The best books on Russia in Western eyes

John Philipp Baesler Author Of Clearer Than Truth: The Polygraph and the American Cold War
By John Philipp Baesler

Who am I?

Growing up in West Germany, surrounded by American soldiers and with a father who had escaped communist East Germany, the Cold War always fascinated me. What was it about? Would it ever end? When it did, it took everybody by surprise. This lesson, that nothing is certain and that history can always make a turn when you least expect it, stayed with me as I pursued my degrees in history, first in Heidelberg and then at Indiana University Bloomington. As an immigrant to the United States, I study the United States from the outside and the inside. How Americans see themselves, and how they see others, is my main interest that I keep exploring from different angles.

I wrote...

Clearer Than Truth: The Polygraph and the American Cold War

By John Philipp Baesler,

Book cover of Clearer Than Truth: The Polygraph and the American Cold War

What is my book about?

A person strapped to a polygraph machine. Nervous eyes, sweaty brow, the needle trembling up and down. Few images are more evocative of Cold War paranoia. In this first comprehensive history of the polygraph as a tool and symbol of American Cold War policies, John Philipp Baesler tells the story of a technology with weak scientific credentials that was nevertheless celebrated as a device that could expose both internal and external enemies.

Considered the go-to technology to test agents' and employees' loyalty, the polygraph's true power was to expose deep ideological and political fault lines. While advocates praised it as America's hard-nosed yet fair answer to communist brainwashing, critics claimed that its use undermined the very values of justice, equality, and the presumption of innocence for which the nation stood. Clearer Than Truth demonstrates that what began as quick-fix technology promising a precise test of honesty and allegiance eventually came to embody tensions in American Cold War culture between security and freedom, concerns that reach deep into the present day.

The books I picked & why

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Modernization from the Other Shore: American Intellectuals and the Romance of Russian Development

By David C. Engerman,

Book cover of Modernization from the Other Shore: American Intellectuals and the Romance of Russian Development

Why this book?

American observers were endlessly fascinated by Russia long before the Cold War began and before supposed Russian election interference became a news item. However, they could never make up their minds about what made the Russian people tick. In this eye-opening book, David Engerman shows how American journalists, diplomats, and social scientists romanticized and ridiculed Russian peasants, praised or condemned the attempts by the Tsar and the Bolsheviks to modernize Russia by force, and marbled at the Russian “national character.” Engerman in a masterly fashion reveals how prejudices have shaped American views of Russia.

George F. Kennan: Memoirs, 1950-1963

By George Kennan,

Book cover of George F. Kennan: Memoirs, 1950-1963

Why this book?

Diplomat and historian George Kennan wrote with unmatched elegance and clarity. His memoirs, especially the first volume, covering his time in the U.S. embassy in Moscow in the 1940s and the beginning of the Cold War, are a pleasure to read. Kennan sincerely loved Russia but his alarmist view of the communist party profoundly shaped the apocalyptic view of American policymakers of a worldwide communist conspiracy on the march. Kennan later attempted to correct what he saw as a misinterpretation of his views. There is no better introduction to the American policy of containment that began with the Truman administration and continued until 1989.

Darkness at Noon

By Arthur Koestler,

Book cover of Darkness at Noon

Why this book?

This is the only book that can rival George Orwell’s 1984 for the title of the greatest piece of literature on totalitarianism. Koestler, a German-speaking Hungarian Jew who broke with the communist party after Stalin’s pact with Hitler, wrote this novel while he was on the run from Nazism during World War II. It takes us into the mind of communist functionary Roman Rubaschov, who confesses to crimes against the communist party he never committed. Even in death, Rubaschov’s belief in the greater cause trumps his sense of personal dignity. Koestler provides invaluable psychological insight into a part of the communist mindset as it developed under Joseph Stalin. 80 years later, this book still haunts readers.

War with Russia?: From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate

By Stephen F. Cohen,

Book cover of War with Russia?: From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate

Why this book?

For readers following coverage of Russia in the American press, this treatment of recent US-Russian relations will be a revelation. Historian Stephen Cohen, while never downplaying the serious shortcomings of Russia under Vladimir Putin, provides a much-needed correction of the widespread idea that the dangerous decline of US-Russian relations is simply the fault of one man. Cohen meticulously chronicles the many American missteps since the end of the Cold War that any Russian leader would have had to consider acts of U.S. aggression. I love this book because it holds a mirror to American views of innocence and benevolence and paints a much more realistic picture of great power conflict than is presented in the news.

The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev's Adaptability, Reagan's Engagement, and the End of the Cold War

By James Graham Wilson,

Book cover of The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev's Adaptability, Reagan's Engagement, and the End of the Cold War

Why this book?

This book tells it like it is: The end of the Cold War was not the fulfillment of President Reagan’s grand plan to destroy communism, but neither was it the natural outcome of the decline of the Soviet Empire. In Wilson’s telling, based on an array of documents from both sides of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism were, more than anything else, an accident. At crucial points, decision-makers on both sides made the right calls, but they had to respond to events that increasingly took on a dynamic of their own. I love this book because it emphasizes that history is chaos: Not random, but unpredictable!

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