Former BBC diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall, now Master of Peterhouse, reveals the reads which have had the greatest influence on her life
This book was published in 2000, the year Putin became president. He sat down with three Russian journalists over the course of three days and answered their questions pretty frankly. A lot of it’s personal: about his childhood, how he became a spy, and how he was caught on the hop in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. Of course, this is a self-portrait, but it’s still one of the best insights into who he is and where he came from.
Pomerantsev was brought up in the West but worked as a television producer in Russia in the 2000s. Putin realised that TV was a way to shape people’s views and there was a huge demand for new programmes. Pomerantsev saw this heady mix of cynicism, experimentation and manipulation from the inside, understanding that in the postmodern world you don’t need to have one truth, you can keep changing it, and as long as you’re emphatic enough people will go with you. That’s so relevant to what we’re looking at today, particularly in the United States.
Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year. She’s from Belarus and writes about trauma in the Russian-speaking world in the last half century. She uses polyphonic extracts of hundreds of interviews that she puts together like a patchwork. The book covers the sudden unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union: it’s a profound commentary drawn from the words of the people themselves. It leaves you not with a coherent narrative but more of a feeling, like listening to a snippet of music.
I first read this novella when I was at university studying Russian. It’s not so much a story as a rant from the perspective of an unnamed man who is living underground. It’s Dostoevsky’s attempt to take on the utilitarians and say rational utopia isn’t enough for the human condition. In literature, the antiutopian challenge is familiar to us from George Orwell’s 1984, but Dostoevsky was there first and I always think how far-sighted he was.
This is Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece, a story of one day in the life of a prisoner in the Stalin Gulag – the cold, the petty squabbles with other prisoners and how a good day is when you get a bit more bread. Solzhenitsyn paints a vivid picture of the whole system, based on his own experiences. It was published in the Soviet Union in 1962 and was a total sensation. It was also a sensation in the West and a revelation to me when I caught up with it years later.
Bridget Kendall was previously the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent. Her book, The Cold War: A New Oral History of Life between East and West, is published by Penguin.
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