Understanding Russia: Six Books To Go Beyond The Headlines
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I've always been something of a Russophile. It's such a massive, unknowable place — I'll avoid the Churchill quote about enigmas and wrapping — that it commands your attention. I taught myself a bit of Cyrillic about a decade ago, and embarked on a mission to learn the language properly, taking classes with a colleague at the time. But we spent the entire class lobbing Russian swear words at each other, and gave up when the grammar got too hard. Needless to say, I won't be reading original editions of Chekov anytime soon. But two things have stuck with me: a vocabulary of about 100 words that emerge when I've had a bit too much Русский Стандарт and a fascination with the country in all its iterations.
The current iteration has become the subject of headlines about military expansionism, hacking and foreign intervention recently, so I thought it might be helpful to suggest a few books that go beyond the headlines. My personal favourite is Pomerantsev's Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (Faber & Faber). It touches on a lot of the themes that riled up the internet when Adam Curtis' latest film HyperNormalization came out last year: namely the creation of a political and social landscape where nothing is ever knowably real, so everything is unreal. It's a beautifully written book and a chilling look into the media apparatus that shapes Russian life today.
Other titles on the list include a tome by legendary travel writer Colin Thubron, an expose by Anna Politkovskaya, who payed the ultimate price for her journalism, a poignant memoir by Gessen and — away from nonfiction for a second — a couple of contemporary Russian novels by Elena Chizhova & Lyudmila Petrushevskaya.
In these dark, dreamlike love stories with a twist, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya tells of strange encounters in claustrophobic communal apartments, ill-fated holiday romances, office trysts, schoolgirl crushes, tentative courtships, rampant infidelity, tender devotion and terrifying madness. By turns sly and sweet, earthy and sublime, these fables of flawed love blend black humour and macabre spectacle with transformative moments of grace.Buy the Book
Life is not easy in the Soviet Union at mid-20th century, especially for a factory worker who becomes an unwed mother. But Antonina is lucky to get a room in a communal apartment that she and her little girl share with three old women. Glikeria is the daughter of former serfs. Ariadna comes from a wealthy family and speaks French. Yevdokia is illiterate and bitter. All have lost their families, all are deeply traditional, and all become grannies to little Suzanna. Only they secretly name her Sofia. And just as secretly they impart to her the history of her country as they experienced it: the Revolution, the early days of the Soviet Union, the blockade and starvation of World War II. The little girl responds by drawing beautiful pictures, but she is mute. If the authorities find out she will be taken from her home and sent to an institution. When Antonina falls desperately ill, the grannies are faced with the reality of losing the little girl they love unless a stepfather can be found before it is too late. And for that, they need a miracle.Buy the Book
When Vladimir Putin, an unimportant, low-level KGB operative, was rushed to power by a group of Oligarchs in 1999, he was a man without a history. Within a few brief years, Putin had dismantled Russia's media, wrested control and wealth from the country's burgeoning business class, and decimated the fragile mechanisms of democracy. Virtually every obstacle to his unbridled control was removed and every opposing voice silenced, with political rivals and critics driven into exile or to the grave. Drawing on information and sources no other writer has tapped, Masha Gessen's fearless account charts Putin's rise from the boy who had scrapped his way through post-war Leningrad schoolyards, to the 'faceless' man who manoeuvred his way into absolute - and absolutely corrupt - power.Buy the Book
Internationally admired for her reporting, especially on the Chechen wars, award-winning journalist Anna Politkovskaya has turned her steely gaze on the man who, until very recently, was a darling of the Western media. A former KGB spy, Vladimir Putin was named President of Russia in 2000. From the moment he entered the public arena he marketed himself as an open, enlightened leader eager to engage with the West. Unlike many European and American journalists and politicians, Politkovskaya never trusted Putin's press image. From her privileged vantage point at the heart of Russian current affairs, she set about to dismantle both Putin the man and Putin the brand name, arguing that he is a power-hungry product of his own history and so unable to prevent himself from stifling civil liberties at every turn. This is not, Polikovskaya argues, the kind of leader most contemporary Russians want. To prove her theory, she tells the story of Putin's iron grip on Russian life from the point of view of individual citizens whose situations have been shaped by his unique brand of tyranny. Mafia dealings, scandals in the provinces, military and judiciary corruption, the decline of the intelligentsia, the tragic mishandling of the Moscow theatre siege - all are subject to Polikovskaya's pitiless but invariably humane scrutiny. This intimate portrait of nascent civil institutions being subverted under the unquestioning eyes of the West could not be more timely.Buy the Book
Among the Russians is a marvellous account of a solitary journey by car from St. Petersburg and the Baltic States south to Georgia and Armenia. A gifted writer and intrepid traveller, Thubron grapples with the complexities of Russian identity and relays his extraordinary journey in characteristically lyrical style. This is an enthralling and revealing account of the habits and idiosyncrasies of a fascinating nation along with a sharp and insightful social commentary of Russian life.Buy the Book
Takes you on a journey into the glittering, surreal heart of 21st century Russia: into the lives of Hells Angels convinced they are messiahs, professional killers with the souls of artists, bohemian theatre directors turned Kremlin puppet-masters, supermodel sects, post-modern dictators and oligarch revolutionaries. This is a world erupting with new money and new power, changing so fast it breaks all sense of reality, where life is seen as a whirling, glamorous masquerade where identities can be switched and all values are changeable. It is home to a new form of authoritarianism, far subtler than 20th century strains, and which is rapidly expanding to challenge the global order. An extraordinary book - one which is as powerful and entertaining as it is troubling - Nothing is True and Everything is Possible offers a wild ride into this political and ethical vacuum.Buy the Book