Russia Direct has collected a list of the Top 10 most influential books about Russia from 2015 – including books from former Russian leaders Yevgeny Primakov and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Photo: Lori Images

The recent geopolitical turbulence involving Russia has produced a side benefit: It reinvigorated the process of analysis of Russia by the outside world, and stimulated the process of critical soul-searching inside Russia. After the break between Russia and the West over the Crimea, the old assumptions of the post-Soviet period were largely swept into the dustbin of history.

The new period that is now at hand requires a fresh and unclouded look at Russia’s place in the world. This has opened the door for some old voices and some new ones to share new perspectives about Russia’s relationship with itself and with the rest of the world.

The top ten books on this list were chosen to cover the entire spectrum of political views: those critical of Putin’s policies and those which support the Kremlin, books written by Westerners and those by Russians, books about Russia’s past and about those that give an outlook on Russia’s future. In recent years, it has become a tradition for some of the best books about Russia to be written by foreigners who live here (think Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire). 

And so it is the case this year: the top selection for 2015 is a biography of Putin, written by a New York Times correspondent, Steven Lee Myers, who lived in Russia during much of the times about which he writes.

1. The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin By Steven Lee Myers (New York: Knopf, 2015)

This book develops an intimate portrait of Vladimir Putin, starting with his early family life, youthful aspirations, and his achievements and disappointments. Putin’s early life was unremarkable, and his early career was marked by failures. Enamored by spy stories, he clawed his way into the intelligence service, where he made only modest progress.

After the traumatizing fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin’s dream job turned into a dead end. Putin resigned from the KGB after he became an advisor to the liberal mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak. Putin’s stint as a democratic reformer did not work out either, and Putin lost his job after his charismatic but unfocused political boss lost his re-election bid.

Fortunately, Putin’s administrative skill was noticed in Moscow, and he was invited to serve in Boris Yeltsin’s administration. The times were turbulent, and when Putin became Russia’s prime minister, he himself expected his job to last only a few months. Putin’s fortune finally changed for good when Boris Yeltsin handpicked him as the successor.

The book provides many fresh details about Putin, collected by the author through interviews with those who know Putin personally. Myers has been able to not only make sense of Putin’s conduct, but also capture the spirit of the times. This book is as much the story of a country as it is the story of a man. It is a very engaging book, but it should come with a warning: the reader may develop affection for the book’s protagonist.

2. After the Kremlin (In Russian) By Mikhail Gorbachev (Moscow: Ves Mir, 2014)

In his 85th year, and more than 25 years after his resignation as the first (and last) President of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev is enjoying a modest political renaissance.  He was awarded Russia’s highest honor for his 80th birthday.  He has recently written several books, and his book signing ceremonies have had people lining up for hours.

In his latest book, Gorbachev covers both his personal experiences, as well as Russia’s progress since the fall of the USSR. He provides a frank assessment of Russia’s leaders who came after him: Yeltsin, Putin, Medvedev, and again, Putin. He also addresses the two questions that now haunt Russia – whether Perestroika was a mistake, and whether the current “managed democracy” is Russia’s only viable political alternative.  Gorbachev’s answer to both questions is an emphatic “no.”

3. Russia and the World in the 21st Century (in Russian) By Dmitri Trenin (Moscow: Publisher E, 2015)

During the post-Soviet period, Russia had two foreign policy strategies, says Dmitri Trenin, a longtime director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. The first strategy was integration with the West; the second was integration with the former Soviet republics across the post-Soviet space. All Russian presidents pursued these contradictory processes in parallel.

Russian leaders Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, and then Dmitri Medvedev made entreaties for Russia joining NATO, while trying to keep its neighbors, including Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Kazakhstan under the Russian aegis. The Ukrainian crisis of 2014 derailed both of these strategies, and now Russia is forced to rethink what to do next. 

According to Trenin, it did not have to be this way. The Ukrainian crisis occurred, in part, because political leaders were not paying attention to what was happening in Kiev.  The decision-making was delegated to second- and third-tier foreign policy bureaucrats who tried to make history in accordance with their personal views. Tactfully, the author does not name any names.  

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4. Hopes and Concerns (in Russian) By Yevgeny Primakov (Moscow: Centerpoligraph, 2015)

The Former Prime Minister of Russia, Primakov was one of Russia’s most lucid political thinkers until his passing away in June 2015 at the age of 85. His last book offers a sweeping analysis of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy struggles over the past six years, starting with the election of Medvedev as Russia’s third president, and ending with an analysis of the ISIS threat. 

Domestically, Primakov is critical of “pseudo-liberals,” who, by excessive belief in the benefit of an unregulated free market, brought the country to ruin in the 1990s. On foreign policy, he thinks that the world will face the dangers of instability until America accepts that its era of geopolitical hegemony is over.

Primakov was hugely influential in post-Soviet Russia, and he probably comes very close to being Putin’s mentor. This book, therefore, is a very good guide for those political analysts who may be concerned with the question of what Putin will do next. This is the last chance at a glimpse inside the mind of one of the authors of Russia’s current multi-vector diplomacy.   

5. Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands By Richard Sakwa (London:  I.B. Tauris, 2015)

Professor Richard Sakwa is a premier British expert on Russia, but he is undeservingly less known in the U.S. This book is dedicated to an analysis of the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, but it delivers much more than that.

Through the prism of the Ukrainian revolution, the reader sees the problems of the international order after the end of the Cold War, the flaws of U.S. foreign policy, and many of Russia’s challenges.

The story of the Ukrainian crisis is largely a story of misunderstandings and accidents. Readers will surely smile at the irony of the fact that one hundred years after the First World War, Europe is attempting to break apart again, a process made easier by “a febrile atmosphere of exaggerated moral indignation.”

The book is a definitive work for the chain of events that caused what increasingly looks like a Second Cold War.

6. The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union By Serhii Plokhy (New York: Basic Books, 2015 paperback edition)

The book challenges the traditional narrative of the collapse of the Soviet Union as the result of America’s efforts.  In 1991, the author was a Soviet citizen who found himself without a country. Now, Plokhy is a professor of history at Harvard University.

Supplementing his first-hand recollections with interview and research, including recently declassified documents from the George Bush Presidential library, he shows that America was deeply uncomfortable with the prospect of the U.S.S.R.’s collapse, fearing a civil war that would turn its former enemy into “Yugoslavia with nukes.”

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By 2014 it turned out that violence on the Soviet space was not avoided but simply delayed. Many of the issues that plague the Russia-Ukrainian relationship now stem directly from the events described so clearly in this book.

7. Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West By Walter Laqueur  (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015)

Laqueur has been studying the Soviet Union and Russia for more than 50 years, and this is his attempt to assess prospects for the emergence and shape of a “new Russian idea” that could replace Communism.

The author demonstrates an impressive erudition, bringing to bear references to Russian philosophic, literary, political and religious thinkers of the past 500 years. As for the Russian idea itself, its core component is identified as nationalism accompanied by anti-Westernism.

Many Russian readers may disagree with such a bleak assessment, but they would certainly not dispute the author’s observation that Russia cannot exist without a manifest destiny. At least in this one respect, Russia does not seem to be very different from the United States.

8. Russia in Global Politics. New Rules in the Game Without Rules (in Russian) Edited by Fyodor Lukyanov (Moscow: EKSMO, 2015)

The collection of twenty-seven essays from leading Russian political scientists offers analysis of the issues that Russia faces on the international stage, including its relationship with the U.S., Europe, Asia and Ukraine. The book is edited by Fyodor Lukyanov, one of the most prominent Russia’s political scientists and the Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs.

The book’s key premise, expressed in the lead essay, is that after the post-Soviet period ended, the world entered into a new and highly uncertain period, where the old rules no longer apply, and new rules have not yet been formed.  Consequently, there are no laws that can be violated.  Everything is relative, and therefore anything is possible. As Russian classic Fyodor Dostoyevsky once observed, such a set up does not bode well for humanity.

9. Peripheral Autocracy. How and Where Russia Has Arrived (in Russian, with English summary) By Grigory Yavlinsky (Moscow: Medium, 2015)

The book by a veteran of Russian politics is aimed at the Russian reader, yet its ideas will resonate with most Americans. The founder of Yabloko, one of Russia’s oldest liberal parties, Yavlinsky sees the world along the democracy-vs.-autocracy dimension. He is critical of Russia’s current political state, and argues that Russia meets the two criteria of an authoritarian system: the impossibility of a grassroots movement to replace those in power, and the personalized nature of presidential power transfer that happens without real political completion.

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These ideas may not be new, but what is new is that Yavlinksy lays the blame for establishing such a system with Boris Yeltsin. Yavlinsky sees Putin’s current power as the direct continuation of the system of the government, which materialized in the 1990s. The book is pessimistic in its assessment that the Russian democratic failings were preordained by Russia’s tradition of entrenched power of centralized bureaucracy embodied in the Kremlin.

This is speculative. However, it is factual that Yavlinsky several times tried to get into the Kremlin himself, running for Russian presidency both against Yeltsin and Putin. To what extent Yavlinsky’s embrace of historic determinism is determined by his own electoral failures, is for the reader to decide. 

10. Restless Empire: A Historical Atlas of Russia By Ian Barnes (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2015)

The 19th century Russian philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev once observed that Russia has no history, only geography.

The collection of historic maps assembled by the veteran British historian Ian Barnes tells a visually captivating story of the millennium-long progress of the Russian state from a small collection of city-states on the fringes of the civilized world into the world’s largest empire, stretching from Armenia to Alaska, at its peak in the 19th century.

The maps are supplemented with commentary and illustrations that tell two kinds of stories – those that will be of interest to Russian history buffs only, and those that will be directly relevant to the present political moment, including the status of Crimea and the role of Ukraine in the creation of the Russian state.  

A picture is worth a thousand words, and this book offers many rich and beautiful images that go a long way in providing the historic context for anyone who contemplates Russia’s past, present or future.