A real-life Russian Bridgerton starring Pushkin's great granddad, great power games
Welcome to the seventh instalment of This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s news and developments.
The few minutes you take to read this newsletter will make you smarter, faster…guaranteed. Here, you will find a deep dive on fiction and non-fiction about the week’s big story and/or perfect watercooler convo and dinner party small talk.
(The first post about books on ‘dictator chic’ is here. The second post on ecocide and the late, great Cormac McCarthy is here. The third about what to read on Russia, revolts and 1917 is here. This is the fourth one on America’s 247th birthday and Bidenomics. The fifth post on fireworks in France – Bastille Day and the recent riots – is here. And the sixth one on Oppenheimer’s dharma is here.)
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Russia holds its second ever summit with Africa tomorrow (July 27) in St Petersburg and it’s hard to overestimate the importance of this meeting 17 months into Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Right now, the African continent – the largest regional grouping at the UN General Assembly – is at the centre of a great-power charm offensive.
In December 2022, Joe Biden was able to bring the leaders of 49 of Africa’s 54 countries to Washington, D.C. for the first such summit in eight years. It came three years after the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, which drew 43 African heads of state.
Both Russia and the United States are seeking support for their approach to the Ukraine war, as also the wider international order. Africa has largely been unwilling to criticise Putin for the Ukraine war though its leaders are inclined to a peace process to end the “pernicious effects” of the conflict on Africa.
But it’s not just the Russians and Americans who want to wow Africa. In the past two years, there have been Japan-Africa, China-Africa, an EU-Africa, France-Africa, UK-Africa and Turkey-Africa summits. India’s pandemic-delayed fourth summit with Africa – the last was in 2015 – may happen next year.
So, it’s clear that Africa is important – to Russia as much as to others. But Russia too is important to Africa, which wants grain (exported from Ukraine despite the war until Russia recently withdrew from a UN-brokered agreement). Countries in Africa also routinely use Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries to keep the peace and to keep autocratic regimes in power. Talking to Russia also allows Africa to send a blunt message to the wider world, particularly the West, says Steven Gruzd, head of the Africa-Russia project at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg, namely that “we also have our own foreign policies, and those reflect our national interest”.
But what was Africa to Russia, in terms of history and literature? The answers are surprising. They range from the literary homage paid by Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet, to his African great-grandfather; the former Soviet Union’s eager interest more than half a century ago in fiction and poetry by Africans about Africa, and an important new book that challenges the usual Western depictions of Moscow’s post-Cold War Africa policy.
Dear Reader, this week reminds me of those books: