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

The Books I Picked & Why

Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin

By Clifford G. Gaddy, Fiona Hill

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.


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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?

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.


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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?

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.


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

By Daniel Treisman

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”.


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

By Timothy Frye

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.


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