One of my favorite things to mention to anyone who asks is that Russia’s resurgence in international affairs has also resulted in a resurgence of Russia books. That’s good news for me – with so many new releases, there’s plenty to read, learn, and critique. However, I’ve been getting the feeling as of late that the majority of these books focus on a narrow set of often negative topics: Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria, supposed Russian imperialism/expansionism, how bad it is to live in Russia, Russia’s threat to the West…and who can forget that detestable dictator Putin? Yes, these are all important topics that certainly warrant investigation, but Russia is a massive country with a complex history, a controversial and poorly understood political system and a dynamic society. There is much more to write about than just the Russia we read of in the headlines or spot flashing across the TV screen. So here’s a quick compilation of five Russia reads I’d love to see.
#1: A book on Russian conservatism
This topic is of great interest to me. Since the start of Putin’s third term in 2012, both he and his government are commonly believed in the West to have become more conservative in outlook. But to my knowledge, there have been few if any books written by Western authors that analyze the new Russian conservatism in-depth. There is one recent book – Putinism by Walter Laqueur – that attempts to discuss Russian political culture but does not give Russian conservatism the objective examination it deserves; it instead chooses to focus on the loopy conspiracy theories and zapadophobia that supposedly pervade the government. And there is an upcoming book, Black Wind, White Snow by Charles Clover that deals with Eurasianism, but does not appear to dig much deeper than that. Anti-western sentiment and Eurasianism may be part of Russian conservative thought, but they are only one part. And I’m pretty sure Russian conservatism is not wholly bad, as these books seem inclined to portray.
#2: A book on the Putin brand
Yes, I know there’s technically already a book about this, but it’s a textbook. Very few laymen would willingly pick it up and read it unless for research purposes; no, what I ask for is an analysis of Putin as a cultural icon written with accessibility and wit – something mainstream enough to appear on the shelf of a bookshop, but not sensational like the books you find in the Current Affairs section and Barnes and Noble. You may agree or disagree with what he does on the domestic front or abroad, but one thing is for certain: Putin sells.
There is a wide array of topics the book could include: The purpose of Putin’s macho stunts and photo ops. Why his image has ended up on so many t-shirts, matryoshkas, trinkets, decals, dolls. The portrayal of the Russian president in fiction, art, and television. His discourse. His supporters. The Direct Line television program. How Putin’s image is shaped at home. How Putin’s image is shaped abroad. Internet memes, and how they are used both by Putin’s supporters and detractors. Whether the meaning of any of these symbols are uniform throughout the culture, or whether each person interprets them differently, each having their own personal Putin (!?). How his image has been tarnished in the wake of recent events.
Someone’s got to get to the bottom of this. Maybe I’ll do it! I mean, it’s not like Vladimir’s making me volunteer…
#3: A satire of the Russian opposition
I was inspired to include this on the list by a book I have recently started reading, Fardwor Russia (rus: Вперде роисся), a satire of Putin’s Russia written by liberal non-systemic oppositionist Oleg Kashin. The satire may be weak, but it does raise several interesting questions…about why there isn’t a satire of the liberal non-systemic opposition. You can’t look at this tiny group that my country still tries to hold up as the “true voice” of the Russian people – with their charismatic leaders, use of illiberal methods, whitewashing of the 90s, obsession with street protest, habit of b****ing about Russia from abroad, frivolous relationship with the “bydlo”, promotion of Western ideals over Russian ones (and subsequent disgust when virtually no one votes for them) – and tell me that they are not ripe for criticism and satire. Perhaps there’s already a clever book out, hidden somewhere on the Russian market where I cannot find it. In that case, do tell me. But it needs to be written if it’s hasn’t been already.
#4: A book on Russian patriotism
This is one of those topics that I feel is subject to under-coverage, at least in the bookosphere. I catch glimpses here or there of articles about Russian patriotic education, patriotic discourse, Victory Day, military conscription, patriotic sentiment and the like. But how does this manifest itself at the official and grassroots levels, and what does the recent surge in national pride mean for the development of Russia as we know it, if indeed it has meaning? I would love to see these questions answered in a full length book, where there is more room for analysis than in a sensational, cobbled-together news article.
#5: More historical fiction…through the eyes of its famous Russian participants
Probably the most controversial idea for Russia books, as one must do their research, avoid giving into biases and prevailing sentiments about the person they’re fictionalizing and avoid offending the person or their memory, all while still providing an engaging story. This book did a really good job of it. But I’d love to see a story told through the eyes of Lenin. Or Yeltsin; that’d probably be hilarious.
So, that’s my five Russia reads I’d love to see. Do you have any books or topics on Russia you would like to see written? Let me know in the comments.