Lost in the Russia scandal maze? Read your way out.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
A political biography of Donald Trump and a book about Russian President Vladimir Putin are on a display in the Moscow House of Books in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 14, 2016.
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If you are interested in each twist and turn of the Russia scandal – Moscow’s meddling in the last US election and its fallout – there is no shortage of books that tell the story. Some are partisan, following cable news patterns, and some make more of an effort to be objective. But the story is not over – special counsel Robert Mueller is still conducting his investigation – so none of these books is definitive. If you want to understand the scandal at a deeper level, try reading some Russian history, or two recent books by men who have run up against President Vladimir Putin; they offer a sobering perspective. But better still, you could turn to Russian literature. There’s plenty to choose from, but Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground” might be a good place to start. It’s the story of a man who says “no” so that he will be heard. Says Michael Kimmage, a historian at Catholic University, “That’s Russia on the world stage at this moment.”

Why We Wrote This

It's easy to get confused about the ins and outs of the Russia scandal. Here are some books that take a deeper look at Russia and might illuminate current events.

 A Monitor reader recently asked an excellent question: What are the best books on the Russia scandal - the meddling in the 2016 election, and the investigations that have followed?

I could simply suggest “Crime and Punishment,” the 19th-century classic by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and leave it there. But aside from being flip, that would ignore the growing pile of more immediately relevant journalistic accounts of President Trump’s travails.

You might start with “Russian Roulette” by investigative reporters David Corn and Michael Isikoff, who promise “the inside story of Putin’s war on America and the election of Donald Trump.”

Why We Wrote This

It's easy to get confused about the ins and outs of the Russia scandal. Here are some books that take a deeper look at Russia and might illuminate current events.

Their book runs through events as they happened, explaining the origins of the “Steele dossier” – a document containing raw, unsubstantiated private intelligence about Trump and Russia – and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s history of campaign work for the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine.

Or you could choose “Collusion,” by reporter Luke Harding of the Guardian. This one provides more insights into the origins of Mr. Trump’s Russia links. In particular, Mr. Harding offers first-hand knowledge of Mr. Manafort, whom he first met in Ukraine in 2008, and who now faces prison after his Aug. 21 conviction for financial crimes.

If you are already convinced that Trump has been collaborating with the Russian government for decades, “House of Trump, House of Putin” by journalist Craig Unger, will confirm your opinion. For those looking to affirm the view that there is no such thing as a Trump-Russia conspiracy, there’s the new book by Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett, called “The Russia Hoax.”


Putin's favorite author

In short, there’s something for everybody, just like cable news. But, alas, any book that claims to offer the definitive story on Trump and Russia can’t possibly deliver. That’s because the story isn’t over. Special counsel Robert Mueller hasn’t finished his investigation, and there’s no smoking gun proving any collusion between Russia and Trump associates. There hasn’t even been an indictment that points to collusion. There's lots we don't know.

So here’s another idea: Read a different sort of book about Russia, one that helps you better understand how Russia’s past shapes its present, or one that gives you a glimpse into the Russian soul.

“More than anything, I always recommend reading as much Russian history and literature as one can, which is the best way to be an informed observer,” says Matt Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington.

A great place to start would be “The Icon and the Axe” – an interpretive history of Russian culture by former Librarian of Congress James Billington. My well-worn copy still sits on a bookshelf, a relic from my days as a Russian language and literature major in college. Above all, the book captures the essential duality of Russian life – the spiritual and the material.

If you’ve got a taste for the classics, you might find Nikolai Gogol especially instructive; he is said to be a favorite of Russian President Vladimir Putin. One of Gogol’s best-known works, a satirical play called “The Inspector General,” depicts a man pretending to be a government inspector, and reveals the folly and corruption of 19th-century Russia.

Or you could try Dostoyevsky’s novella “Notes from Underground.” “Here you get the psychopathology of Russia, an envy of the West,” says Michael Kimmage of Catholic University. It’s the story of a man who says “no” so that he’ll be heard. “That’s Russia on the world stage at this moment.”

First-hand accounts

In a different vein, Bill Browder’s 2015 memoir, a real-life thriller called “Red Notice,” paints a brutal picture of today’s Russia. (The Monitor review is here.) Mr. Browder is an American-born businessman who made a fortune in Russia, called out government corruption, and infuriated President Putin.

When Browder’s tax lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was beaten to death in prison, the businessman became a human-rights activist, the driving force behind a 2012 US law punishing Russian officials believed to be responsible for Mr. Magnitsky’s death. The Magnitsky Act plays a supporting role in the current Trump-Russia drama.

At the Helsinki summit last month, Putin made the extraordinary suggestion that Trump allow the Russian government to question Browder, now a British citizen. “Red Notice” provides the back story. The New Yorker just published a well-reported followup, “How Bill Browder Became Russia’s Most Wanted Man.”

Putin also proposed that Washington hand over a former US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, for questioning about his supposed “illegal activity” – another shocking idea, which the Trump administration seemed briefly to entertain. And that leads to another book recommendation: Mr. McFaul’s new memoir, “From Cold War to Hot Peace," reviewed here by the Monitor.

McFaul faced constant harassment by Russian authorities during his tenure in Moscow (2012-2014), dooming the “reset” in US-Russian relations that he helped craft. His memoir, like Browder’s, is a very readable cautionary tale.

Both men can be accused of naiveté. Browder was clever enough to buy Russian assets at bargain-basement prices, and naive enough to think he could get away with it. McFaul, an academic, failed to realize that his job as ambassador wasn’t to reform the host country but to manage relations, says Mr. Kimmage.

Consulting the hive-mind

Just for fun, I threw out my “best books on Russia” question to the hive-mind of my Russian and Russophile friends. “Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?” by Karen Dawisha got rave reviews.

“She does an extraordinary job of presenting the rise of Putin as the leading edge – and, to some degree, logical consequence – of the rough-and-tumble crony capitalism of the Yeltsin era,” writes Vladimir Klimenko, a Russian-American history teacher in New York.

Vladislav Zubok, a historian at the London School of Economics, recommends Arkady Ostrovsky’s “The Invention of Russia: The Rise of Putin and the Age of Fake News.”

Jill Dougherty, former Moscow correspondent for CNN, suggests a more offbeat choice: “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing,” by Anya Von Bremzen.

“I ADORE this book,” writes Ms. Dougherty. “Totally unique approach to Russia, her family, Russian (and Soviet) food … and why, in spite of the horrors of communism, some Russians have nostalgia for the old Soviet Union.”

It also sheds light – albeit indirectly – on current events. But for a more straightforward account, perhaps it would be better to wait for “The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy,” a new book by veteran Washington Post reporter Greg Miller and colleagues, due out Oct. 2.

Like the other books, it won’t spill all the beans because it can’t. But at the very least it will provide a narrative sweep and a useful reference guide to what's known so far in what Mr. Miller calls “the craziest and most complicated [story] that any of us have ever seen.”

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