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Here are some reading recommendations for deeper understanding of Russia and Ukraine


If you've been keeping up with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, you may by now feel like you have at least a basic grasp on the geopolitics of this war but still have questions about all the history leading up to it. Molly Wetta is here to help us with that. She is the library services manager at the Santa Barbara Public Library, and she's got some book recommendations to help us brush up on our Eastern European and Russian history. Welcome to the program, Molly.

MOLLY WETTA: Hi. Thanks for having me.

FLORIDO: Let's start with your favorite book about Russia's history before Vladimir Putin came to power. What is it, and why do you like it?

WETTA: Probably my favorite book that was most meaningful for me when I read it in college was "Lenin's Tomb" by David Remnick. You know, he's a journalist, too. So while I read it in an academic setting, it was so much about the personal histories of different players. You know, he went and interviewed, you know, people's, you know, high school girlfriends to get the story on political players. And he interviewed peasants and really, you know, told the story of the transition from, you know, a Soviet to the post-Soviet states. And it was just really well done.

FLORIDO: OK, so "Lenin's Tomb" is your favorite. Are there any runner-ups when it comes to Russian history?

WETTA: "Russia Without Putin" by Tony Wood. And it was published by Verso Books, which is a larger, independent, like, more radical publishing house in the English-speaking world. So they often offer different perspectives on geopolitical events. And it's really kind of a critique of the West's obsession with Putin and instead looks at the institutions of Russia and how his policies really are a continuation of Yeltsin's regime. And so I think that that one, like, went in contrast to a lot of the books that are written about Putin that are really interesting and fascinating. Like, this just offers a counterpoint that we should look at institutions to try to understand these situations rather than solely the personalities.

FLORIDO: Well, Molly, since this war broke out, and in the week leading up to it, a lot of people have been trying to understand what might be going on in Putin's mind - what he's thinking, his psyche, his strategy here. Any books that might give us insight into Putin, the man?

WETTA: I would start with Masha Gessen's "The Future Is History" or "The Man Without A Face." That really delves into Putin's mindset, his history, and looks at his motivations and what has been the implications of his longtime presence in the Russian political scene.

FLORIDO: And what if I'm interested just in the history of Ukraine itself?

WETTA: There's definitely one text that I think is - just been updated in 2021 that is going to cover the history from ancient Greek times to the present day. And that is "The Gates Of Europe: A History Of Ukraine" by Serhii Plokhy, who's a Harvard professor. And it is really going to give a deep dive, but still real accessible. And it's one that you could even get a version on, like, say, audiobook - so from a very well-respected academic, but a little bit more approachable in understanding the history.

FLORIDO: Well, Molly, not everybody is interested in reading only non-fiction or historical texts. Some people like to learn about a region through fiction and literature. Any novels you might recommend for people who are interested in learning about the region through literature?

WETTA: Yes. I definitely think if you want to understand, you know, a Ukrainian voice, like, from their perspective, that there are a few novels by Serhiy Zhadan that have been translated into English and are available - hopefully, you know, with the spotlight putting on this - more widely. So definitely don't hesitate to ask your local library if they would stock this book if they don't have it. But recently, "The Orphanage: A Novel" - and then also has a novel in English called "Mesopotamia." And both really look at the cultural landscape of the post-Soviet era from a poetic voice from eastern Ukraine. And I know in my community here in Santa Barbara, poetry is very popular. And they also have a collection of poems available in English called "What We Live For And What We Die For" - so really is going to speak to that Ukrainian identity in the context of conflict.

FLORIDO: Well, Molly, thanks for all your recommendations.

WETTA: All right, thanks for having me. And don't hesitate to ask your local librarian for recommendations. You'll be surprised at how helpful they are.

FLORIDO: Molly Wetta is the library services manager at the Santa Barbara Public Library.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BRION'S "LADY BIRD KISS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.