Since its covert support of separatist movements in Donbas and the military campaign in Syria, Russia is once again on everyone’s lips. Structural realism notwithstanding, perhaps no other foreign policy needs more historical contextualization. Russian society is full of contradictions and unsolved historical traumata. State policies are often the product of trial and error instead of grand strategy. Knowledge about the entanglement of foreign with domestic politics is therefore key to understand the moves made by the Kremlin. So, what about spending your summer to explore the riddle inside the enigma?
The Soviet Union
25 years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union the debate about its causes is still on. In the US the dominant narrative tells us that it was the unyielding position of President Reagan and his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that forced General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to start reforms. In other words, the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable due to Western strength. People in Russia and most Historians, however, do not agree. In his well-written book “The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union” (2014), Serhii Plokhy, Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard, argues that the fate of the state was decided only in the last fourth months of its existence.
Georgi Arbatov provides us with a personal take on these developments in his autobiography “The System” (1992). Arbatov has been the long-term director of the Soviet and later Russian Institute for the US and Canadian Studies (ISKAN) and worked as an advisor to several General Secretaries. The book tells the story of a life in Soviet Russia inside the political echelon. Instead of absolute judgments one learns to appreciate the various pragmatic decisions necessary to survive, not only politically, in a totalitarian state.
The personal life stories of the Russian people are also the topic of Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history “Secondhand Time”. The winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature examines the life in Russia before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The book contains interviews with many different people thereby creating a choir of various voices that all speak to tragedy, hopes and suffering. We have to be thankful to Alexievich for this book, which greatest strength is the sincere desire to understand its protagonists with all their contradictions.
Moving from the Soviet Union to modern day Russia begs the question, why the authoritarian nature of the state has turned out to be a persistent feature. Vladimir Gel’man – one of Russia’s leading political scientists – gives an answer in his concise but analytically sound and well-argued study on post-Soviet regime changes. The book analyses Russia’s political trajectory during the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s and also provides future scenarios. Based on a realist point of view Gel’man argues that political actors deliberately chose to move to an authoritarian direction.
Another, but entirely different account, on the persistence of great power identity constructions in post-Soviet Russia, has been written by Martin Müller. The study is the author’s dissertation containing an ethnographic discourse analysis at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) – Russia’s leading institution for the education of diplomats and international relations specialists. Despite its academic style the book is fascinating and empirically rich illustration of how political subjects and foreign policy identities are made in Russia.
A more culturally focused work by Ulrich Schmid analyzes the various techniques of power and the production of truth in contemporary Russian media. The book published in German under the title “Technologies of the Soul”, studies the work of many known and less well-known journalists, publicists, artists, intellectuals and politechnologists (spin-doctors) and puts them in context. It is full of empirical detail and provides a comprehensive account of how the nationalist-patriotic narrative has become dominant in Putin’s Russia.
Finally, Vladimir Putin and his entourage take center stage in two books: The biography “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin” written by Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy asks ‘who is Mr. Putin’, but goes way beyond the common stereotype of the former KGB officer. Instead the authors highlight six individual identities – the Statist, the History Man, the Survivalist, the Outsider, the Free Marketer, and the Case Office – and explain how Russia’s current political system can be seen as the result of their combination. There are now quite a number of books on Vladimir Putin out there, but this is probably the best and most useful. A broader picture on what has been called the Politburo 2.0 is provided by Mikhail Zygar, the former editor-in-chief of the critical independent television station ‘Dozhd’ (“Rain”). Zygar has spent years talking to current and former associates of the Russian president. The outcome is a book titled “All the Kremlin’s Men” (Vsja kremlevskaja rat'), which is now available in Russian, German and English. Within each chapter Zygar analyzes the development of Mr. Putin and, by association, that of Russia in the last 15 years, through the eyes of one prominent figure of the power elite.
Reading about the internal debates and developments analyzed in the aforementioned works will provide you with deep insights into the everyday contradictions of Russian political life. Knowing the cultural, social and historical underpinnings of political behavior facilitates a better understanding of the possibilities and constraints for change.