Understanding Putin's Russia

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Understanding Putin's Russia

With the unusual relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on people’s minds, perhaps you have wondered just what it is like to live in Putin’s Russia. Is it terrifying? Is it something Americans should be worried about? Did Putin influence the 2016 election in the US? Why do polls say that Russians like him? Well, here are some books that might help you to figure it all out.
 
Putin Country: A Journey Into the Real Russia by Anne Garrels
This is a uniquely helpful book for understanding modern Russia, because the author, Anne Garrels, spent a long time studying a city far from the biggest and most advanced cities in Russia in order to get a better idea of what life is like in most of Russia. Life in Moscow and St. Petersburg sometimes does not reflect the reality of life in all of the rest of Russia. Garrels went to Chelyabinsk, a decidedly unglamorous industrial city, to interview a good cross-section of people and found that all is not rosy, but that you have to consider what the past several hundred years of Russian history have been like. They have been subjected to one tyrant after another and one type of bad times after another. As a consequence, today’s worries under Putin are comparatively not so bad. In fact, things may be better than they ever have been there. Hence, their tolerance for the corruption and injustice of the Putin era.  Anybody who wants to understand the incomprehensible state of Russia today would do well to read Garrels’ Putin Country, and it is a rather short readavailable in e-book form, too. 
 
The Less You Know the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin by David Satter
D.C.’s own David Satter wrote this book which wins my prize for the most brilliant book title of the year. In 2013, Satter became the first American journalist to be expelled from Russia since the Cold War so you know he is no friend of Putin. Most Americans are probably blissfully unaware of many of the horrible things which Putin has done to his own citizens, so this is a good book to catch you up a bit on those things. And if you think Boris Yeltsin was a good old boy who just happened to drink a bit too much, this book will show you the harm done by him, too.
 
Kicking the Kremlin: Russia’s New Dissidents and the Battle to Topple Putin by Marc Bennetts
This is a terrific book for understanding the situation in Russia today. Yes, it came out in 2014, but most of the players of this 2014 book are still in the game today and it gives excellent background on events which have led Russia to the current situation. Alexei Navalny is still the only strong opposition to Putin, as he was when this was written, and you need to know a bit of the history between Navalny and Putin.
 
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen
Masha Gessen is a brilliant writer who had to leave Russia with her wife when Putin began making life miserable for gays and lesbians. Children of LGBT folks were being taken away from their parents and Masha feared having her children taken away from her, so now she lives in the U.S. It is our great gain because she is brilliant and prolific. This book is just one of many by her that all Americans should read. Few people understand Putin as well as Gessen. I must say this is a “dense” book which could be difficult reading for many, but I do think that if you want to understand Putin, you must read this one.
 
The future is history: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen
Masha Gessen’s latest book and winner of the 2017 National Book Award in Nonfiction, this 528-page history of Russia in recent decades covers a lot more than just Putin. It is an invaluable read for understanding Russia, but it is not the only book I would read on the subject. One legitimate criticism I have read of this book is that it is “Moscow-centric,” i.e., all sources come from Moscow.  This is understandable since the big scholars of Russian history and politics are centered in Moscow, but it is a good idea to balance your reading with works like Anne Garrels’ Putin Country, which provide some perspective from other parts of the country.