Vladimir Putin’s Reading List

Vladimir Putin provided the readers of World War II magazine his suggestions for what to read about the Soviet Union. Given the ongoing debates about falsification of history (see here, here, and here, for example), Putin’s comments are instructive. The English version is here; the Russian version is here.

Putin condemns “any falsifications, any distortions of the history of World War II” as “a personal insult, a sacrilege.” As has become increasingly clear, though, these ritual denunciations of falsification don’t ever actually name individual falsifiers or specify what exactly it is that they have falsified. What had me excited about this message from Putin was the chance to get his sense of who’s doing good history. Sad to say, that opportunity was missed. Putin didn’t name any actual historians, Russian or Western, who are working on the war.

Instead, he suggests novels, all written under the Soviets. This isn’t necessarily bad advice, and he’s not suggesting bad books: Russians certainly know how to write novels, and even the Soviet Union couldn’t quash that. Nonetheless, the authors and books he recommends are quite instructive.

The names Putin gives us are standard figures in the Soviet pantheon of literature, who wrote books on the war that were perfectly politically correct: Konstantin Simonov, Mikhail Sholokhov, Boris Vasiliev, Konstantin Vorobiev, and in particular Vladimir Bogomolov. Bogomolov was a veteran of Soviet military counterintelligence (though there’s some controversy over his military service), and the book that Putin recommends (Moment of Truth, also known as In August 1944) glorifies the work of Smersh (Death to Spies) in restoring Soviet rule in liberated territory.

Two names leap out by their absence: Viktor Nekrasov and Vasilii Grossman. I’ve done no survey, but my sense is that if you asked people who really know literature about the best work to come out of the Great Fatherland War, Nekrasov and Grossman would be the first mentioned. So why doesn’t Putin mention them? I can’t speak for him, but Nekrasov ended up expelled from the Soviet Union and stripped of his citizenship, while Grossman couldn’t get his masterwork Life and Fate published because of the uncomfortable parallels he drew between Nazism and Stalinism. It certainly seems as though Vladimir Putin isn’t comfortable with writers who aren’t comfortable with the Soviet system.

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