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Want to know how US-Russia relations reached this point? Read a book

AP Images; Photo Illustration by Tam Duong Jr./Globe Staff/Associated Press

The spotlight trained on the nation’s relations with Russia had dimmed since the end of the Cold War. Until Trump, that is. Election meddling schemes, Trump’s potential financial conflicts, links between Putin’s minions and Trump’s team, recusals, firings, congressional intrigue. To help us see the big picture more clearly some academics and writers offer suggestions on books about the history, economics, and geopolitics of US-Russia ties, Putin, and how we got here.



Bertrand Snell professor of political science emeritus at Amherst College, Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of the upcoming “Gorbachev: His Life and Times’’

“Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin’’ by Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy

Hill and Gaddy present a penetrating, wide-ranging study of Putin, his background, views, and policies in all their multiple dimensions. Gaddy is at Brookings. Hill has recently been named to be the chief Russia hand on President Trump’s National Security Council.

“The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century’’ by Angela E. Stent

This fair, balanced, and meticulous history (including a new chapter on the Ukrainian crisis) traces US-Russian relations from 1991 to 2014.


“Return to Cold War’’ by Robert Legvold

A trenchant analysis of the main characteristics of the “old” Cold War (the one that had ended by 1990), how we and the Russians got into a “new’’ and different Cold War, and how we might hope to get out of it.


Belarus-born novelist and author of “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo’’

“Hope Against Hope’’ by Nadezhda Mandelstam

This first of two memoirs by the widow of Osip Mandelstam — among the greatest poets of the 20th century, arrested in 1934 for writing a poem excoriating Stalin (“the fat, greasy fingers like worms . . . the cockroach mustache is laughing”) — is the wisest, most heartbreaking testimony to what the Stalin years did to the Soviet people, which reverberates among their descendants to this day: The way the best were destroyed; citizen was turned upon citizen; and servility and paranoia replaced faith and sacrifice.

“The Senility of Vladimir P’’ by Michael Honig

Though novels such as Ivan Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” and Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” serve as matchless portrayals of the Russian condition 150 and 75 years ago, respectively, this novel conveys as only a novel can the cynicism, hypocrisy, toadying, and self-enrichment that are the only ways to survive in today’s Russia for anyone aspiring to power or wealth. One of its keenest ironies is that everyone’s skimming so they can get the hell out of the country about which they are publicly required to beat their chests with such pride. And it’s a page-turner, too.



Pulitzer Prize-winning Cold War historian at Harvard

“The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War’’ by Arkady Ostrovsky

An excellent example of contemporary history, focused on the late Cold War and the two decades or so thereafter; very good to my mind for understanding the rise of Putin.

“Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia’’ by Peter Pomerantsev

This engagingly written book focuses on Putin’s government taking control of state-sponsored propaganda and blurring the distinction between make-believe and reality.


Edward R. Murrow professor of practice emeritus at Harvard, senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center at the Kennedy School, and senior adviser to the Pulitzer Center

“The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin’’ by Steven Lee Myers

An excellent report by a top journalist on Putin’s rise to supreme power, describing a person with little moral side but loaded with hard, tough skills, and governed almost solely by Russian national interests.

“Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War’’ by Marvin Kalb


A first-ever look at the Ukraine crisis seen through the history of national interests of both Ukraine and Russia. The book examines the origins of Ukraine and Russia, how both have fought for control of the territory now called Ukraine for hundreds of years, and how both are locked into each other’s embrace with increasing hostility.


Novelist born in Ukraine, raised in republic of Georgia, and author of “The Patriots’’

“The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia’’ by Tim Tzouliadis

During the Great Depression, while politicians beat the drum against the Red Menace, thousands of American workers arrived in Russia in search of jobs. Some returned home but others were trapped, becoming casualties of the Soviet regime, and of FDR’s strategic alliance, and personal affinity, for Joseph Stalin.

“Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization’’ by Stephen Kotkin

Few know how much the Soviet Union was built on American steel and with American technology. No Soviet city exemplified the spirit of American industry as monumentally as Magnitogorsk, which took as its blueprint places like Detroit and Gary, Ind., where industrialists and politicians profited from million-dollar deals with the Bolsheviks even as Washington D.C., refused “officially” to recognize the Soviet government.


Professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics, New York University and Princeton University

“Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War’’ by Stephen F. Cohen

This book examines how we got into this new Cold War with Russia, covering the years from 1985 to about 2009.


“Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands’’ by Richard Sakwa

Sakwa lays out the origins and onset of the Ukraine crisis, a nation torn between its historic ties with Russia and its desire for a closer relationship with Europe.

“Ukraine in the Crossfire’’ by Chris Kaspar de Ploeg

The Dutch journalist-scholar presents a thorough but sharply critical account of the role of the West in the now three-year Ukrainian civil war, the political epicenter of the new Cold War.


Professor of international affairs at The New School, senior fellow of the World Policy Institute, and granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev

“The Marquis de Custine and His ‘Russia in 1839’ ” by George F. Kennan

As a diplomat and a scholar Kennan knew Russia like no one else. The book explains the Russian character and the US-Russia imperial dynamic dating back to the 19th century and earlier. A must-read for the Putin-Trump era.

“Empire of the Czar’’ by Marquis de Custine

If Kennan’s book is not available or even if it is, consider the original with Kennan’s introduction. Together with Steven Lee Myers’s “The New Tsar’’ there is no better reading for those trying to comprehend the Russians.

“Bend Sinister’’ by Vladimir Nabokov

This classic novel is an artful and blood-chilling expose of how autocrats of all kinds are made and what drives them.