The best books to understand today’s Russia

Who am I?

It’s all about the stories. Although I have been a professor, a think-tanker, and a secondee to the Foreign Office, by training I am a historian, so I love compelling, vivid, extraordinary stories, and for me, the best ones come from Russia. Having been traveling there since Soviet times, done my Ph.D. on it, drunk there with spooks and gangsters, talked late in the night in the kitchens of artists and journalists, I am as hooked as I ever was, and privileged to be able to write, teach, lecture and think about this splendidly bizarre place.

I wrote...

We Need to Talk about Putin: Why the West Gets Him Wrong, and How to Get Him Right

By Mark Galeotti,

Book cover of We Need to Talk about Putin: Why the West Gets Him Wrong, and How to Get Him Right

What is my book about?

In this essential primer, Professor Mark Galeotti uncovers the man behind the myth, addressing the key misperceptions of Putin and explaining how we can decipher his motivations and next moves. From Putin’s early life in the KGB and his real relationship with the USA to his vision for the future of Russia – and the world – Galeotti draws on new Russian sources and explosive unpublished accounts to give unparalleled insight into the man at the heart of global politics.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Putin Mystique Inside Russia's Power Cult

Why did I love this book?

Most studies of modern Russia, under the shadow of Vladimir Putin, start from the top down. This elegantly quirky study, by a journalist working in Russia, looks bottom up: why has Russia so often been ruled by autocrats, and why did the Russian people – at first, at least – accept this rather grey ex-KGB officer as their new tsar so enthusiastically? It’s a biography of modern Russia more than anything else, framed around a range of characters Arutunyan encountered in her travels around this fascinating country.

By Anna Arutunyan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Putin Mystique Inside Russia's Power Cult as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

GETTING TO GRIPS WITH RUSSIA’S 21ST CENTURY TSAR Vladimir V. Putin has confounded world leaders and defied their assumptions as they tried to figure him out, only to misjudge him time and again. The Putin Mystique takes the reader on a journey through the Russia of Vladimir Putin, named by Forbes magazine in 2013 as the most powerful man in the world. It is a neo-feudal world where iPads, WTO membership, and Brioni business suits conceal a power structure straight out of the Middle Ages, where the Sovereign is perceived as both divine and demonic, where a man’s riches are…

Book cover of Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?

Why did I love this book?

It’s all about the money. Behind the nationalist bluster, the Putin regime is made up of a collection of crooks and cronies embezzling, taking bribes and demanding payoffs with enthusiastic greed. Although one can question her assumption that this was the plan from the beginning – Putin is more an opportunist than a planner – it’s a meticulous and scholarly exploration of how a country can be stolen from under the noses of its own people.

By Karen Dawisha,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Putin's Kleptocracy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The raging question in the world today is who is the real Vladimir Putin and what are his intentions. Karen Dawisha’s brilliant Putin’s Kleptocracy provides an answer, describing how Putin got to power, the cabal he brought with him, the billions they have looted, and his plan to restore the Greater Russia.

Russian scholar Dawisha describes and exposes the origins of Putin’s kleptocratic regime. She presents extensive new evidence about the Putin circle’s use of public positions for personal gain even before Putin became president in 2000. She documents the establishment of Bank Rossiya, now sanctioned by the US; the…

Book cover of All the Kremlin's Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin

Why did I love this book?

When it comes down to it, Putin is just one man, and not necessarily the smartest guy in the room. So who else is in the room? This is a real insider’s guide to some of the key figures in Putin’s circle, the men who don’t just execute the boss’s orders, but get to shape his view of the world. Even when they retire, these are not the kind of people who write autobiographies, so Zygar’s readable guide to Putin’s court, pieced together from public interviews, press accounts and off-the-record gossip, is the best account of what goes in in these inner circles.

By Mikhail Zygar,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked All the Kremlin's Men as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

All the Kremlin's Men is a gripping narrative of an accidental king and a court out of control. Based on an unprecedented series of interviews with Vladimir Putin's inner circle, this book presents a radically different view of power and politics in Russia. The image of Putin as a strongman is dissolved. In its place is a weary figurehead buffeted--if not controlled--by the men who at once advise and deceive him.

The regional governors and bureaucratic leaders are immovable objects, far more powerful in their fiefdoms than the president himself. So are the gatekeepers-those officials who guard the pathways to…

Book cover of Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin's Russia

Why did I love this book?

Russians are not intrinsically good, bad, or ugly, they’re just like the rest of us. But living in Putin’s era often forces all kinds of compromises on people, especially if they want to live well and make a difference to the world around them. New Yorker’s Yaffa digs deep into the experiences of eight such ambitious Russians, some of whom deformed themselves to thrive, others of whom were all but broken by the experience. It’s not always the easiest book to read, but it’s an excellent exploration of what living in today’s Russia can mean.

By Joshua Yaffa,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Between Two Fires as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


In this penetrating exploration of contemporary Russia, Joshua Yaffa meets a variety of Russians - from politicians and entrepreneurs to artists and historians - who have built their careers and constructed their identities in the shadow of the Putin system. Torn between their own ambitions and the omnipresent demands of the state, each has found that compromise is essential for survival and success. Between Two Fires is an intimate and probing portrait of a nation much discussed but little understood, and an urgent lesson about the nature of modern authoritarianism.

Book cover of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia

Why did I love this book?

With all the hype about Russian disinformation and propaganda these days, it’s worth asking just why they seem so good at it. In part it is because we are pretty gullible, but it is also because of the way Russians emerged from Soviet conformism into a surreal new world of fast money, post-modern politics and constant change, where politics was more like reality TV and yesterday’s conspiracy theory could be tomorrow’s fact. Pomerantsev, who worked in Russian TV in the wild nineties, presents a compelling and delightfully readable sense of quite how this created a world of fake politics and constantly renegotiated narratives.

By Peter Pomerantsev,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the new Russia, even dictatorship is a reality show. Professional killers with the souls of artists, would-be theater directors turned Kremlin puppet-masters, suicidal supermodels, Hell's Angels who hallucinate themselves as holy warriors, and oligarch revolutionaries: welcome to the glittering, surreal heart of twenty-first-century Russia. It is a world erupting with new money and new power, changing so fast it breaks all sense of reality, home to a form of dictatorship--far subtler than twentieth-century strains--that is rapidly rising to challenge the West. When British producer Peter Pomerantsev plunges into the booming Russian TV industry, he gains access to every nook…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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