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The best books on Putin and Russian History

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The New Cold War by Edward Lucas

The New Cold War
by Edward Lucas


Journalist and author Edward Lucas gives an excoriating critique of Putinism and explains how Russia's amoral present is rooted in a failure to come to terms with its past.

The New Cold War by Edward Lucas

The New Cold War
by Edward Lucas

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Wherever you turn – from contemporary literature to media reporting – there seems to be an unremittingly negative portrayal of modern Russia as corrupt, undemocratic and gangster-run. Is that a fair description?

Well, it’s both better and worse than the popular perception. It’s worse in the sense that I think the country is really run by what amounts to a gangster syndicate which is ruthless in its pursuit of wealth and power, and distorts the machinery of the state in order to achieve that and to perpetrate crimes against the Russian people. So I think Russia is worse than the slightly sanitised picture we get in the media, not least because of libel laws that mean it’s quite hard to write clearly and bluntly about some of the people involved.

But I think things are also better, because you have a new generation of Russians who don’t remember the Soviet Union, except possibly for childhood memories, are living lives largely unclouded by fear and official propaganda, and are integrated into the world in a way in which Russians haven’t been for 100 years. It’s those people who made up a chunk of those protesters who were filling the streets of Moscow and other cities during the weeks after the phony Duma elections in December 2011. There’s cause for hope there, and the Putin propaganda bubble seems to have popped pretty substantially. Although he’s still in power he no longer enjoys the hypnotic popularity that he’s had over the last 10 years.

You’ve written about the threat that the current Russian regime presents to Western interests, and argue that the West has been complacent in dealing with Russian espionage.

The West tends to treat Russian espionage as a bit of a joke. What I did in my book was to investigate 10 Russian illegals [spy cells], the most notorious of which was Anna Chapman. I found out they were doing rather a lot and their activities weren’t a joke but were serious and potentially damaging. Russia is still jolly good at spying, and we have lots of vulnerabilities that they are very willing to exploit.

Why do they still play these spying games?

I think it’s partly because they can. They don’t have a navy really, they don’t have an air force, they don’t even have a serious space programme compared to what the Soviet Union had, but they can still spy. Second, the leadership is addicted to information. It believes that there are conspiracies out there and with enough spying they will uncover them. So the paradox is that even when there’s no secret, Russian spies are tasked with trying to discover one, which leads to some tragicomic outcomes which I talk about in my book Deception.

“The Communist Party has gone but the KGB is still there”

One of the big priorities is getting their money into the West. They need to understand how our decision-making works – who makes the rules on money-laundering, who makes the rules on stock exchange listings and who makes the rules on energy regulation. They want to know whether they can change the rules, evade them or subvert them. So we do have secrets and for them espionage is one of the best ways of trying to secure their objectives, and my book is meant to be a bit of a wake-up call and say this is what’s going on. There is also a historical pattern to it. In the past we have been comprehensively suckered by the Soviet KGB, which ran rings around us in many respects. I uncover some glaring historical scandals of operations by MI6 and the CIA in the Soviet Union which went completely wrong, and provide an important contrast to the rather more successful operations that Russia is running against us now.

Rather than compare Russia with Europe, might it be more appropriate to compare it with other countries whose oil exports make up a disproportionate amount of their wealth and are often ruled by corrupt, undemocratic and potentially dangerous regimes?

There’s a danger of being patronising and deterministic. It’s like saying African countries can’t be democratic or Asian values are antithetical to democracy. Actually, what we have seen in Europe in the last 25 years is that countries that conventional wisdom thought were doomed to poverty and chaos have become very successful ones and countries that we thought were doing very well have fallen into great difficulties. So I’m very hesitant to say that Russia is beset by eternal woes that mean it can never be democratic, prosperous or law abiding.

I do think the shock of the Soviet collapse was very deep, and many people underestimated how difficult things were going to be after that. The country was ruined in so many ways – from brains to bridges – and a huge work of reconstruction is still needed to get over the terrible damage done by communism. I think it was fanciful to think it was ever going to be very easy, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t deplore things that have gone wrong. I think the 12-year Putin experiment in retrospect looks like a very serious wrong turn for Russia, rather than being a gateway to a bright and better future as it was portrayed at the time.

The dominance of the oil and gas sector has allowed Russia to punch above its weight in the world. Without it, the Russian government would surely behave differently.

I think that’s true. The main business of the regime is stealing natural resource rents. Rents is a rather technical economic term, but it’s the windfall money you get from just digging something out of the ground and selling it for a lot of money. There are also what people call bureaucratic rents, which is a fancy word for bribes. I think there are two pyramids in Russia – one of natural resource rents and one of bureaucratic rents or bribes. The regime sits at the top and sucks money up from both of those and then squanders some of it on high living in Moscow but pumps a lot of it into the West, where it’s laundered in places like Vienna and even London and New York.

You’ve chosen five books for us, all of which have been published relatively recently. Is there a single thread that ties your choices together?

I think history and the legacy of the past is something of a thread. The Communist Party has gone but the KGB is still there, and the difficulty in confronting the crimes of KGB – and the regimes whose instrument it was – is a very big deal. I spent a lot of time in West Germany in the 1980s and was very aware of the very painful and sometimes rather intrusive idea of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which is the coming to terms with the past. It’s always been striking that once you go east of the Iron Curtain, people are often ignorant about the misdeeds of their country’s history or relativise them in a way that is really shocking by the standards of Western Europe.

There is a feeling that the Soviet Union is gone and forgotten, when it shouldn’t be. There should be a memory of the totalitarian past in a country like Russia. Which is not to say that every Russian should feel personally guilty for it, but everything you see is built on the bones of millions of innocent people and that should be a really big deal in Russia. But sadly – and partly because of the Putin regime – it is not.

Well that segues nicely to your first book choice which talks about this question of Russia coming to terms with its past. Please tell us more about It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway.

I think David Satter has really captured the role of the past in the present in Russia. He’s a very experienced correspondent from the Soviet era who has maintained his interest in post-Soviet Russia. He’s a really energetic, gumption reporter – he just goes to places that foreign correspondents don’t often go to in the provinces and follows up stories he first reported in the 1970s. Also, he’s unashamedly interested in morality. He feels that the Soviet Union hollowed out both public and private morality and left people without a moral compass when it collapsed. He highlights some of the extraordinary instances of casual, amoral treatment of people by the system and by other people in the book. It’s quite a pessimistic book. He feels Russia has been poisoned by the Soviet past and until that poison is out of the system it is going to be sickened by it.

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His reportage is based on real life things. He has a gripping, haunting story of this guy who’s got drunk and ended up in a rubbish bin. The bin is then emptied into a garbage truck. The man wakes up and has his mobile phone on him. He phones from the back of the garbage truck and gets through to the police and tells them that he’s about to be crushed to death by the crusher. He tells them the part of Moscow he thinks he’s in and asks them to do something. And the police react with such casual boredom to this – the whole conversation is recorded – and you can hear the man becoming more and more desperate. You just think, when you have such a vivid human tragedy here, what kind of person would be a police dispatcher answering these emergency calls who wouldn’t sympathise with this person’s plight?

The title of his book is the quintessence of the Putinist attitude to the past. On the one hand, it’s a long time ago, so it’s irrelevant. On the other, if you say it is relevant, it wasn’t like that anyway – Stalin wasn’t such a bad man and his crimes really weren’t committed. It’s a classic Russian contradiction and an excellent title. Another thing he’s touching on is the role of the secret police in Russian thinking. The current regime is a corrupt secret police state and the role of the FSB [Federal Security Service] as an enforcement agent for the Kremlin is absolutely vital and Satter touches on that too and illuminates it.

Does he give any cause for optimism?

I think what he feels is that you’ve got to have a change at the top and you’ve got to have a government that tells the truth to its citizens about the past and deals with it and until that happens you’re always going to be navigating with a wonky compass. He doesn’t really write so much about the current political situation, which I think gives an opening at the moment. Putin’s looking quite weak and it’s unclear that he will last the full six years. It’s at least possible that out of that weakness will come a change in the regime or even a change of the regime. But it could also go wrong. It could be that the regime chucks Putin overboard and survives in some other form. It’s a stealing machine based on tens of billions of dollars, which the people in charge aren’t going to give up lightly.

Satter talks about how the rights and desires of individuals were subjugated in the Soviet era. This tradition has continued under Putin, hasn’t it?

Yes, and this touches on one of the other books I have chosen, Alexander Etkind’s Internal Colonization, where he says the relationship between the rulers and the ruled in Russia has always been a colonial one ever since the first Russian state came into existence. It has really followed the same pattern since. Russian rulers treat Russia the way that other countries’ rulers treat their colonies. It’s a callous, exploitative way where the quick win based on grabbing something someone else has got, or getting something out of the ground and selling it, is far more important than the long-term development of the economy. I don’t think that’s a complete explanation of Russia, as the Soviet Union did invest heavily in education, the space race, the arms race and other things, but I think the basic model of Russia as a quasi-feudal, quasi-piratical state is a very good one.

OK, let’s move on to Etkind now, who is a Cambridge academic. Can you tell us more about the thesis of this book?

Etkind’s thesis is that Russia has had a unique model of development, which is that it colonised itself. Lots of European countries had empires, but they colonised other countries and territories across the world – sometimes with conspicuous brutality and other times with a civilising mission, and sometimes a mixture of the two. But in Russia’s case the colonisation started from the very earliest stage of the Russian state. It was initially based on fur and timber and other types of resources and then later moved on to gas and oil. It’s meant that you’ve never had a proper relationship between the rulers and the ruled. It encouraged the impetuous and exploitative acts of behaviour, first by the barons of the feudal overlords, then the aristocracy of the Tsarist era and then the communist aristocracy. It’s always based on contempt and brutality and it hasn’t really changed.

This is a short book and very digestible. I read it relatively recently and was very impressed by it. We know all about Russian colonisation of other countries, and the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, but the idea that Russia itself had been colonised is quite a new one.

You’ve touched on the question of whether Putin will last the six years of the presidency. Masha Gessen, who is a Russian American journalist, also thinks the Putin bubble is likely to burst at some point. Can you tell us about her book, The Man Without a Face?

It’s a very polemical portrait of Putin, a man whom she detests. I think she nails a lot about him. She really focuses in on Putin the man and inverts this common picture of a glamorous, decisive, tough guy to show that the reality is sordid, scary and in a way rather pathetic.

One quite interesting thing she notes is that he has a kind of kleptomaniac streak. She points out the occasions where he has embarrassingly pocketed trinkets. Once there was a glass model of a Kalashnikov filled with vodka and he just swiped it. He also took a ring from an American sports tycoon who had to claim he had given it to Putin as a gift. She concedes that you can’t do an armchair diagnosis, but she thinks he is afflicted by a rare form of kleptomania called pleonexia, where you get quasi-sexual satisfaction from expropriation.

“A huge work of reconstruction is still needed to get over the terrible damage done by Communism.”

The book tells the story of this small, grey man from the back rooms of the KGB – he was not even a distinguished frontline spy but a pretty unimpressive backroom boy – and how he worms his way into the inner councils of the St Petersburg city administration, then enriches himself hugely before moving to Moscow. Then there is an account of him rescuing the Yeltsin family from possible impeachment and disaster and then taking over the whole country. It’s a compelling biographical story. But what she also does is place it in a very impressive political and bureaucratic context. She says the hybrid of the old KGB and the new mafia in St Petersburg – which sort of mated and mutated under Putin in the years he was there – transposed to Moscow and then took over the whole country. I found that a convincing and compelling account of what’s happened. You have on the one hand these “espiocrats”, these people whose mindset is absolutely conditioned by the world of the secret police and the secret service abroad. On the other hand is this mafia and its basic motivation, which is money and the ruthless desire to steal as much as possible from anybody who gets in their way or anybody they can reach.

Despite the protests from sections from the middle class, Putin does retain quite a large degree of popularity. Even if he did rig the last election, nobody really doubts that he would have won it.

A free election is not just about counting the votes correctly; it’s about what happens in the campaign. And I think that the way the campaign was constructed meant there wasn’t any doubt about Putin winning it because you didn’t have any serious challenger on the ballot – you had two professional losers, a clown and a stooge. So obviously Putin looked good against them. The other thing is that he had the relentless support of all the mainstream media and particularly television where most Russians get their news. The rigging you do on election day is the least important bit of election rigging.

But I think there has been a huge change. For a long time, Russians would say that the health system was bad, corruption was bad, the criminal justice system didn’t work, and that they were fed up with their elected representatives. But if you were to ask them if they approved of Putin they would say they did. He may have his faults, they would argue, but he’s got the country back on its feet again and there’s no real alternative. But I think that has profoundly changed now. It’s really hard for people to feel enthusiastic about Putin. His public approach now is based on kicking out foreigners and standing up for the ordinary Russian against the elites in the big cities. But that’s not really a programme. It’s the few cards he’s got left to play. If you compare that to the visionary rhetoric of his early years in power – with the promise of turning Russia into one of the most prosperous countries in Europe and a commitment to “dictatorship of the law” – now people just say: “Well, you had 12 years to do it and you didn’t when you could have done it, when you were hugely popular and had lots of money. Why should we get excited about any promises that you make now?”

Tell us about your next choice, Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern.

Both Etkin’s and Polonsky’s books have an admirable way of taking cultural allusions from Russian literary history and using them to explain the history of the time but also the present. Rachel Polonsky’s book is based on her chance discovery of [Vyacheslav] Molotov’s library. Polonsky finds out that her upstairs neighbour’s flat in Moscow still had Molotov’s library in it. Molotov was of course Stalin’s great henchman. He signed 373 death warrants for senior officials, including his close colleagues during the Great Terror, so he was a very bad man. He was also the principal Soviet signatory to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. But he was a bibliophile – he loved books. He had made lots of notes in the books and occasionally even used his moustache hairs as page markers.

That’s one axis of this book. The other is the author’s own travels. She goes around all sorts of places in Russia and describes what she finds and links that back into Russian literature, chiefly Molotov’s books but others as well. It’s a very captivating read. You don’t feel you are being bombarded by learning when you’re reading it. But at the end you feel a great deal better informed.

Would you describe it as a travelogue?

It’s what you might call a literary travelogue, although that sounds possibly a bit disparaging because she’s genuinely well-informed about Russia. When she goes to places she doesn’t have the ingenuous naivety of the travel writer. She hones in on what’s important and what really matters.

She’s also very determined not to be swept away by this consumerist bombast which is very characteristic of modern Russia – “Look, I’ve got a bigger car than I had last year and I’ve a bigger flat,” and so on. She wrote this book at the height of the Putin boom, so her quite acerbic and at sometimes rather mordant approach to Russia was prescient.

Your final book, Let Our Fame Be Great, is by former Reuters Moscow bureau chief Oliver Bullough and looks at the history of the Caucasus.

I think the Caucasus is Russia’s Achilles heel, really. It was the great triumph of the Tsarist empire getting the Caucasus. It was a great military feat trouncing these supposedly barbarian, wild mountain people. So it was celebrated in Russian literature and history as a great conquest. Then in the 1930s and 1940s it was the site of the extraordinary great deportation of the Chechen and Ingush people – tens of thousands of people driven from homes in the middle of the night, put on cattle trucks and dumped on the Steppe in central Asia with appalling casualty rates. And then when the Soviet Union broke up, Chechnya tried to regain independence and conflict ensued.

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Actually, what we are seeing is the point at which the Russian empire busts. It’s tried to digest the Caucasus but it hasn’t. What Oliver Bullough does absolutely brilliantly is look at the forgotten history of the Caucasus. What I particularly like about it – although he writes very well about all the bits of the Caucasus – is his focus on the Circassians and one of the great untold stories of the 19th century. This was a large country which had the misfortune to be on the southern fringe of an expanding Russia. There was what nowadays we would call a genocide, and one that rivals the treatment of the North American Indians or the Australian Aborigines or any of the other victims of European imperialism. But it has just vanished from our collective memory. I don’t think one person in a thousand knows about tens of thousands of Circassians who were massacred on the beaches of the Black Sea, in fact very close to Sochi where Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

What Bullough does brilliantly is to bring to our attention the fragments of documents we have from these pathetic remnants of cemeteries in Turkey – where the ships laden with dead bodies arrived. He also goes to places like Syria and Jordan where the Circassian diaspora has now become very influential and well-established and interviews them, and you get this feeling for this whole world you just don’t know about. These people with their language, their history, their culture and their colossal tragedy behind them, trying with satellite television, Twitter and the Internet and all these modern means, to get themselves back together again and get their story told.

The book also looks at the history of Russia’s interventions in Chechnya, in which both sides have committed atrocities. Is this a conflict that is likely to raise its head again in the near future?

The Chechens are a very tough people who have been brutalised by their historic experience. I don’t think anyone should take a naive, romantic view that this is a captive nation struggling to be free and they’ll become the Switzerland of the Caucasus if they’re allowed to be, because the damage done by history leaves very deep scars on all sides. I wouldn’t want to particularly judge the question of what should be the constitutional arrangements in the North Caucasus – I just think that Russia is struggling and failing to hold on to the North Caucasus. Russians are leaving, and you have bunch of corrupt and very oppressive satrapies that pay lip-service to Russia, but where the Russian constitution doesn’t actually apply any more. They consume very large amounts of Russian money and I just don’t think that’s very sustainable. The combination of some mistakes by the Chechens and many more mistakes by the Russians has created a really horrible situation that is going to be around for a long time.

This interview was published in 2012

August 18, 2012

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Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas is a British journalist. He is a senior editor at The Economist, where he was Moscow bureau chief from 1998 to 2002, and later central and east European correspondent. Lucas is author of The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West, and the ebook The Snowden Operation

Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas is a British journalist. He is a senior editor at The Economist, where he was Moscow bureau chief from 1998 to 2002, and later central and east European correspondent. Lucas is author of The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West, and the ebook The Snowden Operation