Category Archives: Book review

Book Review: Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?

Supporters of jailed Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny had their knickers in a twist last week after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the editor of the liberal newspaper Novaia Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov. The Navalnyites thought that the award should have gone to their own chosen Messiah and were full of indignation that Navalny had been passed up. The slight was more than just a slight – it was downright dangerous, they claimed, going to so far as to assert that it endangered the whole world with nuclear war. As Leonid Ragozin tweeted:

“The peace award has brought the war closer” – a popular sentiment in the Russian liberal camp, reflecting the fact that Navalny’s peaceful movement might have been the country’s last chance from sliding into civil conflict with grave implications for the rest of the world.’

“Navalny’s movement is exactly about preventing civil war in a nuclear superpower or wars it could launch abroad,” continued Ragozin, obviously not immune to a bit of hyperbole. Other Navalnyites were equally up in arms at their hero’s rejection. Muratov’s award was “Putin’s prize” said one. “What do you think? Has Putin corrupted the Nobel prize committee?” tweeted another. And so on.

What explains this passionate leader cult? Why do Navalny’s followers seem to hate other liberals almost as much as they hate the “Putin regime”? And why do those other liberals reciprocate, rejecting Navalny as almost as bad, if not worse, than Putin? Is Navalny really Russia’s salvation? Or is he a minor bit player in the grander scheme of Russian history?

It would be nice to have someone provide some deeply considered answers to questions such as these, and so I leapt at the opportunity to buy Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet, and Ben Noble’s new book Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future? As the first biography of Navalny published in English, it’s what academics like to call “an important contribution to the literature.” After reading it, though, I was a bit unsatisfied. I didn’t hate it. It’s fine as far as it goes. But to be frank, I found it rather superficial. If you want a quick summary of Navalny’s activities over the past 20 years, you’ll find that you get it. But if you want a deeper, critical analysis of the man, his beliefs, and his personality, you’ll be left with a lot more questions than answers.

Continue reading Book Review: Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?

Book Review: Weak Strongman

My last couple of posts have focused on bad writing about Russia, so today I’d like to talk about something rather better – Timothy Frye’s new book Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia. I have my quibbles with some of what Frye has to say, but in general this is a big step up in quality from most of what I read about modern Russia.

Continue reading Book Review: Weak Strongman

End of Year Books

As the year is about to end, and I have several book reviews to do, I thought I would bundle them all together.

Personal reflections: Americans in Russia

First off are a couple of books of a non-academic variety which were sent to me, one being a memoir, and the other a self-published collection of essays. Both to some degree touch upon the issue of Americans in Russia.

Behind the Red Veil is American teacher Frank Thoms’s memoir of his time teaching in Soviet schools during the Gorbachev era. Thoms taught for a few months at several English-immersion schools in Leningrad, Moscow, and Yekaterinburg, and also at Pioneer camp in Kazakhstan. His decision to work there reflected his desire to penetrate behind what he calls the ‘red veil’ of the Soviet Union, and to unpeel the ‘deeper layers’ of the Soviets’ matrioshkas, as he puts it. It was also perhaps a response to a personal crisis, following on from his divorce. Thoms’s trips to the Soviet Union were thus maybe as much a voyage of personal discovery as an exploration of Soviet life. As he himself concludes, ‘Upon reflection, I was the primary beneficiary of my sojourns. … I was befriending me. … My effort to probe Churchill’s “Russia is riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” became a process of self-deciphering.’

Perhaps for that reason, Thoms’s memoir is rather self-absorbed and spends surprisingly little time reflecting on Soviet life, and pretty much nothing outside the school system. On that, though, he does offer some thoughts. As described by Thoms, the Soviet school system had an overly rigid curriculum which placed a huge emphasis on grades, to which both teachers and pupils paid overt homage while quietly subverting it with each others’ knowledge. He’s fond of using the word pokazukha (window-dressing, roughly speaking) to describe the Soviets’ attitude of pretending to go along with the rules which doing their best to undermine them. He describes the prevalence of crib-sheets and cheating, and of students lying, and prompting one another in class, to all of which teachers turned a blind eye. The Soviet Union, Thoms concludes, was ‘not only authoritarian but pretended.’

Americans in Russia also pop up in veteran journalist Deena Stryker’s self-published collection of essay, Russia’s Americans, although the title is rather deceiving as the Americans in question are just a small part of the whole.

Stryker is an Franco-American journalist of, I think it’s fair to say, well-left-of-centre political opinions. In the past she hobnobbed with the likes of Fidel Castro and Federico Fellini, before spending some time writing speeches in the US State Department under Jimmy Carter. The Americans in the title of her book are various US (and one Canadian) expats she met on a trip to Russia in 2017. As a whole, they seem a happy bunch, who don’t particularly miss America, and express no special desire to go back, though they are no without their criticism of modern Russia (the food is ‘gross’ says one; chaos ‘reigns’, says another, while adding that he actually likes the anarchy; and another echoes Frank Thomas and complains that the rote learning of the Russian school system ‘encourages cheating.)

I thought rather more could be made of all this, and it made me think that there would be value in a detailed study of expat experiences of life in Russia. As it is, though, they constitute only a small part of Stryker’s book, most of which consists of essays denouncing US foreign policy and defending Russia against a variety of common charges. She stresses the ‘Wolfowitz Doctrine’ which proclaimed that the US should act to prevent any other nation from challenging US hegemony, and interprets US policy towards Russia in light of that doctrine and the desire to control what the founder of geopolitical theory Halford Mackinder called ‘the heartland’.

The USA is indeed in large part to blame for the current poor state of Russian-American relations, but there’s blame on the Russian side too. Take Ukraine: while the US undoubtedly backed the Maidan coup, it had domestic roots, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebellion in Donbass can’t be ignored. So, to be honest, I somewhat part with Stryker, as with other what you might call ‘pro-Russian’ analysts. I think that she pushes things further than is warranted. In recognizing American’s sins, it’s important that one doesn’t end up blaming America for everything.

Academic books

Next in this line of reviews are a couple of academic books, which I’ve selected as being among the best works produced about contemporary Russia this year.

First up is Elena Chebankova’s Political Ideologies in Contemporary Russia which is pretty much what it says on the tin – a description of the various currents in modern Russian political thought, such as conservatism, liberalism, socialism, nationalism, and feminism.

As a summary of the various modes of Russian thought, I think that the book does a pretty good job. It’s also, I think, well-balanced and thankfully free of the extreme interpretations of Russia’s ideological twists and turns that characterize so many Western analyses.

This can be seen in the way Chebankova describes ‘Putinism’ as a system of ‘paradigmatic pluralism’, in which liberalism, conservatism, socialism, nationalism, multipolar world order ideas, and multiculturalism exist side by side. According to Chebankova, ‘representatives of each paradigm operate within Russia’s main political parties, at the high echelons of power, in large and medium-sized business structures, and in the main social movements.’ As for Vladimir Putin, he ‘prefers to balance these socio-political forces without taking sides, and he navigates between the traditionalists and the liberals situationally.’

Chebankova, in other words, paints a picture  of Russia as far more diverse than one would expect if one accepted the general view of the country as an authoritarian dictatorship in the grip of a new conservative ideology. Overall, people wanting an introduction to contemporary Russian liberalism, conservatism, and so on, will find this book invaluable.

Issues of ideology also pop up in another new book, Gulnaz Sharafutdinova’s The Red Mirror: Putin’s Leadership and Russia’s Insecure Identity. In this the author argues that Vladimir Putin owes his success to the fact that he has adopted a form of identity politics which has ‘worked to consolidate the Russian nation in the sense of infusing Russian citizens with a sense of belonging and a sense of pride, patriotism, and faith in their country.’ In the process, he ‘has articulated the shared collective perspective and has built a social consensus by tapping into powerful group emotions of shame and humiliation, derived from the painful experiences of the 1990s.’ Consequently Russians feel that Putin is ‘one of us’, is ‘doing it for us’, is ‘crafting a sense of us’, and is ‘making us matter’.

Sharafutdinova spends a lot of time demonstrating how the Russian media has helped Putin in this regard by propagating the ‘frame’ of the 1990s as a period of national humiliation, a frame which provides vital support for the current government by allowing it to present itself as a comparative bringer of stability. She argues that, while this frame isn’t one invented by the Kremlin, its widespread acceptance is a product of a top-down decision to promote it. I found her deconstruction of the workings of the TV talk show ‘Evening with Vladimir Solovyov’ rather good. That said, I have some issues with the idea that the prevalence of this frame owes so much to top-down support. I rather suspect that if Putin had decided to push another frame, such as arguing that the 1990s were a time of successful transformation, it would not have got very far. Propaganda works bests when it resonates with what people feel. You can’t propagate any old thing. And this, I think, is a case in point.

Nevertheless, Sharafutdinova thinks that the framing of the 1990s in purely negative terms is a serious mistake from the point of view of Russia’s democratic development, and that Russia can never move forward unless it accepts the positive elements of the post-Soviet reform period. Good luck with that, I have to say. Sharafutdinova herself admits that it’s not likely to happen.

So, I have some issues with this book. At the same time, though, it’s useful as a corrective to the widely-held view that Putin’s power is founded purely on repression or media manipulation. There’s a degree of the latter in Sharafutdinova’s account, but only in the sense that the Russian media plays on, and amplifies, existing viewpoints, with Putin successfully allying himself with the Russian people’s sense of identity. Isn’t that democracy, part of me wonders?

Book I never finished

Finally, there’s a book I never finished, Financial Times journalist Catherine Belton’s monstrously huge door-stopper Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West. I made a big mistake in failing to check how long this book was before I ordered a copy. It’s 624 pages. I gave up at page 136. Some editor at publisher Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux really ought to have taken Belton aside and ordered her to cut her work in half.

If the book had been say 250 pages long, I might have struggled through to the end. As it was, 136 pages were more than sufficient to give me enough of a sense of it not to feel any need to continue. Basically, you know what’s in it by the title: Putin, KGB, evil; Putin, KGB, evil. You don’t need to read 600 pages to get the point.

My issues with the book, however, go beyond the simplistic thesis and the excessive length. They are also a matter of methodology, and the amount I read was sufficient to convince me that methodologically-speaking Putin’s People has serious some difficulties: reliance on a dubious exiled one-time billionaire whose credibility has been found wanting by the British courts; regular use of anonymous sources; repetition of rumour; unsupported assertions and speculation; and a tendency to interpret everything in the most sinister way possible. It’ s problematic, to say the least.

Some people like this book. Luke Harding and Anne Applebaum wrote glowing reviews. Say no more!

Three conversations

Imagine that you don’t really know anything about Russia, but you keep seeing it in the news. You think you would like to learn at least the vague outlines of its history, but you also don’t have a lot of time. You’re not inclined to slog through some thick academic textbook suitable for HIS2200 Introduction to Russian History. You want something short and easy. Where do you turn? Fortunately, three brief studies of Russia have recently come my way, so I thought it would be useful to do a comparison – three conversations about Russia, as it were.

First off is Mark Galeotti’s A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin. Galeotti promises to provide not only a brief summary of Russia’s past, but also an analysis of the myths which Russian tell each other about that past. The book is very clearly written. Non-specialists looking for a short, easy read will find this very much to their tastes. In that sense, it’s a job well done.

Continue reading Three conversations

Book review: Skripal in prison

You all surely know the story. Sergei Skripal, a one time officer in the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, was recruited by the British intelligence service MI6, and worked for a while as a British spy before being caught by the Russian authorities and imprisoned. He was then released as part of a spy swap and went to live incognito in Salisbury, England, where he carried on his life peacefully until one day a couple of GRU officers, Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, travelling under the pseudonyms Petrov and Boshirov, flew to the UK and smeared a nerve agent known as Novichok on the door handle of his house. The poisoning almost killed Skripal and his daughter, Julia, but both eventually survived. Also poisoned was a police officer Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who entered the Skripals’ house to investigate. He too survived. Less lucky was another resident of Salisbury, Dawn Sturgess, whose boyfriend Charlie Rowley gave her a perfume bottle he found somewhere in town. The bottle contained the Novichok used by Petrov and Boshirov to poison Skripal. Sturgess died after spraying herself with its contents.

That’s the official narrative, which most people accept. John Helmer, though, doesn’t believe it. Ever since the original poisoning he’s been penning pieces on his blog, Dances with Bears, casting doubt on the story being provided by the British police and government. Now he has assembled his pieces into a book entitled Skripal in Prison, which lays out the case against the theory that the Russians were behind the Skripal poisoning.


Continue reading Book review: Skripal in prison

Book review: Between two fires

I’ve been reading a lot recently – let’s face it, apart from watching TV and working out on the basement exercise machines, there isn’t much else to do during the coronavirus lockdown. And one of the things I’ve been reading a lot about is the Constitutional Democratic (or Kadet) Party, which was Russia’s leading liberal political organization in the early years of the twentieth century. The Kadets have long since been consigned to Trotsky’s infamous dustbin of history, but my reading has turned out to be surprisingly relevant to the book I’m reviewing today – Joshua Yaffe’s Between Two Fires. It’s all a matter of political compromise.

The thing you have to grasp about the Kadets is that they were often rather dogmatic. As one Russian historian puts it, ‘The Russian liberal of the early twentieth century wasn’t able to abandon the role of idealistic oppositionist and recognize realities and the necessity of compromise’. Looking back on events, one Kadet, Prince V.A. Obolenskii, summed up the prevailing attitude in this way:

We thought the following: the authorities were hostile to the people. Thus, any official in state service, however useful, was in the final analysis harming the people as he was strengthening the power of the government. Besides which, we saw before us a whole series of people of very left wing convictions who had entered government service and gradually got accustomed to compromise and lost their oppositional zeal.

Between 1905 and 1917, the refusal to compromise with the Russian state had catastrophic consequences. On various occasions in 1905 and 1906, the Kadets were offered a role in government under first Sergei Witte and then Pyotr Stolypin, but always refused the offer, preferring instead to seek the complete destruction of the autocracy. Likewise, instead of using Russia’s new parliament, created in 1905, to propose constructive reform measures, they chose instead to block Stolypin’s reform program and use the parliament as a soap box for denouncing the government. Eventually, in 1917 they got their wish and saw the hated autocracy destroyed. But it didn’t do them any good, as they themselves were swept away by the tide of revolution just a few months later.

The more sensible of the Kadets understood that they were making a huge mistake, that compromising with the state, however much you dislike it, is often a much better option than seeking its overthrow. As shown in another book I’ve just finished reading – a biography of the prominent Kadet jurist and politician Vasily Maklakov – Maklakov repeatedly urged his colleagues to understand that democracy would never be possible in Russia unless people learned the art of compromise. But his fellow Kadets paid no attention. They paid for it dearly.

The lesson of all this is pretty clear, but reading Yaffa’s Between Two Fires, it seems that there are some who would prefer that Russians again adopted the principles of the Kadets. For the theme of the book is the moral dangers of compromising with the Russian state (thus the subtitle ‘Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia’), and while Yaffa states that he doesn’t condemn those who choose to cooperate with the ‘Putin regime’, it’s pretty obvious that he thinks that it’s not a good thing.


Continue reading Book review: Between two fires

Book reviews on the Russian military

As paranoia concerning all things Russia continues to grip much of the Western world, it’s worth spending some time examining the Russian military, and its purpose, capabilities, and understanding of war. Fortunately, two recently published books provide us with an opportunity to do so, and I have therefore decided to review them together.

The first is Oscar Jonsson’s The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines between War and Peace, which argues that in recent years the Russian understanding of war has undergone a fundamental change. Since around 2012, Russian military thinkers have become increasingly convinced that non-military means of political influence, such as economic sanctions and information/propaganda, can be as powerful in their impact as military means, and that therefore the boundaries between war and peace are ‘blurring’.


Continue reading Book reviews on the Russian military

Book Review: Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation

For good reasons, the Second World War (or, as Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War) has become an important element in the mythology of Russian national identity. The combination of enormous human suffering, a decidedly evil enemy, and final absolute victory makes for a compelling story which allows Russians to take pride in the achievements of their predecessors. At the heart of the story lies a myth of the Russian people united as one against a common enemy. But as Johannes Due Enstad shows in his book Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation, reality was a little more complicated.


Continue reading Book Review: Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation

Book Review: The Russia Anxiety

It seems that scarcely a day goes by without a major news story which in some way or another portrays Russia as the international bogeyman. Just yesterday, for instance, we had a completely pointless story in The Observer about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meeting an ‘ex-KGB agent’ (actually newspaper owner Alexander Lebedev) at a party in Italy. Meanwhile, today’s copy of The Times reports that an as-yet-to-be-published British parliamentary report says that, ‘Russian interference may have had an impact on the Brexit referendum, but the effect was “unquantifiable”.’

What both these stories have in common is that they’re utterly meaningless. Prime Minister meets newspaper owner! So what? And what does it tells us that interference ‘may’ have had some impact, or may not, and that anyway it’s ‘unquantifiable’? Nothing at all. So why were these stories published? The logical answer is that it’s because putting ‘Russia’ into a story automatically lends it some air of malign mystery and makes it look like something untoward is going on. In other words, such stories make headlines not because they’re truly newsworthy but because they tap into what British academic Mark Smith calls ‘the Russian Anxiety’.

In his new book ‘The Russian Anxiety: And How History Can Resolve it’, Smith describes the anxiety as a combination of fear, contempt, and disregard. Sometimes, Westerners fear Russia; other times they just view it with contempt (‘a gas station masquerading as a country’); and other times they prefer to ignore it entirely. The anxiety takes the form of a cycle: fear turns into contempt, then disregard, then back into fear again. And it ‘comes and goes’ according to circumstances. Still, says Smith, ‘The Russia Anxiety is a historically deep-seated feature of international relations’, and it has a very negative effect on how Western states treat Russia, creating tensions which do not need to exist.

Continue reading Book Review: The Russia Anxiety

Book review: Putin v. the People

I’d been struggling for several days thinking of how to review Samuel Greene and Graeme Robertson’s book Putin v. the People, when I stumbled across a post on the blog Duck on Minerva which provided me with a way to do it. The post points out that political scientists are obsessed with methodology but spend very little time thinking about ontology. I normally avoid words like ontology and tell my students not to use them if they don’t want to be penalized, but here I’ll make an exception. Essentially what’s being said is that political scientists are deeply concerned about how they study things, but don’t often stop to reflect whether the things they’re studying are actually things at all.

Greene and Robertson seek to explain why the Russian people support Vladimir Putin. There’s a pretty simple explanation for this, well expressed today in the following tweet by Russia-based business journalist Ben Aris:


If we now go to back to issues of ontology and ask what the ‘thing’ is that Putin v the People studies, we discover that it isn’t this thing – it isn’t a Russia which has enormously improved in the past 20 years. Rather it’s something quite the opposite – a Russia with a pretty awful government, and with a people whose lives are fairly miserable, and who are experiencing an overall sense of ‘desperation’. It’s also a Russia in which there is a pervasive atmosphere of falsehood, which means that everyone is living in a world of ‘lies’ and ‘fantasy’. Thus the ‘thing’ which the authors of Putin v the People wish to explain – their research question, as it were – isn’t ‘Why do Russians support Putin given the “enormity of the improvements” their country has experienced under his leadership?’ but ‘Why do Russians support Putin given how much everything in Russia sucks?’ Of course, they don’t put it in quite those words, but the overall tone of the work very much comes across that way. And unsurprisingly, the answers the authors provide reflect the underlying negative ontology – i.e. the authors’ negative understanding of the nature of Russia’s being.

putin people

Continue reading Book review: Putin v. the People