What to Read on Russian Politics

Over the last two decades, observers of Russian politics have debated whether or not the country was a democracy under its first president, Boris Yeltsin, and what kind of autocracy it became under his successor, Vladimir Putin. Other key themes have been what exactly happened during the transition from communism and how to characterize the country's post-Soviet economy.

The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Empire. By John B. Dunlop. Princeton University Press, 1995.
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John Dunlop's account of the demise of the Soviet Union in the late summer and fall of 1991 is incomparable in its attention to detail, and it reveals a different Mikhail Gorbachev than the one usually depicted in the Western press -- portraying him not as a victim of a Keystone Cops coup attempt, but as a possible accomplice in the effort to depose him. Gorbachev might have been waiting to see who would emerge triumphant, Dunlop argues -- the State Committee on the State of Emergency (including members of his own Politburo) or Yeltsin, the newly elected president of the Russian Federation and Gorbachev's political nemesis.

Yeltsin: A Life. By Timothy J. Colton. Basic Books, 2008.
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Timothy Colton's sweeping narrative of Yeltsin's life and political battles is unparalleled in its coverage of the political and personal journey of the founder of modern Russia. In Russia, Yeltsin has largely been reviled as a drunkard who conceded too easily to Western demands. He is also often blamed for the economic ills that befell the country in the 1990s. This biography provides a more nuanced view. Yeltsin's critics have argued that Colton is soft on his subject, but the book is actually relatively balanced and worth reading for the insights the author culled from unique interviews with Yeltsin and his family.

First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia's President
. By Vladimir Putin, Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova, and Andrei Kolesnikov. PublicAffairs, 2000.
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This is an informative short book of interviews with post-Soviet Russia's second president, offering a window onto his thinking and early career. When Putin was appointed prime minister by Yeltsin in August 1999 and then became acting president five months later, following Yeltsin's unexpected resignation, little was known about him. No books on his life were available, and few Russians had heard of him. To educate the public about its new leader (and help him win election as president in his own right in March 2000), the Kremlin set out to build up Putin's image. A select group of Russian journalists was given access for a series of interviews on Putin's life and beliefs, and this book is the result. Readers learn that Putin was as surprised as anyone to have been named Yeltsin's preferred successor, and he admits to having taken the job only on Yeltsin's insistence. Putin describes his KGB past and says he never quit the Communist Party when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but rather quietly slipped his party card into his desk drawer.

Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change From Gorbachev to Putin. By Michael McFaul. Cornell University Press, 2001.

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Michael McFaul's book offers a broader discussion of the development of post-Gorbachev Russian institutions. He analyzes the unintended consequences of the simultaneous political and economic transitions in Russia, and, thanks to unprecedented access to key decisionmakers, the book is replete with insider reflections on the emerging political process. McFaul was recently appointed to the staff of the National Security Council as senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs, so in addition to offering insights on Russia's difficult path away from communism, his analysis might hold some clues to the Obama administration's future policy toward Russia.

Democracy Derailed in Russia: The Failure of Open Politics. By M. Steven Fish. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
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Where McFaul's book is largely an account of the early successes of Russian democracy, M. Steven Fish looks at the failures of the process. He blames them not on inert antidemocratic Russian political culture nor on the structural obstacles highlighted by modernization theory -- that is, the idea that Russian economic development was insufficiently advanced to generate the social changes required to support democracy. Instead, he points to institutional changes during the Yeltsin years, the lack of economic reforms, and the curse of an economy dependent on natural-resource exports.

How Capitalism Was Built: The Transformation of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia
. By Anders Åslund. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
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Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia. By Marshall I. Goldman. Oxford University Press, 2008.
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Few good books have been written on the fascinating and unpredictable course of Russian economic development. Two worthy of note, however, are Anders Åslund's How Capitalism Was Built and Marshall Goldman's Petrostate. Åslund is a longtime observer and analyst of the Russian economy who also served as an adviser to Russian policymakers in the early 1990s. His book provides an excellent overview of the uncertain road to economic growth in Eastern Europe in general and Russia in particular. Critics might argue that whatever economic system Russia has today, it is not capitalism, but Åslund provides compelling arguments as to how the system came about by describing the choices and mistakes made over the last 20 years. Goldman's Petrostate, meanwhile, is an account of Russia's largely post-Yeltsin economic boom. Written for a general audience as much as for scholars, the book focuses on Russia's role as the world's second-largest (after Saudi Arabia) exporter of crude oil. Goldman has had good access to policymakers and allows readers to get the flavor of how, say, the Russian gas giant Gazprom functions in practice. The book is particularly interesting to read now, as the country struggles with the drop in oil prices during a global economic recession.

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