Genre roundup – the best new political books
The war in Ukraine made Volodymyr Zelensky a world celebrity. The publication of the first biography in English of the Ukrainian president could therefore not have been better timed.
Unfortunately, Western readers who buy Serhii Rudenko’s books Zelensky: A biography (Polity, £20/$25, 200 pages) on a whim might be disappointed. The author is a Ukrainian journalist and his book was written for a local readership and published the year before the invasion. Hastily updated and translated for an international audience, it has no chronological structure and is instead written as a series of episodes.
Anyone hoping to find out how Zelenskyy rose from a relatively lowly background to first becoming a comedy actor and then President of Ukraine needs to piece the story together. If readers are looking for a clear narrative, they might find Wikipedia more useful.
Nevertheless, Rudenko’s book gives an authentic flavor of the controversies and rivalries that swirled around Zelenskyy before the February 24 Russian invasion. The Kremlin’s defamation that he is a drug addict has, for example, been assiduously promoted by his political rivals inside Ukraine. Zelenskyy’s relationship with the powerful oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky, is also discussed. It is worth remembering that when foreign political leaders are discovered and adored by Western media, the local backstory is invariably more complicated and confusing.
While Rudenko’s biography is short and hastily written, Philip Short’s, elegantly written and fast-paced, Cheese fries: His life and times (Bodley Head, £30/Henry Holt & Co, $40, 864 pages) is a door stopper and the product of eight years of research. Its publication, a few months after the invasion, makes it the most up-to-date biography of Vladimir Putin available.
Even so, the timing of the invasion of Ukraine means that Short, a British journalist and writer, can only devote about 20 pages of his narrative to the war. But his account of Putin’s life and career helps illuminate his fateful decision to invade Ukraine. Tellingly, the rare occasions when Putin’s self-restraint slipped in the presence of strangers often came when the subject turned to the lands Moscow lost control of during the breakup of the Soviet Union.
While the horrors inflicted by the Russian military on Ukraine still dominate the news, Short’s determination to understand Putin on his own terms may seem too sympathetic to some readers. There are one or two judgments in the book that raise an eyebrow in the current context – such as the claim that Putin’s uncertain response to the 2015 murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov demonstrated that his ” iron grip on the control levers was faltering”. If that was indeed true in 2015, in 2022 when the invasion of Ukraine took place, Putin acted with the absolute authority of a czar.
As Putin’s essay on Russia and Ukraine illustrates, the meaning of his role in history shapes the actions of the Russian leader. Understanding this history and how Russians view it is crucial in shaping any Western response. In Russia: Myths and Realities (Profile £16.99/Pegasus $27.95, 288 pages), Rodric Braithwaite’s new and concise history of Russia, the author quoting the 1782 Encyclopaedia Britannica, which described Russia as “very large . . .ruled by complete despotism and inhabited by vicious and drunken savages”.
Readers looking for a more nuanced view will find Braithwaite’s quick and readable account invaluable. The book covers more than 1,000 years of history, culminating in what Putin called the “geopolitical catastrophe” of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As absorbing as the war in Ukraine was, political life elsewhere continued. As British readers consider another new Prime Minister, there is an understandable appetite for a global reflection that goes beyond the immediate controversies of the Tory leadership races.
Two important contributions are made by Geoff Mulgan and by Jon Alexander. In Another world is possible: How to rekindle the social and political imagination (Hurst £20/$29.95, 352 pages), Mulgan, former head of the political unit at 10 Downing Street, argues that political and social discourse about the future is now dominated by fear rather than hope. He suggests that if we even struggle to imagine a better future, we will be unable to create it.
The bulk of his book is devoted to how to rekindle imaginative thinking about the future in a range of settings from government to the arts. In a final appendix, Mulgan discusses more concrete policies, ranging from a universal basic income to creating more common land.
In Citizens: Why the key to fixing everything is all of us (Canbury Press, £20/$30, 320 pages) Alexander, writing with Ariane Conrad, focuses on one particular way of improving the world: by encouraging people to think as citizens, not as consumers . A former advertiser, Alexandre is deeply disillusioned with his job. He believes that the consumer society encourages people to be both upright and passive.
Citizens, on the other hand, are engaged and adhere to the idea of the common good. His lively book — which has become something of an underground hit — shines a light on new forms of active citizenship, such as the rise of Effective altruism movement and foundation of self-help community organizations in the slums of Africa.
Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Coffee