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The Best Russia Books: the 2020 Pushkin House Prize

recommended by Serhii Plokhy

The Return of the Russian Leviathan by Sergei Medvedev & Stephen Dalziel (translator)


The Return of the Russian Leviathan
by Sergei Medvedev & Stephen Dalziel (translator)


Every year since 2013 the Russian Book Prize run by Pushkin House, a UK charity, has carried out the important task  of drawing attention to books that "encourage public understanding and intelligent debate about the Russian-speaking world." Here, Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy, chair of this year's judging panel, talks us through the books that made the 2020 shortlist.

Interview by Sophie Roell

The Return of the Russian Leviathan by Sergei Medvedev & Stephen Dalziel (translator)


The Return of the Russian Leviathan
by Sergei Medvedev & Stephen Dalziel (translator)

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We’ll talk about the books on the 2020 shortlist in a minute, but first of all I wanted to say how excited I was to hear that there is a prize for nonfiction books about Russia, because it seems a really important country to understand better. Do you want to tell me a bit about the Pushkin House prize and, specifically, what kind of books you’re looking for as a judge? I know you’ve won the prize yourself, twice.

Yes, I’ve won the prize twice, so the short answer would be, it looks like they’re looking for the kind of the books that I’m writing!

More seriously, the idea is, first of all, to look at what’s happened within the last year, and look for the books about Russia and the region. This is not to somehow encourage Russian imperialism and nostalgia for empire, but the idea is that it’s really difficult to understand Russia and the region without looking at its history, which is either Soviet or imperial. So, automatically, you see the scope is broadened to the Soviet space, or the Russian imperial space.

And then we look for the books that are of a high standard in terms of their academic qualities, but also appeal to the general public. That is the principle. And each time—this is the second time that I’m serving on the jury, because no prize comes without a price, once you get a prize, you get to serve on the jury after that—it’s amazing how many good books are out there. It’s a very rewarding task to serve on the jury, but it’s also a very difficult one because a lot of excellent books are left out of those five or six that are chosen for the shortlist. So that’s a little bit frustrating.

But the good thing is that each time you look you’re amazed, with a list of 30, 40 or more books to choose from. This is English language books within one year, dealing with Russia or with the region. It’s not bad at all. The field is not about to collapse, at least in the near future.

Do the books have to be related to what’s going on in Russia now?

No, but maybe subconsciously we also think about what is happening today and somehow it also translates into our choices. The point is that the author can write about the 16th century—one of the books this year is about Sergei Eisenstein, the film director, and Ivan the Terrible—but in a way that is understandable and will appeal to a broader audience. So not just to experts on the 16th century, not just to specialists on Stalin’s Russia, or even experts on the Soviet Union or post-Soviet space, but also to people who are interested in films, in culture. The book has to be written in a language that is good from an academic point of view but is not jargon. It’s something that an intelligent reader can read. It’s very difficult to do and that’s why I’m really very pleased how many good books with those particular qualities are out there.

I was looking through the books on the 2020 shortlist before talking, just dipping into them all and thinking, ‘Wow, if you read all these, it’d be like taking a course on Russia.’ You would already know so much about 20th century Russia, wouldn’t you?

Yes, but please don’t put that in writing, because enrolment in our courses would collapse! I’m joking, of course. For people like me who teach, the goal is to get people engaged and involved and reading our work but also potentially taking our courses. But we have people on the jury who are journalists and diplomats—whose paycheck doesn’t depend on enrolments.

Okay, so let’s talk about the winning book first, which is called the The Return of the Russian Leviathan by Sergei Medvedev, who seems to be a very outspoken commentator on Russia. He is an academic, but it sounds like he’s had his job taken away from him.

Until recently Sergei taught at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, which is a top and very liberal institution. He had a blog at the same time. I understand that that job was taken away from him, but the blog part is still there. At the time of the decision of the jury, we didn’t have that information, that happened later. It’s really unfortunate that he’s lost his position—unfortunate is maybe the wrong word, unfortunate to me means something that happens that you can’t control. But it looks like there are people at the top who don’t like what Sergei says, who don’t like his analysis, and who contributed to him losing his job.

The book is amazing. It’s just the wonderful writing, but most important are the thought and argument that went into this book. It’s a collection of essays or standalone chapters. I will be talking about the other books on the shortlist; Sergei’s book stands at the top of the pyramid of the other books. The shortlisted authors discuss different aspects of Russian or Soviet culture and history—or even go into the future, with environmental studies like Kate Brown’s—but Sergei’s book brings this all together, it brings in history, it brings in politics, it brings in culture. In that sense, it really brings together  the best of what we’ve got on the shortlist.

“Russia is only now trying to make sense out of what happened in the last 30 to 50 years, with the loss of empire, the loss of messianic ideology”

Sergei is a deep thinker. With his knowledge of sociology, of political psychology, of history, he deals with the question, which is very important today—and I would say very important to the world of the last maybe 100 years—of Russia as a post-imperial state. Russia is going through post-imperial struggles, something that maybe other countries and nations that had empires went through before. Other countries went through transformations in the 1960s with social upheavals. Russia is only now trying to make sense out of what happened in the last 30 to 50 years, with the loss of empire, the loss of messianic ideology.

Sergei remains optimistic, but his diagnosis is not great in the sense that Russia, at this point, doesn’t have a clear sense of itself or a clear vision for the future. It’s stuck in the past and visions of a grandiose Soviet or imperial past, which is one of the factors that pushes it toward all this adventurism and expansion and a lot of blood in the Russian neighbourhood, but also outside of the post-Soviet space.

Again, it’s done in a very, very erudite way. It really brings up knowledge from different disciplines to tackle the question that all of us have today, ‘What is happening in Russia? How do you explain that?’ And he does that on a very deep level, going beyond your normal explanation of, ‘Okay, there is Putin, or the Kremlin, or there is this advisor or that advisor.’ He is talking about the society and saying that people at the top are really using certain insecurities, certain features that are in the society already, to come to power, to secure their power, and then also advancing those insecurities and probably making them worse. So, from that point of view, it’s a very important book.

I was listening to an interview with the author on the Pushkin House website, where he was talking about what the book was about. He was basically saying that authoritarianism has been the main theme of Russian history for the last half millennium, apart from those brief 12 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. He even describes Putin as a victim, which is a word I’ve never heard used about Putin before. But that speaks to your point, that many of these things are pre-existing.

Exactly. What is being reflected, projected and articulated by the current regime are the current uncertainties but also the longer tradition of Russian political history—and political history is one of the subjects that Sergei specializes in.

The argument that there is this authoritarian trend in Russian history, and that Russia really has difficulty going outside of that trend, is something that Richard Pipes, a historian who worked at Harvard, was promoting in the 1960s and 70s. He was considered an archenemy by the Soviet establishment. But then, when Putin came to power, people like Vladislav Surkov invited him and there was a translation of his books. They said, ‘Okay, you’re absolutely right. Historically that’s how we function and we can’t function otherwise.’ And Pipes unwillingly became a justification for the new authoritarian regime and its authoritarian tendencies.

What I’m trying to say is that Sergei is really trying to deal with issues that have been noticed by others before, but he does that through the prism of current developments, and the country’s unhealthy fascination with its great power past. The biggest or founding myth of today’s Russia, I might add, is the myth of the Great Patriotic War. That’s one example of society being deeply rooted in the past and having difficulties breaking away.

What’s interesting to me about this book is that it’s written by someone who’s in Russia and is Russian. Often, when you’re reading about other countries in English, it’s a foreign journalist’s or an outsider’s perspective, but with Sergei, you feel he’s very much in the thick of it.

Absolutely, and that’s a quality you don’t see so much. I hope Andrew Jack will maybe see this interview and correct me if I’m wrong—he possesses the institutional memory and knowledge of the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize like nobody else—but it seems to me this is the first book translated from Russian that won the prize. In my previous incarnation as a judge a few years ago, I remember that we looked at a translated book and weren’t sure what to do with it. We created a separate category for that book. This time it was different, there was no positive or negative inclination for translated books. Return of the Russian Leviathan is very well translated. Translated books should have the same prominence for the prize because, exactly as you said, they provide that absolutely unique perspective.

Let’s move on to the rest of the books about Russia that made the shortlist of the 2020 Pushkin House Prize. Why don’t we look at one that’s a bit different and start with Floating Coast? It’s about the Bering Strait and it’s by Bathsheba Demuth, who’s an environmental historian. Tell me a bit what that one’s about and why you liked it.

This book about the Bering Strait is one of two books on the shortlist that deal with environmental studies or environmental history. There are clear connections with Kate Brown’s book on Chernobyl.

Floating Coast is about the environment and what modern society does with it when we come to this land at the end of the world. What is unique about the book is that she looks at this from both sides of the Bering Strait: American and Soviet, comparing the two archenemies of the Cold War. The regimes had completely different ideologies. They were both messianic in their own right: only they had the right way to deal with the issues of environment, development, and indigenous population. And, indeed, they came with their own playbooks. But the most striking and maybe depressing, conclusion is that they came to the same results. Whatever the policies are, the result is the same, which is a bit disheartening. But that’s also a way to think about us as a world community and what we do with our environment, despite our differences, because it looks like, whatever the differences are, we end in the same place. We are destroying and exploiting the environment by our attempts to civilize it, to turn it into a productive force.

There is a connection in this book between Russia and the outside world which is very, very important. With the Cold War, there is a tradition of looking at Russian or Soviet history as kind of sui generis, completely different, completely separate from the rest of the world. Integrating the Soviet and Russian experience into the global one not only helps us to understand things that we didn’t understand before, but also to figure out how we can move forward.

So, are things very bad in the Bering Strait, environmentally speaking?

Well, it’s probably not as bad as in places where ‘civilization’ came earlier so I wouldn’t push that too far. It’s also not that bringing the benefits of the modern science and technology to the region didn’t bring any benefits, but that came at an enormous price. And that, especially in our current situation with climate change, is a key issue that we’re dealing with today.

Going back to your question of whether the books have to speak to what we are living through today. They don’t have to, but it looks like we tend to pay attention to books that resonate with today’s concerns or fears or insecurities, or questions that we have today. This is one of those books and it’s an international perspective which is maybe not absolutely unique, but quite rare. That is one of main contributions of the book.

Okay, let’s look at the other environmental book on the 2020 shortlist. This is Manual for Survival by Kate Brown, with the surprising subtitle A Chernobyl Guide to the Future.

Probably quite a few people who will read this interview have watched the HBO and Sky miniseries on Chernobyl. The best way to think about Kate Brown’s book in my mind is that it tells the story of Chernobyl that was not there at all in the miniseries. It’s interesting and intriguing. It’s a book about the people and the environment that were left after the HBO cameras stopped rolling (Or, as cameras don’t roll anymore, when the digital cameras… ran out of digits?)

What Manual for Survival also has in common with the book on the Bering Strait, Floating Coast, is that both books are written, to some extent, from below. Both authors use their expertise as historians, they go to the archives, but they combine that with their expertise as anthropologists and go and interview people. Kate Brown takes very seriously what people who lived through Chernobyl think about themselves, about the experience, about their health, about the environment. As academics, we always—or maybe often—come with a certain type of attitude that comes with our education and when we look at the local perceptions or knowledge we think, ‘Okay, this doesn’t make sense. We did this survey, or we did this health check, and it doesn’t show in your blood. What you’re saying is irrelevant, an element of  folklore or something like that. Somebody else can study that.’ Kate Brown goes to those people and that’s where she starts. She listens to them and then she follows those leads. And those leads very often end up in the same archives, but allow her to ask different questions, the ones she would not ask otherwise. The book tells us a very different story about Chernobyl, one that we didn’t know when we were looking top down.

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The title of the book is really powerful. What she’s trying to do is learn from that experience. By using local knowledge and local perspectives, she also tries to challenge some of the already established, prevailing stereotypes about Chernobyl. One of those is the question of what happened to the environment. People who go to Chernobyl, to the exclusion zone today say, ‘Okay, the wildlife is back. It’s flourishing. It’s better than it was when we were there.’ And yes, there is a point to that, in the sense that the worst thing that can happen to the environment is that we, humans, come there. Everyone else disappears.

But there is also something that we don’t think about and this is the fact that not all the animals returned and those animals that did return are not as healthy as we think they are. There are major changes that are happening there. And she looks at the research done by scholars who don’t have that big microphone in front of them, who were marginalized by the field as a whole, and raises these questions.

She’s very brave because she is trained as a historian, but she goes in and tries to understand and explain nuclear medicine, biology. She has been attacked for that, but her position is a very, very reasonable and important one. She says, ‘Okay, I’m raising these questions. Yes, maybe you who are trained in biology know more than I do. But, please, try to answer them.’

Again, it’s about the Soviet experience, but it’s also about taking Chernobyl away from saying, ‘Okay. It’s ideology, it’s the Communist Party, it’s a particular type of reactor that caused that’ and placing it in a different column and saying, ‘Ok, this is actually something that is global. This is something that we have to deal with.’ With nuclear energy in particular, with global warming, it’s easy to say, ‘Let’s go nuclear.’ Kate Brown’s position is, ‘Just hold your horses. Slow down. Let’s talk about this. Let’s think about whether this is indeed the best way to deal with the crisis that we face now.’

Let’s move on to the final three books on the Pushkin House 2020 shortlist, which take us back to Russia in the mid-20th century . Shall we start with Stalin’s Scribe by Brian Boeck?

In terms of grouping things, the last three books are all biographies, done very differently. In a sense they’re all attempts to understand some of the same things in Russian history and society that Sergei Medvedev talks about. What unites them is that they are about the Soviet experience, but they represent different threads, so to speak, of the Soviet trajectory.

Stalin’s Scribe is about Mikhail Sholokhov, the Nobel Prize winner—who is in a very different column from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, another Nobel Prize winner. Sholokhov is a beloved child of the Soviet system, to a degree. An Impeccable Spy is about Richard Sorge, who was a spy for the cause. This Thing of Darkness is about a cinematographer, Sergei Eisenstein and deals with Stalinism and authoritarianism while making a deep dive in the Russian history.

With Sholokhov what is interesting is that he’s a man of many mysteries. It’s about the question of lies and fake news, but in a different way than we deal with it now. He’s someone who becomes the ideal Soviet writer. But his official biography has a lot of lacunas. Certain things are hidden, and other things are actually exaggerated and Brian Boeck goes through that. Sholokhov is a man who wrote so much and was politically exceptionally important, but this is the first comprehensive biography about him. It’s a political biography, but not only. There are questions, like whether his best known and most brilliant work, And Quiet Flows the Don, was stolen or not, whether he really wrote it or not, what his relationship with Stalin was. In my reading, it’s about a talent being subdued and corrupted. So a talented person who goes into the service of the Leviathan that Sergei Medvedev writes about.

It’s an excellent piece of work by a historian. Boeck goes and consults the archives, some materials for the first time. He was going on an almost yearly basis to the area from which Sholokhov comes, the Rostov-on-Don area in southern Russia. It is not exactly like Sergei Medvedev, but it’s the work of a Western scholar who is really very immersed in his subject and in the psychology of the place that he writes about. He brings so to speak local knowledge and sensibilities to a history of one of the top Soviet intellectuals.

Does he end up liking Sholokhov? Sholokhov was described as Stalin’s favourite author, is that right?

I would say that’s right, though Stalin’s tastes changed depending on the politics and political situation. With Sergei Eisenstein, Stalin loved the first part of his film, and then crushed the second part. But yes, in terms of Sholokhov, that would be a fair characterization of him and his relation to Stalin. This is despite the fact that, especially early on, he would write letters to Stalin about the collectivization and the famine that hit the Don region at the time. Stalin considered him important enough to write to him and point out his “mistakes”. This is someone who really had the ear of the dictator.

For Brian Boeck it’s not about liking or not liking Sholokhov, the key is understanding him and giving him the benefit of the doubt. At the end of the day, it seems to me that Boeck comes, on the one hand, to a balanced, but on the other hand, a very worrisome verdict not only on Sholokhov, but on the society that created him and that he helped create in turn.

Let’s talk about the book about Sergei Eisenstein next, as it’s also about an artist. It’s called This Thing of Darkness by Joan Neuberger and it’s specifically about his movie about Ivan the Terrible, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. Like quite a few of the books that ended up on the shortlist it’s multi-disciplinary. On the one hand, it’s history. On the other hand, you can’t write the book without understanding cinematography and the particular context in which the film was being made, as well as the 16th century. It’s literature, it’s cinema, it’s history, it’s a little bit of psychology: all of that comes together. And these are complex issues. If you look, for example, at what Eisenstein does in terms of the set decoration it’s mind boggling. You really have to take a course to understand what is there and the symbolism and why it is important and what he is trying to say. When Joan was working on the book (I happen to know the author and have listened to her presentations at academic conferences), I thought it would be a wonderful book, but that the number of people who would read it might be very limited. But Joan did a very good job of really presenting it in a way that appeals to a broader audience.

“It’s amazing how many good books are out there”

Again, the question is the same one that Brian asks in his book. Here is an artist at the court of a dictator. As an artist he depends on that dictator, even more than Sholokhov does. To make a film you need funding, you need infrastructure, all sorts of things. Eisenstein is also an artist who is really married to the cause, with Battleship Potemkin and other films. He is a symbol of Soviet cinema, making films about the revolution, promoting it and legitimizing it. He really does a lot of things that Stalin likes.

But he remains an artist. I interviewed Joan and I said, ‘It’s about subversion, maybe?’ and she said, ‘No, it’s more than that. Everyone talks about subversion.’ In the second part of Ivan the Terrible, more than in the previous part, he really struggles with issues of authority, power, corruption of power, and so on and so forth. And eventually the film is shelved. They don’t show it.

From that point of view, it’s a trajectory different from Sholokhov’s. Sholokhov was never really shelved. It’s another trajectory of how a talent functions and tries to survive being dependent on the dictator, but also being in opposition to the dictator.

And can you watch the film now of Ivan the Terrible or was the second part destroyed?

No, it wasn’t destroyed. It was shown again.

I read a book about Shostakovich for young adults earlier this year, called Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. It’s a similar tension, you’re a celebrated artist, but you’re constantly worried about falling foul of the regime. If I were living under Stalin, I’d definitely sell out completely to survive.

It’s a different personal story but, again, it is about the relationship of an individual and a regime. It’s the subject of most of the books on our list and part of Sergei Medvedev’s personal story.

Let’s talk about the last book on the shortlist of the 2020 Pushkin House Russian Book Prize. It’s about Richard Sorge, who was described by Ian Fleming as “the most formidable spy in history”. The title of the book is An Impeccable Spy and it’s by Owen Matthews. 

It’s one more trajectory in this same story that I have been talking about. Sorge’s talent was lying without making much of an effort and loving it. He put this talent in the service of the larger good, the way he understood it. Normally people don’t like liars—it’s not good being a pathological liar—but if it’s a good lie, if you lie for the salvation of society, then, suddenly, you become a much, much more likeable person than you would be otherwise.

The book is also  about the appeal of communism and the ideas of communism in the first half of the last  century. It attracted not only people captured by the regime, by the system, who had no easy way of escape like Eisenstein or Sholokhov, but also people from outside of the interwar  equivalent of the ‘iron curtain.’ Communism at the time is about an international experiment, a new, bright future for mankind. It is the time of the spread of the communist movement all over the world. And the promised land is the Soviet Union. Sorge had deeper roots in the Russian Empire than some of the Brits and Americans who came to the Soviet Union to build the new future, but he certainly belonged to that same category and he served the regime abroad.

He was born in Baku and his mother was Russian, but was he considered German because his father was a German mining engineer?

It’s a story of Russian imperial industrialization, where you have Baku and its oilfields and experts coming from all over the world. Sorge spoke Russian and German. He’s a spy, so it’s a complex identity, but I think of him as mostly German. He certainly didn’t have to serve the cause or go back to Russia or the Soviet Union, or to think in patriotic terms. He could, but he didn’t have to do it.

The big controversy about him is his spying for the Soviets in Japan and informing the Soviet authorities that Japan would not attack in 1941. This allegedly allowed Stalin to move divisions from the Far East and save Moscow. So it’s a big thing, but there is a lot of mythology. The question is whether anyone really paid any attention to what he reported, as the Soviets had other sources of information. He was right, and others were right about the  Japanese invasion. That brings us to the saga of the American invasion of Iraq and questions about how the authorities treat intelligence; what you do with that intelligence and the mythology associated with it.

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The author, Owen Matthews, deals with the biography of Sorge in ways others haven’t. He goes to the sources; he goes to the archives. It’s a contribution in that sense. But it’s also one of the first books—along with Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor—in the genre of serious research but popularly written biographies of Russian spies. The majority of what is written about them is written in Russia, and now with Putin in power for close to 20 years, this is a very popular genre. It presents the Soviet intelligence agents as heroes. Owen Matthews’s work is much more balanced. It has bigger questions, about the character of the person, about the political landscape, about the choices that he made, about the state using intelligence but ignoring the information that came from it. That’s the kind of approach you don’t find in 99.9% of the books about the Soviet spies. In that sense, it’s an important book.

The Oleg Gordievsky book by Ben Macintyre, The Spy and the Traitor, is maybe the first one of that kind, but it’s different because he couldn’t go to the KGB archives and ask for the documents. He had access to the person, who is alive and was prepared to talk. That’s a different angle. The books are maybe broadly in the same box, but they are also very different.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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Serhii Plokhy

Serhii Plokhy

Serhii Plokhy is Mykhailo S. Hrushevs'kyi Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University and Director of its Ukrainian Research Institute. His book, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, was the winner of the 2018 Baillie Gifford Prize, the UK's most prestigious nonfiction prize. He has won the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize two times, once for Chernobyl and once for The Last Empire, his book about the last months of the Soviet Union.

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Serhii Plokhy

Serhii Plokhy

Serhii Plokhy is Mykhailo S. Hrushevs'kyi Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University and Director of its Ukrainian Research Institute. His book, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, was the winner of the 2018 Baillie Gifford Prize, the UK's most prestigious nonfiction prize. He has won the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize two times, once for Chernobyl and once for The Last Empire, his book about the last months of the Soviet Union.