The best books about the Kremlin

2 authors have picked their favorite books about the Kremlin and why they recommend each book.

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Twenty Letters to a Friend

By Svetlana Alliluyeva,

Book cover of Twenty Letters to a Friend: A Memoir

Svetlana Alliluyeva was Josef Stalin’s daughter. In 1967 she fled to the West bringing this memoir with her. It was published to universal acclaim in the same year. An epistolary memoir it gives remarkable insight into her life growing up in the Kremlin. Haunting, at times lyrical, always affecting, she shows Stalin as something other than the monster we take him to be. She makes no excuses for him but it is salutary to see him portrayed as a father and a human being. An antidote to the all-too-easy dismissal of him as ‘a monster’.


Who am I?

I’m a child of the Cold War. Until the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 this strange standoff between the Soviet Union and the Western allies informed everyone’s life, but my own case was particular because my father served in the Royal Air Force. For three years he was even in command of three squadrons of nuclear bombers. With a background like that, how could I not be interested in the larger picture? Since then I have gone on to write novels with all kinds of settings but the other side of the now defunct Iron Curtain has always held a fascination... and has directly led to at least three of my own books.


I wrote...

Prague Spring

By Simon Mawer,

Book cover of Prague Spring

What is my book about?

It’s the summer of 1968, the year of love and hate, of Prague Spring and Cold War winter. Two English students, Ellie and James, set off to hitch-hike across Europe with no particular aim in mind but a continent, and themselves, to discover. Somewhere in southern Germany they decide, on a whim, to visit Czechoslovakia where Alexander Dubcek’s ‘socialism with a human face’ is smiling on the world.

Meanwhile, Sam Wareham, a first secretary at the British embassy in Prague, is observing developments in the country with a mixture of diplomatic cynicism and a young man’s passion. In the company of Czech student Lenka Konecková, he finds a way into the world of Czechoslovak youth, its hopes, and its ideas. It seems that, for the first time, nothing is off-limits behind the Iron Curtain. Yet the wheels of politics are grinding in the background. The Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev is making demands of Dubcek and the Red Army is massed on the borders. How will the looming disaster affect those fragile lives caught up in the invasion?

The Russian Mind

By Ronald Hingley,

Book cover of The Russian Mind

I found this book to be full of insights into Russian thinking and culture. I never met Hingley, but would have loved tohis work has had a real influence on my own approach to studying and thinking about Russia. I find him a fluent writer who can take complex and controversial subjects and make them accessible. This is such a rich book. Hingley tries to explain problems of perspective in thinking about a different culture, before moving on to address a wide range of themes from Russian literature to history, geography, and politics. Times and attitudes change, but I find that it helps to frame some persistent questions about Russian life, and this book is such a good way to understand how things doand don’thappen in Russia. 


Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by different cultures. I started to learn Russian in 1998, and intrigued by the language, I began to study Russia more—delving into history and politics and then doing a PhD in Russian foreign policy. Ever since, trying to learn about and understand Russia has been my professional focus. Alongside books in Russian, these books are all to hand on my reference shelf, well-thumbed and marked up, as I try to write my own work. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have! 


I wrote...

Russian Grand Strategy in the Era of Global Power Competition

By Andrew Monaghan,

Book cover of Russian Grand Strategy in the Era of Global Power Competition

What is my book about?

Is the Russian leadership acting strategically or opportunistically—or simply led by a madman? Should Russia’s activity be understood in regional or more global terms? Does Moscow have a long-term plan? These questions have become ever more urgent since February 2022 when Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine.  

This book looks at Russia’s military and maritime strategies, its role as an energy power, and efforts to diversify its economy to a ‘post-West’ world to show how Moscow has sought to position Russia for intensifying global geoeconomic competition and conflict into the 2020s. The book highlights Moscow’s priorities and problems as it seeks to establish Russia as a ubiquitous and indispensable power.

China and Russia

By Alexander Lukin,

Book cover of China and Russia: The New Rapprochement

Too often, Russia is seen through Euro-Atlantic eyes and in European terms. But the Russian leadership has long spoken of a shift in global power, the emergence of a “post-West” worldand of the 21st Century being a “Pacific Century.” China has long been at the heart of this view, and an important priority in Russian foreign policyand this book by a prominent Russian expert traces a Russian view of the emergent Sino-Russian rapprochement. Not everyone will agree with his analysis, but I like thinking about things from different angles, and the intellectual challenge he poses becomes ever more important as sanctions take hold of the Russian economy and as the Sino-Russian partnership becomes one of the central questions of international affairs today.


Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by different cultures. I started to learn Russian in 1998, and intrigued by the language, I began to study Russia more—delving into history and politics and then doing a PhD in Russian foreign policy. Ever since, trying to learn about and understand Russia has been my professional focus. Alongside books in Russian, these books are all to hand on my reference shelf, well-thumbed and marked up, as I try to write my own work. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have! 


I wrote...

Russian Grand Strategy in the Era of Global Power Competition

By Andrew Monaghan,

Book cover of Russian Grand Strategy in the Era of Global Power Competition

What is my book about?

Is the Russian leadership acting strategically or opportunistically—or simply led by a madman? Should Russia’s activity be understood in regional or more global terms? Does Moscow have a long-term plan? These questions have become ever more urgent since February 2022 when Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine.  

This book looks at Russia’s military and maritime strategies, its role as an energy power, and efforts to diversify its economy to a ‘post-West’ world to show how Moscow has sought to position Russia for intensifying global geoeconomic competition and conflict into the 2020s. The book highlights Moscow’s priorities and problems as it seeks to establish Russia as a ubiquitous and indispensable power.

All the Kremlin's Men

By Mikhail Zygar,

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

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…


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.

Mr. Putin

By Clifford G. Gaddy, Fiona Hill,

Book cover of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin

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.


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 Russian Economy

By Richard Connolly,

Book cover of The Russian Economy: A Very Short Introduction

The strength and resilienceor notof the Russian economy is one of the most important questions in international affairs since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022: policymakers and observers alike are asking what effects the wide-ranging sanctions are having, and whether the Russian economy will implode, thwarting Moscow’s aggression. I’m not an economist so I need help understanding this, and I found this book to be the best introduction to this complex and difficult subject. Connolly also wrote a fine book on the impact of sanctions on Russia since 2014, but I think this one gives a concise and accessible assessment of the Russian economy as a whole, the role of the state, and Moscow’s attempted diversification of economic partners and integration into the global economy.


Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by different cultures. I started to learn Russian in 1998, and intrigued by the language, I began to study Russia more—delving into history and politics and then doing a PhD in Russian foreign policy. Ever since, trying to learn about and understand Russia has been my professional focus. Alongside books in Russian, these books are all to hand on my reference shelf, well-thumbed and marked up, as I try to write my own work. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have! 


I wrote...

Russian Grand Strategy in the Era of Global Power Competition

By Andrew Monaghan,

Book cover of Russian Grand Strategy in the Era of Global Power Competition

What is my book about?

Is the Russian leadership acting strategically or opportunistically—or simply led by a madman? Should Russia’s activity be understood in regional or more global terms? Does Moscow have a long-term plan? These questions have become ever more urgent since February 2022 when Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine.  

This book looks at Russia’s military and maritime strategies, its role as an energy power, and efforts to diversify its economy to a ‘post-West’ world to show how Moscow has sought to position Russia for intensifying global geoeconomic competition and conflict into the 2020s. The book highlights Moscow’s priorities and problems as it seeks to establish Russia as a ubiquitous and indispensable power.

First Person

By Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,

Book cover of First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia's President

So much has been written about Vladimir Putin since he came to power, from long biographies to short psychological assessments to fleeting conspiracy theories, all to try to better understand Russia’s long-term leader. This book is a publication of a series of interviews he gave to three Russian journalists when he first came to power back in 1999/2000. So much has happened since, but I found this book to be full of fascinating insights into Putin himself, but also how he views Russian (political) culture, and also those around him that he has continued to rely on ever since. “Surely there are more details?” one of the interviewers asks. “Yes, there are,” comes his reply. But I think this is the place to start.


Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by different cultures. I started to learn Russian in 1998, and intrigued by the language, I began to study Russia more—delving into history and politics and then doing a PhD in Russian foreign policy. Ever since, trying to learn about and understand Russia has been my professional focus. Alongside books in Russian, these books are all to hand on my reference shelf, well-thumbed and marked up, as I try to write my own work. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have! 


I wrote...

Russian Grand Strategy in the Era of Global Power Competition

By Andrew Monaghan,

Book cover of Russian Grand Strategy in the Era of Global Power Competition

What is my book about?

Is the Russian leadership acting strategically or opportunistically—or simply led by a madman? Should Russia’s activity be understood in regional or more global terms? Does Moscow have a long-term plan? These questions have become ever more urgent since February 2022 when Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine.  

This book looks at Russia’s military and maritime strategies, its role as an energy power, and efforts to diversify its economy to a ‘post-West’ world to show how Moscow has sought to position Russia for intensifying global geoeconomic competition and conflict into the 2020s. The book highlights Moscow’s priorities and problems as it seeks to establish Russia as a ubiquitous and indispensable power.

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