Consider Isaiah Berlin a leading expert on theories of history and Russia an immense problem. The first step is the realization of how big this problem looms in the history of the world. The approach taken by Isaiah Berlin is a combination of history, philosophy, and literature. The most famous chapter of this book, "The Hedgehog and the Fox," examines the falsifications used in WAR AND PEACE to belittle what is usually considered historical in order to prove what Tolstoy believed about real complexity. Some knowledge of calculus (college-level mathematics) might be helpful to get the overall picture. "Our ignorance of how things happen is not due to some inherent inaccessibility of the first causes, only to their multiplicity, the smallness of the ultimate units, and our own inability to see and hear and remember and record and coordinate enough of the available material." (pp. 44-45) The ludicrous embrace of a doctrine like communism was doomed as soon as communism became an enemy of the multiplicity involved in actually getting anything done in a reasonable way, but the people involved needed an ideology to convince them that they had a system for generating nuclear power at Chernobyl, for example. That example is the best, at the moment, for showing how right Tolstoy could be at times. More recent efforts to make Russia function as a free marketplace have demonstrated a danger to which any notion that might be used as an attempt to free a people who don't know the first thing about doing things right could fall prey. All in all, I would rather read this book, as difficult as it is, than be the president of Russia or worse, a newspaper reporter there.
It should be noted first that Isaiah Berlin knew his material backwards and forwards; the book bears the mark of exhaustive study. Russian Thinkers is a collection of essays on Russian luminaries, including Alexander Herzen, Belinsky, Tolstoy, Bakunin, and the populists (including Chernyshevsky). It would be helpful to have background knowledge about Russian history in this time period (mainly 19th century) before reading the book, but it is also intersting as a philosophical text, and Berlin expertly outlines the thought of these major figures. The main obstacle to reading this work may be Berlin's writing style, which is initially somewhat clunky (strangely, I found this to be the case mainly in his famous essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox"), but it does flow better once one gets used to it. Like all philosophical texts, though, what at first seems abstruse often proves rewarding and enriching. This book would be of interest to those who enjoy history or philosophy. (note: if you like this text, Personal Impressions is also worth a look)