12 Books on Russia: What is Vladimir Putin Thinking?

by | Nov 22, 2022 | Books, Russia

Are you obsessed as I am right now about all things Russia and Ukraine? This list of books on Russia is made for those of you who are trying to make sense of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Like me, you want to know who Putin is, what’s driving him, how Russia got this way, what Russians really think, and why Russia invaded Ukraine. I hope these 12 books on Russia help answer these and many other questions you may have.

If you want to read more about Ukraine, here is a list of 30 books on Ukraine.

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1. The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

By Masha Gessen, 2017

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Russians had agreed to live under a sort of dictatorship in exchange for stability. But they assumed that it was a soft dictatorship, which could negotiate if the need arose.

The Future is History book cover on Russia

The Future is History is one of the best books on Russia to find out what ordinary Russians think of democracy, Putin, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the West.

Who is the author?

It was written by Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and human rights activist. Gessen was born in Russia but as a teenager emigrated with her family to the United States in the 1980s. When the Soviet Union collapsed, she returned as a journalist and lived there until 2013 when changes in laws restricting adoption by the LGBT community made living in Russia too dangerous for her family.

I recommend Gessen’s interview with PBS Frontline.

What’s it about?

In the book, Gessen writes about how and why democracy failed in Russia and how and why it once again became a totalitarian state. She does this by talking to 3 intellectuals (a psychologist, a sociologist, and a philosopher) and telling the life stories of 4 ordinary and some not-so-ordinary (one person is Boris Nemtsov’s daughter) citizens from different walks of life. All 4 were born in the 1980s and grew up at a time when Russia was opening up and came of age at a time in a society closing down.

Highlights

An interesting thing to note is that the philosopher that Gessen writes about is Alexander Dugin, also known as Putin’s Whisperer. If you want to know where Putin got his idea for invading Ukraine, some people say look to Dugin.

The most interesting thing I read was about a survey a television show did asking Russian people who they think the greatest Russian who ever lived was. I won’t tell you the winner. You have to read it to find out. But I think who won the contest says a lot about the country and why there is little hope for democracy there.

Why you should read it

The Future is History is an engrossing and fascinating book. It’ll give you an idea of what ordinary Russians think and what they’re like. Also, Gessen is a brilliant writer.

2. The Invention of Russia: The Rise of Putin and the Age of Fake News

By Arkady Ostrovsky, 2016

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Whoever controlled the media also controlled the country.”

The Invention of Russia book cover

Written by the Russian and Eastern European editor of the Economist, Arkady Ostrovsky, The Invention of Russia is another great book that helped me understand why Russia is the way it is today. It specifically focuses on the media in Russia and how Putin and the oligarchs use it to control society.

What’s it about?

I think there are two stories Ostrovsky is trying to tell in this book. One is how those in power (especially Putin) took control of the media and then used the media and disinformation to manipulate the people. It’s fascinating and scary.

The second story is about how Russia went from a country that wanted to emulate the West and become democratic to one that hates the West and is autocratic.

Highlights

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book was seeing the similarities between Russian and right-wing media in the United States. Who first came up with the concept of “fake news”? Was it Putin or Trump?

Why you should read it?

Read The Invention of Russia to understand two things:

  • why Putin’s approval ratings are always so high and
  • why so many Russians believe their government’s version of the war in Ukraine

3. Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia

By Peter Pomerantsev, 2014

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“And the new Kremlin won’t make the same mistake the old Soviet Union did: it will never let TV become dull. The task is to synthesize Soviet control with Western entertainment.”

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible book cover

Nothing is True is another book on Russia that takes us into the lives of the Russian people. There are some engrossing stories here that make this book hard to put down.

The Author

The author, Peter Pomerantsev, is a Brit whose parents were born in the ex-Soviet Union (Ukraine exactly) and immigrated as a child in the 1970s to the United Kingdom. When the author became older, he moved to Russia and worked for a few media companies directing and making documentaries and television shows for Russian tv.

There are some interesting lectures of Pomerantsev and interviews with him on YouTube.

What’s it about?

The book is about Pomerantsev’s time in Russia as a producer for several Russian media companies. He talks about the different Russians he met during his time there:  a gold digger, a prostitute, a former gangster turned actor/producer/director, and a model who committed suicide.

Highlights of the Book

My favorite story is the one about Yana, the owner of a chemical cleaning supplies company, who gets caught up in the terrifying world of Russian state-sanctioned corruption. Fascinating! Her story combined with Bill Browder’s book, Red Notice, and the book Putin’s People will give you a complete picture of what corruption is doing to Russia.

One criticism I had was that I wasn’t sure what the point of the book was. Instead of having a central theme, it felt more like a bunch of anecdotes about the people the author met during his time in Russia.

Why you should read it?

With Nothing is True, you get an interesting snapshot of one side of Russia. Plus, Yana’s story is jaw-droppingly fascinating and terrifying.

4. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

By Adam Higginbotham, 2019

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“the origins of the accident lay with those who had designed the reactor and the secret, incestuous bureaucracy that had allowed it to go into operation.”

Midnight in Chernobyl book cover

Midnight in Chernobyl is a hard-to-put-down book that tells the story of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster.

I started reading it right after I finished watching the HBO TV series, Chernobyl, as I still had so many questions about what happened.

Why did it happen? Was there something about the Soviet system that led to the disaster? How did Chornobyl contribute to the fall of the Soviet Union? How accurate was the tv series?

The book does a great job of answering all those questions and more.

What’s better: The book or the TV series?

The tv series changed some of the characters and events for dramatic effect, while this book gives you a more accurate picture of what happened.

Winner: The Book, as always.

Why you should read it

Midnight in Chernobyl is a fascinating and accessible book.

It explains a lot about what the Soviet Union was like at that time and why the Soviet Union collapsed.

Chornobyl is also one of the most important events of the 20th century.

More books on Chornobyl:

Two other books on Chornobyl that come highly recommended: Voices from Chernobyl and Chernobyl: History of a Nuclear Catastrophe.

Is it Chernobyl or Chornobyl? The Ukrainian spelling is Chornobyl and the Russian spelling is Chernobyl. I’m going with the Ukrainian spelling from now on. How about you?

5. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

By Svetlana Alexeivich, 2013

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Today, people just want to live their lives, they don’t need some great Idea. This is entirely new for Russia; it’s unprecedented in Russian literature. At heart, we’re built for war. We were always either fighting or preparing to fight. We’ve never known anything else—hence our wartime psychology. Even in civilian life, everything was always militarized. The drums were beating, the banners flying, our hearts leaping out of our chests. People didn’t recognize their own slavery—they even liked being slaves.”

Secondhand Time book cover

I’m fascinated by what it must have been like for Russians to realize they’d been lied to their whole lives by their government.

So, Secondhand Time intrigued me when it first came out.

I would borrow it from the library, read a few pages, put it down, never pick it up again, return it to the library, and a few months later borrow it again and repeat the same thing.

Eventually, I did finish it.

I’ll get to why I had a hard time finishing it later in this post.

What’s it about?

Written by the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, Svetlana Alexeivich, Secondhand Time is an oral history about the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the rise of a new Russia. The author interviewed ordinary people from across the former Soviet Union. They talked about their feelings about freedom, truth, death, democracy, capitalism, communism, Empire, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Stalin.

Alexeivich specifically sought out people who so strongly believed in the Soviet system that it became a part of their being and thus, had a hard time letting go. The system may have even put them or their parents or spouse in the Gulag, yet they firmly remained loyal to it. They’re the ones who weren’t ready for communism to end. They still clung to the glory of the Soviet Empire, and they lacked the skills to survive in a capitalist society.

Why I had a hard time finishing it

First, I’m glad I read this book. What I learned was fascinating, and it helped me understand Russia more.

However, I can’t say that I ever learned to love the book. I didn’t like the writing style. It’s not only long (400+ pages) but also repetitive (you hear the same story and views repeatedly).

Why you should read it

The book explains the mindset behind Putin and the Russian people’s support for the invasion of Ukraine.

One thing is that the people in power in Russia are the ones who grew up before Perestroika. They’re like the ones interviewed in Secondhand Time. They’re the major supporters of Putin.

The one thing that was constantly repeated was how much Russians mourned the fall of the Soviet Empire. They’d choose restoration of their empire over freedom and truth.

The book was also highly recommended by journalist, Julia Ioffe.

6. Red Notice

By Bill Browder, 2015

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“You may wonder why Vladimir Putin allowed me to do these things in the first place. The answer is that for a while our interests coincided. When Putin became president in January 2000, he was granted the title of President of the Russian Federation, but the actual power had been hijacked by oligarchs, regional governors, and organized crime groups. As soon as he took office, it became his highest priority to wrest power from these men and return it to its rightful place in the Kremlin, or more accurately, into his own hand.”

Red Notice book cover

I hadn’t planned on reading Red Notice, but I’m so glad I did. It’s a non-fiction book that reads like a thriller. It’s hard to put down. By the end of the book, I was bawling my eyes out.  

I thought I knew the story of how Bill Browder got on the wrong side of Putin and how his lawyer Sergey Magnitsky lost his life. But learning about what happened in Browder’s own words gives me a more complete and emotionally strong picture of the events.

Also, Browder and Magnitsky are two fascinating and admirable people.

Who is the author?

Bill Browder is the CEO and co-founder of Hermitage Capital, the largest and most successful foreign investment firm in Russia. Browder made billions from buying small stakes in Russian companies at a time when most Russians were pretty naïve about international finance and investment.

What’s the book about?

The first part of the book is about Browder’s life story. It goes into detail about how he started Hermitage Capital and how it became successful.

Part of Browder’s investment strategy was shareholder activism whereby he would uncover corruption in companies he invested in.

However, he must have stepped on the wrong feet of some powerful people (one of them supposedly was Putin’s). In 2005, the Russian government declared him a national security threat and banned him from Russia.

In 2007 the police raided his firm and in an incredibly convoluted scheme proceeded to use his company to steal $230 million not from Browder but from the Russian state. Browder’s lawyer, Sergey Magnitsky uncovered the theft and as a result was arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by those in power.

Browder made it his mission in life to find justice for Sergey. He got the U.S. government to pass the Magnitsky Act, sanctioning Russians who were responsible for Sergey’s death.

Why you should read it

Even if you think you know the story, read it! It’s fun and eye-opening.

Red Notice makes for a great book to take with you on the plane or to the beach or wherever you need to make time fly by.

Sequel to Red Notice

Browder followed up Red Notice with a sequel called Freezing Order.

7. The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin

By Masha Gessen, 2012

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Putin set about preparing what he had called “turf.” His first decree as acting president granted immunity from prosecution to Boris Yeltsin. His second established a new Russian military doctrine, abandoning the old no-first-strike policy regarding nuclear weapons and emphasizing a right to use them against aggressors “if other means of conflict resolution have been exhausted or deemed ineffective.”

The Man Without a Face book cover

The Man Without a Face is a fantastic book! Riveting and well-written. I loved Gessen’s book Future is History. This one is just as good. 

What’s it about?

However, the title is a bit of a misrepresentation. The book is supposed to be about Putin. Yes, the beginning is. Gessen describes Putin’s childhood, teens, university years, KGB career, and his role as deputy mayor in St. Petersburg.

But when Putin moves to Moscow and becomes president, the book stops being about him and more about how and why democracy died in Russia.

Gessen describes important events in Russia’s recent history and Putin’s reaction to them: the Kursk accident, the apartment building explosions, and the hostage crisis at the school in North Ossetia and the theater on the outskirts of Moscow.

Highlights of the book

One of my favorite parts of the book is learning about the trial of Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. I hadn’t known the details of the case before.

The other fascinating thing is Russia’s obsession with homosexuality.

If you’re expecting any insights into Putin’s intentions toward Ukraine and the other countries surrounding it, you’ll be disappointed. There were perhaps one or two paragraphs that pertain to it.

Why you should read it

If you’re wondering how and why Russians love autocracy and hate democracy, read The Man Without a Face.

For understanding Putin, there are better books out there. Read further on this list for the best ones. However, compared to the other books on Putin, this one is probably the easiest to read.

Which of her books is better?

I’d go with The Future is History.

8. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, and America

By Timothy Snyder, 2018

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“The Russian war against Ukraine was always an element of the larger policy to destroy the European Union and the United States. Russian leaders made no secret of this; Russian soldiers and volunteers believed that they were engaged in a world war against the United States—and in a sense they were right.”

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia Europe America book cover

The Road to Unfreedom is one of my 3 favorite books on Russia. If you want to know what Putin is thinking, read this book!

Who is the author?

The author, Tim Snyder, is a historian that specializes in Central and Eastern European history and the Holocaust. He teaches at Yale University. He is also fluent in 5 European languages and can read 10 in total.

What’s it about?

In the book, he looks at Russian, Ukrainian, European, and American histories in order to analyze what’s happening now in these countries.

The author explains Putin’s philosophy, his vision of Russia, his views on the United States and Europe, and his reasons for invading Ukraine.

Highlights

Out of all the books on Russia, it is the most frightening because if you look at patterns in history, what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine fits a pattern that we’ve seen before. Russia reminds me of Germany under Hitler. They both have that sense of victimhood and feeling that they’re destined to be an empire and that the Russian people are somehow special and innocent.

What I really liked is that he looked at primary sources from the countries concerned. Snyder tells us what Putin is saying in his speeches and interviews, what the Russian media is saying about the war in Ukraine, and what the Russian philosophers that influence those in power the most believe.

If you want to understand Russia today, read this book!

Is it an easy read?

Don’t be put off by the first chapter. I was at first as it’s quite challenging to make sense of the terms Snyder came up with to describe the West and Russia. I actually had to read that chapter 3 times before I could fully understand it. However, after that, the book is easy to follow. In fact, I was so engrossed in its content that I finished it in 3 days. 

If you haven’t read any other books on Russia, I would read The Road to Unfreedom after reading one of Masha Gessen’s books: The Future is History or A Man Without a Face.

9. Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West

By Catherine Belton, 2020

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“What emerged as a result of the KGB takeover of the economy—and the country’s political and legal system—was a regime in which the billions of dollars at Putin’s cronies’ disposal were to be actively used to undermine and corrupt the institutions and democracies of the West.”

Putin's People book cover

Putin’s People is probably the best researched of any of the books I’ve read on Russia. It is also perhaps along with the Road to Unfreedom, the most terrifying book on Russia.

Putin is indeed a dangerous person, and the U.S. and Europe have been naïve and foolish.

If you want to understand Putin, read this book!

Who is the author?

Catharine Belton lived in Russia for 14 years, writing for The Financial Times, The Moscow Times, and Business Week. She currently writes for the Washington Post.

What’s the book about?

The author goes into GREAT detail about how the KGB (now called the FSB) took back power from the original oligarchs, how Putin himself came to power, what the KGB/FSB and Putin’s goals are, who the oligarchs were before and are now, how insanely corrupt the country really is, and how naïve and delusional the West has been.

There’s so much in here that will scare you and engross you.

Is this an easy book to read?

This is NOT an easy book to read.

It’s long and overly complicated. There are so many characters and names that enter and exit shortly thereafter that it’s hard to keep who is who straight. You can sometimes get lost in the details.

The other problem is that even after finishing the book, I still don’t completely understand how the Russian secret service, Putin, and his cronies stole and hid their money. Maybe I need to read Russian Money Laundering for Dummies. The author could have at least done a better job of explaining how they did it.

Why you should read it

Still, this is an amazing, awesome, brilliant book on Russia.

Putin’s People (and The Road to Unfreedom) are the two books that helped me understand who Putin is and what his aim is better than any other books on Russia.

It was also named book of the year for 2020 by The Economist, The Financial Times, the New Statesman, and The Telegraph.

10. A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, From the Pagans to Pugin

By Mark Galeotti, 2020

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Time and again, Russia’s rulers would edit the past in the hope of building the future they wanted, typically by scavenging the cultural or political myths and symbols they needed”

A Short History of Russia book cover

For anyone looking for a quick primer on a comprehensive history of Russia, you can’t go wrong with A Short History of Russia by Mark Galeotti.

I specialized in Russian and Eastern European history in university about 25 years ago, and this was an excellent refresher.

Books that try to condense 2000 years of a country’s history into 200 pages can sometimes come across as dull and dry. Galeotti’s book was far from dry for me.

Who is the author

Galeotti writes about transnational crime and Russia. He has an interesting blog and podcast focusing on Russia called In Moscow’s Shadow.

He also wrote a book called We Need to Talk about Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong, which I read but didn’t like.

Highlights

Three things I loved about the book:

Number 1: Each chapter begins with a timeline of major events to be covered in that chapter.

Number 2: At the end of each chapter, the author explains how the events in history you just read connect to what is happening in Russia today.

Number 3: Each chapter ends with a list of additional books on Russian history that focus on the time period you just read

Why you should read it

To understand a country’s present, you need to understand its past.

11. The Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation

By Serhii Plokhy, 2017

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Russian visions of empire, great-power status, and nationhood all hinged on a view of Ukraine as a distinct but integral part of Russia. Many in the Kremlin and beyond have regarded the possibility of Ukraine leaving the Russian sphere of influence as an attack on Russia itself.”

Why does Russia think that Ukraine is really part of Russia?

THIS was the question I wondered most about when Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022.

Serhii Ploky’s EXCELLENT book, Lost Kingdom, answers this very important question like none of the other books I’ve read on Russia.

What’s it about?

The book recounts the history of Russian imperialism westward (Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and the Baltic states) starting with Ivan IV in the fifteenth century to the present day under Vladimir Putin.

Be aware that the author doesn’t cover Russian expansion in the east—Siberia and the Stans. I assumed he would.

Plokhy explains how over centuries Russia has used the myth of Kyivan Rus, language, and religion to justify its colonization of lands inhabited by Ukrainians and Belarussians. Then he pokes holes in these justifications to show how flawed they are.

Is it worth reading?

Yes, definitely.

This is an engrossing and easy-to-read book on Russian history. Not dry at all!

It will help you understand why Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014.

We know how obsessed he is with history, and he bases this war on Russian history.

What I learned was that Putin’s thinking is not unique. It has been a part of Russian elite culture for centuries.

12. The Story of Russia

By Orlando Figes, 2022

My RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

“No other country has reimagined its own past so frequently; none has a history so subjected to the vicissitudes of ruling ideologies. History in Russia is political. Drawing lessons from the country’s past has always been the most effective way to win an argument about future directions and policies.”

Ever since February 2022 I’d been looking for a book on Russian history, but I couldn’t find one until I came across Orlando Figes’ book, The Story of Russia.

When I got to the last chapter, I realized why this book suddenly popped up on the Amazon searches in October but not beforehand. It was published in September 2022, and it actually covers the full invasion of Ukraine.

What’s it about?

On the one hand, the book is a straight-up comprehensive history of Russia from the foundation of Kyivan Rus to the full invasion of Ukraine in 2022. If that’s what you’re looking for, this book is perfect.

You learn about historical figures like Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Lenin, and Stalin, and historical events like the Mongol invasion, the Battle of Poltava, all of its wars against Poland and Sweden, its secret pact with Nazi Germany to invade Poland, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Plus there are lots of juicy stories about murders of tsars and communists.

On the other hand, it’s also an analysis of how and why Russia is the way it is today.

  • Why does Russia continue to gravitate toward autocracy and away from democracy?
  • Why does it have this obsession with expanding its borders?
  • Why did it invade Ukraine?
  • Why does it swing back and forth between wanting and not wanting to be part of Europe?
Is it worth reading?

Yes, this is the best book I’ve read on the history of Russia.

Figas does an amazing job of packing 1000 years of history into only 300 pages. There’s a lot of detail, but it’s not dry and boring. Very engrossing and accessible to even someone who’s new to Russian history.

This is the way history books should be written—a retelling of a country’s past but also an analysis of how that past relates to the present.

One major criticism:

In the last chapter, Figes argues that Europe and the U.S. are partly at fault for the invasion of Ukraine. If Poland, Romania, the Baltic states, etc hadn’t become part of NATO, Russia wouldn’t have felt so threatened.

I know others have said this, but I still find this argument ridiculous. If Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia hadn’t joined NATO, Russia would be free to do the same as it is now doing to Ukraine.  Poland joined NATO because it wanted to join NATO and it knew if it didn’t, it would have no future. If Ukraine had been part of NATO, Russia wouldn’t have invaded.

Russia is a paranoid country. And we shouldn’t give in to its insecurities by sacrificing Poland’s or Estonia’s future. To do so would say that because Russia is so big, its needs are more important than smaller countries’ needs.

Which book(s) to read first?

There are so many books on Russia that have been published in the last 5 years that it’s difficult knowing where to start.

If this is going to be your first book on Russia, I would start off with The Story of Russia or The Future is History. Both are easy and engrossing reads by brilliant writers.

Then if you still want to know more about Russia after reading Gessen’s book, then I’d first go with The Road to Unfreedom and second Putin’s People. These are the 2 best books on Putin.

To understand how democracy failed in Russia, read The Man Without a Face.

The Invention of Russia is a great book on how Putin took control of the media and how he uses disinformation to control the truth. Nothing is True covers the topic as well.

If you’re interested in understanding why so many Russians support Putin, I recommend Secondhand Time and The Future is History.

Finally, a look at corruption and power in Russia, Putin’s People and Red Notice are excellent choices. Nothing is True has a good chapter on how corruption affected an ordinary Russian.

What to read next?

I hope you enjoyed this list of books on Russia.

I just published a list of 30 deliciously engrossing books on Ukraine, which I think will make a good companion to your understanding of what’s happening in that part of the world today.

Are you on Pinterest?

Hey! How about saving one of these pins to Pinterest to read for later?

And feel free to follow me on Pinterest, where you’ll find lots of travel articles for everywhere around the world.

 

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