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The best books about Russia… on the radio

w_4logo.jpgAll through this week, BBC Radio 4 are reading a series of excerpts from the latest and best books on Russia. You can either listen live, or the shows will be archived on the BBC website.

The books include:

  • Monday – The Litvinenko File: the True Story of a Death Foretold, Martin Sixmith
  • Tuesday – A Russian Diary, Anna Politikovskaya
  • Wednesday – Inside Putin’s Russia, Andrew Jack
  • Thursday – Blowing up Russia, Alexander Litvinenko
  • Friday – a second extract from The Litvinenko File: the True Story of a Death Foretold, Martin Sixmith

If you’re thinking about buying any of these books, this show is a must.


  • It’s russian atrocity porn week at the BBC. Faux intellectual viagra for the concerned citizen (plus I suppose, it will provide much needed debate around liberal middle-class dinner tables).

    Still, the BBC do sometimes produce good stuff. Last week they had “The Magic Roundabout” as read by the family of the Series narrator and writer the late Eric Thompson… BOING!

  • A couple of brilliant books I have read:

    ”Chechnya, A Small Victorious War” by Tomas De Waal. Would stand the hairs on your head.
    ”Kremlin Rising” by Peter Baker. Its quite new, well written and balanced.
    My favourite ”A Hunters Sketches” by Turgeneev. I know its fiction but its a vivid, beautiful piece of writing on old Russia.

  • Good books on Russia are extremely hard to find, because the place is so difficult to fathom that many authors resort to making stuff up in an effort to explain it all. Apparently this has always been the case, but is all the more true now. However, after some digging around you can find some pretty good books.

    I recently read Andrew Meier’s Black Earth, and found it to be very well written. He resisted the temptation to opine, and just concentrated on writing about the places and people he visited and describing what he saw and heard.

  • Faux intellectual viagra for the concerned citizen (plus I suppose, it will provide much needed debate around liberal middle-class dinner tables).

    This adequately summarises about 95% of the BBC’s current output.

  • I’d have to agree with Aleks and Tim. Is it just me or is the BBC gone totally ‘lefty’? Not a word about clmate change dissidents on ‘World’, never a good word to say about Russia, the website full of sort of…”lefty” stuff!))
    Still and all I miss Paxman.

  • Since people are suggesting good books about Russia, here are some recent one’s I’ve read:

    Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation.

    Tony Wood, Chechnya: A Case for Independence.

    Andrew Wilson, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in a Post-Soviet World.

    Alena Lebeneva, How Russia Really Works: The Informal Practices That Shaped Post-Soviet Politics And Business.

    It’s too bad BBC doesn’t spend some time talking about these . . .

  • Anything by Anatol Lieven. Not sure he wrote books, but he definitely is one of the smarter ones writing about Russia.

  • Lieven wrote a book about Chechnya and one about the Baltics in the ’90’s – both quite good and have stood the test of time.

  • Sean:

    Trans-Dniester has a much batter case for such than Chechnya. Ditto Republika Srpska. Among others, I’d like to see the JRL/Peter Lavelle promoted Ethan Burger debate to the contrary, seeing how he’s undemocratically propped as an authority (an albeit dubious one) on such matters.


    Lieven is one of the better of the highly promoted. He nevertheless doesn’t always connect all of the dots, which is why others need to be brought on board for qualitative reasons.


    Peter Baker and his wife Susan Glasser have done some hack like work on Russia and Putin. This no doubt relates to their Washington Post ties. Awhile back, Mark Ames wrote about Baker’s work over the course of time.

  • Mike,

    hacks or not -admittedly a disadvantage in my eyes – its still quite a good book and reasonably balanced. Its chapter on the Russian judiciary is quite funny and sad. Not a bad book all in all. ”Chechnya, A Small Victorious War” is a very good book actually. A good account of a terrible time in Russia and Chechnya. Some of the stuff that happened you couldnt dream up.

  • Some of the stuff that happened you couldnt dream up.

    I have a close friend who did two tours of Chechnya and one of Kosovo with the Russian paratroopers. What little he tells me about Chechnya, he says the same thing.

  • Like Kosovo has been a great example of the West promoting democracy, peace and multi-ethnic harmony. Russia can’t be faulted for that disaster. During the ’04 Kosovo pogroms, the German forces there behaved like Nazis during Kristallnacht. The Irish on the other hand made a sincere effort to stop the Albanian nationalist orchestrated violence.

    Ger, I’ve definite problems with those who disingenuously hack along mainstream lines. To have once produced decent work is a sign of knowing the real deal. To then choose to misinform on what the elitny prefer is mainstreaming for the elites, which can be (frankly put) considered a form of prostitution.

    Among other authors, I’m not a great fan of Andrew Jack and Chrystie Friedland.

  • Tim, he must be as tough as nails. Desants are made of concrete as it is. After two tours in Chechnya he must have seen it all. Its very interesting – as person, how is he? Is he affected by his time there? Whats he like? He must have an awful lot to say. What limited knowledge I have I have from books, but your friend must know the whole situation inside out. Whats his view on the war generally?

    Mike, I’ve no doubt 90% of hacks are disingenuous and actually incompetent. One of the most amazing things about journalism is that you can have a published opinion on anything whilst being an expert on nothing at all(ie no formal education in the field they write about). I find it really funny. For example, a couple of years ago a famous corrupt politician at home was killed in a car crash in Moscow. Within hours it was all over the papers that he’d died in ‘Moscows Red-Light District’ in the company of a hooker. It turns out he was killed on the Leningrad highway coming from Sheremetyevo with his Russian translator. Also, Moscow has no red-light district. The story was in allegedly reputable newspapers. I was shocked. the man wasnt even in the box yet, as we say at home. Journalists are often very low animals indeed.

    I’ve no doubt that Baker and Glasser had papers and a book to sell and good news about Russia doesnt sell. But the book had some very good treatises especially on the shitty state of the opposition and the oil boom and actually did have good things to say about RussiaIt also pulled no punches on the Americans either -John Bolton getting a particularly hard time).

    That situation in Kosovo re the Irish is very interesting, i wasnt aware of it at all. I havent a clue on Yugoslav matters, except footballers like Mikhailovic and Stoikovic! A funny story -during the US bombing of Yugoslavia the Kursk submarine sat under the US fleet in the Adriatic gathering info. The Yanks knew they were there somewhere but coudnt find them! Its one of the reasons the Kursk was such a loss, the crew and the sub were absolutely top-end seemingly.

  • Ger

    On the Clinton led NATO aggresssion against Yugoslavia – Yugo personnel were near the site of the planes being launched on bombing missions. They would cell phone in when the planes took off.

    The dummy tanks faked out NATO big time. The JNA left Kosovo pretty much unscathed. None other than Demcoratic Party Clinton cheerleader Charles Kupchan acknowledged that Clinton/NATO were lucky in Kosovo in that Yugo could’ve hunkered down.

    Yugo should’ve been supported in quashing the KLA threat.

  • Mike, thanks for the info and I’d love to pass comment but havent a clue really about Yugoslavia. It does seem to me though that the Serbs were giving the ethnic Albanians a bit of a hard time in 1999 and maybe the US was justified in going in and sorting them out. As for Milosevic I am aware he wasnt the only naughty boy in the 1990s but any one who stood over what happened at Srebrinica in 1995 has just got to be evil and mad. George A Romero himself couldnt dream up a horror story like that one. Pity Milosevic died and cheated life imprisonment. Still I’m sure Old Nick is accomodating him ”Down Below” as we Irish say.

    I read your piece of the Tiraspol Times, thanks for the link, it was a very informative piece. You seem to be well versed on those less traveled roads.

  • Ger

    Thanks for your kind words on my latest piece.

    I just posted something on Srebrenica at another venue. Here’s the excerpt (keep in mind that I’m replying to someone else):

    Offhand, you obviously don’t know what happened at Srebrenica. Otherwise, you’d reference what Nasir Oric and his goons had earlier done in that same town (up to 2,500 Serbs executed). As for the more discussed massacre which happened later, it can be reasonably deduced that 7000-8000 weren’t summarily executed. That figure reflects the total killed including hand to hand combat and collateral damage. Based on what I know, it’s not out of the realm to believe that as many as 4000 might’ve been summarily executed. I make no excuses for that. Serbs were the greatest victims of ethnic cleansing in that conflict and the actual casualty figures confirm a close equality of suffering among the three warring factions.


    As per Kosovo in ’99, non-Albanians (mostly Serbs) were brutalized between 1974-89, when Tito gave that province “autonomy” within the Serb republic. Kind of like what “states’ rights” in the American south meant for Black people. This lead to a counter-response. There was an OSCE brokered ceasfire in ’98, which was violated by Albanian nationalists who launched a series of well documented terror attacks against Serbs.

    I’m not a Milosevic supporter. However, he’s not the kind of bad guy typically depicted in Anglo-American mass media.

  • Mike,
    I could be totally wrong in wondering what possible motive western media would have for portraying Milosevic as any worse than the rest of them in Yugoslavia. Certainly I’m aware that Tujman was as bad as any of them and Slovenia was pretty naughty at the start of the war. But I just cant see the rationale blaming Milosevic more than the rest. Seems to me he was a pretty unpleasant piece of work.

    As for Chechen independence as mentioned above, Chechnya has a huge case for independence. Chechnya was occupied by the Russians in the mid to late 18th century – it wasnt theirs before then. Russians love to spin the line ”the mountains belong to Chechnya, the flatlands to Russia”. Nonsense. The area south of the Terek River has always been Chechen territory -just read Hadji Murat or The Cossacks by Tolstoy. Another line spun by both Russians and some Chechen rebels is that the war is down to religious fanaticism. More rubbish. Islam only came to Chechnya around the time the Russians did and was used by Imam Shamil to galvanise the tribes. The war, as most wars are, is about territory and resources, with religion thrown in by way of smoke. The problem is the Chechens cant seem to run their own affairs without knocking the shit out of each other, hence Moscow’s continued presence there. The fact that there are oil pipelines allegedly involved(is it true Tim?) may have soemthing to do with it too.

  • It’s called public relations Ger. At the start of the conflict, the Serb adversaries were way ahead.

    You’re right about Chechnya not being able to govern itself. Its case for independence seems weak though. About a century and a half of Russian rule and land locked. I don’t think that most Chechens support independence. This in part has to with the internal situation in Chechnya which you touched on.

  • Greetings:

    Most people have told me over the years to ignore Michael Averko’s comments about me and others who do not share his views. I am pleased to say that I have never met him in person nor do I wish to.

    I have generally been successful in avoiding reading his written observations (characterized by a strong anti-Semitic flavor), which could be deemed to be defamation under Canadian, English, German and possibly even Russian and U.S., law, to mention that of a few counties.

    His writings might also constitute actionable “hate speech.” It might seem to some that he is incapable of engaging in a civilized discussion of issues.

    Nonetheless, he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time criticizing persons like myself who are strong advocates of human rights and the rule of law. I feel that his latest series of written assaults require some response.

    I don’t know much about Mr. Averko personally. I have better uses of my time than to study his professional background or review his writings.

    For those who might be interested in my own qualifications to comment on foreign policy and political issues, I will note that I have in excess of 15 years experience engaged the practice of law involving Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarussian trade & investment matters; worked in the arms control area for nearly 5 years, have taught courses at American University’s Washington College of Law and School of International Service, as well as Georgetown University Law Center and the University of Baltimore; done considerable pro bono work for human rights organizations as well as served as an election observer for the OSCE, have published more than 50 professional and academic articles on a range of topics in both journals and newspapers, spoken at numerous academic and professional conferences, hold degrees from Harvard University (A.B., Russia Area Studies, Magna Cum Laude) and Georgetown University Law Center(J.D., Cum Laude); and am a member of the D.C. and Maryland Bars.

    Mr. Averko seems to enjoy his gadfly status defending repressive governments’ violations of human rights and clampdowns on the independent media. He spends a significant amount of time expressing his disagreement with anyone who expresses a view contrary to his. I do not know if he is paid for this activity.

    I would suggest to him that he make better uses of his time in making the world a better place to leave. There are many NGOs that promote human, labor and environmental rights that could benefit from the assistance of someone who seems to have so much time on his hands.

    It is worth mentioning that those who have given him an opportunity to place his personal assaults on others on their websites may be held civilly liable for damages under certain circumstances. Freedom of speech does not encompass defamation and libel. It would seem that he did not carefully read the “Comment Policy” set out on this website. It is unfortunate that this policy seems to be weakly enforced.


    Ethan S. Burger, Esq.

  • Who are these “most” people mentioned by Ethan Burger? He should know that a number of individuals have expressed to me a low regard of his commentary.

    As for standards, I request that Siberian light remove his LIE about my commentary having a strong “anti-Semitic flavor”. Meantime, he has freely approved of being utilized by which I consider to be a bigoted anti-Russian venue. In comparison to yours truly, La Russophobe has expressed remarks more befitting of a libel action suit.

    Mr. Burger’s incoherent commentary is shown by his admitted non-knowledge of my analysis. Yet, he feels confident enough to label my analysis in negative terms which are incorrect for reasons having to do with my actual commentary. On the other hand, I’m familiar with his scribes which I consider to be second rate and undeserving of the kind of play it receives in some circles.

    My criticisms of Mr. Burger relate to his:

    – Likening of Khodorkovsky to Sakharov (Untimely Thoughts)

    – Believing that Turkey is freer than Russia (a now closed from viewing Google discussion group)

    – Going gung ho on the idea of Chechnya, being independent while saying nothing (at least to my knowledge) of Trans-Dniester’s greater case for independence

    Unlike Mr. Burger – I don’t block out other views I’m in disagreement with. Hence, who is the better advocate of a free society?

    Which “repressive” governments do I support? On his suggested definition of libel, one should only reference his posted comments which IMHO are rude, ignorant and in at least one instance absurdly false beyond reason.

    I find it condescending for Mr. Burger to tell me what to do with my time. I’m an independent foreign policy analyst and media critic, who has been posted/published at a number of high profile venues.

    If he really cared about human rights, he’d encourage my activity that bring into light many fact based points which aren’t often raised at Anglo-American mass media outlets. Doing the opposite contradicts the spirit of a truly open society.

    Finally, I believe these posted comments to be a positive reflection of my excellent capability of engaging in reasoned civil discussion under terms that many would find taxing.

  • I wrote a book called “Beslan: Shattered Innocence”which is available on Amazon. It not only deals in the tragedy of the terrorist attack by the Chechyn rebels, but tells the stories of the survivors. It includes the political aspect of the area, and the truth behind the Russian cover-up. The official debut of the book will be in New York at the Book Expo America in June. I do hope you will consider this book a memorial to the strength of the human spirit to survive through the face of political hate and personal revenge.

  • There used to be an exchange between Mike Averko and Ethan Burger on the website of the “American Journal of Russian and Slavic Studies,” one of the websites Mike likes to promote as being “censored” by JRL and a website which ran his piece on “Russia’s Stance on the Disputed Territories” – I note the filename under which the article was posted, “mikerules.html,” for humor value.

    Interestingly, the correspondence between Averko and Burger has recently been taken down, and the direct link gets an error message.

    Happily, the Google cache does not allow statements to be retracted so quickly. The original version of the exchange – with an unmistakably anti-Semitic introduction by the “AJRSS editor,” one Fr. Matthew Raphael Johnson, Ph.D – is available here.

    I will not reproduce the comments from Dr. Johnson’s introduction here, as they are unfit for a family website, in my opinion.

    Mike, you may want to be more careful about the people whose websites you promote. Guilt by association may be inferred, and I don’t think you want to be associated with “Father Johnson’s” anti-Semitic rant.

    Andy, I trust this meets the standards of the comments policy – if not, feel free to strike it.

  • A little different listing at the above because of posting problems.


    He posted an exchange that was on line, inclusive of an email list. He proceeded to put his spin at the top.

    I think that you should post the specifics you describe. They’re his views. I find La Russophobe to be the more offensive. If JRL can post LR, than the AJRSS should be posted there as well. That’s my opinion of which I stand firm on.

    As you note MRJ took that piece down. Maybe he has seen some light for the better.

    Contrary to what you said, I don’t “like” discussing the JRL censorship which has been raised by Mark Ames and others. It’s a reality which should be discussed without any fear.

    If Ethan Burger or anyone disagrees, than I really do have to question any human rights advocacy on their part.

  • Mike, while I applaud your civil tone here, I refer Siberian Light readers to the thread which you moved to Sean’s Russia Blog and my comments (as well as your slightly less civil ones) in that regard there.

    While I enjoy any excuse to visit Siberian Light, I see no need to carry on a discussion in two places at once.

  • Lyndon:

    Your tone at SRB is often in the “less civil” category.

    I’m “guilty” of replying in kind.

    I don’t feel guilty at all though.

  • The Eminent Prof. Burger, Esq, writes:

    ”Nonetheless, he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time criticizing persons like myself who are strong advocates of human rights and the rule of law. ”

    Funny thing that, human rights. Its all just a point of view really. Consider Prof. Burger’s comments at

    Very strange, he seems to be suggesting that denying ethnic Russians living in Latvia passports because they dont speak Latvian is acceptable. Doesnt sound very sympathetic to me. That being the case, should New Zealand not give passports to Maoris who dont speak English? Or Ireland not give passports to those who dont speak Irish? Your argument is ridiculous and is in blatant contravention of even the most rudimentary human rights. The Latvians are acting like thugs because it suits them to, and you support this. Being Irish, I think maybe we should send home the 50,000 Latvians we have working there because they dont speak english? I need a bloody translator whenever I buy a packet of fags in the old country these days.

    I will be referring your above comments on the LR website to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. Maybe you’ll find your own human rights infringed when they ”mysteriously” deny your next visa. Remember, Esq, entry to Russia is a courtesy of the Russian government not a right!)

  • Mike / Ethan

    I must confess, I don’t know the background to this disagreement, and I don’t know enough to be able to judge whether Ethan is “undemocraticaly propped us as an authority (albiet a dubious one)” or whether Mike’s work is “anti-Semitic”. Having said that, my gut feeling is that both of your analyses of the other are off the mark. Certainly, neither of you have taken the time to substantiate your accusations.

    I appreciate that you may not like each other. But I will not allow SL to be used as a venue for unsubstantiated attacks.

    I’m going to close this comments thread temporarily to further comments, but leave each comment up for now. What happens next is up to you.

    If I hear nothing further by Tuesday, 7am UK time, I plan to edit each of your comments to remove the above phrases. If you both agree that the comments should remain, unedited, then I’ll leave them up, but leave the comments thread closed. If both of you agree that the comments section should be re-opened to allow for one or both of you to elaborate on the above accusations, then I’m happy to do that also.

    Let me know what you want to do.

    This comment has also been emailed to Mike & Ethan.

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