Five Best Books on Putin and Power

From a Wall Street Journal story headlined “Five Best Books on Putin and Power”:

Selected by Mark Geleotti, the author of the forthcoming “Putin’s War: From Chechnya to Ukraine.” 

By Philip Short (2022)

1. This is a very traditional study of a very contemporary figure. At a time when so many biographies seem either built around some controversial core argument (typically finding some scandal to unearth or invent) or have gone minimalist (my own “We Need to Talk About Putin” is less than one-fifth the size of Philip Short’s doorstop), this is old school in all the best ways. Mr. Short, a British foreign correspondent who has written biographies of François Mitterrand, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong, has pored over all the interviews, followed up on all the leads and spoken to everyone from academics to policy makers. The result is comprehensive, but the fluid prose keeps readers from getting lost or bogged down in details. A specialist may cavil at some points, and at times one could use a brisker pace and lighter touch, but for a complete and judicious biography of this deeply, even pathologically private man, this is the best yet.

Weak Strongman
By Timothy Frye (2021)

2. The macho persona curated by Vladimir Putin’s image managers—as difficult as it is becoming to reconcile that image with the puffy figure we see perched at the end of a comically long table, or limping to a podium—leads many to accept that he is the all-powerful despot of his country. As the political scientist Timothy Frye demonstrates through a generous and wide-ranging trawl through the current scholarship, that is hardly half the story. Mr. Putin emerges from Mr. Frye’s treatment as more weak than strong, a prisoner of his own system as much as anything else. The author demonstrates how this system fits into the wider understanding of authoritarian regimes, and in the process delivers a master class in how political science—so often couched in esoteric language and arcane quantitative formulas—can illuminate, not obscure, our vision of the modern world.

Between Two Fires
By Joshua Yaffa (2020)

3. In the classic view of modern Russia, Vladimir Putin and a handful of movers and shakers—plus a few well-known dissidents—scheme and struggle from rarified heights. The Russian people are simply a faceless mass far below. They are Mr. Putin’s subjects or hostages, victims or supporters, but rarely are they granted any real agency. Even the most brutal of regimes depends on its subjects, though, and the ways that Russians have navigated the moral, political and practical challenges of surviving (even thriving) within a state edging toward totalitarianism, without entirely losing themselves, says as much about humanity as it does about the country. The stories and interviews Joshua Yaffa assembles from his time in Russia also demonstrate the fundamental strength and weakness of the Putin regime: No one is truly a Putinist—not least because there is no real “Putinism”—but at the same time, the Russian leader has been shrewd enough to close his grip slowly enough that few have been willing to oppose him. Only now, with his Ukrainian adventure throwing the incompetence, corruption and brutality of his regime into sharp relief, do the costs of the compromises of Russian society become clear.

All the Kremlin’s Men
By Mikhail Zygar (2016)

4. It’s all very well to focus on Vladimir Putin, who is, to be sure, the final decider in Russian politics. He is but one man, though, and one with a not-especially broad set of experiences. He depends on his few friends and many courtiers to paint a picture of the world for him, to pitch their ideas, outline his options, and ultimately carry out his bidding. This is a ground-breaking introduction to the figures around the boss, from political technologists to businesspeople. As the former editor-in-chief of the independent Russian-language television news channel Dozhd—which was forced to end its operations in Russia this year in the crackdown that followed the invasion of Ukraine—Mikhail Zygar had the kind of access no Western journalist could hope to gain. His book is gossipy in all the right ways, with stories that illustrate the contours of this regime, whether in the way a businessman used the presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov to convince Mr. Putin that Russians were yearning to host the Winter Olympics, or the parliamentary speaker who reportedly keeps a list of scores to settle. These, ultimately, are the people who make Mr. Putin’s regime.

Day of the Oprichnik
By Vladimir Sorokin (2011)

5. The conceit that life imitates art has never made me more uncomfortable than when I was reading this work of fiction. It’s a story without an obvious arc, a satire that descends into vulgarity, set in a notional 2028 in which Vladimir Putin’s name isn’t even mentioned. Vladimir Sorokin’s account, translated by Jamey Gambrell, of a near-future czarist Russia, combining high technology with the medieval manners and monstrosities of Ivan the Terrible’s reign, is clearly a fantasy. Yet it has more resonances to the present than might have been thought when it was originally published in 2006. Mr. Sorokin’s Russia has literally walled itself off from the “fascists, pluralists, and atheists” of the liberal West, while falling under the sway of its Chinese ally. For all his pretenses of being the kindly father of his people, the czar rules through a brutal police state, enforced by his black-clad Oprichniki, who (like Mr. Putin and his cronies) regard themselves as patriots but embezzle to their heart’s content and are shaped by the slang and values of the vorovskoi mir, the “thieves’ world” of Russian gangsterdom. It’s a dystopian and caricatured Russia, but one can almost feel it becoming more plausible by the day.

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