Books, Films & Podcasts About Putin, Russia & Ukraine

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The eyes of the world have been on eastern Europe since Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But how much do you really know about what’s going on? Tobias Gourlay picks out the series, documentaries, podcasts and books that deliver some much-needed context on how it came to this.

FILMS & TV

Winter on Fire

After Sean Penn recently flagged how important it is, Netflix made this documentary free to watch – you don’t need a subscription. Back in 2015, Winter on Fire earned an Oscar nomination with its unflinching presentation of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution. It shows how, across three months in 2013 and 2014, peaceful student demonstrations became an angry civil rights movement that eventually toppled President Yanukovych – a Russian stooge with a familiar line in corruption and abuse of power. 

Visit Netflix.com

Putin: A Russian Spy Story

This three-parter zeroes in on how Putin used skills learnt in the KGB to move stealthily into power. Supported by testimony from people who have known him and come up against him, it paints a picture of a master manipulator. Young Putin was a “schoolyard thug” who became a “humourless man of small stature” – then somehow the leader of his country for more than two decades. Watch this to find out how he did it.

Visit Channel4.com

Tango With Putin

This Storyville documentary is so timely the BBC brought its broadcast date forward to last week – at the same time as Russia banned its release. It tells the story of Natasha Sindeeva, a dancer who started a pop-culture TV station back in 2008. Before it was taken off air by the Kremlin last week, that same station had become the last bastion of free media in Russia, its reporters defying repeated attempts to block them from covering stories about state propaganda, corruption and the war in Ukraine itself.

Visit BBC.co.uk

Citizen K

Back in the 90s, as Russia left communism behind, seven oligarchs seized control of 50% of the national economy. One of them was Mikhail Khodorkovsky. But then Vladimir Putin emerged from the middle ranks of the security services, the pair clashed and Khodorkovsky was sent to a Siberian prison camp for a decade. Now he lives in London and has become an arch critic of his home country’s regime. Directed by Alex Gibney (The Inventor, Going Clear, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) Citizen K charts his rise and exile – and what it tells us about Putin’s Russia.

Visit Amazon.co.uk

Maidan 

Like Winter on Fire, this film is all about Ukraine’s ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in late 2013 and early 2014. A starkly compelling piece of documentary-making, it shows what happened as protesters occupied Kyiv’s Maidan Square in defiance of an authoritarian, pro-Russian government. With no easy narrative imposed on the chaotic scenes, viewers are left to make their own minds up about what went down. Winter on Fire might be better at adding context to the revolution, but Maidan lasts long in the memory as a purer historical record of a world-changing event.

Visit BFI.org.uk

BOOKS

Putin’s People by Catherine Belton

In contrast to Galeotti’s slender tome, Catherine Belton’s book is detailed, comprehensive – and definitive. Read this and you will be learning from an outstanding journalist who spent years in Moscow as a foreign correspondent. Chosen as a book of the year by the Economist, the FT, the Telegraph and the New Statesman, Putin’s People draws on a wealth of sources to reveal the cynicism and violence that propelled Putin to power and now keep him there.

Visit Waterstones.com

Untraceable by Sergei Lebedev

Sergei Lebedev is a daring young Russian novelist who might not mention Putin by name in this book, but clearly has him – and the rotten system he fronts – in mind. In Untraceable, a Soviet chemist invents an untraceable poison. When the chemist defects to Germany, he realises the Soviets will try to use his poison on him. At a time when Putin’s political opponents such as Alexei Navalny are being poisoned and imprisoned, Lebedev’s work feels vital.

Visit Waterstones.com

This Is Not Propaganda by Peter Pomerantsev

Peter Pomerantsev was born in Soviet Ukraine, where his parents were hounded by the KGB. Now he works at the London School of Economics and has noticed some parallels between the tactics of the old Soviet security services and Vladimir Putin’s modern-day enforcers. His first two books – This Is Not Propaganda and the earlier Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible – show how 21st-century Russia has become a post-truth pioneer of disinformation and propaganda. (No wonder Donald Trump continues to express so much admiration for Putin.)

Visit Waterstones.com

Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin

Vladimir Sorokin’s alarming and funny 2006 novel is already a modern classic. It’s set in 2028, when a tsar once again rules Russia. But His Majesty bears a remarkable resemblance to the country’s IRL leader today – with a bit of Ivan the Terrible thrown in. Sorokin tells the story of a day in the life of one of the tsar’s secret policemen, who reveres and fears his boss in equal measure, as he goes about his ghastly business, creating wildly dystopian scenes that are not easily forgotten.

Visit Waterstones.com

Butler To The World by Oliver Bullough

Any one of Oliver Bullough’s four books could be on this list. The British journalist moved to Russia in the late 90s and covered its Second Chechen War. His first book (Let Our Fame Be Great) told the story of the North Caucasus people who have been a thorn in Russia’s side for so long. His second (The Last Man In Russia) captured a Russia in decline. Then came Moneyland, which showed how shady offshore global financing has so damaged countries such as Ukraine. Butler To The World is Bullough’s latest release (out on Thursday 10th March) and picks up where Moneyland left off, searching closer to home for answers as to why London is such a haven for Russian oligarchs and their ilk.

Visit Waterstones.com

Red Notice by Bill Browder

Bill Browder is a British-American financier turned anti-Putin activist. What prompted the most successful international businessman in Moscow to start protesting? The death of his tax adviser Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison in 2009 – and the refusal of authorities to do anything about it. A bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, Red Notice reads like a thriller, as Browder tells the story of his time in Russia and how he uncovered institutional corruption, and became an enemy of the state.

Visit Waterstones.com

We Need To Talk About Putin by Mark Galeotti

Mark Galeotti crams years of work into this impressively succinct primer on Putin. In just 160 pages, the Russia specialist explains that the country’s leader is not motivated by money – despite his enormous personal wealth. Nor is he motivated by ideology – despite his apparent fondness for the Soviet Union where he cut his teeth. What actually motivates Putin is patriotism – a belief that his country should be a great world power. It’s a theory that rings truer today.  

Visit Amazon.co.uk

PODCASTS

Ukrainecast

As part of its coverage of the war in Ukraine, the BBC is producing this near-daily podcast that rounds up the latest events. The BBC’s own correspondents – including Lyse Doucet in Kyiv and Fergal Keane in Lviv – offer regular updates, alongside reports from independent journalists and citizens on the ground in Ukraine. 

Visit BBC.co.uk

The Big Steal

Former Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler fronts this essential podcast. In 2020, its first series was all about the Putin-Khodorkovsky rivalry and how the president stole the Yukos oil company from his nemesis. Last year, a second series went international to explore the impact of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. As of last week, a third series is underway and shining a light on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The first episode gave voice to people on the ground in both Ukraine and Russia, while British MP Chris Bryant explained why the West should have seen this coming earlier.

Visit TheBigStealPodcast.com

The Rest Is History

Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook wear their learning lightly in this long-running history podcast. The affable pair are old hands at using the past to understand the present and, in recent weeks, have zoomed in on Ukraine. There are episodes covering everything from ‘Ukraine and the United Kingdom’ to ‘The Vikings and the birth of Kyiv’. You’ll also find a deep dive into ‘Young Putin, the KGB and the Soviet Union’.

Visit Acast.com

Putin: Prisoner of Power

Misha Glenny (aforementioned author of McMafia) presents this Audible series from a couple of years ago. The ex-BBC correspondent was in Moscow in the 90s and saw first hand the rise of what he calls ‘gangster capitalism’. The series moves forward from there to explore how Putin learnt from events such as 2000’s Kursk submarine disaster to cement his grip on power. 

Visit SomethinElse.com

To support the humanitarian efforts on the ground in Ukraine, visit RedCross.co.uk.

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