The best books to understand today’s Russia

The Books I Picked & Why

Putin Mystique Inside Russia's Power Cult

By Anna Arutunyan

Putin Mystique Inside Russia's Power Cult

Why 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.


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Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?

By Karen Dawisha

Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?

Why 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.


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

By Mikhail Zygar

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

Why 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.


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

By Joshua Yaffa

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

Why 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.


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

By Peter Pomerantsev

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

Why 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.


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