Is a “quick guide” to Russia even a good idea? How does one cram a “riddle wrapped inside a mystery wrapped inside an enigma” into merely 130 pages without overgeneralizing?
I don’t know, but what I do know is this: Putin is Russia and Russia is Putin…don’t you forget it!
Lets keep this review short and simple, but not sweet – perfectly complementing the book in question.
Russia: Putin’s Playground by Anastasia Edel is billed as quick introductory guide to Russia for people wishing to look beyond the news headlines. That’s a noble enough purpose – with Russia in the news for all the wrong reasons as of late, I can certainly see a receptive audience for a nuanced take on Russian affairs. However, even a casual glance at the book’s covers will probably tell you that it fails to live up to the standards of objectivity that we expect introductory guides to meet. Not only is the subtitle “Putin’s Playground” given more space on the cover than “Russia”, but the label Putin’s playground itself belies a clear bias: Russian affairs have been compared to a game in the hands of Putin not even one page into the actual book. When I saw the buzzwords on the back cover (mystery. Adversity. Dissent. Power. Despotism. Opulence. Poverty. Bombast. Heroism.), I knew this read was going to be rough.
Despite the division of the book into sections on Russia’s history, the state, the people, the culture, the dissenters, and the state of the nation today, Edel’s thesis is simple and consistent: Everything in Russia today can be explained/predicted by direct historical parallel*. The relationship between people (good) and the state (bad) within Russia and between other countries (good) and Russia (bad) on the global stage has remained constant across thousands of years; though leaders may change, the behaviors and processes don’t.
Here is a quick overview of what we learn from Lightning Guide #16:
- history: Russian history is a continuous cycle of expansion and aggression followed by retreat and isolation. Throughout history, bad Russia oppresses the good ethnic minorities and neighbor states.
- the state: Bad Russian government, good Russian people. Russia has imperialist foreign policy. Putin is behind everything that is wrong with the Russian state. By the way, he’s the new Stalin too.
- The media: There’s no free press in Russia. Brave journalists killed by the wicked Russian state. Censorship everywhere.
- the people: Good Russian people, bad Russian government. Everything about Russians can be explained by Russia’s history and state oppression.
- Culture: Good cultural figures oppressed by bad Russian government. All Russian art can be considered political. Today, the authorities hijack culture to serve their own ideological needs. It’s been the same way throughout Russian history.
- Dissenters: Good, brave dissenters are fighting for Russia’s free and democratic future against the bloody Putin regime. Russia is a society where the state aspires to dominate its subjects fully, and doesn’t take “no” for an answer. (p. 90)
- state of the nation today: The Putin government is expanding. People are leaving Russia; no one wants to live there. Those who stay are zombified by Russian propaganda. Hybrid war in Ukraine is distracting people from economic/political stagnation at home. The New Cold War is starting.
There isn’t much more to this book than that, except perhaps that “Russia is not just Putin” (p. 9), despite his image appearing seven times and name appearing forty times within 130 pages.
Now you see why Putin’s Playground irritated me – it wasn’t the inclusion of corruption, weak rule of law, repression or xenophobia, which are all serious issues in contemporary Russia and deserve a place in any guide to the country; it was the prevalence of the author’s own black-and-white political views and her obsessive pattern-seeking treatment of Russian history. For example, we learn that the Russian government pursues an imperialist foreign policy in order to distract its gullible subjects from political economic stagnation at home – just like the Soviet government did in the ’70s. Russian longing for Soviet times is not caused by individual sentiment, or the need for an extensive social welfare system as was existent back then, it’s caused by “the manipulation of the national memory” (p. 67) by the state.
Putin’s Playground definitely has its strengths: its photos and infographics are high-quality and colorful, and the section on early Russian history is delivered engagingly and impartially. But when you throw in sensational phrases such as “coerced loyalty” (state-society relations, p. 34), distorted quotes (Putin calls the modern internet a CIA project on p. 46), omission of key information (the book mentions the 2014-15 economic recession but not prior rises in wages and living standards), and shaky assertions (“anyone at some point can become the hateful and feared other” p.70, “there’s no free press in Russia” p. 45), you’ve obviously gone from a guide to an opinion piece.
Russia: Putin’s Playground attempts to be an up-to-date introduction to the country, but falls into the same traps that many Russia books published post-2014 do. In its pursuit of relevance, it eschews a guide’s objectivity in order to become a platform for a black-and-white partisan message. I am not sure whether this is purpose-oriented reporting or a logical consequence of trying to condense “a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma” into a mere 130 pages. However, what I do know is this: its targeted audience – people new to the world of Russian affairs – will likely come away from this book with the impression that Russia is a hellhole dictatorship ruled by a Stalin-czar. (I’m sorry, there’s no other way to put it!) And considering the current conflict between the United States and Russia, caused in part by lack of critical understanding, that’s a real shame. My advice to potential readers is to watch the mainstream news instead – you’ll probably learn as much about Russia as you would reading this. Plus, it’ll be free.
The Lightning Guide hurtles toward the trash, inspired by spin!
What hath thou taught me, Putin’s Playground?
Give me the answer!
But Putin’s Playground gives none.
Russia: Putin’s Playground by Anastasia Edel. Pub. 2016 by Lightning Guides. Paperback, 134 pages. ISBN13: 9781942411628
*Let me make this clear: of course the events of the present are influenced by historical and cultural factors. But that’s no excuse for weak logic like: “Ivan the Terrible’s secret police served a supreme ruler and were awarded special privileges; therefore, the modern FSB serves a supreme ruler (Putin) and are awarded special priveleges.”