Russian politics primer?
March 21, 2008 7:48 AM   Subscribe

Help me teach myself about the current political and social climate in Russia.

In the vein of other teach yourself threads, I'd like to develop a deep understanding of current politics in Russia. I expect this to be part history, part current events, part commentary, and other parts I haven't thought of (that's why I'm asking). I suspect that in order to truly understand the present I will need to dig into the past -- Imperial Russia, Russian Revolution, early USSR, WW II, late USSR, post-USSR -- yet each of these is a massive study in itself. I'm at a loss for where to begin (I realize this is a huge undertaking) ...

What resources, online and otherwise, would you suggest, and in what order to approach this?

Russian language resources are acceptable -- I have a pretty good understanding of spoken Russian and am simultaneously working on improving my reading skills. I don't have any background in Russian history. My current knowledge of Russian politics is completely based on mainstream American media coverage.
posted by ellenaim to Law & Government (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Bounce around LiveJournal; there's tons of Russian kids on there.
posted by mkb at 8:29 AM on March 21, 2008

I don't understand how this is an AskMetafilter question rather than just a go-to-the-bookstore question.

Because the OP might be asking for recommendations for specific books? Would you answer questions like "Recommend me some good Sci-Fi books with" with "Go to the bookstore"? This is sort of the same thing.

At any rate, I'd suggest starting on Wikipedia. I know it seems like a facetious answer, but really, that's where I start all my research. Start on Wikipedia for the overview, and then look up specific topics you find in there that particularly appeal to you as you go. Use the "external links" and "works cited/referenced" lists at the bottom to go further in depth, too.
posted by Phire at 8:29 AM on March 21, 2008

Best answer: I liked Putin's Russia by Anna Poltikovskaya (a journalist who was suspiciously murdered in 2006.) It's mostly about outrageous wrongs on the part of the government but it covered a wide range of issues.

I don't know that the current politics - i.e. who is currently in power and what the relationships between different quadrants of society and power are - is going to be very tightly connected to the past - the fall of the Soviet Union and subsequent upheaval really scrambled everything. Though the political culture definitely would have deep roots.

The (shady and illegal) privatization of Gazprom and the other state enterprises during the 90's that resulted in the wealth and power of the "energy barons" is a big factor in politics there but I can't recommend particular sources, it's something I've followed in the news over the years.

An interesting part of the political environment is the Russian Far East which is dominated by the Chinese and by multinational mineral extraction projects - see the Sakhalin-I and Sakhalin-II projects in particular. My impression has been that this creates a lot of insecurity in the national mindset, especially feeling threatened by China.

Also important to understand is the relationship between Russia and the other former Soviet Republics - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia and Ukraine, Byelorus, and the others in the West (and the war in Chechnya, of course). In many of these places there's still a large Russian population. They're also tied in to the Russian infrastructure which gets back to the oil and gas - there are always stories about disputes over oil and gas supply between the different states in the news (though I think Kazakhstan has a good deal of its own oil resources at this point.)

Sorry to do so poorly providing particular resources, but those should be fruitful topics of research.
posted by XMLicious at 8:39 AM on March 21, 2008

The Christian Science Monitor just did a big, three-part series on The Putin Generation, discussing young Russians' views on the country's politics, prosperity, and corruption.
posted by driveler at 8:41 AM on March 21, 2008

Best answer: A nice gradual way to learn about foreign political affairs is to read the regional sections of The Economist. I've let this drop off in the last couple years, but I used to have a pretty good grasp on all the political machinations of many nations. You could probably think of it as a continuing primer on current events.

As for deep in-depth background of Russia, I'm not really sure thats entirely. There is a certain and continual pattern of authoritarian rule in Russia's history, but to say that the world of Alexander I reflects greatly on modern day Russia is stretching it a tad far. I think you'd be better served by doing a lighter review of Russian history (just for the background), in terms of Imperial Russia, and perhaps a somewhat more thorough look at Russian politics immediately preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union concerning the struggle between reformers and conservatives that played into the post-collapse politics.

I also second XMLicious, Anna Politkovskaya, is worth reading. A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya, gives an idea of how ruthlessly Russia is intent on holding on to its imperial possessions in the post-cold war era.
posted by Atreides at 8:46 AM on March 21, 2008

Best answer: To understand the late Soviet period (the Brezhnev era), which is very important for understanding how Russians interpret politics, read Hedrick Smith's The Russians. It's a bit triumphalist at times, but at others he's completely spot on. For example, somewhere he discusses the principle of "nasha luchshe," which is an absolutely fundamental part of the Russian worldview.

I would also recommend that you read Viktor Pelevin's novels, especially Chapaev i Pustota (published in the US as Buddha's Little Finger, I think), which tackles the perennial Russian identity crisis--are we Eastern, Western, or neither?--with wit and humor, and also Generation P, which is the most lucid portrait of what life was like under Yeltsin I've ever seen. The first chapter alone is worth a thousand handwringing New York Times articles.
In any case, these children, lying on the seashore in the summertime, cast long glances at the cloudless blue horizon, drank warm Pepsi-Cola that had been poured into glass bottles in the city of Novorossiisk, and dreamed that someday, the far-way forbidden world from the other side of the ocean would enter their lives.

Ten years passed, and this world began to enter--at first, carefully and with a polite smile, and then more and more confidently. One of its business cards turned out to be a TV ad for Pepsi-Cola--an ad which, as many researchers noted, became a turning point in the entire world's cultural development. The clip compared two monkeys. One drank "regular cola" and as a result became capable of performing certain elementary logical tasks with blocks and sticks. The other drank Pepsi-Cola. Hooting merrily, it drove off in a Jeep in the direction of the sea, arm-in-arm with a pair of young women who evidently didn't give a jot for gender equality (when you're forced to closely interact with monkeys, it's better not to think about such things, because both equality and inequality will be equally soul-crushing).

Upon giving it some thought, it was clear even then that it wasn't about the Pepsi-Cola, but the money with which it was so closely connected. That followed, first, from the classic Freudian association evoked by the product's color, and second, from the logical conclusion that the consumption of Pepsi-Cola allows one to buy expensive cars. But we will not analyze this clip too deeply (although maybe we would have found here the explanation for why the so-called "60s-ers" persist in calling Generation "P" shitsuckers). The only important thing for us is that the ultimate symbol of Generation P became the Jeep-riding monkey.

It was a bit painful to discover what the boys from the Madison Avenue ad agencies thought of their audience, the so-called "target group." But it was hard not to be struck by their profound knowledge of life. Through this ad, the large number of monkeys freezing in Russia were given to understand that it was time to get into Jeeps and come unto the daughters of men.
posted by nasreddin at 8:53 AM on March 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Seconding the Economist--fantastic news magazine. Also check out some of the latest issues of journals like Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. While not Russia-specific, they often have in-depth coverage by leading contemporary scholars and analysts.
posted by slogger at 9:09 AM on March 21, 2008

Mod note: few comments removed. please go to metatalk to debate whether "go to a bookstore" is a decent answer to this question, thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:17 AM on March 21, 2008

To understand Russia today it is important to understand the Soviet Union yesterday. Armageddon Averted is about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first decade of the Republic. It is a nice, breezy read and should help in understanding the pre-Putin era.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:58 AM on March 21, 2008

When I get back home, I'll haul out the texts we used (or at least as many of them as I can find) for the class I took called Russian Politics in Transition.

Until then, enjoy Sovok of the Week.
posted by klangklangston at 2:15 PM on March 21, 2008

For a great overview of the thinking of the Cold War, see the Long Telegram. For a thorough picture of the enormous trauma of Stalinism, read as much as you can stand of The Gulag Archipelago. For an idea of the triumph of the Soviet Union, I hope you can find something Russian-written about the Great Patriotic War (a.k.a. WWII), or better, I hope sometime you can travel and visit a war museum. (If you're ever in Kiev, go to metro Arsenal'na and then walk east to the big statue; the museum is its pedestal.)
posted by eritain at 2:21 PM on March 21, 2008

The two books I kept were:

Developments in Russian Politics 6, edited by Stephen White, Zvi Gitelman and Richard Sakwa.

Kremlin Rising, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser.

DRP6 is pretty descriptive, focusing on the transition from USSR to Russia, with a lot of brief chapters that each survey a different facet of Russian political life (sample chapters: A Russian Civilian Society?, Reforming the Federation, Putin's Economic Record). KR is a solid account by two journalists of the rise of Putin and Putin's governing apparatus. DRP6 has extensive "suggested reading" at the end, and can be a bit dry, but is really an excellent primer. I assume that other editions of the same text are also good.
posted by klangklangston at 9:43 PM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

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