I’d like to use the library I curated for this site as a jumping-off point for me to go into detail and depth on various subjects that apply readily to activism in the modern age. The books are primers on very labyrinthine, complex issues, and I will use them to give the most condensed overview of a topic that I can using the literature and resources that I have. I am not an expert, and can only share what I have learned, which means I can’t and won’t always be able to know everything or be as completely representative as I’d like to be.
No. 3 // January 2018 // Russian Politics and History
Russia is inescapable right now, and I think that’s exactly what they want. They are dividing us while expanding their empire with their invasions into Ukraine; democracies and liberal governments around the world are being subjected to cyber-attacks and intrusions into domestic policies in order to create tension and push people apart. We need to learn the context and history of this complex region (it seems unfair to call it merely a “country”) in order to understand what is happening right in front of us. Stick together. Educate yourself.
Masha Gessen is the authority on Russia. Period. It is impossible to write about modern Russia or think about Russian philosophy and history without Gessen. She is uncompromising, unspeakably brave, and fiercely intelligent (although sometimes pedantic). I could use all of those adjectives to describe this biography of Putin, as well. Her style of writing is unpretentious, wry. She uses a panoply of personal interviews from a diverse array of Russian society to drive the narrative; it is mercilessly journalistic in content and tone (no surprise there – she’s a journalist). This is the authoritative book of the man that has held onto Russia for almost two decades, and he still, at the end, feels like an enigma. But Gessen does shine a light on the context of his rise that is crucial to modern Russian history, even when it feels like the closer you get to him the farther away you really are. This is required reading.
(Her newest book, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, just came out and is more timely than ever…which was the point, I’m sure.) It won the National Book Award this year, too! (Which I predicted.)
Gessen outlines the saga of the art/activist collective Pussy Riot, Russian protestors that dared to utilize free speech and were jailed for it. Tortured de facto in prison, two of the women in the group managed to write astounding closing arguments to their trials, all of which are included in full at the end of the book. They were later released in an attempt to entice Westerners to compete in the Sochi Olympics, but their story is a typical example of the ways in which the Russian government silences dissidents. The book gets into the gruesome reality of the situation and goes deeper than the superficial knowledge that many Americans have about them. Modern Russia is defined by its stolen language, and Words Will Break Cement seeks to confront and defy it.
Anne Applebaum is a superb historian that hits all the right notes. There isn’t a whole lot to say about this book, but that’s a compliment, in a way. If you took at the book at its face value, you’d likely be correct in your determination. You can judge a book by its cover (sometimes). It is a straightforward and clear outline of the Russian concentration camp system in the Soviet Union. It’s a good way to orient yourself with the topic without getting lost; this Pultizer Prize-winning tome (not that pedigree guarantees quality) is well structured and coherent, but it doesn’t lose the reader’s attention. Like a lot of what I try to highlight, it’s pretty damn authoritative, too.
The rate of mysterious and/or obvious deaths of dissenters and journalists in Russia is so high that it has its own Wikipedia page. Everyone (including myself) is shocked that Masha Gessen is still alive when so many of her colleagues, including Anna Politikovskaya, are not. An astounding writer and journalist, Politikovskaya brought the attention of the world to the atrocities occurring in Chechnya (which I fear many of us have forgotten, even as it rages on.) I am loathe to focus on her death – which is widely known to be the work of Russian operatives carrying out Kremlin orders – when her life and work is so much more important. Most of her books detail aspects of the Chechen-Russia conflict that would otherwise be unearthed were it not for her and the others that risk – and lose – their lives to reveal evil. Chechen history isn’t really in any core curriculum, either in high school or at the university level, which makes this book even more important to read. It has a similar tone to Gessen (no-nonsense, a type of oral history) and its frank depiction of violence is a call to action.
I didn’t promise that these would be easy books. This one takes some patience. It is 227 pages but it feels like it’s over 300. It’s heavy on purely factual information and esoteric historical details that can bog you down. Here’s a frightening example, but please don’t let it turn you off – there are more exciting and fascinating parts of the book that will help get through these bits: “The party elections of the spring of 1937 were a one-shot event, but other kinds of electoral meetings were held periodically during the Great Purges and these occasions were often perilous for the nominees. In January 1938, the trade union of government employees held its national conference and, according to the rules, proceeded to elect a new central committee of the union.” Gaining knowledge means you have to work your brain sometimes.
Fitzpatrick’s book isn’t nearly as engaging as Everyday Stalinism. This bare-bones account of the Russian Revolution (there’s no ambiguity in the title), is, I’ll admit, a little dry. It’s certainly a book you’d read for an academic course and really only for information rather than emotion, sentiment, or narrative. But I think it’s the best one out there for summarizing succinctly this important development in Russian history. Detached yet not unsympathetic, Fitzpatrick gives us what we all need: the facts, presented almost empirically, without agenda.
To look at things from a more gilded perspective, Former People examines the Russian upper classes as they collapsed into what would become a Communist takeover of their world. It’s a little bit of a break from some of the drier works on this list; it’s lighter but not less substantive or tragic in its own way. It’s a fairly grim portrayal, and it’s like the literary version of seeing the Winter Palace ransacked instead of in its glorious heyday. It does a good job of keeping an eye on the big picture while still maintaining the device of using two prominent families as microcosms for the demise of the nobility. Mixed emotions abound, of course: major wealth against major poverty yields sympathy in one direction and derision to another, which is hard to shake. But Smith does well with trying to balance this cognitive dissonance, and the read is enjoyable even in its many dark moments.
(Also, if this subject interests you, try Simon Sebag Montefiore’s mammoth but just as fascinating book about the Romanov dynasty.)
Every one of my lists has the big book. This is that book. The one that gives the chunky, long saga of a country, in this case, focusing on its arts and culture (which, really, does tell a big part of Russia’s story). Maybe I’m biased, but this is my favorite history of all the ones I’ve read. It’s lively, awe-inspiring, and very satisfying. It’s awfully excellent, really.
Photo: A bubbling fountain at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.