In our annual review of the “must-read” books of the year about Russia, we’ve included a list of the books that help to explain the inner workings of Russia’s foreign policy and economy.
2014 was so saturated with Russia-related global political events that it could hardly have failed to heighten the appeal of writers, journalists and academics trying to making sense of Russia’s new geopolitical influence. Books on our must-read list for 2014 included several new works that analyze the “new Cold War,” trace the trajectory of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, and suggest a possible way forward for the Russian state in 2015 and beyond.
By Marin Katusa (Wiley, November 10, 2014)
This book on energy by Marin Katusa, who has devoted many years to such “problem” areas as Iraq, Kuwait, Colombia, Ukraine and Russia, is notable for several reasons. First, the emerging global changes in the oil and gas market have become particularly evident only in recent months, and Katusa’s book is one of the first full-fledged works to treat the topic in detail.
Katusa’s book tells not only about the most current developments in the energy field, but draws apposite links with the recent shifts in the geopolitical landscape. Russia is seeking to change its status in the world, says the author, and is not doing too badly. Katusa notes that in the struggle for influence, energy is far from being the only instrument of Kremlin policy.
By Marcus S. King (Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, April 1, 2014)
A specialist in the field of public relations and the shaping of public opinion, Marcus King offers a view of Putin neither as a “tyrant” nor “aggressor,” as he is so often painted by Western media, but as the leader of a country struggling to come to terms with its complex past.
King guides the reader through the defining moments in Russia’s history — from the Middle Ages to the present day, explaining why Putin’s persona is so important for people in Russia today and the reasons behind the huge public support for his “war” with the EU and the U.S.
By Anna Arutunyan (Olive Branch Press; November 5, 2014)
This book offers a very specific look at Vladimir Putin and “Putin’s Russia.” Born in the Soviet Union, but educated in the United States, Anna Arutunyan returned to Moscow as an adult. Arutunyan probes the origins of the Russian president’s power, finding it in the culture and mentality of the Russian people.
By Valerie Sperling (Oxford University Press, December 5, 2014)
Do not be misled by the seemingly frivolous title of this study. Sperling’s work (not her first on gender and sexual issues in Russia) analyzes the “macho” image of the Russian leader and the nature of the conservative mindset of the Russian public, within the framework of which Putin acts as the defender of traditional values in the fight against the “homosexual” influence of the West.
One can take issue with the author about the extent to which Putin’s desire to be seen as a “real man” affects Russian domestic and foreign policy, but the non-standard approach earns the book a thumbs-up and a place in our must-read list.
5. A History of the Russian State: Under the Golden Horde (in Russian)
By Boris Akunin (AST, 2014)
Last year the Russia Direct must-read list featured the first volume of renowned journalist and intellectual Boris Akunin’s historical series. The second tome, published this fall, immediately provoked widespread discussion.
Although critics consider this work to be more mature and certainly more “scientific,” the author has been accused of “ideologizing” history, substituting historical notions, and even attempting to falsify Russia’s past. Either way, the book became an instant bestseller.
6. Neo-Bolshevism: Will Putin Reject Liberal Democracy? (in Russian)
By Eduard Limonov (Algoritm, 2014)
Eduard Limonov, a well-known oppositionist and one of the most prominent figures in Russian politics in the 2000s, never ducks an opportunity to lay out his vision for the domestic political process in modern Russia. Readers may wonder why Limonov is in our list, and not, for instance, the far more prominent Alexei Navalny.
First, Navalny does not write books. Second, no one can deny Limonov’s ability to express his thoughts in finely crafted, cogent and interesting prose, not to mention the fact that the book offers a somewhat unconventional view on Russia and its politics.
7. Mobilizing the Economy: Can Russia Do Without the West? (in Russian)
By Maxim Kalashnikov (Algoritm, 2014)
Eccentric publicist Maxim Kalashnikov has published a book on the consequences of the severed relations between Russia and the West, in which he ponders how Russia will fare in the economic and political war. Kalashnikov draws comparisons with the Soviet Union’s mobilization model, and examines the viability of such an approach today.
By Andrei P. Tsygankov (Oxford University Press, December 16, 2014)
The latest offering by Andrei Tsygankov, a U.S. political scientist with Russian roots, considers the origins of the “strong state” in Russia. Analyzing different historical periods, he emphasizes the idea that there has always been a strong state and central government throughout Russian history. Tsygankov has no doubt that the “strong state” will become the defining ideological paradigm in Russia, the only question being when and what form it will take.
By Karen Dawisha (Simon & Schuster, September 30, 2014)
This book attempts to expose the “crony capitalism” that it claims is at the heart of Vladimir Putin’s ability to preserve power in the modern Russia. Unlike earlier works on Russian corruption and the blurring of the line between the interests of business and the state in modern Russia, this one backs up its claims with copiously researched notes and extensive citations of published source materials. For understanding both how Putin rose to power and why the economic interests of Putin’s “inner circle” are critical, this book is an important new contribution.
10. World Order
By Henry Kissinger (Penguin Press, September 9, 2014)
Finally, it would be amiss for our must-read list to omit the work of a great diplomat and political thinker who has been a first-hand witness to the scale of epic change in the global political landscape. While Henry Kissinger’s new book is not devoted solely to Russia, it is perhaps more important as a guide to Russia’s potential role in a new world order. Kissinger dissects the shifts in the world order, including the changing roles played by China and the EU and the future role that Russia is destined to play.