For Russians, Reading Is the New Resistance
What bestselling books tell us about how Russians are processing the war.
When Russia launched the war that Russians must not call a war—the “special military operation,” in the Kremlin’s parlance—many Russians immediately recognized the Orwellian reality in which they now lived. As forbidden language was replaced with official euphemisms and the authorities launched an increasingly harsh crackdown on dissent, many Russians felt a distinct sense of déjà vu. Suddenly, George Orwell's 1984, a dystopian novel about a totalitarian regime in a state of perpetual war written in the 1940s, became the most popular fiction book. In 2022, it could be seen in the hands of people strolling on Moscow’s boulevards or lying next to vacationers sunbathing on Kaliningrad’s beaches.
When Russia launched the war that Russians must not call a war—the “special military operation,” in the Kremlin’s parlance—many Russians immediately recognized the Orwellian reality in which they now lived. As forbidden language was replaced with official euphemisms and the authorities launched an increasingly harsh crackdown on dissent, many Russians felt a distinct sense of déjà vu. Suddenly, George Orwell’s 1984, a dystopian novel about a totalitarian regime in a state of perpetual war written in the 1940s, became the most popular fiction book. In 2022, it could be seen in the hands of people strolling on Moscow’s boulevards or lying next to vacationers sunbathing on Kaliningrad’s beaches.
1984 is not the only book on Russians’ wartime reading list, which offers a window into how the book-reading public is processing its country’s increasingly militarist and totalitarian turn. As the economy foundered, laws against opposition tightened, and news of Russia’s military failures in Ukraine began to trickle in, people started buying noticeably fewer business and self-improvement tomes and more fiction. Predictably, escapism was in high demand: Sales of romance, fantasy, science fiction, and detective books have grown especially strongly.
This year has seen a surge in the popularity of books, movies, and TV shows about spies and espionage. Cold War psychology is back as the Kremlin tells Russians they are fighting not Ukraine, but the “collective West.” The genre’s popularity also reflects a growing spy mania in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where paranoia reigns about internal enemies and foreign agents.
But the most intriguing part of the Russian reading list is on the nonfiction side. For about two months after the war began in February 2022, the bestseller on the Ozon online marketplace was the Russian translation of Man’s Search for Meaning, a book by the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Originally published in 1946 under the German title, A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp, Frankl explores ways to find strength and resilience in the midst of the worst possible adversity and oppression. The book’s revival is not exactly flattering to the Russian regime.
Indeed, if book sales are any guide, there has been a surge in interest in Nazi Germany among Russian readers—and that doesn’t mean the usual fare about Soviet heroism during the Great Patriotic War. Bestsellers among educated Russians include newly translated works, such as Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler: A Memoir, which depicts the transformations taking place in Germany in the 1930s through the eyes of a young lawyer. There is a whole bouquet of parallels that Russian readers will surely recognize as they experience the transformation of Putin’s authoritarian regime to a hybrid totalitarian one: the persecution of dissenters; the progressive Gleichschaltung, or total coordination of public life with the regime; the willingness of ordinary people to obey; the temptations of self-isolation as people attempt to live a parallel, unnoticed life against the background of the unfolding nightmare; the feeling of a wasted life, like Haffner’s father in the book.
Nicholas Stargardt’s book The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-45—published in Russian as The Mobilized Nation—has also become a bestseller, perhaps because Russians have found themselves mobilized in every sense. The book explores mass behavior during war, including the emotional mobilization in support of state power. The book’s popularity is another suggestion that the experience of Nazi society strikes a chord with today’s Russians.
In another parallel to the German experience, more Russians are now contemplating collective guilt and responsibility for their regime, the war, and the widespread atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. In this respect, the publication of The Question of German Guilt, a series of lectures given by the German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers in 1945, has come at a very opportune moment.
The question of collective guilt or responsibility arose among the more reflective part of Russian society immediately after the invasion—so powerful was the shock. And these debates have not ceased. What is the difference between guilt and responsibility? Should liberal Russians who hold democratic views, take a pro-Western stance, and have opposed Putin all their lives, feel guilt or at least responsibility for what is happening? Should or could they have done more to oppose Putin? The German author Thomas Mann, taking offense at U.S. government restrictions on exiles like himself, once noted in one of his letters that he had begun to fight Adolf Hitler before the Americans did. The same is true of Russian society: Many people fought against Putin when, for example, European governments and companies were building good working relations with him.
Jaspers brings some clarity to this debate. There is a group of individuals legally guilty of Russia’s crimes, and there are other individuals bearing different degrees of moral responsibility. Ultimately, books like Jaspers’s help readers determine for themselves the extent to which they share responsibility. As the war goes on and Russia is increasingly isolated from the West, these reflections and debates are becoming more and more acute: Some Russians believe, as Haffner writes, that a dictator occupies his own nation before occupying another—while others reject the very idea that Russians are also victims. Russian civil society—split between those who left and those who stayed behind—is not as hopeless as some might believe if these discussions are taking place, and books like Jaspers’s and Haffner’s are being read.
With public protest of any kind now illegal and immediately broken up, reading has also become a form of resistance: By buying these books, Russians are comparing Putin’s regime with the worst examples of totalitarianism. Interestingly, they are looking to Nazi Germany, even though there are countless parallels between the Russian present and their own country’s past. The 1940s and early 1950s under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, in particular, were marked by paranoia and the persecution of perceived traitors, spies, and “rootless cosmopolitans,” in many ways analogous to how today’s dissenters are labeled “foreign agents,” “fifth columnists,” and “national traitors.”
One reason Russians are reading up on Hitler, not Stalin, may be that there is not much popular Russian literature about that era in the Soviet Union. Russia publishes many excellent academic books on the historical details of the Soviet period (as well as much pseudo-historical junk). But clever academic books are for a narrow, specialized readership, and the era when exposing Stalinism was popular among a larger public has long passed. Unlike in some other Soviet successor states—such as the Baltic countries and Ukraine—there is today no mass comprehension in Russia of the dark pages of the country’s own history, which is probably why the general public is more at ease with foreign experience. And it’s important to keep in mind that books on everyday life in Nazi Germany are bestsellers not among wide masses, but among a more or less intellectual segment of society.
Reading about past European dictatorships as a lens into the Russian present goes beyond the interest in Nazi Germany. Already in multiple printings is a new book by Alexander Baunov, my colleague at the newly inaugurated Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin. Written for a Russian audience, The End of the Regime: How Three European Dictatorships Ended is devoted to the evolution and fall of the Franco dictatorship in Spain, the Salazar regime in Portugal, and the military junta in Greece. While the book makes no mention of Putin, Russian readers are good at sniffing out analogies. They dream of the Putin regime ending, too, or at least evolving into a less harsh form of governance. Naturally, therefore, they are interested in the process of how dictatorships fall and transition to another form of government. In Baunov’s book, readers are looking for examples—and for glimmers of hope.
Unwittingly, one of the Kremlin’s own policies may be boosting sales of books casting an unflattering light on the regime. A 2022 amendment to the law on the status of foreign agents requires that all books, articles, or other publications produced with the help of foreign funding to be prominently labeled as the work of a foreign agent. True to the dictum that forbidden fruit is always sweeter, that label will work like advertising to attract certain readers. The label has been slapped on many of the best and most popular Russian fiction and nonfiction authors, including Boris Akunin, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Dmitry Glukhovsky, and Dmitry Bykov.
One crucial resemblance to Soviet times is the newly political role of reading. Unable to protest openly, people are expressing a different kind of resistance by reading literature that is banned, discouraged, or casts an unfavorable light on the regime—if only by comparison. At first glance, this kind of resistance might not seem like much, especially given the ongoing war, which a majority of Russians say they support. Yet the act of reading these books should not be dismissed lightly. It matters for the future of Russia which books its citizens are reading, and what kind of worldview they are forming as a result.
Books are independently selected by FP editors. FP earns an affiliate commission on anything purchased through links to Amazon.com on this page.
Andrei Kolesnikov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. Twitter: @AndrKolesnikov
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