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The best books to understand the world in 2022

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 22/11/2022 Colin Freeman
Fighting chance: Girl at Military Academy, 2015 from Odesa by Yelena Yemchuk - Yelena Yemchuk © Yelena Yemchuk Fighting chance: Girl at Military Academy, 2015 from Odesa by Yelena Yemchuk - Yelena Yemchuk

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made 2022 a tricky year for pub­lishers. Just as the dust jackets were being put on those def­in­itive tomes about last year’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the pandemic’s end, here came a conflict that rewrote the post-war glo­bal order in still-unfolding real time.

That, however, has not stopped Spectator journalist Owen Matthews writing a vivid snapshot of the war in Overreach (Mudlark, £25). A veteran Russia hand, Matthews is one of the few correspondents to cover the conflict from both sides. He starts in Moscow, where more liberal acquaintances are fleeing, and more patriotic ones turning against him. Then he heads to Kyiv, reporting on the botched Russian siege that ends with Putin’s forces massacring the very civilians they have been sent to “liberate”. As well as being a fine blow-by-blow account, sections of this book also serve as an excellent primer on the war’s historical roots – and the ugly strain of Russian nationalism that could see Putin being overthrown by someone even worse.

Grappling with similar deadlines was former BBC Moscow correspondent Philip Short, whose mammoth biography Putin: His Life and Times (Bodley Head, £30) is the result of eight years of research – and out of date as soon as it was printed. As thick as a Kyiv sandbag, this 800-pager is an exhaustive profile, charting how the punchy slum kid from St Petersburg forged an equally pugnacious political career. Short paints a picture of a dour, unsociable man whose chief asset in coming to power was that unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, he wasn’t always drunk.

More compact is Russia: Myths and Realities (Profile, £16.99), which covers 1,000 years of history in just 250 pages, from the birth of ancient Rus via the tsars to the ­collapse of the USSR and Putin’s ascent. Author Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to ­Mos­cow, charts both the rise of the ­Russian empire and the cultural flow­er­ing that gave the world Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Unfortunately, he points out, tsars such as Peter the Great also bequeathed a tradition of ruthless absolutism that successive Russian leaders – from Stalin to Putin – have emulated eagerly.

One reason why Putin felt confident enough to press ahead with his invasion of Ukraine was his conviction that America’s disastrous pullout from Kabul  had left Washington enfeebled on the world stage. The sense of that squandered mission in Afghanistan – and what it meant for those who undertook it – is conveyed vividly by former US marine Elliot Ackerman in his memoir The Fifth Act (William Collins, £16.99). A veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, and also an acclaimed novelist, Ackerman recounts America’s post-9/11 years as a play in five acts – the last being the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, during which the author tries from afar to help with the chaotic evacuation efforts. Another authoritative account of the Afghan meltdown is The Ledger (Hurst, £14.99), written by former coalition advisers David Kilcullen and Greg Mills. The mission, they argue, was “absolutely achievable”, but needed another two decades of commitment at least.

Heading home: British troops leaving Camp Bastion - Ben Birchall © Provided by The Telegraph Heading home: British troops leaving Camp Bastion - Ben Birchall

The Afghan pullout took place under Joe Biden’s watch, but it was initiated by Donald Trump – who, in coming years, may either be back in the White House as president, or behind bars for misdemeanours in office. Either way, he still has much to say – so much so that he talked at length to Maggie Haberman, a ­journalist for his arch enemy The New York Times, for her book ­Confidence Man (HarperCollins, £25). Like Short’s biography of Putin, it tries to unravel the psyche of a man with few obvious qualities for lead­er­ship, starting with his formative years as a property mogul in New York.

Finally, during a year in which the ­spectre of nuclear Armageddon returned for the first time since the 1980s, Paul Morland warned of a danger to the West of a rather ­different sort in Tomorrow’s ­People (Picador, £20), a study of how demography influences politics. 

While countries with youthful populations tend to be more warlike and revolution-prone, the risk for Western nations is that by having ever fewer children, they may one day become extinct altogether. “Just as there are no more Visigoths, there is no guarantee that there will be any Italians or Japanese,” he says. A case in point is Russia, where the population has been slumping since the 1960s, thanks partly to chronic male alcoholism rates. Putin might want to take note.

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