What to know about Russia, revolts and 1917
This Week, Those Books
Welcome to the third instalment of This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s news and developments. The few minutes you take to read this newsletter will make you smarter, faster…guaranteed. Here, you will find a deep dive on fiction and non-fiction about the week’s big story and/or perfect watercooler convo and dinner party small talk. (The first post on ‘dictator chic’ is here. The second post on ecocide and the late, great Cormac McCarthy is here.)
Let’s get started.
After 23 years in power, has President Vladimir Putin been fatally weakened by the 36-hour mutiny launched by former ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, boss of private military company Wagner?
Sixteen months after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, is nuclear-armed Russia an increasingly fragile state?
Putin himself has compared the short-lived Wagner mutiny to 1917, a significant year for Russia. In 1917, the unpopular Tsar Nicholas II abdicated – ending the Romanov dynasty’s 304-year rule – and the provisional government was forced to rely on revolutionary forces to help foil a coup. It weakened Russia’s First World War efforts, empowered the Bolsheviks and toppled the government of the day.
Fast forward to 2023…and we find an interrupted coup while the Ukraine war grinds on. Is Russia’s past fusing with its present and likely future? Read on to find out what to read for background and context as we address this and other questions.
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Dear Reader, this week reminds me of those books:
A Short History of Russia: How to Understand the World's Most Complex Nation
By Mark Galeotti
Publisher: Ebury Press
Not only is the author a political scientist and director of a research consultancy that focusses on Russia, he has written more than 20 books on Russia. Galeotti’s most recent book is Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine but I would argue that Short History of Russia is better for our purposes at the moment.
Short History explains this vast country “with no natural borders, no single tribe or people, no central identity…11 time zones…at the crossroads of Europe and Asia” and lays out the broad patterns of Russian history. But it doesn’t stereotype Russians, “a palimpsest people” in Galeotti’s words. He shows their openness: their language internalises external influences, so a railway station is vokzal (after a Russian delegation visited London’s Vauxhall station in the 19th century); baggage is bagazh and sleeping car kuchet, both from the French. But Putin’s Russia, Galeotti notes, is also defined by “a mix of prickly defensiveness and an inclusive nationalist myth of a unique historical mission”.
In words that might feel prophetic today, after Wagner’s short lived mutiny 16 months into the Ukraine war, the book describes Russia’s changing attitude to the First World War. It was all “patriotic glee” in 1914 when the war started, then became a “meat-grinder”, with Russia suffering 150,000 casualties a month at the peak. By 1917, close to the end of the war, the economy was “near collapse”, prices having risen by 400 per cent. Talk about resonance.
Tsar Nicholas (he who had pandered to the dissolute monk-charlatan Rasputin) took the monarchy down with him in February 1917, grassroots community assemblies called Soviets were formed and a far left party called the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, started to gain popularity with a ‘peace, bread and land’ slogan. On November 7, 1917 (October 25 by the old Russian calendar) the Bolsheviks seized power and so began the country’s socialist phase.
By Polina and Pavel Prigozhin (and Yevgeny Prigozhin)
This entry’s only value is as a curiosity because the Wagner chief wrote this children’s book but gave his children credit. The 90-page book is illustrated and the artwork is attributed to Prigozhin. On the back cover, a younger, smiling Prigozhin is shown reading the book to his wife and children.
As far as I can see, the book is not available to buy and it wouldn’t matter even if it were unless you knew Russian.
The Moscow Times story on the book offers the following detail: It features two tiny siblings – Indraguzik and Indraguza – who live in a theatre’s chandelier. The children discover that the chandelier has some magic that can allow people to grow in size. Indraguzik, the boy, falls from the chandelier and tries to make his way home. Along the way, he has several adventures, meeting “an older man with a bird and a rough cloth trench coat”, who cooks soup for him, which may be a nod to the Wagner chief’s background as a caterer.
He meets the country’s king and offers to change his size but accidentally makes him too big. “How can I rule my people if they are so small? I could destroy them by mistake. Please make me the same king I was,” the king says.
Eventually, Indraguzik is helped by a human boy who gives him a balloon in order to return to the chandelier.
By Mikhail Sholokhov
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Year: 1st published in Russian 1929, as Penguin paperback 2017
This is a massive tome – 566 pages – by a Nobel Prize-winning author. One of the reasons you need to know about it is that many of the events in the recent Wagner mutiny happened in the same area as the novel.
There is also a great deal of resonance in the story told by Mikhail Sholokhov of how conflict scars a country and ordinary people as they try to love and live. The book revolves around a cossack Gregor Melekhov, who struggles to be with the woman he loves as his country is torn apart by war.
There are some great lines in here, particularly about the way wars can create new narratives, myths, legends and rumours, as when the cossacks are on the march along the Don river:
“…an Ukrainian woman questioned one of the cossacks: ‘Is it true that you will steal everything and cut up everybody?’
Without quivering an eyelash the cossack replied: ‘Yes, it’s true. Maybe not everybody, but we’ll cut up all the old men.’
‘Oi, my God! And what do you want to cut them up for?’
‘We eat them with gruel. Mutton isn’t a good flavour, it isn’t sweet enough yet, so we put the daddies into our pots and make a fine stew of them…’
‘But aren’t you joking, maybe?’
‘He’s lying, woman!’ Mrikhin intervened, and turned on the jester. ‘You learn how to joke and who to joke with! What are you spreading those stories for? They’ll go and tell everybody that we cut up the old men!’”