help to understand — as far as that’s at all possible in this completely senseless war — the roots of the Russian aggression towards Ukraine and what kind of thinking motivates dead-shark-eyed Vladimir Putin (again, as far as anyone could understand such a thing).

Last year I read New Yorker correspondent Joshua Yaffa’s Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia. This focuses on a different figure in each chapter, has some fascinating insights, and I love the concept — looking at how and why people in certain areas, like a zookeeper in Crimea, a doctor ferrying children out of the Donbass warzone, and a producer on the Russian state-supported Channel One have adapted to work with Putin’s system.

The last chapter was particularly excellent, showing how anything not considered “soft” opposition has been shut down by the Kremlin, including a brief overview of what happened with Alexei Navalny, Putin’s public enemy no. 1 (at least before he focused his attention on Volodymyr Zelenskyy). Yaffa also provides some helpful analysis of the weak spots that have been appearing in Putin’s governing and his popularity ratings. But I guess I wanted more of this as opposed to much longer looks at individuals, which sometimes lost me a bit.

Stunningly, there’s one quote from a young man he interviews in this last chapter, who says he would’ve voted for Navalny if he’d been allowed on the ballot, but since he wasn’t he was considering voting for Putin. Yaffa, shocked, asks how this can be possible: that he’d like to vote for the person who opposes everything about Putin’s system, yet would actually vote to keep that system in place. He answers that most important for him is that things don’t get worse.

This was such a telling glimpse into one way of thinking currently operating in Russia, and certainly one that’s helped Putin immensely during his reign. Things could be worse, people remember when they were, and at least it’s not that bad now. There’s a direct line drawn between that status quo and Putin.

The book overall is a useful tool for better understanding Russia’s current state, and — unless the disruption comes from within Putin’s circle, which Yaffa suggests is probably the more potentially successful option rather than revolution from below — how things are set to go until 2036.

Also, did you know it was former Soviet cosmonaut and first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova, who’s now a parliament member, who proposed the measure to finagle the constitution to keep Putin in office longer, so basically “resetting” his time as president? Somehow in the flurry of news around his re-upping of the presidency I missed that insane detail, but she was obviously put up to it, even if she supports him. She’s 84!

I almost think I should reread this now considering current events, as it gives a helpful look at very human perspectives within both Russia and Ukraine. published January 14, 2020 by Tim Duggan Books, Used or new @ SecondSale.com

Tim Judah’s In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine is another look at a number of people in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 (this book of dispatches from the front was published the year after) and although I found it a little dry at the time, it’s an excellent primer for understanding the country’s history, political shifts, and some of the local mindsets at that time, which have tremendous resonance right now.

As millions flee Ukraine, the disturbing news has followed that people of color have been beaten, harassed, and not allowed to board trains. Horrifying. There’ve long been accounts of the mistreatment or discrimination of non-white people in Eastern Europe, and although things do seem to be slowly changing and advancing, racism is not as interrogated or condemned as it is in western nations.

Liz @ Adventures in reading, running and working from home reviewed A Brown Man in Russia: Lessons Learned on the Trans-Siberian by Vijay Menon awhile back, and I was so excited to read something on this topic.

A Duke University student of Indian heritage, Menon travels with two friends to Russia (in winter, no less!) to fulfill a dream of taking the Trans-Siberian and spending Christmas in Mongolia. Two of three are Indian, and Russia doesn’t exactly have a reputation of being the most tolerant of darker skinned people. I was so excited to learn this book even existed, and that Menon had a largely positive experience. He did experience some hostility but most of it seemed to stem from curiosity. As Menon puts it himself:

Yes, there were minor occasions of nativism or racism. But they were so wholly overshadowed by the genuine goodness of the people who showed unabashed curiosity towards our stories and who backed it up with boundless displays of goodwill towards us.

The book did have some drawbacks. Menon has an extensive vocabulary, which is always a challenge and a delight, but it did take me out of the reading sometimes, as there’s a somewhat simplistic sentence and storytelling structure suddenly peppered with a ten-dollar word.

It’s structured by relating an incident then explaining it in the context of a life lesson, a format that didn’t always work for me. I was more interested in his experiences themselves than trying to draw broader conclusions that could feel a bit shoehorned in. Or maybe his stories just spoke enough for themselves and I didn’t need additional explanation. In any case, it’s still such a unique book for giving this unusual perspective and for the largely positive experience he had.

Never stop believing in innate human kindness. I saw much more of it on my trip and in my life than I have seen of evil.

I think we can all use this kind of positive reassurance right now, that there’s more goodness in the world than bad. published May 9, 2018 by Glagoslav Publications B.V., Used or new @ SecondSale.com

Some other titles that can help make sense of the war and its context:

Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West, by Catherine Belton – Belton has been interviewed often on the BBC these last weeks, giving insight into Putin and his tight inner circle. Her 2020 book is essential reading for learning about the foundations of the country’s government today and the enigmatic figure behind it.

Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt For Putin’s Spies, by Gordon Corera – Although this reads like a spy thriller, I learned so much from it around Putin’s mindset and what’s most important to him, including how he structures foreign relations and feeds his own suspicions. It shows how he truly is trapped in another world of another time, and like any classic paranoid dictator, doesn’t trust anyone around him and relies on subterfuge.

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice, by Bill Browder – Former hedge funder Browder knows firsthand what Putin is capable of: lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was murdered after a year of torture in a Moscow jail, was working with Browder when he uncovered the massive tax fraud operation run by Russian officials that he refused to be silent about. Browder provides helpful insights into the workings of the government and Putin’s behavior, although none of it bodes well.

But it is reassuring in what Browder was able to do in Magnitsky’s memory — the Magnitsky Act currently being invoked as part of the sanctions to freeze US assets and deny entry to the US was passed in response to his murder — and Browder has a well-timed new book coming next month, Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath, which promises to dig further into Putin’s financial crimes and Browder’s work for justice.

The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen – Gessen is a master at analyzing modern autocracies and this deep dive into Putin’s Russia thoroughly examines everything from social systems to human rights violations.

The Border: A Journey Around Russia, by Erika Fatland, translated from Norwegian by Kari Dickson – A gorgeously written travel memoir crossed with rich history about what it’s like and what it means to be Russia’s neighbor — a harrowing position to be in at the moment, but one also burdened with a long and terrible legacy.

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev is a favorite of mine, where the author, a British TV producer, shows how this “subtle” modern dictatorship is run like a reality show, authoritarianism made entertaining. It’s such an accessible and pretty wild entryway to understanding the modern politics and culture of the country.

Anything on your reading list that’s helpful or informative at the moment? Anna Reid’s Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine has languished on my ereader for way too long, but I think I might swap it out for its updated and revised edition since so much has changed since its original publication. Marci Shore’s The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution also sounds like a great usage of both impressionistic vignettes and scholarship to assess the Maidan Revolution.

18 thoughts on “Some Books to Make Sense of Putin’s War

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  1. Thank you so much for this post, it’s very necessary in a time like this. I’ve added many books to my TBR, Putin’s People and Between Two Fires in particular both sound interesting and informative.

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    1. Thank you for this compilation and the informative reviews. I always appreciate reviews that feature memorable key points of interest. I’m sure I will add at least some of these to my to-read list (some are already there):-). Last year I read “The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War” by Arkady Ostrovsky (I wrote a review on Goodreads). I was/am very curious how contemporary Russia compares to Russia of the U.S.S.R. and found this book very insightful and informative on that front. Added bonuses were I learned more about Russian culture, especially literature, and the liberal intelligentsia. I would also like to read “All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin” by Mikhail Zygar.

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  2. The Border sounds super interesting, combining history and travel 🙂
    Very inspiring list, and I fully agree it’s quite difficult (if not impossible) to keep the war out of any discussion these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree, at times like this it’s hard to keep focused on books. I’ve posted a list of articles & podcasts on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine which I’m trying to keep up to date.

    Your list of books looks like a great selection – thanks for posting them. You’re the 2nd person to recommend Nothing Is True Everything is Possible. The other was Timothy Snyder. Have you read any of his books like On Tyranny or The Road to Unfreedom? (I haven’t yet.)

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    1. I have to check out your list! I’m always looking for new podcasts.

      Nothing is True is so fantastic, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s been years since I read it (right when it came out) and I still think of points and stories from it all the time.

      The only Timothy Snyder I’ve read is Bloodlands, which is outstanding (and also sadly pretty relevant to this topic too) but none of his recent ones. I tried The Road to Unfreedom and gave up on it, I guess I wasn’t in the right mindset for it. But I also remember being irritated about a comparison he was drawing between the Vienna public transit system and New York City’s. I’ve lived many years in both cities and although NYC’s subways are disgusting and outdated and Vienna’s are clean and reliable, it hardly seems a fair comparison to make given both cities’ population and physical sizes. I guess I should’ve waited to hear his entire argument but it put me in a bad mood 😂 Generally I only hear glowing praise for those two books though!

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  4. Wonderful post Rennie. Thanks for the extensive list and your informative summaries. I’m ordering Russians Among Us for my husband’s birthday in a couple days. If he doesn’t read it soon, I’ll beat him to it. Such a terrible tragedy that we’re witnessing unfold. Greater insights into Putin and his grip on the Russian people are exactly what we need right now. This list is a fantastic resource.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Carol!) I can’t recommend Russians Among Us enough, it was so entertaining and informative. I’m excited to hear what you think of it, and I hope your husband enjoys it too!

      It is absolutely terrible and heartbreaking, and we’re watching it from Berlin at the moment, where everyone is pretty much beside themselves. Just an unreal time. I hope for the best but even if it ended today it would still be disastrous.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh my! I didn’t consider that you might be in Berlin right now. Do you feel safe? The situation has me rethinking travel to France in a few months. With so many refugees, I’ve even wondered whether I should be taking up a spare bed but perhaps that’s silly. I’ve also wondered if there are ways to volunteer to help deliver refugee services. I suppose we’ll know more in coming weeks. You make a solid but sobering point that even if it ended today it would still be disastrous. It’s so maddeningly unjust that one man can unleash that much suffering.

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      2. Yes, we’re here since end of Jan until the beginning of April. I do feel safe, but still in shock and it feels like the bottom could fall out at any minute. This is all so uncertain and when you’re at the whims of a maniac like him, it’s hard to feel any sense of security at all. We’ve been volunteering at the arrival points for refugees but most of the time there are too many volunteers — everyone here is really pulling together.

        I don’t think you should worry about taking up a spare bed, lots of hostels and the like have donated them, as have private people. Poland is pretty much at capacity for its resources and Berlin will be next so further western countries will have to open up more, also depending on how long this goes on. At the moment the refugees are hesitant to travel too far because they really want to go home. Unfortunately it looks less and less likely that they’ll be able to anytime soon, but who really knows…I guess it’s not worth making (or cancelling) plans too far in advance, just wait and see! I do hope you’ll be able to go!

        It really is maddening, in so many ways, we feel helpless but terrified that others will be next. I cry every day watching the news or leaving the stations after volunteering, I don’t know how anyone can see this devastation and just keep going, he’s truly a sociopath.

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