Russia is a hypothetical culture. Ruled by despots for most of our history, we are used to living in fiction rather than reality. An enduring myth of a caring and benevolent czar—be it Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great or Joseph Stalin—who punishes his subjects for their own good and for the good of the nation, explains the current Russian support for Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine—his approval rating stands at almost 70 percent.

For great fiction on why we are what we are, always read Nikolai GogolDead Souls (1842) and The Government Inspector (1836) are the best. Also Taras Bulba (1842); hated by the Russians and the Soviets for Gogol’s display of Ukrainian nationalism (he was after all, a Ukrainian landlord), this novella gives brilliant insights into Putin’s behavior, Kiev’s stance and into all else that is going on re: Crimea. And more on Russia’s ridiculous squabbling with Ukraine another Gogol is paramount, How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich. Plus a short Andrew Nackman‘s 2009 youtube version.

Porcelain characters from The Government Inspector; via

To better understand Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s character, brush up on another Vladimir Vladimirovich, Nabokov that is. Bend Sinister is not his best known novel, but one of the best descriptions of dictatorial mind. You’ll recognize Putin the Small immediately. Pentagon that now studies the strongman’s language for intent should save my taxpayer money, just read the book.



To know what the future holds for Russia–nothing good, btw–consult Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1967 novel One Hundred Year of Solitude. This line from the book, “Lost in the solitude of his immense power, he began to lose direction,” is not about the current Kremlin occupant, but all dictators are created equal, aren’t they? Marquez does predict demise by overreaching. There, in mythical Macondo the hundred years of solitude end with an image of “the child… [as] a dry and bloated bag of skin” eaten by the ants. Putin’s own city of M–Moscow–has become that bloated bag of skin.