The Kennan Institute asked some of our scholars to share some of their top choices for 2018 back-to-school reading. Here are a few of their picks, ranging from Soviet and post-Soviet organized crime to the relationship between Facebook and democracy.

 

Stacy Closson, Global Fellow, Kennan Institute

 

The Vory: Russia's Super Mafia by Mark Galeotti. Mark Galeotti is a leading expert on Soviet and post-Soviet organized crime.  So when his latest book came out on the history of the Vory or "thieves" from Tsarist times to today, it was a must read.  The Soviet legacy of the Vory — a general term for career members of the Soviet underworld - provides the basis for understanding how aspects of the Russian political economy function today and how this is channeled into global crime networks that traffic goods, launder money, and hack into systems.  For the author, the Vory presently exist in a country where crime, business, and politics work in tandem, and the Vory have been shaped by, and in turn, shaped modern Russia. Galeotti's thorough descriptions of the influences Vory have had on different periods of crime and their shifting geographical impacts are rich in description and will surely serve as a source for any future research.

 

China and Russia: The New Rapprochement by Alexander Lukin. There is a growing proliferation of papers and books on the Russia-China strategic relationship, but Alexander Lukin’s new book stands out for three reasons.  First, it addresses the "why" of rapprochement between the two nations; a reaction to the dominant Western unipolar post-Cold War world.  Second, it traces the relationship from the 1990s to the present, including bilateral, but also a new multilateral system of cooperation in the non-Western world.  Third, it is written by a Russian expert with access — Alexander Lukin is Head of the International Relations Department at the National Research University, Higher School of Economics.  Through thick description, Lukin makes the case that economic and geopolitical interests drove the two countries together and that their new alliance should be considered a major pillar in the multipolar world in the future.

 

Edward Lemon, DMGS-Kennan Institute Fellow

 

Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia by Peter Hopkirk. Like many Central Asianists, one of my first armchair forays into the region came through the works of historian and adventurer Peter Hopkirk. One hundred years ago this year, in the dying days of the First World War and early stages of the Russian Civil War, Britain sent troops to Baku and Transcaspia (modern-day Turkmenistan) and one of its secret agents, Frederick Bailey, to Tashkent. Hopkirk seamlessly narrates these largely forgotten, ill-fated British operations in a tumultuous period of revolution and upheaval in the region.

The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order by Bruno Macaes. Former Secretary of State for European Affairs Macaes claims that the distinction between Europe and Asia has broken down, and with the rise of China, we are entering a "Eurasian Century." Policy-makers need to start thinking on a super-continental scale. Macaes' book is part sweeping analysis of tectonic shifts in global power, part travelogue with vivid descriptions of the author's travels in the region from Vladivostok to Istanbul.

 

Sarah Oates, Wilson Fellow, Kennan Institute

 

Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy by Siva Vaidhyanathan. In Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, Siva Viadhyanathan puts the Facebook crisis into stark perspective: It’s not that there are bad actors on Facebook, it’s that the design of Facebook itself inherently undermines democracy. In a book that is both erudite and engaging, Vaidhyanathan showcases critical research within this compelling argument. The most telling evidence he produces is that Facebook ads — designed to be highly targeted, ephemeral, and sometimes only visible to a handful of targeted consumers — are incompatible with a democracy that relies on open political advertising. It’s a smart and compelling read that ties together a lot of evidence into a strong case for how the design of Facebook and democracy are pretty incompatible. There are times when I might have cited a few more counter-examples that might point to the benefits of social media to democracy, such as #metoo and #blacklivesmatter, but his point that Facebook is a runaway train when it comes to democratic discourse is very compelling.

Forging the World: Strategic Narratives and International Relations by Alister Miskimmon, Ben O’Loughlin, and Laura Roselle (eds.). This book is getting a little tattered because I’ve been using it so much. In a world in which politics are shifting at a rapid rate, this volume is incredibly useful at introducing the reader to the concept of strategic narratives in a range of different political settings. The book defines strategic narratives as tools that political actors employ to promote their interests, values and aspirations for the international order. In other words, it’s how countries attempt to tell the stories of who they are, what kind of world order they would like to see, and how they see their place in that order. This book, which includes work by a range of talented analysts, gives us a different way of looking at the current tangle of misinformation and disinformation. By defining and viewing strategic narrative in places ranging from Russia to China to the European Union, the reader is able to get a sense of how communication fits into state identity and international relations. It highlights why it is important to understand how countries construct and deploy these narratives (such as the Russian disinformation campaign in the United States). Forging the World allows us to see more clearly how words are weapons.

 

Yuval Weber, Global Fellow, Kennan Institute

 

The Code of Putinism by Brian D. Taylor. Taylor's book revives an earlier approach to the study of Kremlin politics by examining the thoughts, habits, and emotions of Vladimir Putin's generation to establish the milieu of the Russian president and his associates. The book is compelling not because it has a monocausal explanation of Putin's observed behavior, but rather showing how early decisions shape and limit later opportunities and choices.

Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914 - 1921 by Laura Engelstein. Beyond being a fantastic and wide-ranging history of perhaps some of the most violent years of Russian history, this book also demonstrates an extreme version of the old maxim that the point of politics is winning: central to Bolshevik success was their leadership's bad faith towards other political actors in formal settings and their implementation of what we would now call hybrid warfare to shape the battlefield settings to their advantage. The result was a deeply violent post-world war, post-revolutionary, post-civil war state that burned through its hopefulness and utopian optimism very quickly.