In 1947 a young US diplomat named John Fischer published an earnest little book called Why They Behave Like Russians. Fischer, who had served in postwar Kiev and Moscow, was attempting to explain to a bewildered US public why their wartime ally Joseph Stalin, recipient of billions of dollars in American Lend-Lease aid, had suddenly turned on Washington, declaring it a deadly enemy, and seemed hellbent on starting a third world war. Seventy years later, Fischer’s question is more pertinent than ever as we find Russia not only at war with its neighbours but also, as the journalist Masha Gessen puts it, ‘waging an information war on Western democracy as a concept and a reality’.
Both Gessen and Serhii Plokhy, a Harvard historian, come at the question of how Putin’s Russia came to reject Western-style democracy and embrace an imperial dream infused with fantasies of God-given manifest destiny from a historical perspective. Plokhy’s book spans a millennium, Gessen’s a quarter of a century.