Russia scandalises and confounds Western observers. The lengthy list of entrenched disagreements between the Euro-Atlantic community and Russia over many issues – European security, the war in Syria, intrusion in other countries’ domestic affairs through propaganda and election interference – is accompanied by numerous other points of dissonance. The eightieth anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August of this year revealed (again) the significant differences in how European history is understood and brought with it much mutual recrimination. While some Western observers suggested that Moscow was trying to justify the pact and rehabilitate Stalin, Russians retorted that many in the West were attempting to rewrite and falsify history.
Another point of tension is the scandal about alleged Russian state-run doping and corruption. Claims of drug use by Russian athletes led to a World Anti-Doping Agency investigation. The International Olympic Committee banned Russia from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and, this June, the International Association of Athletics Federations upheld its own ban on Russian athletes. Many Westerners believed that the Russian sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, should have been fired for his purported role in the doping scandal. Although he received a lifetime Olympic ban in December 2017, he has been promoted to deputy prime minister and in July 2019 won an appeal against the ban.
Robert Service’s new book touches on all these themes and more, attempting to explain such divergences by examining how the Russians themselves feel and think about Russia and the world. The book has many qualities, not least its ambitious breadth, covering domestic politics, foreign policy, economics and military matters. Although