A riddle wrapped in an enigma – understanding Russia

At the end of 2021, the Russian government announced that it was shutting Memorial – a Moscow based foundation that was dedicated to the study of the country’s communist past and bringing to light the crimes committed by the Stalinist regime. The foundation was shuttered under the auspices of being run and influenced by undesirable foreign agents, under a law passed in 2013.

Memorial’s closure comes in the wake a renewed period of interest in the study of Soviet history in Russia – in particular a wave of state-sponsored revisionism set on glorifying the USSR and communist period. In recent months, the Kremlin has put out articles, purportedly by the Russian President himself, on the history of Russia and the region. Much of this work is designed to spread misinformation about the collapse of the Soviet Union and discredit the basis on which many of the new states that emerged in the 1990s exists.

Now that Memorial is gone, and with Russia launching a new campaign against its neighbours, it is more important than ever for people in the West to have a sound understanding of the history of the region. As such I have compiled the following reading list of basic texts that anyone who is interested in Central Eastern Europe should read, to establish a better understanding of the region as a whole. From understanding the crimes of the Soviet Union, to putting into context the relationship between Russia, Ukraine, and their neighbours.

Serhii Plokhy

For those looking to understand the wider history of the region, and looking to understand the links between the nations of central and eastern Europe, one need look no further than the works of Serhii Plokhy. The Ukrainian author, based out of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, has penned numerous books that offer an insightful introduction to Ukraine, Russia, and the Soviet Union. Of his main works Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation provides a broad and detailed history of how the tribes settled on the banks of the Dniester River went from the Kyivan-Rus to the Russian Empire. 

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine is perhaps one of the best English language works on the history of Ukraine – providing insight into the country and its people throughout wars, occupations, and famines, and demonstrating the resilience of the Ukrainian people.

But perhaps his most insightful work is his 2014 book The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, which recounts the tumultuous events surrounding the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The book manages to capture well the chaos within the Soviet hierarchy, and the sense of resilience that existed among those minorities who had a fresh chance for independence in the Baltic, Ukraine, Caucuses, Central Asia, and beyond.

Robert Conquest

In understanding the dark history of the Soviet Union, there is no greater authority on the subject than the late Robert Conquest. His works on the crimes committed during the Stalinist era set the tone for future research on the topic. Perhaps his most important works covered two of the greatest atrocities of the 1930s – the great purges, and the Holodomor genocide. His 1968 exploration of Stalin’s purges beyond the so called ‘Moscow Trials’ in The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties offered the first real best estimates to just how many lost their lives at the hands of the Communist apparatus.

This research was carried on into Conquest’s later books – most notably his 1986 work The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine which more exclusively deals with the orchestrated famines in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. It today remains the seminal piece of literature in the West for understanding the Holodomor, and the failure of collectivisation. Like The Great Purge, Harvest of Sorrow provided some of the first estimates of how many millions had died as a result of the famines. The book helped to cement the horrors of the Holodomor in the minds of the Western public and encouraged the US Congress to officially recognise it.

Conquest is as such a must read for anyone looking to understand the history of the Soviet Union, without falling into the pitfalls of apologism and revisionism in much of the other literature on the subject. Indeed, his works continue to inspire further research on the subject, including that of the now closed Memorial foundation in Moscow.

Svetlana Alexievich

For those looking for a more oral history of the region, Nobel Prize winning Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich is by far the most interesting. Her career as a journalist during the Soviet Union saw her discredited by the Communist establishment for telling the real stories of ordinary people caught in major historic events. Her book The Boys in Zinc, which interviewed veterans of the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, in particular, led to her being accused of defamation. And yet it stands as one of the greatest eye-witness accounts of an otherwise poorly understood conflict.

Her two oral histories of the Second World War – Last Witnesses and The Unwomanly Face of War – bring to light the horrors and atrocities of the Eastern Front. In particular, the more recent versions of the book include material that had been excluded when published in the Soviet Union – criticising the Red Army for their conduct.

Alexievich herself no longer lives in Belarus, but Germany instead, having fled in 2020 after expressing her support for the opposition in the highly contested Presidential elections. She now sits on the transitionary council, pushing for reform of her home country. However, her oral histories continue to provide a strong base for understanding what ordinary people felt during the Soviet period.

Bill Browder

Best known these days for his work on passing the Global Magnitsky Act, the sanctions regime that goes after human rights abusers, and named after his late accountant – Bill Browder wrote Red Notice in 2015. The book covers his time as a fund manager in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s – and explores the days of the Wild East of investing. The book offers a great insight into the turbulent formative years of modern Russia, highlighting the emergence of the oligarch class in the country. Perhaps more importantly, the book explains why it is that Browder has been on his crusade to introduce the Magnitsky act – in honour of his accountant who unearthed much of the corruption.

A good companion piece to Red Notice is The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Russian journalist Masha Gessen. The book covers Putin’s rise to power from a junior colonel in the KGB to President of the Russian Federation. It recounts his calculated moves, and how he exploited Russia’s oligarch class on the way. Perhaps more importantly, to some extent the book gets into the head of the current occupant of the Kremlin.

The list of literature related to Russia is of course vast, but these books perhaps offer an easy and accessible first introduction. However, there are always new entries to the compendium that are worth keeping an eye out for.

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