2015: Russian reads in retrospect

Looking back on 2015, it was a pretty great year for Russia books*. 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. Here are 6 of the most interesting books on Russia published last year, selected to include voices from multiple points on the political spectrum and from both the West and Russia.

#1: РОССИЯ В ГЛОБАЛЬНОЙ ПОЛИТИКЕ. НОВЫЕ ПРАВИЛА ИГРЫ БЕЗ ПРАВИЛ (Russia in Global Politics: New Rules in the Game Without Rules) – Fyodor Lukyanov: 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 basic premise is that after the post-Soviet period ended, the world entered into a new, highly uncertain period where the old rules of the international game no longer apply and new rules are yet to be formed. Ergo there are no rules to be broken and anything is possible. And that certainly does not bode well for humanity…

#2: После Кремля (After the Kremlin) – Mikhail Gorbachev: In his latest book, Russia’s elder statesman 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 “no.” Know Russian? If the answer is yes, then pick it up – it’s well worth your time.

#3: Restless Empire: A Historical Atlas of Russia – Ian Barnes: 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.

#4: Россия: Надежды и тревоги – Evgeny Primakov: This is the last book written by this former Prime Minister before his passing 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 a hugely influential in post-Soviet Russian politics, and some even consider him to be somewhat of a mentor to Putin.Those who are concerned with the question of what Putin will do next may find this book of interest.

#5: Putinism: Russia and its Future with the West – Walter Laqueur: Walter Laqueur has been a scholar of Soviet and Russian history for more than 50 years, and this is his attempt to assess prospects for the emergence of a new Russian national idea that could replace Communism.

The author draws from an impressive collection of Russian philosophic, literary, political and religious thinkers from the past 500 years to formulate his analysis, and he identifies the core component of the new Russian idea as nationalism accompanied by ‘zapadophobia’  (fear of the West).

Some readers may disagree with Laqueur’s bleak final assessment (I know I did), but it is hard to dispute the author’s observation that Russia cannot exist without a manifest destiny. At least in this respect, Russia isn’t so different from the United States.

#6: Периферийный авторитаризм. Как и куда пришла Россия (Peripheral Autocracy: How and Where Russia has Arrived) – Grigory Yavlinsky: The book by a veteran of Russian politics is aimed at the Russian reader, yet its ideas will resonate more with 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.

These ideas may not be new, but what is unique 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. That is speculative. But I will give the book credit for presenting a fresh perspective on Russian democratic development and recommend it for anyone interested in Russian internal politics…and who can read Russian, of course.

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*You may be wondering, why make a post looking back on 2015 if this blog was not around in 2015? Because I was around, of course.

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