Although Russia is forever one of my favorite reading topics, I had been pretty measured about it in recent years. Wanting more information about what’s going on led me to push a few titles off my backlist, plus some in-translation new releases. I’m glad I did, because they’ve been very illuminating.
I finally read Anna Reid’s Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine, a title which has long languished on my TBR. Years ago I’d loved another book of hers, The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia, so I had high hopes this would be an equally historical and cultural picture of Ukraine.
And it is, although it does end up feeling a bit outdated. I could swear I bought this ebook in 2015/2016 when the updated version after Russia invaded Ukraine THAT time was out, but I guess I got the wrong one because this didn’t include the additional chapters (using that cover anyway because I like it). Starting with the foundations of Kievan Rus, its chapters cover various regions throughout Ukraine’s tumultuous history — the curse of any borderland, especially one sharing a border with Russia.
It’s worth the read despite being older (originally published 1997) from a region where so much has occurred since. The old history hasn’t changed, and some of the historical insights gave me chills:
“With a bearish Russia to its east, and an expanding NATO and European Union to its west, Ukraine remains, as ever, a disputed borderland between rival powers. Ukrainians try to view their position as a blessing. They talk about being a ‘crossroads,’ a ‘doorway,’ a ‘lever,’ a ‘bridge.’ But in this part of the world, bridges tend to get marched over or blown up.”
“Were Ukraine — or more likely Belarus — to lose its independence, Russia would be back glowering over the frontier wire, and Europe’s center of gravity would shift away westward.”
“Annexing the Black Sea steppe, Russia was “gathering the Russians lands,” rebuilding the ancient kingdom of Rus. Catherine had a commemorative medal struck, engraved with the words “I have recovered what was torn away,” and gave her new territories the name Novorossiya – New Russia.”
I still really enjoyed it and I like Reid’s writing, and how she weaves in her own experiences and sights traveling in Ukraine. It’s just another example of the writing for this having been on the wall for a long, long time. Which brings me to perhaps the best book I’ve found yet for understanding what the fuck is going on. Used or new @SecondSale.com
In The Return of the Russian Leviathan, Sergei Medvedev, a professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, breaks down the current state of life and politics in Russia in remarkably understandable and digestible essay-like chapters. If there was a crystal ball to what happened this year, this book is it (and it was written in Russian in 2017-2018, published in English in December 2019). He all but says it’s going to happen. Medvedev looks at the Putin regime’s tactics in recent years (the army of trolls for meddling with the US election, more on them below; the annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine; the brazenness of deploying chemical weapons in the UK) and analyzes what these incidents say about the regime’s greater aims in aggression.
He also looks at Russia’s spike in nationalistic tendencies and picks apart how these things arose from ideas and behaviors that were long embedded in the culture. He even criticizes Churchill’s famous quote about Russia being “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” and says that’s not true at all; it’s easily understandable and proceeds to show how.
His frustration is often palpable, and it’s full of snarky, humorous moments. Laugh-to-keep-from-crying, I suppose. I had expected a more academic tone but it barely ever has one, instead it’s page-turning. Many of the topics were disturbingly new to me and he clearly explains situations and context even in incidents that I think are better known.
Hands-down the best primer for understanding anything of what’s happening as Russian imperialism returns, and what kind of mentality and society are behind it. Endless respect for Medvedev: to write this kind of thing from Russia must have taken a courage I can’t fathom. Used or new @SecondSale.com
Now about those trolls. Putin’s creation of a troll factory in St. Petersburg to sow dissent on American social media and meddle in the US election is magnetically fascinating to me. On the one hand, the audacity (and he just got away with it); on the other, he’s also worked to destabilize democracy in European nations as well. What’s his end game with this shit? (See the last book above.)
But an entire exposé into the trolls sounded too good too believe. Out this week, Putin’s Trolls: On the Frontlines of Russia’s Information War Against the World was researched by Jessikka Aro, a Finnish journalist who ultimately had to leave Finland (of all the seemingly safe places!) due to the harassment she received for her work (she also received a US State Department’s International Women of Courage Award, which was rescinded by the Trump administration because she criticized him on Twitter. Just in case you still had any doubts about that regime’s authoritarian tendencies.)
The troll investigation led her to discover how many private citizens in a number of countries were being targeted by Kremlin disinformation campaigns. The chapter on Serbia and the female journalist who’s been horribly harassed there was the one I appreciated most, because it’s a region I always like reading about and I don’t think it crops up much despite playing quite the little brother role to Russia.
The Kremlin’s tactics are straight-up relentless bullying, right down to the childish use of sexual rumors and dildos, but they’re working. These foreign journalists have been forced to hide, leave their homes, suffer humiliation, and much more just because they told the truth about Russia. It defies belief, and yet.
My issue with this is that it was often dry and sometimes repetitive. Maybe it was the translation that bogged it down, it’s hard to tell. As a comparatively rare nonfiction in translation (first published in Finnish in 2019) I’m always willing to push through more, but it was sometimes a slog. Still worth a read if you’re unfamiliar with much of it, which I was, and these peoples’ stories deserve to be heard. published June 7, 2022 by Ig Publishing. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review. Used or new@SecondSale.com
One of my favorite genres is foreigners-in-Russia-memoirs. I love Russians’ own memoirs too, of course, but there is a lot of value in outsider impressions and I hate this recent attitude about silencing them because there’s a sense someone doesn’t deserve to speak on a place if they’re not from it. Isn’t there room for both? End rant.
All to explain that as soon as I saw The Long Song of Tchaikovsky Street: A Russian Adventure I knew it was for me. Pieter Waterdrinker, a Dutch novelist, was 26 in 1988 when a mysterious stranger asked him in the Netherlands to smuggle bibles into the USSR. It was the beginning of what would become a life for him there.
The book recounts all this, as well as his publisher’s request for an account of the Russian Revolution upon its centenary in 2017. Which he sort of writes, blending it with memoir and his own perspectives from the street where he lives in St. Petersburg with his wife. Unfortunately, although I found the early part of the book compelling, the rest doesn’t work. There are long segues into stories about one of his cats who gets sick and lots of other headscratchers. It jumps all over the place and anecdotes are dragged out into tedium. I could only skim to finish it.
Also because it’s long — over 400 pages – and as I always say, if you’re writing a memoir that clocks in at anything over 300 pages, you’d better have a wildly compelling story to tell. This does not. published in Dutch in 2017, English edition translated by Paul Evans published April 5, 2022 by Scribe US. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.