Rosa BalfourDirector of Carnegie Europe

Fiction

Summer is a time to read longer and more demanding books—often the ones that leave a lasting mark. Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel is an extraordinary, complex, challenging, and devastating voyage through Italy’s history of the first half of the twentieth century through the personal stories of a few tragic characters. As I write, just thinking of little Useppe is moving; in the desperate devastation of war, poverty, and personal troubles he still offers hope and wonder.

Nonfiction

The best book I read this year is, full disclaimer, by my friend Fernando Gentilini, Tre volte a Gerusalemme, alas not yet translated into English. In three parts, the author walks us through the magical streets and places of Jerusalem and recounts his personal reflections on the Middle East Peace Process through the eyes of his role as the EU’s special representative. The final chapter is about Israeli and Palestinian literature: the great novelists and poets. Jerusalem’s light, colors, sounds, and smells stream out of every page of the book—a real treasure that crosses literary genres.

Podcast, film, music

Listen to the sounds of wherever you are! The waves rolling on the surf, the wind in the trees, or the lively voices in the cafes should be the summer’s soundtrack.

Guilty pleasure

I don’t feel guilty for intending to reread John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Guy Chazan Berlin bureau chief of the Financial Times

Fiction

Red Cavalry/Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel. I unearthed an old Soviet edition of this book in a Lviv bookshop and couldn’t put it down. Babel’s tales of the Red Army’s exploits in the war against Poland and Benya Krik, the mafia boss of Moldovanka, were always enjoyable but have gained an amazing new relevance and immediacy in light of recent events.

Also: Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin. This book, by Russia’s leading contemporary novelist, is a satire about Moscow in 2028 and, though it was published in 2006, it is spookily prescient about how Russia would end up. Oprichnik describes a nationalistic, xenophobic dictatorship ruled by a new tsar who relies on a band of secret policemen modelled on Ivan the Terrible’s feared “oprichnina” bodyguard. Ghoulish, hair-raising, and funny—all at the same time. 

Politics

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy. This recommendation speaks for itself—essential reading for anyone who wants to know what is really happening in Ukraine right now. Very useful for disentangling the historical truth about Ukraine from Russia’s fabrications and distortions.

Podcast, film, music

The Worst Person in the World, directed by Joachim Trier. A refreshing, delightful film about a young woman in Oslo making her way in the world. The actress who plays her, Renate Reinsve, is a revelation.

Guilty pleasure

It has to be Wordle. (I haven’t quite got the energy and time to do Quordle, but friends swear by it.)

Jana PuglierinHead of the Berlin office and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

Fiction

Brit Bennet’s The Vanishing Half. I already thought her first book The Mothers was great, this one is even better.

Politics

Fiona Hill is one of my personal heroes; I admire her analytical clarity and intellectual brilliance. Her book, There Is Nothing For You Here, was my highlight this year.

Podcast, film, music

If you like intelligence services, you’ll also like the Wind of Change podcast. It investigates the question of whether the biggest hit by the German band Scorpions was actually written by the CIA.

Guilty pleasure

I don’t feel guilty at all about having binge watched the fourth season of Borgen. I would work for Birgitte Nyborg any time.

Andrei KolesnikovSenior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Fiction

I just finished reading the Russian translation of Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk. Extremely relevant book—in terms of describing another pandemic and demonstrating the mechanics of how political nationalist mythology emerges.

Politics

I have five different non-fiction books in Russian on my desk, the latest being a biography of Boris Nemtsov by Mikhail Fishman.

To understand the roots of the current catastrophe, I often turn to memoirs, and so I am rereading now The Russia Hand by Strobe Talbott. The book explains a lot about the psychology and ideology of Russian power and partly Vladimir Putin, who was just appearing then.

Podcast, film, music

The most interesting podcasts right now are the YouTube streams of the closed media in Russia, such as the former Ekho Moskvy.

In terms of cinema, the best way to relieve the tension for me is to watch any Woody Allen movie. The last movies I watched with pleasure were Parallel Mothers by Pedro Almodóvar and Everything Went Fine by François Ozon.

Music to relax to, as exotic as it sounds, is the BAO—Benny Andersson Orchestra and Benny’s piano compositions.

Guilty pleasure

A glass of Spanish Brandy de Jerez and reviews of NHL games and Grand Slam tennis tournaments.

Florence GaubForesight advisor at the Council of the European Union

Politics

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen. There are some studies showing that the way Russians think and feel about the future is by way of the past. This book, which I bought because German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recommended it, tells exactly this story, in a human, tangible, and original way.

Podcast, film, music

We’re all debating post-heroism these days but Top Gun: Maverick is old-fashioned heroism—which isn’t so much about guns and violence but courage and integrity. At the risk of being judged, I enjoyed it tremendously.

Guilty pleasure

I recently got addicted to true crime podcasts. Particularly enjoyed The Thing about Pam and Bad Blood, which tells the story of the rise and fall of Theranos.

Jan TechauHead of speechwriting at the Germany Federal Ministry of Defense

Fiction

Ottfried Preußler’s Krabat. A German youth book based on ancient tales from southern Lusatia, featuring a pact with the devil and redemption through love. Seriously? Hell yes! It’s a near-perfect story of initiation, first published in 1971, masterfully filled with suspense, lingering menace, tragedy, and moral clarity. An unexpected wow for all ages.

Nonfiction

Elbridge Colby’s Strategy of Denial. One of America’s smartest strategists suggests a defense blueprint for the coming confrontation with China. Key for Europeans who will be part of it, no matter what.

Podcast, film, music

C’mon, C’mon, by Mike Mills. A middle-aged man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, realizes he needs to grow up so that his sister’s son can have a childhood. An American road movie about fathers lost and found. Timeless and supremely acted.

Guilty Pleasure

John Le Carré’s The Honorable Schoolboy. Before self-loathing got the better of him in the mid-90s, Le Carré produced the definitive prose for anyone interested in international affairs. This Hong-Kong-based spy tale from the 70s is clever, clear-sighted, very human—and so, so well written.

Olivia Lazard, Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

Fiction

Consolations by David Whyte. Whyte, like Mary Oliver, is a constant companion for me. This past year particularly, his poetry has anchored me and given me a resting place when I run out of steam. His words teach me how to see beyond the obvious.

Politics

Le Monde Sans Fin by Jean-Marc Jancovici and Christophe Blain—a comic book that renders systemic thinking on energy and planetary issues really accessible. It shows the fundamental constraints we face, and positions reflections about energy sobriety and the future of our global economy at the heart of our transition trajectory. It also exists in English and other languages!

Podcast, film, music

A friend recently made me discover The Age of Anxiety by Jamie Cullum. It is poignant rendition of the many questions we feel assailed by in this day and age. Beyond the lyrics, the music feels like a call for freedom and letting go. Couple that with Free by Florence and the Machine—a song whose clip was filmed in Ukraine in 2021—and you’ll find yourself reaching deep into yourself for the type of strength and energy that only arises in dark times.

In terms of films, it goes without saying: Don’t look up!. If you haven’t seen it yet, you really can’t miss it. And if you have seen it, I suggest rewatching it. What struck me is the powerful analysis of our inability to handle factual information, and of the way in which the entertainment society has made us uncomfortable with the full range of human emotions, including panic. The first layer of the story is obviously about the massive asteroid coming toward Earth. The second layer that touched me deeply is how lonely all the characters feel, and how hard they try to avoid knowing they feel lonely. It is a terrifyingly accurate portrait of our society.

Guilty pleasure

A really massive cheeseburger a couple of times a month, with either good wine or cocktails.

Krzysztof BledowskiCouncil director and senior economist at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation

Fiction

Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. A meandering and convoluted journey of unrelated characters moving from place to place. Bewitching writing, enchanting syntax.

Politics

Marc David Baer’s The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs. A forceful and compelling argument that the Ottomans were thoroughly European. Breezy to read, given the sweeping backdrop of names, battles, and pregnant events.

Podcast, film, music

Moritz Moszkowski, Orchestral Music (vol. 1-2-3)Toccata Classics, three CDs. Moszkowski was a master of piano music, but these neglected works ooze with undulating string sequences and captivating melodies. Fans of late romanticism will find undiscovered gems here.

Raluca CsernatoniVisiting Scholar, Carnegie Europe

Fiction 

The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture by Orlando Figes. Set against the panoramic cultural backdrop of nineteenth century Europe, a beautifully written book capturing the ménage à trois between three remarkable people—the great writer Ivan Turgenev and the Viardot couple, Pauline and Louis. Also, a tour de force on how the continent transformed with new technologies, such as railways, steamships, telegraphs, gaslights, and electric telegrams.

Politics

Letters from Russia by Astolphe de Custine. This book documents the Marquis de Custine’s travels through the Russian Empire in 1839, providing a snapshot of the social, economic, and mystical fabric, and way of life during the reign of Nicholas I. The French aristocrat is fascinated by the vast and mysterious land, offering a unique portrait of a country ruled by tyranny.

Podcast, film, music  

Compartment No.6, a road movie by Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen, adapted from a popular Finnish novel by Rosa Liksom. A Finnish grad student, Laura, has just said goodbye to her Russian lover, Irina, and boarded a train to Murmansk, a remote city in the Artic circle to see the rock drawings, the petroglyphs. She shares the compartment with the coarse Russian worker Ljoha, reporting for work at the massive mine in the region, and with whom she develops a deeper connection.

Love, Death + Robots, a collection of animated, short yet captivating stories in three volumes and spanning several genres, from comedy and fantasy to horror and science fiction. My favorite episodes: Zima Blue and Jibaro.

An obscure Japanese jazz player that I love is Ryo Fukui. He has experienced an incredible surge in popularity post-mortem because of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm.

Guilty pleasure

Lazarus, a dystopian science fiction comic book series by writer Greg Rucka and artist Michael Lark. I was completely drawn into the storyline and the coming of age of the main character, Forever Carlyle, a young woman, and terrific military leader.