Editor’s note: Welcome to another installment of our weekly War Books series! The premise is simple and straightforward. We ask an expert on a particular topic to recommend five books on that topic and tell us what sets each one apart. War Books is a resource for MWI readers who want to learn more about important subjects related to modern war and are looking for books to add to their reading lists.
This week, the war in Ukraine triggered by Russia’s February 2022 invasion passed the eighteen-month mark. In this edition of War Books, MWI editorial director John Amble describes six books for nonexperts to read to better understand Russia as a strategic actor.
I’m not a Russia expert. But as Russian forces were collecting along the country’s border with Ukraine in late 2021 and early 2022, I wanted to build up my understanding of Russia. I didn’t necessarily seek the deeply specialized knowledge of somebody whose professional focus is entirely devoted to Russia or some aspect of the revanchist power. Rather, I wanted to read books that would combine to offer a broad-based layer of context within which to understand the actions Russia was taking.
Fast forward to February 24, when the invasion began, and that desire to better understand Russia became an imperative. MWI was suddenly receiving an enormous influx of submissions on the war—insightful commentary and deeply researched analysis—and if I was going to review the articles and edit those that we accepted, I needed to know Russia better. These are the six books I’ve read that have most heavily influenced my understanding of the country, its political and strategic cultures, and the way it conceptualizes, plans, and conducts military operations.
A Short History of Russia, by Mark Galeotti
If you only read one book on this list, make it this one. It covers more than a thousand years of history of Russia as a nation—from the early princes of Kyivan Rus through Ivan the Terrible and the tsars to the Bolshevik Revolution, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of Vladimir Putin. And it does so in less than two hundred pages. Galeotti accomplishes that task in part because of his commendable economy with words—nothing feels superfluous in this guided tour—but in larger part he does so by remaining steadfastly committed to providing what the title promises: a short history. You will understand today’s Russia better by appreciating its history and there is no better place to start. Plus, if you want to continue your journey of learning about Russia, Galeotti’s bibliographies are fantastic resources for further reading. (Bonus: The author’s We Need to Talk about Putin is an equally concise and equally valuable primer.)
Putin’s People, by Catherine Belton
It isn’t possible to understand Russia and its approach to the world without understanding its president, and it isn’t possible to understand its president without understanding his rise to power and the specific ways he has manipulated the elites of the country to strengthen his rule. Belton’s book provides exactly that. From organized criminal groups to the intelligence services, from banks and national resource firms to local, regional, and national governance structures, Putin’s machinations have restructured institutions, given him control over who runs them (and how), and made criminal leaders, billionaires, and politicians beholden to him. If you’re curious how one man could effectively bend an entire nation to his will, read this for answers.
The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen
Several years ago, MWI had the chance to host Masha Gessen for a talk about how authoritarianism had regrown its roots in Russia so soon after the fall of the Soviet Union and the optimism—in retrospect, naïve optimism—that the country would grow into a stable democracy and a partner working for good in the world. As an activist and a journalist, Gessen has witnessed and experienced firsthand the persecution of those who criticize the Putin regime. When Russia invaded Ukraine last year and there was extraordinarily little criticism of the war from inside Russia’s borders, I remembered Gessen’s visit to West Point and bought this book to better understand the Kremlin’s ruthless crackdown on dissent.
Red Army, by Ralph Peters
I know, Ralph Peters is not without critics (for, among other things, his argument in favor of redrawing the borders of the Middle East). But as a novelist, his work that built on his professional understanding of the Soviet military—he was a serving US Army military intelligence officer when he wrote Red Army and spent much of his early career in Europe—is deeply insightful. Told from the perspective of Soviet forces engaged in a surprise attack in the 1980s, the novel offers a glimpse into key elements of Soviet military culture that were inherited by and remain with the Russian Army today. A preference for mass. Artillery-centric planning. Micromanaging senior leaders. A propensity for media manipulation to sow battlefield confusion. Tactical inflexibility. A willingness to accept high casualties for limited gains. It’s all there.
Day of the Oprichnik, by Vladimir Sorokin
I mentioned that Galeotti’s bibliographies are a great source for finding your next book to read, and that’s where I discovered this one. Galeotti warns readers that this novel is a bit strange, and I can attest. But it is also a deeply fascinating look at a near-future Russia in which the country’s leader (unnamed in the book) has solidified his grip on power to an even more absolute degree than Putin has so far. The title is a reference to the oprichniki, a coterie of specially selected bodyguards who served Ivan the Terrible in the late sixteenth century. In the novel, set in 2028, Russia’s leader has reestablished this small corps to do his bidding and counter any threat to his rule. The book describes in uncomfortable and gruesome detail the violence meted out to those who criticize the Russian leader—and feels at once to be both the product of a fantastic imagination and a sobering reflection of the dynamics that help to keep Putin in power.
Russia’s War, by Jade McGlynn
Released just a few months ago, this is the most recently published book on the list. Remember I said that I read Masha Gessen’s book to understand why there was so little Russian criticism of the invasion of Ukraine? Most fundamentally, it’s because the world has watched one war, while Russians have watched another. This book tells readers how. The narrative of this war that Russians see paints their forces as heroes and underdogs, fighting valiantly to protect Russia and its values from a decadent and aggressive West. (Be sure to subscribe to the MWI Podcast so you don’t miss an upcoming episode featuring a conversation with McGlynn, to be released in September!)
John Amble is the editorial director of the Modern War Institute at West Point.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: mil.ru, via Wikimedia Commons