Russian dolls II

by Maria on November 28, 2006

Last week, having wondered about how Europe should approach a resurgent Russia, I asked for recommendations of books and other sources that may give some insight into Russia today, and into relations with its former satellite states. Then I disappeared off for the weekend and neglected the comments of what became quite a long thread.

So, for people who are just as curious as me, or who, in one commenter’s rather flattering put-down, wish to have the correct talking points for glamorous euro dinner parties, here are some of the suggestions CT commenters shared: – writer of ‘Understanding Russia’ in 1995, which USAID did not appreciate. He’s written an updated book recently – info about it on his blog.

A Russian information clearing house is run by John Schoberlein;

Daragh McDowell (my own first cousin who chided me for not asking him about all this first) recommends anything by Robert Service or Geoffrey Hosking. Hosking recently published a widely reviewed book about how merciless the Soviets were to the Russians, let alone anyone else – abb1 may enjoy this if he can wean himself off wikipedia.)

‘Black Earth; a journey through Russia after the fall’, by Andrew Meyers, is a journalistic account of Russian life following the collapse of communism. Other journalists’ accounts include Anna Reid’s Borderland (about Ukraine – I’ve read it myself and it’s an enjoyable introduction) and Charlotte Hobson’s Black Earth City, an account of a year in a Russian city near the border with Ukraine.

Doug of Fistful of Euros made several recommendations which I reproduce in toto:
Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick. Great book about the very last days of the USSR and the first days of what came after. Brilliantly written, vivid, sense of historic sweep combined with piquant anecdotes.

A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes. Excellent history of the revolution. Reaches far enough into the background to help understand the currents that were swirliing in 1917 when V.I. Ulyanov found power lying in the street and picked it up. Also decent on the Civil War.

Haven’t read Politikovskaya’s book, nor Lieven’s (Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power), though both are probably quite good.

A little Viktor Pelevin is helpful, in an odd way. Very odd. I would recommend A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and Other Stories. (Boris Akunin’s mysteries are also a nice diversion and, given that they sell in the millions, may provide insight as well. Only four are presently available in English; French may be different, as nine or more have been translated into German. There’s also a Russian Booker Prize, winners of which may be good for more insight.)

Russia is the shadow that casts Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Imperium, and an earlier incarnation gave rise to Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind, a brilliant look at submission to power.

Highlanders, Yo’av Karny. Very very good on the Caucasus. (The region whose politics makes me think of fractals, but that’s another story.)

The Russia Hand, Strobe Talbot. First-hand account of negotiating with the Russian government during the Clinton administration. You won’t be surprised to hear it was difficult, or that working together to frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions was high on the agenda. How a Western government deals with the Russian government.

Either The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore or Stalin by Edvard Radzinsky but probably not both unless you’re really really interested. Both draw on previously unavailable files and research, both protray man and system.

Roger nominated a novel, Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice, as fitting into “the line of the grotesque in Russian lit, from Gogol to Bulgakov” but with plotting “a la Buffy the Vampire hunter meets the Gulag Archipelago”. As a big fan of that literary lineage, I’ve already pre-ordered this NYRB gem.

Giustino’s comments in on ethnic Russians in Estonia were particularly informative, even though I sympathise with his irritation that a thread on Russia’s bad deeds got mired in a debate about how fair-minded Estonian citizenship policy is. Giustino also raised a pretty open-ended question;

“What can we bloggers of the international blogosphere due to benefit positive development in Russia and to sustain an open and productive EU-Russian dialogue?”

Thanks to everyone for some great recommendations and a fascinating discussion.

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Pierres Service » Blog Archive » Russian dolls II
11.29.06 at 4:12 am



John Quiggin 11.28.06 at 5:23 pm

Is “my own first cousin” a common Irish usage? I remember if from The Croppy Boy, and I noticed Henry’s pun on cousins-german in the Sheri Berman seminar.

Australians have lost (or never had) all notions of cousin other than first/full/german.


John Quiggin 11.28.06 at 6:10 pm

Back on topic, is there a good source for information on recent developments regarding Russia and Georgia? I’ve seen alarming hints in various places, including your earlier post, but nothing up-to-date and useful.


radek 11.28.06 at 6:45 pm

Well,if we’re including (quasi) fiction then Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki makes for some excellent, depressing reading. Plenty of symbolism, some of it hard to get without the cultural background though (like the three men)


Bryan 11.28.06 at 8:12 pm

Ah, so recommendations for books about earlier Soviet history are also welcomed? Well, why didn’t you say so earlier!

I think one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Revolution is Lenin. This is a major weakness of A People’s Tragedy, which overall is a great and well-written book (certainly better than the other two ‘big picture’ books about the Revolution I’ve read–by Pipes and Trotsky). What is basically misunderstood about Lenin, I think, is his fidelity to Marxist though.

Generally it is averred–even by people with no sympathy whatsoever to Marxism (like Pipes, as well as Figes)–that Lenin was, nonetheless, a bad Marxist. What needs to be understood first is that, for most of his career as underground revolutionary Lenin did not expect a socialist revolution in Russia. It was only the shock of the first world war that convinced Lenin that capitalism as a worldwide system was on its last legs and had spent all its progressive potential. He and the other Bolsheviks were at first confident that the revolution would spread and made it clear that they regarded this as necessary for its survival in Russia.

The best books about Lenin, in my opinion, are by those by Neil Harding. Both the two volume Lenin’s Political Thought and the later, much shorter, Leninism. Harding makes clear that the problem with Lenin was not that he was a bad Marxist but that he was a Marxist (in some senses closer to Marx’s own views than most of the Second International). It was only after the revolution that Lenin was forced to depart significantly from Marxism.

The section on Lenin in the second volume of Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism is also very good. Kolakowski points out that in some regards Lenin in his fanatical, logical, single-mindedness was more consistent than Marx and Engels on certain matters!

There’s also a good article in the Winter 2003 issue of Kritika by Lar T. Lih called “How a Founding Document Was Found, or One Hundred Years of Lenin’s What is to Be Done?” (available from Project Muse) that is very good, and shows how orthodox WiTBD? is (contrary to the common opinion that it shows Lenin’s growing unorthodoxy or borrowings from earlier non-Marxist Russian revolutionaries). Lih expanded this article into a 900 page book (including a new translation of WiTBD?) all about WiTBD? which is exhaustive and exhausting, and generally only marginally more informative than the article.


abb1 11.29.06 at 3:59 am

Wow, apparently Moskva-Petushki has been translated to English. Unbelievable.

Now, this one must have some long footnotes.


stostosto 11.29.06 at 4:19 am

In the previous thread there was some discussion of Russia’s relations with the Baltic countries. The following link announces the publishing of a book this year by a Swedish diplomat, Lars Fredén. Looks like a good read, judging by the excerpt, here:

Shadows of the past in Russia and the Baltic Countries

(But I haven’t been able to find any other online information about the book).


Maria 11.29.06 at 6:25 am

On the first cousin thing – interesting! Well, certainly in my family, we would quite often distinguish between first and second cousins (and, less often, cousins once and twice removed). And I’ve never noticed that other Irish people found it odd, so it must be a fairly typical thing, I think. Though I know pretty much all my first cousins, but only a smattering of my second cousins and various removed ones.

Sources on Georgia – analysis (though not up to date reporting) is available at That’s the only source I use regularly. They’ve had a few good articles/essays over the past couple of years that let you see the build up to the current crisis.


john m. 11.29.06 at 7:34 am

“Night Of Stone” (subtitled Death and Memory in Russia) by Catherine Merridale is an excellent book. But don’t take my word for it: according to the blurb on the back, Anthony Beevor thought it “an original and intriguing study of death and attitudes in twentieth century Russia” and the Independent said “…should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the Russia of today”. I thought it was exceptionally interesting, well written and more than a little bleak.


CKR 11.29.06 at 9:34 am

@6: Fredén’s book, at least from the sample linked, looks as much like a memoir as history.

For Estonian history, the best book I have is History of Estonia, by Tõnu Tannberg, Ain Mäesalu, Tõnis Lukas, Mati Laur, and Ago Pajur. However, the only place I’ve seen it (in several languages, including English) is Estonia.

Mart Laar, the historian who was Estonia’s Prime Minister, has written a couple of books based on oral history. War in the Woods, about Estonian partisans from 1944 through 1956, is available in English.

There is no really good book about the Estonian role in the breakup of the Soviet Union. Rein Taagepera’s Estonia: Return to Independence is probably the best, but it is largely a memoir. Estonia and the Estonians, by Toivo U. Raun and The Baltic Revolution, by Anatol Lieven, have some useful information about that period, but Raun’s book needs to be updated, and Lieven’s tends toward incoherence by trying to include events in all three Baltic countries and not connecting them very well. I should say that that fault comes largely from its journalistic approach and closeness in time to the events.


Daragh McDowell 11.29.06 at 9:37 am

As a personal preference I usually simply use ‘cousin’ in place of ‘first cousin’ and add qualifiers as the genetic distances widen. Personally I prefer the Russian way where everyone outside the nuclear family is a ‘Rodstvenik:’ Relative.

BTW Maria I can’t recall ‘chiding’ you at all in my post! Ahh the vagaries of cyber-space and how tone-distorting it can be…

On the Georgia situation RFE/RL newsline is a great place to start if predictably anti-Moscow (not without cause mind you.) You might also try which has an article from a colleague of mine on the situation in the Caucasus generally. Eastview, the Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, and Itar-Tass are also all good sources. These are all generally ‘news’ rather than ‘analysis’ good examples of which are currently rather thin on the ground. In general a good knowledge of the history of South Ossetian and Abkhazian secessionist movements (of which I am not in possession of) is probably a pre-requisite for any balanced understanding of the conflict.


giustino 11.29.06 at 12:15 pm

Answering my own question, I have to put forth the model of here in the US.

Daily Kos is a liberal blog about American politics, but it allows users to develop their own diaries which serve as “miniblogs” if you will.

A model like that could work for Russian political blogs, with one main portal rather than the system we have now, which is just linking from a personal blog or group blog to many other blogs.

Kos has been very helpful in allowing Democrats in the US to correspond with one another and talk about policy. Couldn’t the same model work for Russia?


Doug 11.29.06 at 12:25 pm

Re: 11, I learned in one of the Stalin biographies that in Soviet times, Abkhazia often functioned more or less as an independent fiefdom. One of the party chiefs was quite close to Stalin, another iirc had close ties to Beria. That’s neither here nor there on the merits of the situation, but I found it illuminating on how things actually functioned.

Don’t know if they’re online anywhere, but when I was doing my master’s thesis, I got a good set of maps about the Caucasus from the US Dept of Defense. They were great for showing why the ceasefire line around Karabakh was where it was (mountain ridgelines, mostly), and might be similarly helpful on Ossetia. If memory serves, Pankisi Gorge is more a valley than a gorge, which is an interesting thing to note.

All of which is to say, yes, fine-grained knowledge from reasonably disinterested observers is probably very useful for sorting such things out. (Tempted to add “obviously” to that sentence, too.)

“My own first cousin” does not sound at all peculiar to me. I grew up deep in the South, knew all of my first cousins, and had relations who could tell you all about the degrees and removes, if you were interested in that sort of thing. (Back then, I just wanted to go out and play.)


abb1 11.29.06 at 1:12 pm

For Abkhazia stuff you really should read Fazil Iskander – probably the best friggin Russian-language writer of the 20th century. Apparently Beria did a lot of work there to get rid of much of the local culture and to reduce the indigenous ethnic group to a small minority, replacing them with ethnic Georgians and Mingrels (he was a Mingrel himself). It’s really very sad.


Matt 11.29.06 at 10:45 pm

“Personally I prefer the Russian way where everyone outside the nuclear family is a ‘Rodstvenik:’ Relative.” I’m not sure what you count as the nuclear family or not but most Russians have the practice of calling cousins ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. It can be quite confusing when you know someone doesn’t have a brother or sister but also don’t know that this is done.


Daragh McDowell 11.30.06 at 7:01 am

RE: 15

I haven’t come across this practice in my travels, but I stuck mainly to Voronezh Oblast, in the Black Earth region. Usually they used ‘rodstvenik’, or ‘dvoyurodnyi brat/dvoyurodnaya sestra.’


Matt 11.30.06 at 1:17 pm

You’re right that ‘dvoyurodnyi brat’ would be correct, but my experience, at least, was that people very often left the first part off unless it was very clearly necessary.


Richard 12.02.06 at 10:43 am

Who knows, maybe this call for papers on Borat will yield some important insights…

“…In many respects this movie touches on key aspects of our discipline and expertise, and it also marks the distance that “Eurasia” has traveled in the American mentality since the appearance of other epoch-defining films (From Russia With Love, Doctor Zhivago, The Manchurian Candidate). Slavic Review invites its readers to submit contributions for a cluster of scholarly essays on Borat… Contributions will be peer reviewed and must be received by the end of March 2007. If you have questions, please contact the editor, Mark Steinberg, at slavrev[at]

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