The best books to understand Russia's invasion of Ukraine, threats to democracy, and dangers for the world

Douglas Kellner Author Of American Horror Show: Election 2016 and the Ascent of Donald Trump
By Douglas Kellner

Who am I?

My work since the 1970s has focused on the major political struggles of the day as they impact U.S. democracy and provide challenges for understanding and action. As a professional philosopher, I focused on ways that history, philosophy, and theory provide key tools for the interpretation and critique of salient issues. I've written books on U.S. politics and the media, the Gulf War and Iraq War, 9/11 and the War on Terror, and am particularly interested in the interaction between Russia, the U.S., and Europe; hence, the rise of Putin in Russia, the New Cold War, and the 2020s conflict in Ukraine and the response of Western democracies.


I wrote...

American Horror Show: Election 2016 and the Ascent of Donald Trump

By Douglas Kellner,

Book cover of American Horror Show: Election 2016 and the Ascent of Donald Trump

What is my book about?

American Horror Show describes the authoritarian personality and right-wing populism of Donald Trump and how he incarnates certain features of American Demagoguery that present a clear danger to US democracy. I demonstrate how Trump uses media spectacle, Twitter and social media, and his daily rallies with his base to organize a right-wing populist movement that sees Trump as its Leader. Finally, I investigate the number of pro-Russian members of Trump’s early administration, and his bond with Putin, raising questions of why a Republican President would be in thrall to a Kremlin KGB agent and thug, and asking whether Trump is Putin’s “Useful Idiot,” or his “Poodle,” whose policies and behavior Putin unduly influenced. I argue that Trump’s Authoritarian Presidency threatens the interests of U.S. democracy and our alliances with democratic allies.

The books I picked & why

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The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine

By Serhii Plokhy,

Book cover of The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine

Why this book?

Plokhy’s engaging and well-documented study provides an excellent overview of the entire history of Ukraine and the repeated story of invasion, war, and occupation by its neighbors Poland and especially Russia. In particular, it provides sharp analyses of the complex relations between Ukraine and Russia from the time of its Czars through Stalin, the post-Stalinist Kremlin leadership, and Putin, providing contemporary readers penetrating insights into the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia. The book depicts in dramatic detail and narrative the century-long struggles of Ukraine for sovereignty, its century-long oppression by its neighbors, the terrible mass starvation and murder it suffered from both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in World War II, and its eventual independence—threatened by Russia in the 21st century through the present. In the contemporary context, Plotky’s text provides an illuminating understanding of Ukraine and its conflicted and often tragic history.


Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev

By Andrey Kurkov, Sam Taylor (translator),

Book cover of Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev

Why this book?

Andrey Kurkov is one of Ukraine’s most popular and best-known writers, acclaimed for the satirical Penquin Diaries and many other amusing and penetrating satires of Russia and Ukraine. His Diaries, written during 2014-2015 provide an illuminating first-hand account of the beginning of Russia’s plans to take-over Ukraine, beginning with the seizure of Crimea and Russia’s encouraging and arming of separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine that is hotly contested militarily as I write in summer 2022. Kurkov combines insightful political analysis and documentation of the ongoing crisis in his country with poignant pictures of everyday life and his relations with his wife, children, and friends, ranging from personal crises to social celebrations. Kurkov also provides accounts of his literary activities and cultural activities in Ukraine and Europe, providing vibrant accounts of Ukraine culture, while also expressing his pro-democratic and often satirical and caustic accounts of Ukraine’s politics and the growing threats to the country from Putin and the Russians. 


Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

By Timothy Snyder,

Book cover of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Why this book?

Author of the popular and prescient On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands provides an excellent overview of the crimes of two of the 20th century’s most murderous dictators Hitler and Stalin. Snyder’s history of the period before and after World War II and the threats to Western democracies from Fascism and Communism provide uncanny anticipations of Putin’s crimes in Ukraine and neighboring countries, as well as his Draconian oppression of dissenters in his own country. This book helps provide historical background and context to the threats to democracy and freedom from authoritarian and tyrannical regimes and provides strong new perspectives on the mass killing perpetrated in Central Europe before and after World War II by the Soviet and Nazi regimes.


The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin

By Steven Lee Myers,

Book cover of The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin

Why this book?

Myers presents a powerful narrative of Putin’s rise from being an apparent “accidental president” to his consolidation of power and ability to use state terror to achieve dictatorial power in an authoritarian regime. The biography chapters show Putin emerging as a teenage street thug whose family suffered during World War II to his rise in Leningrad and then Kremlin politics where he emerged as a KGB agent in Dresden during the Fall of the Soviet Union in 1989-90. Putin was obviously traumatized by this experience and returning to Russia he became involved in Kremlin politics, eventually succeeding Boris Yeltsin as President. Myers documents his increasingly authoritarian politics in the 2000s, including the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and his increasingly aggressive oppression of his opponents in Russia, and threatening foreign policy toward his neighbors and the West. Although Myers’ analysis ends in 2015, his study sets the stage for his invasion of Ukraine in the 2020s and helps us understand the dangers Putin and his cronies pose to Western democracies.


The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West

By Edward Lucas,

Book cover of The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West

Why this book?

Lucas’s book provides a geopolitical context for understanding Putin’s Russia and its relations with the West as a “New Cold War.” Lucas documents how Putin and his KGB cronies seized state power and the dominant institutions of Russian society in the early 2000s to form an autocratic state; how they merged with oligarchs controlling state economic institutions and formed a kleptocracy that used financial institutions and their resources to constitute autocratic state power. Lucas puts Putin, his KGB and military cronies, and the oligarchs in a geopolitical framework and demonstrates how their aggressive military and economic policies constitute a clear threat to the West, which Western leaders have not responded to, seeking instead to do business with Putin and Russia, misperceiving his geopolitical intentions. The conclusion indicates how the Western democratic countries need to band together to counter Putin’s threats and aggression, and need to develop a more aggressive counter-policy, providing a useful context to explain and counter Putin’s aggression against Ukraine and its neighbors in the contemporary context.


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