Experts share the books that shaped their understanding of Russia.

August 30, 2016




In the spirit of the new academic year, CGI asked experts to name the books that were most influential to their own thinking on Russia, or that current policy-makers should read to better understand Russian society, politics, culture, and foreign policy. The submissions present an eclectic blend of fiction and non-fiction, new and old works, classic and more obscure.

What follows is not intended to offer an full understanding of Russia or its politics. Rather, we intend to provide an overview of some of the sources that inspire today’s leading Russia scholars, journalists, and policy-makers. 

Note: for works in translation, we provide citations to widely available texts with the acknowledgement that these may not be the most authoritative editions.

jill_dougherty_largeJill Dougherty, former CNN Moscow correspondent 

  • Inside Putin’s Russia: Can there be Democracy without Reform 
    by Andrew Jack (Oxford University Press, 2004)
    This remains for me an excellent primer about Vladimir Putin’s first years in office. It’s hard to get it right as events are unfolding around you but Andrew Jack, one of the best reporters on Russia, managed to do it. He wrote it in 2004 and the trends he discerned at that time hold true today.
  • A History of Russia 
     Nicholas Riasanovsky and Mark Steinberg (Oxford University Press, 2010 (8th ed.)
    Any time I want to revel in Russia, I turn to Riasanovsky, the Bible of Russian studies. He was deeply Russian, and yet understood how to explain the country and its origins to Westerners endlessly interested in Russia.

galeottiMark Galeotti, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague

  • The Routledge Atlas of Russian History (4th ed.)
    by Martin Gilbert (Routledge, 2007)
    We live in a visual, graphic age, and yet I suspect we too often simply become entranced by the eye-candy of multicoloured maps and three-dimensional projections. The maps in this book are not the prettiest, but best convey in ways even the lay reader can quickly get, something of the complexities of Russian history’s bloody sweep, the scale of this country, and its place in its neighborhood. 
  • Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals
    by Dominic Lieven (Yale University Press, 2002)
    Russia today is all-too-often described as an “empire” with too little thought as to quite what that means. This magnificently wide-ranging and thoughtful comparative study might help policy makers use the term a little less glibly, and learn something about Russia in the process.
  • Nicholas I: Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias
    by W. Bruce Lincoln (Northern Illinois University Press, 1989)
    It may be a personal hobby-horse of mine that the parallels between Putin and Tsar Nicholas I are both compelling and growing, but in case I am right, this is still the best biography of this surprisingly complex figure (and beautifully written, at that).
  • A Tree in the Center of Kabul (Rus)
    by Alexander Prokhanov (Progress Publishers, 1982)
    Still around today and periodically trotted out for some over-the-top nationalist nonsense, Prokhanov earned the title of “the nightingale of the General Staff” in the 1980s. This tale of idealistic Soviets, honest Afghan communists, and devious CIA plotters during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is no great work of literature, but it captures a certain sense of late Soviet geopolitical paranoia and “defensive aggressiveness” re-emerging today in post-Communist but otherwise strikingly similar form. 

graham 2Thomas Graham, Former Senior Director for Russia on the U.S. National Security Council (2004–07)

  • Russia Under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum
    by Martin Malia (Harvard University Press, 1999)
    An erudite analysis of how the West’s tendency to look at Russia through the prism of its own political, social, and philosophical problems distorts our perception of Russia and the challenge it poses. “The West is not necessarily most alarmed when Russia is in reality most alarming nor most reassured when Russia is in fact most reassuring.” Russophobia cannot always “be accounted for by the objective threat of Russian power.” Is that our problem today?
  • Strategy and Power in Russia 1600-1914
    by William C. Fuller Jr. (The Free Press, 1992)
    A scholarly account of the way in which Russian leaders have understood Russia’s strategic challenges and the strategies they devised to meet them, which helps illuminate the fears, ambitions, and policies of today’s Russia.
  • The Brothers Karamazov
    by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Farrar, Straus & Geroux, 12th ed. 2002)
    A great novel, which an educated person should read in any event. For insight into Russia and U.S.-Russian relations, don’t read the part on the Grand Inquisitor. Read the section on Dmitry Karamazov’s trail by jury for the murder of his father, analyze the lawyers’ fierce debate, and ask why the jury convicted an innocent man.



Jeffrey Mankoff, Deputy Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, CSIS

  • War and Peace
    by Leo Tolstoy (Vintage Classics, 2008)
    Condenses (if that’s the right word for a 1,000-page book) many of the ideas and assumptions underpinning Russian strategic culture and national identity, including why Russia is different from the West, the importance of strategic depth, the role of the Church, and a fatalism about history.
  • Quiet Flows the Don
    by Mikhail Sholokhov (Vintage, 1989)
    Captures the messiness of war and revolution within a single community and a single family. Also probably the best depiction of the oft-misunderstood Cossacks ever put to print.
  • The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939
    by Terry Martin (Cornell University Press, 2001)
    Explains how the allegedly supranational USSR became the incubator of national identity among, especially, the non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union. Helps make sense of why Ukrainians were willing to fight for their independence and why the Russians did not anticipate that development.


MartenKimberly Marten, Olin Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, and faculty member of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Columbia University


McFaulMichael McFaul, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, 2012-2014


e-wayne-merryWayne Merry, Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia, American Foreign Policy Council

  • A Short History of Russia
    by B.H. Summer (Harcourt Grave, 1949)
    The single book I recommend most often is not even in print, though available in large libraries and second-hand. It dates to before World War II (Sumner died in 1951), so it is not tainted by the mentality of the Cold War. It is not a narrative history at all, but a series of topical essays about factors that made Russia what it is. I find it a very useful starting place for people interested in Russia, even though the author had no on-the-ground experience there. There are many other works which cover the same material, but I like Sumner’s lack of passion and of prejudice.

  • The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture
    by James Billington (Vintage, 1970)
    I first read the thing when taking Billington’s graduate course at Princeton, when the book was almost brand new. I do not recommend this work for someone starting out in Russian studies, because it is very dense and “chewy,” but it is essential for someone moving to a mature appreciation of Russian history and culture. I re-read it a few years ago and finally, after four decades or so of engagement with Russia, pretty much absorbed it. In contrast to Sumner, Billington had lots of Russian mud on his shoes and he writes with evident passion, but also with objectivity and without a Cold War bias. It was Billington (and Kennan) who taught me the Soviet Union was only a phase of Russian history, rather than its culmination as was the default understanding in Washington. This insight helped me a great deal in my second Embassy Moscow assignment, when the Soviet Union came to its end.
  • In the First Circle
    by Alexander Solzhenitsyn  (original 1968; Harper Perennial, 2009)
    Any such list as this must contain at least one work of Russian literature.  Any number qualify, but I opt for Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle. Be careful to get the revised translation of the full work, not the earlier English version entitled The First Circle. I first read this book in Moscow in the Brezhnev era, but it remains profoundly relevant. Beyond the tale of the Stalinist gulag, this novel demonstrates several cardinal qualities of the Russian character:  endurance, suffering as a perverse virtue, comradeship, and — perhaps most important — the redemptive quality of Russian humor.  

Please note that none of the books on my list are about current events or even post-Soviet Russia. To try to understand Russia by looking at current or recent events is to dig down a millimeter.  

UmlandAndreas Umland, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation (Kyiv)

  • Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World
    by Andrew Wilson (Yale University Press, 2005)
    In my opinion, the most important book to understand the functioning of political competition in most of the former USSR, for the period, approx. 1990-2010. Very informative, lots of details, extremely broad.
  • The Gorbachev Factor
    by Archie Brown (Oxford University Press, 1996)
    The most comprehensive and detailed account of Mikhail Gorbachev’s role in recent world history. Brown argues persuasively that Gorbachev did neither cause nor control the break-up of the Soviet Union, yet still played a crucial role in securing a relatively peaceful transition from totalitarianism to proto-democratic politics.


TsygankovAndrei Tsygankov, Professor of Political Science and International Relations, San Francisco State University

All of these books are remarkable in capturing both distinctiveness and continuity in Russia​’s political development. They remain important in dispensing with the popular view that the West has the power to determine Russia’s political trajectory, and each demonstrates that this trajectory depends on a complex combination of geopolitical, internal, and external factors.

Of the relatively recent books, I found these two to be especially useful.

ZlobinNikolai Zlobin, President, Center on Global Interests 

There are two different kinds of books that could fall into this category: books through which one can understand Russia, and books which consciously try to explain Russia. The latter is someone else’s explanation of Russia — there are thousands of books like that. The former doesn’t set a goal of explaining Russia, but does so implicitly.

These are the four fiction works that I think best explain Russia, and the debates still going on there today: