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Genres Archives: Russia

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book

The Zhivago Affair
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The Zhivago Affair

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Drawing on newly declassified government files, this is the dramatic story of how a forbidden book in the Soviet Union became a secret CIA weapon in the ideological battle between East and West.

In May 1956, an Italian publishing scout took a train to a village just outside Moscow to visit Russia’s greatest living poet, Boris Pasternak. He left carrying the original manuscript of Pasternak’s first and only novel, entrusted to him with these words: “This is Doctor Zhivago. May it make its way around the world.” Pasternak believed his novel was unlikely ever to be published in the Soviet Union, where the authorities regarded it as an irredeemable assault on the 1917 Revolution. But he thought it stood a chance in the West and, indeed, beginning in Italy, Doctor Zhivago was widely published in translation throughout the world.

From there the life of this extraordinary book entered the realm of the spy novel. The CIA, which recognized that the Cold War was above all an ideological battle, published a Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago and smuggled it into the Soviet Union. Copies were devoured in Moscow and Leningrad, sold on the black market, and passed surreptitiously from friend to friend. Pasternak’s funeral in 1960 was attended by thousands of admirers who defied their government to bid him farewell. The example he set launched the great tradition of the writer-dissident in the Soviet Union.

In The Zhivago Affair, Peter Finn and Petra Couvée bring us intimately close to this charming, passionate, and complex artist. First to obtain CIA files providing concrete proof of the agency’s involvement, the authors give us a literary thriller that takes us back to a fascinating period of the Cold War—to a time when literature had the power to stir the world.

(With 8 pages of black-and-white illustrations.)

Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State

Vodka Politics
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Vodka Politics

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Russia is famous for its vodka, and its culture of extreme intoxication. But just as vodka is central to the lives of many Russians, it is also central to understanding Russian history and politics.

In Vodka Politics, Mark Lawrence Schrad argues that debilitating societal alcoholism is not hard-wired into Russians’ genetic code, but rather their autocratic political system, which has long wielded vodka as a tool of statecraft. Through a series of historical investigations stretching from Ivan the Terrible through Vladimir Putin, Vodka Politics presents the secret history of the Russian state itself-a history that is drenched in liquor. Scrutinizing (rather than dismissing) the role of alcohol in Russian politics yields a more nuanced understanding of Russian history itself: from palace intrigues under the tsars to the drunken antics of Soviet and post-Soviet leadership, vodka is there in abundance.

Beyond vivid anecdotes, Schrad scours original documents and archival evidence to answer provocative historical questions. How have Russia’s rulers used alcohol to solidify their autocratic rule? What role did alcohol play in tsarist coups? Was Nicholas II’s ill-fated prohibition a catalyst for the Bolshevik Revolution? Could the Soviet Union have become a world power without liquor? How did vodka politics contribute to the collapse of both communism and public health in the 1990s? How can the Kremlin overcome vodka’s hurdles to produce greater social well-being, prosperity, and democracy into the future?

Viewing Russian history through the bottom of the vodka bottle helps us to understand why the “liquor question” remains important to Russian high politics even today-almost a century after the issue had been put to bed in most every other modern state. Indeed, recognizing and confronting vodka’s devastating political legacies may be the greatest political challenge for this generation of Russia’s leadership, as well as the next.

Putin and the Oligarchs: The Khodorkovsky-Yukos Affair

Putin and the Oligarchs
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Putin and the Oligarchs

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The arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the head of the Yukos oil company, in October 2003, was a key turning point in modern Russian history. Although officially charged with fraud and tax evasion, many speculated that the real catalyst for Khodorkovsky’s arrest was his outspoken criticism of President Vladimir Putin’s regime. After two controversial trials, attracting widespread international condemnation, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 14 years in jail. In Putin and the Oligarchs, Richard Sakwa examines the rise and fall of Yukos and considers the relationship between Putin’s state and big business during Russia’s traumatic shift from the Soviet planned economy to capitalism, as well as Russia’s emergence as an energy superpower. The attack on Khodorkovsky had—and continues to have —far-reaching political and economic consequences but it also raises fundamental questions about the quality of freedom in Putin’s Russia as well as the world at large.

Putin’s Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia

Putin's Labyrinth
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Putin's Labyrinth

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In Putin’s Labyrinth, acclaimed journalist Steve LeVine, who lived in and reported from the former Soviet Union for more than a decade, provides a gripping account of modern Russia. President Dmitri Medvedev and the country’s real power, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, are posing a resolute challenge to the West. In a penetrating narrative that recounts the lives and deaths of six Russians, LeVine portrays the growth of a “culture of death”—from targeted assassinations of the state’s enemies to the Kremlin’s indifference when innocent hostages are slaughtered.

Interviews with eyewitnesses and the families and friends of these victims reveal how Russians manage to negotiate their way around the ever-present danger of violence and the emotional toll that this lethal maze is exacting on ordinary people. The result is a fresh way of assessing the forces that are driving this major new confrontation with the West.

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

Words Will Break Cement
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Words Will Break Cement

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The heroic story of Pussy Riot, who resurrected the power of truth in a society built on lies.

On February 21, 2012, five young women entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. In neon-colored dresses, tights, and balaclavas, they performed a “punk prayer” beseeching the “Mother of God” to “get rid of Putin.” They were quickly shut down by security, and in the weeks and months that followed, three of the women were arrested and tried, and two were sentenced to a remote prison colony. But the incident captured international headlines, and footage of it went viral. People across the globe recognized not only a fierce act of political confrontation but also an inspired work of art that, in a time and place saturated with lies, found a new way to speak the truth.

Masha Gessen’s riveting account tells how such a phenomenon came about. Drawing on her exclusive, extensive access to the members of Pussy Riot and their families and associates, she reconstructs the fascinating personal journeys that transformed a group of young women into artists with a shared vision, gave them the courage and imagination to express it unforgettably, and endowed them with the strength to endure the devastating loneliness and isolation that have been the price of their triumph.

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin

The Man Without a Face
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The Man Without a Face

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A chilling and unflinching portrait of one of the most fearsome figures in world politics.

In 1999, the “Family” surrounding Boris Yeltsin went looking for a successor to the ailing and increasingly unpopular president. Vladimir Putin, with very little governmental or administrative experience—he’d been deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, and briefly, director of the secret police—nevertheless seemed the perfect choice: a “faceless” creature whom Yeltsin and his cronies could mold in their own image. Russia and an infatuated West were determined to see in him the progressive leader of their dreams—even as Putin, with ruthless efficiency, dismantled the country’s media, wrested control and wealth from the business class, and destroyed the fragile mechanisms of democracy. Within a few brief years, virtually every obstacle to his unbridled control was removed and every opposing voice silenced, with political rivals and critics driven into exile or to the grave.

Masha Gessen has experienced and reported this history firsthand, and brings it up to its present moment of unrest and uncertainty. Her spellbinding account of Putin’s rise and reign will stand as a classic of narrative nonfiction.

Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution

Kremlin Rising
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Kremlin Rising

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With the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia launched itself on a fitful transition to Western-style democracy and a market economy. But a decade later, Boris Yeltsin’s handpicked successor—Vladimir Putin, a self-described childhood hooligan turned KGB officer—resolved to end the revolution. Kremlin Rising goes behind the scenes of contemporary Russia to offer a sobering picture of its leader and the direction in which the country is now headed.

As Moscow bureau chiefs for the Washington Post, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser witnessed firsthand the methodical campaign to reverse the post-Soviet revolution and transform Russia back into an authoritarian state. Their gripping narrative moves from Putin’s unlikely rise through the key moments of his tenure. But the authors go beyond the politics to draw a moving and vivid portrait of the Russian people they encountered—both those who have prospered and those barely surviving—and show how the political flux has shaped these individuals’ lives.

With shrewd reporting and unprecedented access to Putin’s insiders, Kremlin Rising offers both unsettling revelations about Russia’s leader and a compelling inside look at life in the land he is building. This book is an extraordinary contribution to our understanding of Russia and the debate about the country’s uncertain future and its relationship with the United States.