Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi
MY RATING: 5/5 Stars
FTC NOTICE: Free Review Copy from LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program (in exchange for an honest review)
REVIEW: Have you seen a film called, “The King’s Speech” (starring Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush)? It delved into how the grandfather of England’s Prince Charles became king while building his nation’s confidence in him via a set of inspirational war-time speeches that reflected that he had overcome a stuttering issue and that the originally-intended king’s abdication would not adversely affect the nation. This film was based upon a book by the same name and was written by co-authored by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi (with the latter also serving as author of another book, “Hitler’s Piano Player”).
So, what lead me to read my first Peter Conradi book? At first glance, it was the book’s title, “Who Lost Russia?: How the World Entered a New Cold War.” It was written in large and bright, Russian-red, Cyrillic-like block-style letters. The cover art intrigued me, so I had to read the work’s synopsis. The paragraphs included some teasers that dealt with the reality of what happened after former U.S. President Ronald Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” “In reality, Russia emerged from the 1990s battered and humiliated, a latter-day Weimar Germany, its protests ignored as NATO expanded eastwards to take in ex-Soviet republics. Determined to restore his country’s bruised pride, President Vladimir Putin has overseen rapid economic growth and made incursions into Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, leaving the Western powers at a loss. Now a cold war threatens to turn hot once again” (back cover). What a tease for someone, like me, who has an interest in modern Russian history, the aforementioned countries, and the enigmatic Putin–I had to read Conradi’s newest book!
Nobody could have chosen a better writing sample as my introduction to Mr. Conradi’s work. “Who Lost Russia?” did not disappoint! The story-telling (which included the author being an actor in some parts of the text, too) made the Russian-to-Soviet-to-Russian Federation backgrounds so much more enthralling than any of those found in the average college textbook and many competing works. I greatly enjoyed reading about the Tsars and Lenin, tribalism, ethnic Russians and how they managed their colonies, Russification, unifying propaganda and other themes, with a few of my favorites as follows:
*US permissions and Russian leadership: Who’s your daddy?
*NATO’s changing size: Is bigger always better?.
*Russia’s propaganda portfolio: Serving trolls with a side of catfish.
*Gerasimov: Just what the doctrine ordered.
*Russia’s former republics: Relationship status–“Its complicated.”
Peter Conradi demonstrated his ability to take complicated histories and weave them into an easy-to-follow storyline; the enigmatic Vladimir Putin repeatedly became the core of those stories in this up-to-date epic. When most people heard about “Russia,” didn’t they instantly think about “Putin?” The United States found his rise to Russia’s most coveted leadership position to be a mysterious one. “IF WASHINGTON INITIALLY STRUGGLED TO GET the measure of Putin, it was understandable. His path to the Kremlin had been extraordinary for both its speed and its unexpectedness. At the end of 1991, as the Soviet Union broke up, Putin had been in his native St. Petersburg, where he held a relatively minor post in the Mayor’s office as head of the committee for external relations. It was not until June 1996 that he had come to Moscow to become a deputy chief of the presidential property management department. Yet by July 1998 he was head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), one of the successor services of the KGB. In August 1999 he was named prime minister” (108).
Putin’s ascension to prime minister revealed a great dichotomy when comparing his present life with that of his past one; and, it was something in his childhood that aided me in connecting with this book. Conradi shared the following about Putin’s upbringing: “A flurry of biographies has been written about Putin, starting with is poor upbringing in Leningrad, as his home city was then known. The only child of a stern father, who was the Communist Party representative in a factory making railway carriages, he grew up in a run-down communal apartment in a once-elegant nineteenth-century apartment building in the centre of town. Amusement came from chasing rats around the courtyard. Accounts of his childhood have undoubtedly been coloured by his later career, yet he seems to have been an unremarkable boy and young man, who briefly went off the rails before finding redemption in martial arts” (108).
This story about Putin’s life reminded me of some stories my father (of Russian, English and Austrian descent) shared about his young years. Like Russia’s current prime minister, my father claimed to have had a poor childhood with a stern father; the family supposedly went from riches down to rags when they lost almost everything due to America’s 1929 “Great Depression,” which started a few months after my father’s birth. During my dad’s third year of life, his parents decided to move from Buffalo, New York, to Boyle Heights, CA for new opportunities. The new place boasted a large Russian-Orthodox Jewish community. In fact, in the early 1930s, advertisements labelled Boyle Heights as the largest Orthodox Jewish community west of the Mississippi River. The community seemed close-knit and my father shared some great memories of living there; but, what made me connect most with Putin’s childhood story came from stories of my own father finding dead rats in the streets. He claimed that he used to pick them up by their tails, swing the critters around and throw them at other kids. I remember simultaneously feeling disgusted and also laughing at the idea of my father doing something like that “back in the day.” He called those rats, “Depression Era Toys.” Thankfully he eventually grew out of (or became bored with) those toys, moved out of the neighborhood, and achieved his own successes.
Vladimir Putin moved outward and upward as well; and Peter Conradi expertly explained the reasons why Russia’s current Prime Minister ordered his military into Ukraine. This specific area became another connection I experienced with the book, because Ukraine was not always “just Ukraine.”
My grandmother and her parents left a city specifically known as “Dolyna,” in order to the United States circa 1903. Their hometown sat within the confines of the province of Galicia, in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. This territory later became part of modern day Ukraine; and, it could eventually become part of Russia, again.
Peter Conradi’s approachable writing style took complex histories and converted them into a modern compendium for multiple audiences. I found his book to be a highly recommendable read for every individual who would want to understand personalities of world leaders, complications created by colonization and empire, complexities of geo-politics, and dynamics of international relations (emphasizing those between the United States and Russia). The author made it possible for me to re-connect with my own personal experiences and family history. While the connections I found in this book may be rather unusual, other readers may relate to facets of the book as well, embedding this highly memorable piece of literature within them (and me) for many years to come. In the meantime, as to the question of “Who Lost Russia?” future readers need to read the book and decide for themselves.