The 7 Best Books of Summer 2016 for the Avid Russia Watcher

Whether you’re headed this summer to the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard or Sochi on the Russian Riviera, here are the 7 books you’ll want to download to your e-book reader or toss into your weekend travel bag. Offering different views on the history, culture and politics of the crazy, mixed-up land known as Russia, they are a must-read for any serious Russia watcher — both Russophobes and Russophiles — attempting to make sense of current developments in the Kremlin.

Putin Country: A Journey Into the Real Russia by Anne Garrels

One common mistake made by many Russia watchers is attempting to understand Russia simply by trying to understand what’s happening in Moscow. That would be the equivalent of someone in Russia trying to understand America only by focusing on New York or Washington. There’s a lot to learn from “flyover country” both in the U.S. and Russia — and that’s exactly the premise of this new book from former NPR foreign correspondent Anne Garrels, who details the development of one Russian city — Chelyabinsk — over a twenty-year period:

“Moscow is not Russia, and in the 1990s it was clear that the country’s richest and most powerful city was racing even further ahead. Moscow is not just the capital and seat of government. It is also the financial, commercial, cultural and entertainment center — Washington, New York, Chicago and L.A. all wrapped into one.”

The book is the inside story of Chelyabinsk, a rusting, failed industrial city far from Moscow and how it became a fitting symbol for understanding the evolution of modern Russia. Once you understand how the collapse of the Soviet Union impacted Chelyabinsk, the rise of Vladimir Putin begins to make more sense. Garrels tells her story from the vantage point of the everyday men and women of Chelyabinsk, from LGBT and human rights activists to taxi drivers and industrial workers. What emerges is an engrossing summary of life in post-Soviet Russia.

The Invention of Russia by Arkady Ostrovsky

In “The Invention of Russia,” Arkady Ostrovsky, the former Moscow bureau chief of the Economist, details the social, political and economic changes that took place in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. From Ostrovsky’s vantage point, control of the media became the key to consolidating power in the Russian state, both in the 1990s under Yeltsin and in the 2000s under Putin. That might have been one of the most important lessons learned by Putin when he became President — that controlling the message would be the key to holding on to power in perilous times.

After reading Ostrovsky’s book, it’s possible to argue that the whole concept of the modern Russian state has been dreamed up by Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin elite to fill an enormous psychological void, and then given form and shape by state-run propaganda. What else can you do when you realize that your once great nation turned out to be nothing more than just a hulking wreck and a global laughingstock? Adding insult to injury, the once promising Western reforms of liberal democracy brought nothing but chaos and economic decline under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Under Putin, there needed to be a carefully orchestrated message of Russian greatness promising a brighter future. The hidden catch is that it came with a reduction in personal liberties.

The Romanovs: 1613–1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Taking a break from writing about Stalin, eminent historian Simon Sebag Montefiore turns his attention to writing about the nearly 300-year imperial dynasty that ruled Russia up until the period of the Bolshevik Revolution. Weighing in at 744 pages — and including accounts of boyars being tossed into freezing rivers and political rivals in the Kremlin being beheaded — this is not light beach reading. But there’s something wonderful and enchanting about reading about a bygone Russian imperial era.

And did we mention that the book cover design is absolutely gorgeous? Even if you don’t actually plan on reading all 744 pages, it would be an absolutely stunning aesthetic complement to any beautiful summer dacha picnic table, especially next to a golden Faberge egg.

The New Russia by Mikhail Gorbachev

First published in Russia last year, the memoirs of Mikhail Gorbachev are finally available to Westerners. What’s fascinating from the perspective of foreign policy is how differently Gorbachev is viewed in Russia compared to the U.S.

In Russia, Gorbachev is basically a painful reminder of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the period of anarchy and chaos that followed the introduction of market reforms. In the U.S., he’s viewed as a liberal reformer and a courageous critic of the repressive Soviet system.

Remember when TIME magazine named Gorbachev “Man of the Year” in 1987 and 1989 and then “Man of the Decade”? That never would have happened in Russia, where he’s more the “Failure of the Decade.”

Return to Cold War by Robert Legvold

The Cold War just won’t go away. This time, prominent Columbia University historian Robert Legvold argues that U.S.-Russian relations have already slid down a slippery slope to a new Cold War, perhaps more pernicious than the previous one mostly because the world’s current leaders don’t seem to have the same innate fear of nukes as the Americans and Soviets did during the first Cold War. Add in the constant threat of terrorism and cyberwarfare, and the global security environment appears to be particularly dangerous.

To bring back some semblance of stability, Legvold argues that the West should stop isolating Russia and, instead, find ways to engage the bear. While Ukraine will remain a point of contention, there’s room for Russia to help out with Euro-Atlantic security arrangements and calm tensions with China and North Korea in Asia. Plus, well, there’s always Syria, right?

I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives: Inside Putin’s War on Russia’s Opposition by Marc Bennetts

We’re still waiting for the definitive book on the Russian opposition, but until then, this book is going to have to do. The title is a reference to a comment — possibly apocryphal — that Vladimir Putin apparently made in 2012, when he said about Russia’s pro-democracy protesters, “They ruined my big day, now I’m going to ruin their lives.”

This book picks up where an earlier Bennetts book, “Kicking the Kremlin: Russia’s New Dissidents and the Battle to Topple Putin,” left off. If, in 2011, it looked like a democratic resistance was forming in Russia, by 2015, that hypothesis was shown to be blatantly untrue. The murder of Boris Nemtsov in early 2015 was the final proof.

According to Bennetts, Russia’s political opposition met its match in 2012, and has since become a “disparate, broken-down force” without any real chance at gaining political power. For that, Bennetts blames Putin, who has helped to put key opposition leaders under house arrest, encouraged the rise of pro-Putin youth groups, and generally done just about everything possible to silence the once vibrant Russian opposition. According to Bennetts, even the events in Ukraine had their roots in domestic policy, as a way to build loyalty to the Kremlin and distract the Russian people from authoritarian tendencies building at home.

Extra props: Marc Bennetts is also the editor of Futbolgrad and the author of “Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game.” If you’re trying to make sense of Russia’s football (soccer) hooliganism or preparing for Russia’s hosting of World Cup 2018, this is someone to follow on Twitter.

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich

Any book from a Nobel Prize winner is a slam dunk choice to end up on a “best of” summer reading list. Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature primarily for her coverage of Chernobyl, and this book continues her award-winning narrative style, focusing on the collapse of the Soviet Union as told through the vantage point of everyday people who witnessed the end of an empire.

BONUS PICK

All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin by Mikhail Zygar

If your summer vacation extends all the way into September for Labor Day, there’s time to squeeze in one more book before fall. This book from Zygar, a Russian editor from the liberal Russian TV station Rain, claims to tell the inside story of the top decision-makers within the Kremlin — the “pro-Putin elite.” It’s not yet available for pre-order on Amazon, but will be ready for purchase on September 6. The really juicy part is where Zygar claims that Putin is an “accidental king” with “a court out of control.” In the Kremlin, says Zygar, nobody really knows what’s going on, and that’s led to tactical responses to external events. To the Western outsider, these moves appear cunning and strategic — but to those on the inside, they’re “devoid of logic or objective.” In Russia, this book was a bestseller, for obvious reasons.

DOUBLE BONUS PICK

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the official Russian-language publication of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” and Penguin Classics has released a special 50th anniversary addition. Bulgakov is one of the greatest Russian writers of the 20th century, even if he is not as well known in the West as Pasternak or Nabokov. In Russia, he’s absolutely adored and many of the phrases (“second-grade freshness,” “no documents, no person” and “manuscripts don’t burn”) from “The Master and Margarita” have become a treasured part of the Russian language. If you’re looking for a surreal, satirical tale of Russia, it’s hard to beat the story of the time the Devil himself appeared in 1930s Stalinist Moscow.

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