.
I

n 1939, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said that Russia “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Those quoting him often cite only the first part of the quote, leaving it as a statement of fact, that Russia is too complex, too mysterious, and, almost, too alien, to understand. Over 80 years later it would appear that, perhaps, Russia is just as confusing and impenetrable as when Churchill first uttered that phrase. Yet, if one completes the prime minister’s quote, understanding Moscow becomes considerably easier: “But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

As President Joseph Biden sits down with President Vladimir Putin in Vienna, understanding Moscow, its behaviors, its intentions, and its interests is as important as ever. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of insta-pundits and social media “experts” on Russian affairs. Often these commentators grossly oversimplify the behavior of the Kremlin to the quirks of Putin’s character and his KGB background, or portray him as some master Machiavellian, scheming to bring down the West. Alternatively, they ascribe Russian behavior to a quirk of history, culture, or even the soul of the Russians themselves. “Read Tolstoy and you’ll understand all you need to know”, they may say. 

Were these sentiments restricted to the tweets and posts of the pundits, then perhaps the damage would be limited. Sadly, however, these oversimplifications are reflected in the general commentariat of Washington’s politicos and often in the halls of power themselves. Russia is indeed complex and, as a result, far more interesting than these narratives would suggest. Thankfully, there are some excellent guides available for interested readers that provide unparalleled insights into contemporary Russia. Readers would do well to avoid social media and instead dive into these excellent works. 

Professor Mark Galeotti’s “A Short History of Russia” is a delightful survey of Russia’s thousand-year history. In it he explores the founding of Russia from the pagans through to Putin but does so by exploring the myths that the Russians tell themselves, correcting the record along the way. As Galeotti describes the Russians, they are a “palimpsest people, citizens of a patchwork nation that more than most shows these external influences”. Whether it is the language they use, a mix of dialects and legacy words from invaders and those conquered, the religious hodgepodge that makes-up this massive country, or the constant struggle to define itself, Russia is truly vastly more complex and ultimately more fascinating than it is at face value (and it is already very interesting at that). After diving into Galeotti’s brief read, readers would do well to purchase Martin Sixsmith’s “Russia: A 1000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East”, an equally rich but longer survey of Russian history. 

Reading the tea leaves on Putin is more art than science as the Russian president (and those around him) has sought to cultivate a certain image and aura, the macho-strongman leader, an infallible symbol of Russian virility stalking tigers in the forest, piloting fighter jets, and descending to the depths of the Arctic Ocean. Here, it is easy to fall prey to the caricature, rather than the man, yet there are some exceptional guides that offer a far richer look at the Russian president. 

Galeotti’s other book “We Need to Talk About Putin” dismantles many of the assumptions made about Putin in an equally short, but sharp analysis, that is well worth a read. Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin” is one of the finest books on Putin offering a deeply nuanced and complex impression of both Putin himself, but also how he views the world and Russia’s place within the international system. 

Understanding the political system in which Putin lives and operates is equally critical as understanding the man himself. Here, Timothy Frye’s “Weak Strongman” looks at the Putin system as a “personalist autocracy” constrained by the same limitations as other autocrats. By looking at his behavior through this lens, Putin comes across as neither all-powerful nor weak, just playing a strong hand. Putin’s regime and indeed survival is predicated on a precarious balancing of interests at all levels, and understanding this balancing act will lead, ideally, to better policy making, but in the first instance a better understanding of Russian political behavior, both foreign and domestic.

Kathryn Stoner, a professor at Stanford University, offers a deeply academic look at Russian power and influence in her book “Russia Resurrected”. If Washington and the West only measure Russian power through the same lenses by which it self-assesses national power and judges its use, then the resulting assessment will be fundamentally skewed. Indeed, most believe that Russia plays a weak hand well. Dr. Stoner, by contrast, argues that Russia’s hand is not nearly as weak as it seems. Rather, Russia has managed to recover from its beleaguered post-Cold War position, develop a stronger hand than the West assumes, and more importantly, is increasingly willing to play that hand on the international stage. 

Catherine Belton’s “Putin’s People” is a fascinating, and exceptionally detailed, look at the rise of Putin, his inner circle, and the return of the KGB cadre to the leadership of Russia. It was one of my favorite books of 2020 and is one that I frequently recommend to those interested in how Putin operates. Indeed, it was so contentious It found itself in the news once again as four Russian billionaires and Rosneft — Russia’s state-owned energy company — are suing HarperCollins (the publisher of Putin’s People) for libel and Ms. Belton directly for defamation. The case prompted public debate over reputation laundering and cosmetic lawsuits using English courts.

It is equally important to understand how Russia attempts to pursue its foreign and security policy on the international stage. Here, Gordon Corera’s “Russians Among Us” is particularly instructive on the foreign intelligence efforts of Moscow against the West. Corera’s book focuses on the post-Cold War intelligence activities undertaken by Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union and, especially, since the rise of Putin to the presidency. A more historical look at Moscow’s disinformation, propaganda, and compromise campaigns, comes from Thomas Rid in his aptly titled book, “Active Measures”. 

Beyond the machinations of the Russian state and Putin, understanding Russian from the people’s perspective is critical, too. Here, Joshua Yaffa’s “Between Two Fires” offers an interesting look at the lives of “ordinary” Russians trying to balance their own principles with bowing to the needs of the powerful and compromising for their own benefit. It is deeply nuanced and is an interesting look at how the personalist autocracy has warped civil society. 

Sergei Medvedev’s “The Return of the Russian Leviathan”, the winner of the 2020 Pushkin House prize is a rich collection of translated essays covering everything from the state of Russia’s roads to the Sochi Olympics, and the Russian state’s war over the physical body of the Russian people. Best read in small doses, it makes the reader pause and reflect on just how little the West appreciates Russia as it is, not as popular culture and politicos make it out to be. 

Unpacking and understanding Russia and Russian politics is not an easy feat, and almost certainly a life-long endeavor. The books listed above offer some insights and go beyond the simple arguments and narratives, and that is perhaps the best first step to finding the key to understanding Russia. 

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

11 Great Reads on the Russian Riddle

Kremlin Flags Victory Day Celebration. Photo by Pixabay.

June 19, 2021

Russia has long been, as Churchill famously said, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." While understanding Russia and its politics is an elusive feat, these eleven books offer great insights that go beyond the more simplistic arguments and narratives.

I

n 1939, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said that Russia “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Those quoting him often cite only the first part of the quote, leaving it as a statement of fact, that Russia is too complex, too mysterious, and, almost, too alien, to understand. Over 80 years later it would appear that, perhaps, Russia is just as confusing and impenetrable as when Churchill first uttered that phrase. Yet, if one completes the prime minister’s quote, understanding Moscow becomes considerably easier: “But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

As President Joseph Biden sits down with President Vladimir Putin in Vienna, understanding Moscow, its behaviors, its intentions, and its interests is as important as ever. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of insta-pundits and social media “experts” on Russian affairs. Often these commentators grossly oversimplify the behavior of the Kremlin to the quirks of Putin’s character and his KGB background, or portray him as some master Machiavellian, scheming to bring down the West. Alternatively, they ascribe Russian behavior to a quirk of history, culture, or even the soul of the Russians themselves. “Read Tolstoy and you’ll understand all you need to know”, they may say. 

Were these sentiments restricted to the tweets and posts of the pundits, then perhaps the damage would be limited. Sadly, however, these oversimplifications are reflected in the general commentariat of Washington’s politicos and often in the halls of power themselves. Russia is indeed complex and, as a result, far more interesting than these narratives would suggest. Thankfully, there are some excellent guides available for interested readers that provide unparalleled insights into contemporary Russia. Readers would do well to avoid social media and instead dive into these excellent works. 

Professor Mark Galeotti’s “A Short History of Russia” is a delightful survey of Russia’s thousand-year history. In it he explores the founding of Russia from the pagans through to Putin but does so by exploring the myths that the Russians tell themselves, correcting the record along the way. As Galeotti describes the Russians, they are a “palimpsest people, citizens of a patchwork nation that more than most shows these external influences”. Whether it is the language they use, a mix of dialects and legacy words from invaders and those conquered, the religious hodgepodge that makes-up this massive country, or the constant struggle to define itself, Russia is truly vastly more complex and ultimately more fascinating than it is at face value (and it is already very interesting at that). After diving into Galeotti’s brief read, readers would do well to purchase Martin Sixsmith’s “Russia: A 1000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East”, an equally rich but longer survey of Russian history. 

Reading the tea leaves on Putin is more art than science as the Russian president (and those around him) has sought to cultivate a certain image and aura, the macho-strongman leader, an infallible symbol of Russian virility stalking tigers in the forest, piloting fighter jets, and descending to the depths of the Arctic Ocean. Here, it is easy to fall prey to the caricature, rather than the man, yet there are some exceptional guides that offer a far richer look at the Russian president. 

Galeotti’s other book “We Need to Talk About Putin” dismantles many of the assumptions made about Putin in an equally short, but sharp analysis, that is well worth a read. Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin” is one of the finest books on Putin offering a deeply nuanced and complex impression of both Putin himself, but also how he views the world and Russia’s place within the international system. 

Understanding the political system in which Putin lives and operates is equally critical as understanding the man himself. Here, Timothy Frye’s “Weak Strongman” looks at the Putin system as a “personalist autocracy” constrained by the same limitations as other autocrats. By looking at his behavior through this lens, Putin comes across as neither all-powerful nor weak, just playing a strong hand. Putin’s regime and indeed survival is predicated on a precarious balancing of interests at all levels, and understanding this balancing act will lead, ideally, to better policy making, but in the first instance a better understanding of Russian political behavior, both foreign and domestic.

Kathryn Stoner, a professor at Stanford University, offers a deeply academic look at Russian power and influence in her book “Russia Resurrected”. If Washington and the West only measure Russian power through the same lenses by which it self-assesses national power and judges its use, then the resulting assessment will be fundamentally skewed. Indeed, most believe that Russia plays a weak hand well. Dr. Stoner, by contrast, argues that Russia’s hand is not nearly as weak as it seems. Rather, Russia has managed to recover from its beleaguered post-Cold War position, develop a stronger hand than the West assumes, and more importantly, is increasingly willing to play that hand on the international stage. 

Catherine Belton’s “Putin’s People” is a fascinating, and exceptionally detailed, look at the rise of Putin, his inner circle, and the return of the KGB cadre to the leadership of Russia. It was one of my favorite books of 2020 and is one that I frequently recommend to those interested in how Putin operates. Indeed, it was so contentious It found itself in the news once again as four Russian billionaires and Rosneft — Russia’s state-owned energy company — are suing HarperCollins (the publisher of Putin’s People) for libel and Ms. Belton directly for defamation. The case prompted public debate over reputation laundering and cosmetic lawsuits using English courts.

It is equally important to understand how Russia attempts to pursue its foreign and security policy on the international stage. Here, Gordon Corera’s “Russians Among Us” is particularly instructive on the foreign intelligence efforts of Moscow against the West. Corera’s book focuses on the post-Cold War intelligence activities undertaken by Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union and, especially, since the rise of Putin to the presidency. A more historical look at Moscow’s disinformation, propaganda, and compromise campaigns, comes from Thomas Rid in his aptly titled book, “Active Measures”. 

Beyond the machinations of the Russian state and Putin, understanding Russian from the people’s perspective is critical, too. Here, Joshua Yaffa’s “Between Two Fires” offers an interesting look at the lives of “ordinary” Russians trying to balance their own principles with bowing to the needs of the powerful and compromising for their own benefit. It is deeply nuanced and is an interesting look at how the personalist autocracy has warped civil society. 

Sergei Medvedev’s “The Return of the Russian Leviathan”, the winner of the 2020 Pushkin House prize is a rich collection of translated essays covering everything from the state of Russia’s roads to the Sochi Olympics, and the Russian state’s war over the physical body of the Russian people. Best read in small doses, it makes the reader pause and reflect on just how little the West appreciates Russia as it is, not as popular culture and politicos make it out to be. 

Unpacking and understanding Russia and Russian politics is not an easy feat, and almost certainly a life-long endeavor. The books listed above offer some insights and go beyond the simple arguments and narratives, and that is perhaps the best first step to finding the key to understanding Russia. 

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.