Kremlinology is the famously impossible art of trying to gaze inside the minds of Russia’s leaders, whose actions were described by Winston Churchill as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.
Like the proverbial Russian doll, Moscow can present an endless number of outer faces to the wider world, and few ever reach the one that tells the inner truth.
The current occupant of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, is no exception in this regard: as an ex-KGB man, his natural style is to operate in near total secrecy with a small clique of advisers.
Yet for those trying to work out why he has chosen to invade Crimea – and where he might go next – there is, these days, the chance to do some reasonably educated guesswork. All one needs to do is to check out his favourite authors, as did PHD student Maria Snegovaya in this intriguing recent piece for the Washington Post.
To find out where Mr Putin thinks Russia has gone wrong in the past, read the works of Ivan Ilyin, a long-dead Russian nationalist who believed the West was bent on dismantling the Russian empire.
And to find out where he may think Russia should now be going, pick up a copy of The Third Imperium, a futuristic potboiler by the oligarch and novelist Mikhail Yuriev, the Kremlin’s answer to Robert Harris.
Said to be highly popular with his inner circle, its front cover alone is enough to frighten Mr Putin’s neighbours, showing a map with Russia dominating not just Ukraine, but much of Europe too. All that’s missing are a few Dad’s Army style arrows pointing toward Britain.
Mr Putin is not like David Cameron or Ed Miliband. His press office does not publish a summer reading list that he takes to his dacha outside St Petersburg each year, carefully compiled to show he is both an intellectual and a man of the people. Indeed, judging by the amount of time he spends posing for macho huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ pictures, he may not have much time for readin’ at all.
He has, however, made no secret of his admiration for Mr Ilyin, whose works he often quotes, and whose book Our Tasks was recently listed as required reading for all regional governors, just as Karl Marx might have been a century ago. So who exactly was he?
Born into an aristocratic family in 1883, Ilyin was a philosopher whose life spanned both the Bolshevik Revolution and the First and Second World Wars. He was expelled from Russia in 1922, having concluded that the communists – despite a promising start – had become just another elite bent on ransacking the state.
One of Russia’s big problems, he said, was a disrespect for private wealth, which, since Czarist times was always assumed to be acquired by means foul rather than fair. Anyone observing the antics of Russia’s modern-day oligarchs will see why Mr Putin might appreciate this particular critique.
Ilyin’s other obsession, though, was Russia’s role as the antithesis of the corrupt, scheming West. Culturally distinct from Europe because of its Orthodox Christianity, its vast size had preserved a moral purity that that had long been lost in Germany, Britain or France. As the bridge between Europe and the Far East, between Ghengis Khan and the Hapsburgs, Russians had a “universal equilibrium” that no one else possessed.
However, far from taking pride in its unique identity, Russia wasted far too much time emulating the West, importing its obsession with material wealth and “anti-Christian” values. The West, moreover, was hellbent on breaking Russia up, “dividing it into twigs” which could then be broken. Or, as Mr Putin himself prophetically remarked when he visited Ilyin’s grave in 2009, “It’s a crime when someone begins talking about the separation of Russia and the Ukraine.”
As a man who generally opposed the use of military force, it’s hard to know exactly what Ilyin would have made of Mr Putin’s recent military annexation of Crimea, or indeed the new Cold War that it seems to have sparked. But for some hints on how the Kremlin sees the Russia of the future though, one can turn to The Third Imperium, which is set in 2053, and features, yes, a wise and capable leader called Vladimir II.
The Russia of 2053 has withdrawn from all international treaties – including presumably, the G8 – and has reclaimed much of its old backyard. This includes parts of Ukraine that are seen to be under threat from Western-backed Orange Revolutionaries, and also south Ossetia, the pro-Moscow enclave of Georgia.
But that is only the start of Mr Yuriev’s story, which is utopian for some, and distinctly dystopian for others. To counter American aggression, Moscow launches a tactical nuclear strike on America, which is powerless to fight back because of the Kremlin’s super-effective “Star Wars” style missile defence system. The End. For the West, anyway.
True, Mr Putin has never himself been seen carrying a copy of this novel, and while it is understood to be popular among his cabinet, one should not assume that it is treated as anything more than a good deckchair thriller.
Then again, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the British cabinet being seen dead with a book that involves nuking Russia, or indeed anywhere else. The other scary thing is that its author, who was himself the deputy speaker of the Russian parliament, wrote it in 2006 – two years before Russia retook South Ossetia from Georgia.
One can only hope, then, that when it comes to the bit about nuking the West in 2053, Mr Putin and his colleagues do manage to separate fact from fiction. On which note, one Russian who presumably hopes that won’t happen is the book’s author, Mr Yuriev. Despite his vision of a mighty, impregnable Russia, he quit his homeland last year, complaining that it was an “unfriendly” environment for his business empire. His destination? America.