Sergei Lebedev's powerful debut novel, Oblivion, in depicting the Soviet prison work camps of the Arctic north, poses a heartfelt challenge to those who prefer to forget this part of Russian history. Lebedev, who was born in Moscow in 1981, picks 10 books that explain Russia's complicated past and present.
I was celebrating New Year’s Eve of 2000 with my high school friends. There were 18 of us. We were all surprised when, at 11:55, President Boris Yeltsin announced his retirement and named a successor—Vladimir Putin—everyone applauded. Except me. I don’t want to suggest that I had the gift of foresight. It just seemed to me that a former KGB officer was not the best choice for Russia. Others thought that an energetic, decisive prime minister was an excellent choice to replace the decrepit Yeltsin, and they pinned their hopes for the future on Putin.
Today, many of those who applauded back then have emigrated. And those who have stayed behind in Russia, for the most part, simply haven’t been able to leave. So what happened with Russia? Why is it turning into the USSR Version 2.0? And was it possible to predict this turn of events?
I have chosen ten Russian books, available in English, to answer these three questions.
1. A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya by Anna Politovskaya - The First Chechen War, which began in 1994, marked Russia’s return to a repressive, imperial model of government. The Second Chechen War, which started in 1999, brought Vladimir Putin to power on a wave of terror and fear.
The Russian public back then either supported the war or tried to ignore it. And Anna Politovskaya, a journalist for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, wrote about how the Chechen War would forever change society, would cause people to become accustomed to torture, assassinations, would corrupt power and demoralize the army, give the president carte blanche for the construction of a top-down power structure. Many thought Politovskaya was spreading it on too thick, was too harsh, unfair.
Politovskaya was murdered in the elevator of her apartment building on October 7, 2006, the birthday of Vladimir Putin. Today, her book reads like a perfectly precise prophecy, which, alas, nobody has heeded.
2. The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB by Irina Borogan, Andrei Soldatov - When he became president, Vladimir Putin joked at a meeting of his colleagues from the FSB (the successor to the KGB): “Mission accomplished. The undercover operation was successful.” Even back then there were many who didn’t take this as a joke.
In the USSR the Central Committee reined in the KGB’s ambitions to power, using it as an instrument, “a sword of retribution.” The lone exception was Yuri Andropov, who became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1982.
The book by Borogan and Soltadov shows how, in the post-Soviet era, the situation has been diametrically reversed. Political parties and the executive and legislative branches of power have become instruments of a group of KGB’ers, agents who have become the true masters of the country.
3. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich - The news of Svetlana Alexievich receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature was greeted in Russia with a squall of criticism. Patriots accused her of besmirching the USSR in the service of the West. And many liberals—much to my surprise—wrote that Alexievich’s books aren’t literature, they’ve become outmoded, they aren’t interesting any more …
I think the reaction of the latter group came about because Secondhand Time is an examination of the post-Soviet person, a harsh debunking of the myth of the nineties as a time of freedom and democracy, a core belief of Russian liberal discourse. Through the voices of the people she interviews, Alexievich shows that we merely had beautiful dreams about democracy, dreams which were not embodied in governmental institutions. Dreams, behind which stood harsh reality, poverty, dismay, and a longing for a strong hand to impose order on the country.
4. Godfather of the Kremlin: The Decline of Russia in the Age of Gangster Capitalism by Paul Klebnikov - “New Russians.” Oligarchs. People who made vast fortunes in the nineties. Objects of envy and hatred. And for Russian society, Boris Berezovsky was the symbol of these men.
Many democratically inclined people saw in these businessmen progressive figures, new capitalists necessary to Russia. Klebnikov was the editor in chief of the Russian Forbes and his book explains to what extent these businesses were criminal, and just how much this capitalism was government-controlled, and how corruption became the circular protection of the elite who brought about the “privatization” of the government.
Paul Klebnikov was murdered in 2004. His murder is still unsolved.
5. One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko - Russian in name, the army that fought in Chechnya used Soviet weapons, shot cartridges manufactured in the USSR, and wore uniforms sewn back when the Soviet Union still existed. The army remained Soviet at heart through its institutions, which conveyed totalitarian behavioral norms. It’s not coincidental that you can divide the fate of the nineties generation using simple criteria: Did you serve in the army, or not?
The war correspondent Arkady Babchenko served twice, the first time as a conscript, the second—as a contract soldier. He fought in Chechnya, and he wrote a book about this Soviet-Russian army, which became, as they say in Russia, “a school of life” for millions of young people and about how they carried this inside themselves after they returned to civilian existence.
6. White on Black by Ruben Gallego - The grandson of a Spanish communist who fled to the USSR, Ruben Gallego was born with cerebral palsy and spent his childhood in Soviet orphanages and shelters. And out of that came a work of autobiographical prose that won the Russian Booker Prize in 2003.
This book is extremely important for understanding the Soviet legacy in contemporary Russia, because it shows a section of Soviet society and focuses on one criterion, thereby enabling an unsparingly precise determination of the level of humanity and democracy: Russian society’s relationship to the sick, the defenseless, the helpless.
And Russian society, despite all the efforts of volunteers, remains in that sense a Soviet society: oriented toward a cult of strength, vitality, not knowing empathy; authoritarian not only in the political sense, but in its deep social objectives.
7. The New Russia by Mikhail Gorbachev - Having been consigned to oblivion in Russia, the first and last (that is, the only) president of the USSR rarely and, it seems, reluctantly delves into current politics. But now, when a new Cold War and a neo-Soviet revanche is looming on the horizon, Gorbachev decided to speak up.
It's unclear just how much the old perestroika formulas will help today's Russia, but the analysis of contemporary politics from the point of view of a man who deservedly received the Nobel Peace Prize, and who brought down a wall which kept people apart, is certainly worthy of attention.
8. Collapse of the Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia by Egor Gaidar - A former prime minister of Russia, author of the “shock therapy” strategy employed in the early nineties, Egor Gaidar remains, in the mind of most Russians, one of those responsible for the final collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is entirely possible that Gaidar would have chosen to be remembered this way, for he was a fierce and consistent opponent of everything Soviet. And in his book, written over a decade ago, he looks at the Soviet Union as a form of Russian imperial government. He studies how the myth of the “treacherous collapse” of the Soviet Union arose, analogous to the German myth of the “stab in the back” after the First World War. And Gaidar warns: “I wouldn’t want to repeat the mistakes made by the German Social Democrats in the 1920s. The price of similar mistakes in a world with nuclear bombs is too great.”
9. The Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder - Browder’s book is dedicated to Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer and auditor who died in the fall of 2009 in the Mattroskaya Tishina detention center.
Magnitsky, before his death, had been hired by Browder to investigate the unprecedented embezzlement of tax funds by government officials and law enforcement authorities. But in the end, it was he, not the thieves, who ended up behind bars.
The Kafkaesque story of a man trying to achieve justice and dying in prison is an acute and terrible diagnosis for Russia, where the law enforcement agencies, courts, and the criminal element join together in one conglomerate, creating an entirely conditional understanding of “ownership” and “capital,” key elements for the growth of a free economy. An economy which, as a result, does not exist.
10. All the Kremlin’s Men by Mikhail Zygar - This recently published book by the chief editor of the opposition TV station Dozhd can be considered a textbook of contemporary Russian history or, in any case, an important attempt to systematize and analyze how Putin’s model of power works.
It is said that the Kremlin didn’t view the book with excessive favor and as a result, Zygar was forced to quit Dozhd. Which is strange, because in a paradoxical way, an attempt to understand the Kremlin became in part an attempt to justify the Kremlin. Zygar allows himself to make no moral judgments, presenting politics purely as a struggle of interests. In this way, wittingly or unwittingly Zygar achieved the same viewpoint as Vladimir Putin, for whom there are no values, no morals. And such a metamorphosis is also a sign of the times, an unforeseen (by Zygar) historical symbol.