Interested in learning more about Russia, but at a loss as to where to start? Consider this a class in Russia Watching 101.
The Language Barrier
Despite the best efforts from pundits and publicists, we submit that it is still very difficult to get into the nooks and crannies of any nation's political and historical life without an acquaintance with the debates and discussions that are carried on in its own language. That is because what is most dear to the hearts of foreigners - especially the relatively cosmopolitan ones who actively take an interest in other cultures - is more often or not little more than a passing concern, if not outright bizarre, from the viewpoints of ordinary Russians.
While knowledge of the Russian language is very much desirable in these discussions, nowadays modern technology offers a stopgap solution to this problem in the guide of Google Translate and other free translation software. While you won't get poetry from them, they WILL typically let you get the basic gist of a text. So don't forget that they exist.
If you are serious about learning the Russian language, I recommend starting with the blog fluent in 3 months and Tim Ferriss' brilliant article about maximizing efficiency in language learning. Believing it's doable in a reasonable time span is half the challenge of mastering a foreign language. How you choose to do it - personal tuition, online Skype lessons with Russians, Rosetta Stone, immersion in a Russophone environment - is dependent on your personal circumstances and preferences. You can discuss this in more detail at our forum for Russian language learners, or practice your incipient skills at our Russian language forum.
(1) Subscribe to Johnson's Russia List, a daily collection of articles about Russia by David Johnson.
(2) RossPress is a soon to be launched project by Anatoly Karlin, the creator of this forum, that focuses on providing translations from across the entire ideological gamut of the Russian media. TO BE UPDATED.
(3) The Global Voices project Runet Echo, edited by Kevin Rothrock, which features indepth coverage and translations from debates on "Runet" aka the Russian Internet and blogosphere. Augis Barkov's Red Hot Russia blog and the russiaSLAM are of a similar nature, focusing on various scandals and oddities in Russia and translations of what Russians have to say about them.
(4) It would be pointless to list all the Western MSM outlets that provide coverage on Russia. That said, it's pretty easy to use Google News to get a representative and comprehensive sample of what foreigners are writing about Russia.
(5) The Russian MSM in English: RIA Novosti, RT, and Voice of Russia. All three are state run outlets, but have somewhat different slants: RIA tends to be centrist/apolitical to liberal leaning, RT is pro-Kremlin and/or tabloid-like, and VoR is centrist and pro-Kremlin.
(6) There are two major English-language Russian papers: The Moscow News, which tends to be neutral, and The Moscow Times, which is anti-Kremlin. Unfortunately, the legendary eXile died in 2008, but the sleazy and hilarious exploits of Mark Ames and Co. will live on forever.
(7) The English language page of Russian President. This is well worth checking out from time to time, as what Putin says isn't always what the media says he said.
(8) US-Russia.org is a web project organized by Edward Lozansky, Vlad Sobell, and Ira Bubnova that presents a largely pro-Kremlin outlook and advocates a US - Russian alliance. One of its offspring is the weekly Experts Panel, run in conjunction with VoR, in which a range of Russia experts from both sides of the barricades are queried on major topical issues of the day. The Interpreter is a web project organized by the Institute of Modern Russia that covers politics, dissent, and human rights in Russia from a largely anti-Kremlin perspective. It includes translations.
This is a list of recommended English-language about Russia, with my subjective assessment of where they are on the "patriot"--liberal spectrum within the Russian political sphere. Blogs in bold are prominent ones, whereas blogs that are crossed out are rarely or never updated nowadays.
A Good Treaty: Realist Russian politics blog from Kevin Rothrock, who now spends most of his time writing for Global Voices. [neutral]
- A Step at a Time: David McDuff's blog about politics and the Russian thread. [liberal]
- Mark Adomanis: Blogging as "The Russia Hand" on Forbes, he has many good articles on Russia's demography. [neutral]
- Austere Insomniac: Leoš Tomíček has some good stuff on Ukraine. [patriot]
- Da Russophile: Anatoly Karlin's blog exposing Western myths about Russia. [patriot]
- Dances with Bears: John Helmer's blog, who is the longest serving foreign journalist in Russia. [neutral]
- Dissonance [fr]: Alexandre Latsa, a journalist for French RIA, also has some pieces in English and Russian. [patriot]
- Ice Station Zebra [fr]: Daniel Besson's blog, with focus on geopolitics and military. [patriot]
- In Moscow's Shadows: Mark Galeotti's blog on Russian siloviki and organized crime. [neutral]
- Ivanov Report: Eugene Ivanov on Russian politics and relations with the US. [neutral]
- Vladimir Kara-Murza: Cambridge-based dissident against the Putin regime. [liberal]
Vilhelm Konnander: Politics and security in Russia. [liberal] Konstantin's Russia Blog: Old Russophile blog. [patriot]
- Kremlin Stooge: Mark Chapman's pro-Putin blog has some of the biggest discussions on the Russia watching blogosphere. [patriot]
La Russophobe: A legend of the Russia watching world. [liberal]
- No Yardstick: In which András Tóth-Czifra tries to decipher who really runs Russia. [neutral]
poemless: Blog with literary flavor. [neutral]
- Power Vertical: Apart from running a blog, Brian Whitmore also has regular podcasts on topic political issues of the day. [liberal]
- Putinania: Nina Ivanovna's blog about the Russian elites. [liberal]
- Robert Amsterdam: Khodorkovsky's attorney on Russian politics, and other things. [liberal]
- Rules of Russian Game [cn]: Blog on Russia by Xin Zhang. [neutral]
- RussEurope [fr]: Jacques Sapir with heavy focus on economy and Europe. Has some stuff in English. [neutral]
Russia in the Media: Fedia Kriukov's old blog debunking myths about Russia. [patriot] Russia Monitor: Russian law and politics blog by Jesse Heath. [neutral] Russia Watchers: Commentary on Russian politics and the media by Joera Mulders and Nils van der Vegte. [neutral]
- Russia: Other Points of View: Group blog with contributions from Sharon Tennison, Patrick Armstrong, Gordon Hahn, William Dunkerley, and Chris Weafer seeking to challenge Western media narratives on Russia. [patriot]
- Russian Defense Policy: About the Russian military. [neutral]
- Russian Military Reform: Dmitry Gorenburg's blog focusing on Russian military modernization. [neutral]
- Russian Sphynx: Data visualization blog. [neutral]
- Sean's Russia Blog: Sean Guillory, an academic at the University of Pittsburgh, has a historical and leftist take on Russian politics. [neutral]
Siberian Light: Andy Young's disused centrist blog on Russia. [neutral]
- Streetwise Professor: Classical liberal critique of Russia. [liberal]
- Truth and Beauty (... and Russian Finance): Eric Kraus' finance, economics, and Russia newsletters.
White Sun of the Desert: Tim Newman is a British expat who worked in Sakhalin, rarely writes about Russia now. [liberal]
- Window on Eurasia: Paul Goble's blog mostly aggregates Russia news, with ethnic and corruption focus. [liberal]
You can access a list of Russian language blogs and media outlets here.
One can go on and on here, so in the interests of brevity and conciseness I will confine myself to just five:
The Return (Daniel Treisman) - If you only ever read one book on Putin's Russia, make it this one.
The Crisis of Russian Democracy (Richard Sakwa) - One of the very best books on Russian politics - if very long and written in academese.
Lost Alternatives (Stephen Cohen) - Seven controversial re-interpretations of Soviet history and Russia today.
The Oligarchs (David Hoffman) - Get some idea of what the 1990s were like through the biographies of the Russian oligarchs.
Russian under Western Eyes (Martin Malia) - Why is Russia historically most shunned by the West when it most closely converges with the West? Malia tries to explain this paradox.
Then there is also Anatoly Karlin's own book, Dark Lord of the Kremlin, which is hopefully coming out in October 2013. Keep tuned via my blog!
I think that there are only two main "resources" you need to have informed debates about Russia, or any country really. These are (a) national statistics and (b) opinion polls. If you know the GDP of a country and how it has changed in the past decade, and the extent to which its people support their President, a lot of ostensibly "puzzling" things can become a lot clearer.
(1) Rosstat, the successor of Goskomstat, is the Russian state statistics service. It's English-language side is somewhat less comprehensive.
(2) There are three major Russian polling agencies: Levada is foreign-financed, while VCIOM and FOM are state-owned. That said, their figures almost always coincide, so it is very unlikely that any of them are fiddling their results. Levada's and VCIOM's English-language faces are very elementary, while FOM doesn't bother with it at all.
While there are many other excellent resources on Russia, they tend to be of a rather specific nature. As such, we divulge this information in stickied posts at their respective forums.
And if you ever get tired of political bickering, just head over to English Russia or Fishki for a good chuckle.