The best books for understanding Putinism

Mark Lawrence Schrad Author Of Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State
By Mark Lawrence Schrad

Who am I?

I’ve lived, learned, and loved Russian politics since before the collapse of communism. My Vodka Politics book takes a deep dive into Russian history but is ultimately focussed on better understanding contemporary social, economic, and political developments in Russia, where Putin and Putinism are at the core. Having taught graduate and undergraduate courses on Russian and post-Soviet politics for the past fifteen years, I find it essential to keep up-to-date on the latest scholarship. There are many great works out there by gifted journalists, writers, and scholars, many of which illuminate perhaps only part of Russia’s personalized autocracy. The ones I’ve listed here I feel present the most well-rounded picture, from a wide variety of perspectives.


I wrote...

Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State

By Mark Lawrence Schrad,

Book cover of Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State

What is my book about?

Vodka Politics is a history of Russia through the bottom of the vodka bottle, from Ivan the Terrible through Vladimir Putin, and beyond. Rather than just a series of drunken vignettes, the book tries to better understand that persistent stereotype of the drunken Russian—an important reality that has serious ramifications for the economy, politics, and societal health and well-being. Ultimately the book argues that societal alcoholism isn’t some deeply ingrained, almost genetic predisposition; but rather the consequence of centuries of autocratic political and economic decisions that put state finances and political expediency ahead of the physical well-being of society.

The books I picked & why

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Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin

By Clifford G. Gaddy, Fiona Hill,

Book cover of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin

Why this book?

You may recognize Fiona Hill from her damning testimony in the first impeachment of President Donald Trump in the Ukraine scandal, at which time she was senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council. Prior to that, she—along with co-author Cliff Gaddy—were two of the top minds on Russian politics at the Brookings Institute.

Together their book, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin goes beyond the standard biographies of Vladimir Putin’s rise from the streets of Leningrad to the KGB to the Kremlin. More importantly, it highlights the variety of roles that Putin plays in the role he currently occupies: the embodiment of the state, the interpreter of Russian history, the survivalist, the outsider, the free marketeer, and the case officer. Understanding how Putin switches from one role to another atop the Russian political system is crucial to understand that system.

Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin

By Clifford G. Gaddy, Fiona Hill,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Mr. Putin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fiona Hill and other U.S. public servants have been recognized as Guardians of the Year in TIME's 2019 Person of the Year issue.

From the KGB to the Kremlin: a multidimensional portrait of the man at war with the West.

Where do Vladimir Putin's ideas come from? How does he look at the outside world? What does he want, and how far is he willing to go?

The great lesson of the outbreak of World War I in 1914 was the danger of misreading the statements, actions, and intentions of the adversary. Today, Vladimir Putin has become the greatest challenge…


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

By Mikhail Zygar,

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

Why this book?

Of course, it takes more than one man to run a country, and in All the Kremlin’s Men, opposition journalist Mikhail Zygar expands that scope to examine various important figures within Putin’s inner circle. From good friends to politicians, important bureaucrats, and oligarchs—and in many cases, the lines between those categories are very much blurred. Zygar builds on a decade’s worth of interviews and investigative journalism to give a rare, behind-the-scenes look at Russia’s elites, how they relate to one another, and to Putin. The book presents an immensely readable history of post-Soviet Russian politics, moving the chronology forward from 1980s reformism to the tumultuous 1990s, and into the era of High Putinism, with each chapter highlighting the role of this leader or that. The Russian-language original, Vsya kremlevskaya rat’, quickly became a bestseller in Russian nonfiction, which also resulted in ever greater political pressure by the Kremlin against Zygar as a proponent of good governance and investigative journalism.

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

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…


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

By Peter Pomerantsev,

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

Why this book?

Not a traditional history or political-science book, the London-raised Pomerantsev provides a series of telling vignettes, culled from his ten years of working as a television executive as part of the Kremlin’s state-run media. Through these stories, he conveys how the Russian state utilizes television propaganda to convey the image of competent political leadership, while smearing the opposition. The public largely understands that they are subjected to pro-Kremlin propaganda, leading people to adhere to different public and private notions of themselves. By convincing people that everything is “spin” or “PR”—either for or against the Kremlin—the entire notion of objective, knowable truth is cast into doubt, creating a gullible cynicism that is most useful to the state.

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

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…


The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin's Russia

By Daniel Treisman (editor),

Book cover of The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin's Russia

Why this book?

How is it that political strongmen—from Putin in Russia to Hungary, Venezuela, Peru, and beyond—are able to impose their authoritarian control without the mass bloodshed of dictatorships past? UCLA Political Science Professor Daniel Treisman—along with Russian economist Sergei Guriev (Sciences Po)—have developed a New Autocracy model suggesting that individuals are less concerned with democracy per se, and more with competent government. Leaders, accordingly, use mechanisms of media manipulation and selective suppression to build the image of government competence. In this edited volume, Treisman and his co-authors demonstrate convincingly that this framework better explains political outcomes—including the annexation of Crimea—than alternative explanations, from Russia as the reincarnation of the Soviet Union, a mafia kleptocracy, a KGB state, or other formulations of “illiberal democracy”.

The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin's Russia

By Daniel Treisman (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The New Autocracy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Corruption, fake news, and the "informational autocracy" sustaining Putin in power

After fading into the background for many years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia suddenly has emerged as a new threat-at least in the minds of many Westerners. But Western assumptions about Russia, and in particular about political decision-making in Russia, tend to be out of date or just plain wrong.

Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin since 2000, Russia is neither a somewhat reduced version of the Soviet Union nor a classic police state. Corruption is prevalent at all levels of government and business, but Russia's…


Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia

By Timothy Frye,

Book cover of Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia

Why this book?

The most recent book on the list, Timothy Frye’s Weak Strongman brings together many of the different factors and perspectives from previous readings. Rather than playing to contemporary stereotypes of the omnipotence of the Russian political system and its leader, Frye explores the limits of Putinism. It highlights the importance of maintaining a positive image for Russian public opinion, and how that weighs into the various policy tradeoffs and strategic decisions made by the Kremlin. These more distant, theoretical questions are couched in prescient and timely discussions of Putin’s enduring popularity, the prospects for Russia’s resource-based economy, the role of strategic repression and media manipulation, the roots of frayed relations with the West, and the questionable utility of foreign election meddling and cyber-warfare.

Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia

By Timothy Frye,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Weak Strongman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Looking beyond Putin to understand how today's Russia actually works

Media and public discussion tends to understand Russian politics as a direct reflection of Vladimir Putin's seeming omnipotence or Russia's unique history and culture. Yet Russia is remarkably similar to other autocracies-and recognizing this illuminates the inherent limits to Putin's power. Weak Strongman challenges the conventional wisdom about Putin's Russia, highlighting the difficult trade-offs that confront the Kremlin on issues ranging from election fraud and repression to propaganda and foreign policy.

Drawing on three decades of his own on-the-ground experience and research as well as insights from a new generation…


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