The war in Ukraine has turned Volodymyr Zelenskyy into a global celebrity. So the appearance of the first English-language biography of the Ukrainian president could not be better timed.
Unfortunately, western readers who buy Serhii Rudenko’s Zelensky: A Biography (Polity, £20/$25, 200 pages) on impulse are likely to be disappointed. The author is a Ukrainian journalist and his book was written for a local readership and published the year before the invasion. Hastily updated and translated for an international audience, it does not have a chronological structure and is instead written as a series of episodes.
Anyone hoping to discover how Zelenskyy rose from a relatively modest background to become first a comedy actor and then president of Ukraine has to piece the story together. If readers are looking for a clear narrative, they might find Wikipedia more useful.
Nevertheless, Rudenko’s book does give an authentic flavor of the controversies and rivalries that swirled around Zelenskyy before the Russian invasion of February 24. The Kremlin smear that he is a drug addict was, for example, assiduously promoted by his political rivals inside Ukraine. Zelenskyy’s relationship with the powerful oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky, is also discussed. It is useful to be reminded that when foreign political leaders are discovered and lionised by the western media, the local back-story is invariably more complicated and confusing.
While the Rudenko biography is short and put together in haste, Philip Short’s is elegantly written and patient Putin: His Life and Times (Bodley Head, £30/Henry Holt & Co, $40, 864 pages) is a doorstop and the product of eight years of research. Its publication, a few months after the invasion, makes it the most up-to-date biography available of Vladimir Putin.
Even so, the timing of the invasion of Ukraine means that Short, a British journalist and writer, is only able to devote some 20 pages of his account to the war. But his account of Putin’s life and career helps to illuminate his fateful decision to invade Ukraine. Tellingly, the few occasions when Putin’s self-control has slipped in the presence of foreigners often came when the subject turned to the lands that Moscow lost control of during the break-up of the Soviet Union.
With the horrors inflicted by the Russian military on Ukraine still dominating the news, Short’s determination to understand Putin on his own terms may strike some readers as overly sympathetic. There are one or two judgments in the book that raise an eyebrow in the current context — such as the claim that Putin’s uncertain response to the 2015 murder of Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician, demonstrated that his “once iron grip on the levers of control was flagging”. If that was indeed true in 2015, by 2022, when the invasion of Ukraine took place, Putin acted with the absolute authority of a tsar.
As Putin’s essay on Russia and Ukraine illustrated, a sense of his role in history shapes the Russian leader’s actions. Understanding that history and how Russians see it is crucial to shaping any western response. In Russia: Myths and Realities (Profile £16.99/Pegasus $27.95, 288 pages), Rodric Braithwaite’s new and concise history of Russia, the author quotes the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1782, which described Russia as “very large . . . governed by a complete despotism and inhabited by vicious and drunken savages”.
Readers seeking a more nuanced view will find Braithwaite’s brisk and readable account very valuable. The book covers more than 1,000 years of history, culminating in what Putin termed the “geopolitical catastrophe” of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Absorbing as the war in Ukraine has been, political life elsewhere has continued. As British readers contemplate yet another new prime minister, there is an understandable appetite for big-picture thinking that looks beyond the immediate controversies of Tory leadership contests.
Two important contributions are made by Geoff Mulgan and by Jon Alexander. In Another World is Possible: How to Reignite Social and Political Imagination (Hurst £20/$29.95, 352 pages), Mulgan, a former head of the policy unit in 10 Downing Street, argues that political and social discourse about the future is now dominated by fear, rather than hope. He suggests that if we struggle even to imagine a better future, we will be unable to create it.
Most of his book is devoted to how to revive imaginative thinking about the future in a range of environments from government to the arts. In a closing appendix, Mulgan discusses more concrete policies, from a universal basic income to the creation of more common land.
In Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us (Canbury Press, £20/$30, 320 pages), Alexander, writing with Ariane Conrad, focuses on one particular way of improving the world: by encouraging people to think as citizens, not consumers. A former advertising man, Alexander became deeply disillusioned with his trade. He believes that the consumer society encourages people to be simultaneously entitled and passive.
Citizens, by contrast, are engaged and embrace the idea of the common good. His lively book — which has become something of an underground hit — highlights new forms of active citizenship, such as the rise of the Effective Altruism movement and the foundation of community self-help organizations in the slums of Africa.
Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator
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