Skip to main content

Kennan Institute Back-To-School Reading List: Fall 2020 Edition

The Kennan Institute recently asked some of our scholars to share their top book selections for the 2020 back-to-school season. Here are a few of their picks, ranging from women's and gender issues in Russia to Ukrainian history.

Kennan Institute Back-to-School Reading List





Oksana Antonenko, Global Fellow, Kennan Institute

Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia, by Dominic Lieven

During the lock down, I was inspired to learn more about the time period of the Spanish flu, the last great global pandemic. Both before and during this pandemic, I have read and re-read many books on the history of the period leading up to the first world war. Dominic Lieven’s great book has stood out as one of the most nuanced and thought-provoking records of Russian political realities of that period. The author—who is one of the leading historians of Empires—spent several years studying Russian foreign ministry archives, which are now mostly out of reach for scholars. His book narrates with great clarity and boldness the nuances of Russian policy-making during the period leading to the outbreak of the First World War and the fall of the monarchy. Readers will find many unnerving parallels with contemporary history—from Ukraine’s critical role in shaping Russia’s attitudes toward Europe to the role of nationalist opinion-makers in shaping Russian foreign policies. The book includes interesting new details about personalities who guided Russia through these complex years of conflict and diplomacy. 

Maria Danilova, George F. Kennan Fellow, Kennan Institute

A Week Like Any Other, by Natalya Baranskaya

Anyone interested in women’s rights and gender relations in Russia and the Soviet Union should read Natalya Baranskaya’s novella A Week Like Any Other. Set in the late 1960s, it is a detailed and honest account of the life of a young research scientist in Moscow who is torn between the demands of her full-time job and taking care of two small children and her husband. As a result, the heroine is exhausted, sleep-deprived, and saddled by a constant sense of guilt and failure. Asked to describe her life, she comes up with the following list: kitchen, sick children, grocery store line, motherhood, fidelity, cloth diapers, hurt feelings, love, stress, humor, laundry, abortion. The book shows the double burden faced by Soviet women, who were expected to fully participate in the workforce, raise children, and be responsible for most household chores.

Jason Gresh, US Army Foreign Area Officer Eurasia Fellow, Kennan Institute



Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin's Russia, by Joshua Yaffa

Joshua Yaffa’s Between Two Fires is a thoughtful compilation of character studies about several prominent Russians from widely different sectors and layers of society. Yaffa tells the story of a human rights worker from Chechnya, an orthodox priest from Pskov, a television producer in Moscow, and a museum historian for a former prison camp outside of Perm—among others—and how these individuals reconcile their personal beliefs with the Russian state system that envelops them. Woven into all of these stories is the Russian concept and word of ‘prisposoblents,’ meaning a person skilled in the act of compromise, adjusting his or her beliefs and actions to the societal expectations around them. These rich portraits offer a window into contemporary Russia, and suggest a complicated, yet appropriately human view of how citizens adapt (or not) to the powerful and often dangerous forces that define this country. 

The opinions and views of the author are his own, and do not represent those of the Department of the Army or Department of Defense.





Jan Kalicki, Public Policy Fellow, Global Risk and Resilience Program; Kennan Institute


Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West, by Catherine Belton
















An investigative correspondent for Reuters and previously the Financial Times, Catherine Belton gives us a revealing and disturbing anatomy of the intersection of KGB, business, and crime in Putin’s Russia. Walking the reader from the declining days of the Soviet empire to the “wild East” of the 1990s, then to Putin’s ascension and domination of the oligarchs, Belton recounts how he joined forces with organized crime and the security services to create today’s corrupt state. Extraordinarily detailed, this is a groundbreaking feat of investigative journalism.






















Katarina Kertysova, Global Fellow, Kennan Institute


Melting the Ice Curtain: The Extraordinary Story of Citizen Diplomacy on the Russia-Alaska Frontier, by David Ramseur

In 1867 the United States purchased Alaska from Russia. The two nations have been linked for centuries, and the remnants of Russia's past are still visible across Alaska today. In Melting the Ice Curtain, David Ramseur offers an excellent overview of the evolution of Russia-Alaska relations and a compelling story of dedicated citizen diplomats, who pressured Washington and Moscow to reopen the border and whose efforts culminated in the organization of the 1988 Friendship Flight from Nome, Alaska to Provideniya in the Soviet Union. The flight reunited indigenous families on both sides of the Bering Strait for the first time in four decades and helped launch nearly two decades of cultural, scientific and commercial activity between Alaska and the Russian Far East. In light of today’s uneasy relations between Washington and Moscow, the book outlines possibilities for cooperation and valuable lessons that can be learned from the example set by Alaskan and Russian citizen diplomats three decades ago.

Gonzalo Paz, George F. Kennan Fellow, Kennan Institute

Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum







Author Anne Applebaum inherited the spirit of the pioneering work of George Kennan "The Elder," and the lucidity and courage of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Applebaum attempts an ambitious account of the Gulag system which caused unthinkable pain to the people of the USSR. This systematic research produced a compelling description and explanation of a brutal structure and became an instant classic for those interested in the study of Russia. The initial quote by Anna Akhmatova that functions as the trigger of the narrative reminds us of the power of words. The book is also key to understanding why ideational components of current U.S.-Russia relations remain important. 


Regina Smyth, Fellow, Wilson Center

Dressed Up for a Riot: Misadventures in Putin’s Moscow, by Michael Idov


























As protests continue in Belarus and Russia’s Khabarovsk Krai, it is well-worth reading Michael Idov’s beautifully written memoir, Dressed Up for a Riot. Idov, whose family emigrated from Latvia to the United States when he was young, vaulted to the position of editor of GQ Russia just in time to observe the 2011-2012 For Free Elections protests. His recounting of the movement and its aftermath not only reminds the reader of the rapid pace of change in Russia, but introduces the key players from across the political spectrum. Idov’s greatest contribution is his reminder of the strong links between cultural politics—from long form journalism, to novels, photography, film, and music—and political change. His close observation of the anxious creative elite, the New Decembrists, as they plotted in Zhan-Zhak café provides real insight into the moments that crystalize popular frustrations and spark mass mobilization. 

Viktoriia Svyrydenko, George F. Kennan Fellow, Kennan Institute

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, by Serhii Plokhy

What distinguishes this book from other works on the history of Ukraine is its excellent combination of academic depth and a clear format accessible to the reader, making the book a real pleasure to read. The book is not only a comprehensive history of Ukraine from the times of Herodotus to the present, but also an attempt to explain what moved Ukrainian people in 1991, 2004 and 2013 to political action, and the roots of the current Russo-Ukrainian conflict. The book’s title, The Gates of Europe, is a metaphor, shedding light on the author’s approach to the history of Ukraine: due to its geographical position, Ukraine has been a gateway to Europe for many centuries. Diverse Ukrainian lands over centuries belonged to various empires—Roman, Ottoman, Habsburg and Romanov—forming different identities among the local population. Contemporary Ukraine is seen as the product of two moving frontiers: between the Eurasian steppe, Islam and Christianity in the Eastern European parklands, and between Eastern and Western Christianity.