Understanding modern Russia
September 14, 2016 5:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for good books and documentaries on Russia. I took a course on this topic in college (starting with the fall of the Tsars, through the USSR, and finally into Putin's first presidency), and I found it fascinating—but this was a decade ago, and clearly things have changed. Recent events have inspired me to start reading in this area again; help me sort out the wheat from the chaff.

Basically, I want to understand modern Russia and Russians better... but if it helps narrow things down, one of the things I remember being most fascinated by in my college course was the rise of Putin—the clear influence of his KGB past on his present tactics, how wildly popular he is despite the re-reduced freedoms endured under him, and how Russians' experiences under the Tsars and USSR shaped that popularity. I also have a general fascination with genocide (that's so weird to write, but I hope it's clear that I don't mean in the "pro-" sense—more as it relates to the notion of "othering," and how a society gets to the breaking point of dehumanizing its own citizens) and the Cold War, but I'm not necessarily looking to focus on those areas—just trying to give a sense of what sorts of topics have interested me in the past.

I know that Russia is massive and includes a wide array of cultures; I suppose I am most immediately interested in the Kremlin and things that ultimately relate to Russia's influence abroad in the West, but I absolutely welcome any media regarding the "lesser known" cultural groups. (One could hardly ignore those and still understand Russia.)

There's just so much out there, and I don't know where to begin. Ideally, I'm looking for books that are compellingly written—something on the dryer side is likely to lose me, at least at this stage. In terms of documentaries, bonus points for anything streaming on Netflix and Hulu.
posted by cellar door to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Masha Gessen has written some great stuff - I've only read her articles but her books on Putin and Pussy Riot are on my list. She's a Russian Jew who is also a lesbian and has lived in both the US and Russia, so she has a very interesting perspective.
posted by lunasol at 7:10 AM on September 14, 2016

I sent you memail as I am not sure if linking to my place of work is a) a really good idea and b) is possible bannable because self-linking. Nthing Masha Gessen, btw. Just heard her speak, fantastic woman.
posted by 15L06 at 7:28 AM on September 14, 2016

Anne Applebaum writes frequently about Russia and eastern Europe.
posted by LoveHam at 8:12 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

The documentary Putin's Kiss is fascinating.
posted by Jahaza at 8:59 AM on September 14, 2016

I have also sent you a memail, because my answer is from my place of work and I'm not sure if that's allowable to post.
posted by aaanastasia at 12:36 PM on September 14, 2016

Here's a similar post with answers that may be useful to you; I particularly recommend mine. I have a few more recommendations here.

> I am not sure if linking to my place of work is [...] bannable because self-linking.

No, the self-linking ban only applies to posts; there is absolutely nothing wrong with it in comments, and in fact it would be better to make your recommendations publicly so they can help others who might read this thread.
posted by languagehat at 12:46 PM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ah, in that case: I highly recommend The Daily Vertical by Brian Whitmore at RFE/RL. He does daily analysis and a news roundup with a focus on the Kremlin and current affairs.
posted by aaanastasia at 12:55 PM on September 14, 2016

You might enjoy the upcoming (free) coursera courses Understanding Russians and Understanding Russian Economy. I took the first of these in its previous session and found it fascinating and eye-opening.

Also, I recently read Russia Under the Old Regime by Richard Pipes and found it very useful. It gives a lot of social and political background history and insights into how Russia's experience has been different from that of Western European lands.

Timothy Snyder has written on genocidal goings on in Russia and other parts east, notably in Bloodlands. You can find a lot of videos of lectures of his on youtube, both on history and on current events in the region. I find him a very smart and entertaining speaker, to the extent that that makes any sense given the ghastliness of much of his subject matter. Frank and passionate and unusually clearly spoken.
posted by bertran at 2:10 PM on September 14, 2016

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