BOOK REVIEW: Quiet days for books on Russia published in first half of 2015

By bne IntelliNews June 18, 2015

Chris Weafer in Moscow -


The first half of 2015 can hardly be described as a vintage period for new books about Russia. It seems that the Ukraine crisis and recession have led to many authors delaying completing their work until there is a little more clarity on how the country moves forward and the longer-term implications can be better assessed. It meant that the past six months has been one of the quietest periods for new books about or of relevance to the Russia story.

That said, there have been some very good books published that usefully contribute to the debate about Russia and help those not so familiar with Russia’s economy and politics to cut through the dense media noise, which all too often obscures the real issues and real stories.

In that context the most useful book is Mr. Putin, Operative in the Kremlin”, authored by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy. This is a significantly revised and expanded edition of the book first published by the authors in September 2012. Since then, a great deal has happened that has allowed for more analysis of Putin and what drives him. The sleeve notes say, “Vladimir Putin has become the greatest challenge to European security and the global world order in decades”. From that you know where this book is coming from. Even so, it covers the subject well and provides enough information and analysis to allow the reader to reach their own conclusions rather than just automatically accept those of the author. It is well documented – the notes and references run to more than 100 pages alone.

By far the best book to read so as to understand how the system of government works in Russia is Alena Ledeneva’s “Can Russia Modernise? – Sistema, Power Networks and Informal Governance” (published in December 2012).

“The BRICS and the Future of Global Order”, authored by Oliver Stuenkel, is particularly relevant today given the clear directional change in Moscow’s view of world order. Specifically moving away from the West, or certainly de-emphasising what was for two decades a preference for a close political relationship with the US and EU, in favour of building closer political economic ties with the so-called BRICS nations. This book is the first to look at what the formation of the BRICS actually means in terms of geopolitics and economic opportunities. The book also considers whether regime type matters for the development of the BRICS theme and how the various countries may be able to work together, and in some instances not. The role of the new BRICS Development Bank is reviewed and compared to the World Bank and to China’s Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. It considers how the BRICS countries could co-operate in geopolitics, eg. within the UN, and what the group may mean for the future of world order.

“Germany, Russia and the rise of geo-politics”, authored by Peter Szabo, examines how Germany views Russia and provides an analysis of how Berlin’s policies and approach have changed. The book also looks at the role of German business and finance in the shaping of foreign policy. The author also offers his opinion about how Germany's Russia policy has impacted on the country’s broader foreign policy in the region and also how that is perceived by other governments.

“Once upon a time In Russia”, by Ben Mezrich, is advertised as the “untold true story of larger-than-life billionaire oligarchs”. That description is somewhat misleading, as the story is very focused on Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich. It covers the original relationship between the two and the events that led to the high-profile legal dispute in London’s High Court. It also covers the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvenenko in 2006 and Berezovsky’s suicide in March 2013.

For those looking for background about the emergence of Russia’s oligarchs and how they built their business empires out of the 1990’s privatization of state assets, the two best books are Chrystia Freeland’s “Sale of the Century”, published in 2000, and David Hoffman’s “The Oligarchs” (2002). Freeland’s book covers the events of the 1990s that led to the emergence of the oligarchs and their purchase of state enterprises. Hoffman’s book expands the story to show how the oligarchs used the state purchases to set up their business empires and how they adapted to the early days of the new Putin regime.

The book which attracted most attention over the past six months is Bill Browder’s “Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s Enemy No. 1”. In the US the subtitle is “One man’s fight for justice”. There can hardly be anybody with even a passing interest in Russia who has not heard of the story of Bill Browder, his Hermitage Fund and, especially the death of Browder’s investigative lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. To that extent I don’t need to spell out what the book is about: Bill goes through in great detail the events which led up to his exclusion from Russia, the attack on his company, the arrest and death in detention of Magnitsky and what has happened since. It is partly a book which shows how you can make a great deal of money by being flexible in emerging economies, such as Russia; and partly it is also about how one can also get into a lot of trouble very quickly. Mainly, however, it is about the human tragedy that was the death of a young lawyer trying to do the right thing.

In the summer reading category is Peter Pomerantsev‘s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia”. It is an entertaining book about life in Moscow that strays into political analysis, albeit the author mostly confines himself to anecdotes about the heady days of the Russia boom and the political commentary is full of clichés. But it is an easily read book of real stories of life and living in Moscow, which are always slightly unbelievable for those who have not seen it first hand. The author worked “on and off” (sic) in Moscow from 2001 for several years.

We are staring to see a quite a few books coming out covering the Ukraine crisis. Most of them can go straight into the trash, as they are written with blinkers, ie. 100% pro-Russia position or 100% anti-Russia position, or are very focused on the specifics of the economy or current conflict. Amongst the most balanced books is “Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order”, co-authored by Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer. The book looks at the broader geopolitical and world order implications from the crisis. The authors highlight the considerable threat of a complete breakdown in relations between the US and Russia in such areas as the battle against terrorism and nuclear proliferation. The recent agreement with Iran shows the importance of Russia’s role in such negotiations. They argue that the West really should not lose sight of the importance of stable relations with Russia and look at some scenarios of how the current crisis could play out and the implications. It is a real well-structured and rationally argued book. It is also one of the few that leaves the emotion out of it, sticks to facts and offers pragmatic solutions. 

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