“But Sasha was from Russia, where the sunsets are longer, the dawns less sudden, and sentences often left unfinished from doubt as to how to best end them.” – Virginia Woolf
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Robert K. Massie, 2011 – Publisher’s Weekly called Massie’s latest “portrait” one of the top 10 books of 2011. It would be difficult to say whether its success has more to do with Massie’s mastery of the genre (his Peter the Great won the Pulitzer prize in 1981) or his raw material (some would say Catherine’s life’s story is more spectacular and enthralling than even the juiciest fiction).
The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow that Changed the Course of World War II, Andrew Nagorski, 2007 – With well over a million estimated casualties, the Battle of Moscow has been labeled the deadliest in recorded history. The Greatest Battle is a standout because Nagorski doesn’t allow discussion of military strategy and statistics to drown out the human perspective. A fluent speaker of Russian, he was able to interview an impressive number of the six-month-long siege’s living survivors (even the man tasked with evacuating Lenin’s body from Moscow) and incorporate their personal narratives into his analysis.
The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1973 – Solzhenitsyn, once a devoted communist, himself, risked his life to document the shocking reality of conditions in Soviet labor camps, where he spent a decade as a prisoner. US Ambassador to the Soviet Union George F. Kennan called The Gulag Archipelago “the most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be levied in modern times.”
Land of the Firebird, The Beauty of Old Russia, Suzanne Massie, 1995 – a delightful and accessible meditation on cultural life in pre-revolutionary Russia, from art and folklore to politics and religion.
Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick, 1994 – Drawing on his years as Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post, Remnick chronicles the collapse of what he calls “the world’s longest running and most colossal mistake” – the Soviet Union. His Pulitzer Prize-winning study mingles historical analysis and eyewitness accounts, making for an engaging and colorful read.
Molotov’s Magic Lantern, Travels in Russian History, Rachel Polonsky, 2011 – a British journalist reflects on Russian history, using the forgotten library of Stalin’s former protégé as a platform from which to launch her exploration. Polonsky’s literary travelogue was named Dolman Travel Book of the Year in 2011.
Natasha’s Dance, A Cultural History of Russia, Orlando Figes, 2003 – Using the country’s great masterpieces of literature, music, and art, Figes examines how the concept of “Russianness”, enigmatic and contradictory though it may be, has transcended rulers, regimes, and revolutions.
The Oligarchs, Wealth and Power in the New Russia, David Hoffman, 2004 – From the former Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post, a fascinating account of how six opportunist businessmen made millions by capitalizing on the breakdown of Soviet communism.
Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace, Suzanne Massie, 2004 – Architecture buffs will want to seek out Massie’s fascinating biography of the former imperial residence, which was furnished by Catherine the Great’s daughter-in-law, spared by the Russian Revolution, looted and razed by the Nazis, and heroically restored by 20th-century artisans.
The Ransom of Russian Art, John McPhee, 1994 – In Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, dissident artists were prohibited from showing and selling their work. McPhee’s book tells the story of an intrepid University of Maryland economist who single-handedly smuggled some 8,000 pieces of “unofficial” art out of the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 70s. Norton Dodge’s massive collection – the largest known of its kind – was eventually donated to Rutgers University, after spending years in storage in his barn. McPhee retraces Dodge’s travels through communist Russia and reflects on the peril to which he exposed himself and his beneficiaries in an art underworld threatened with KGB terror.
The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, Robert Massie, 1995 – In July of 1918, in the Siberian City of Ekaterinburg, Bolshevik authorities murdered all seven members of Russia’s last imperial family, Anastasia included (Massie categorically refutes the claims of her impostors, most notably Anna Anderson). Massie both details the circumstances of the Romanovs’ assassination and investigates the colorful rumors concerning their remains, which were missing until 1989. Though his study conscientiously employs forensic science and makes careful use of many primary sources, a story this mesmerizing could never be dull.
Russia, A Concise History, Ronald Hingley, 2003 – Since the city of Kiev witnessed the acceptance of Orthodox Christianity by Slavic tribes, Russia has reinvented itself many times over. Hingley provides a helpful overview of Mongols, Cossacks, Romanovs, and Bolsheviks.
Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov, 1951 – Nabokov’s poignant memoir reconstructs a luminous childhood characterized by doting parents, multilingual education, and splendid country estates. With the advent of revolution in St. Petersburg, this privileged, harmonious existence crumbles, leaving him to confront exile, poverty, and loneliness on a scale commensurate only with that of his former happiness.
Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia, W. Bruce Lincoln, 2002 – This fascinating urban biography examines St. Petersburg’s complicated legacy (cultural, political, architectural, historical), beginning with its construction as Tsar Peter the Great’s imperial capital and chronicling its trials, triumphs, and reinventions up through the Leningrad Blockade.
Ten Days that Shook the World, John Reed, 1919 – Reed’s classic eyewitness account of the October Revolution was ranked #7 on NYU’s “Top 100 Works of Journalism” list despite his open socialist sympathies. An NYU spokesperson defended the project’s controversial decision, saying: “Yes, as conservative critics have noted, Reed was a partisan. Yes, historians would do better. But this was probably the most consequential news story of the century, and Reed was there, and Reed could write.”
Young Stalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore, 2007 – Before Stalin became a ruthless dictator, he was an abuse victim, seminarian, playboy, poet, and gangster, among other things. In the prequel to his bestselling Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2004), Montefiore seeks out the origins of his subject’s complicated identity, focusing this time on the decisive events of his childhood and adolescence.
Anything by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, or Nabokov, particularly Anna Karenina (Tolstoy, 1877), Crime and Punishment (Dostoyevsky, 1866), and _Lolita (Nabokov, 1955). _Lolita was written in English, but for works by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, look for translations from prize-winning duo, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
City of Thieves, David Benioff, 2009 – A World War II page-turner, this coming-of-age-novel evolved out of stories passed down by the author’s own grandfather, who survived the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad.
Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler, 1941 – Set during the Great Purge of the 1930s, Koestler’s novel develops around the aging Rubashov, a faithful Bolshevik who has been arrested and falsely charged with treason against Stalin’s regime. The foremost space of the novel is Rubashov’s consciousness, and in his reflections we read Koestler’s own disenchantment with communism and outrage at the hypocrisy of revolutionary dictatorship.
Dreams of my Russian Summers, Andrei Makine, 1995 – Originally published in French as Le Testament Francais, Makine’s novel is a fictional memoir set in the Soviet Union of the 1960s and 70s. It is the story of a boy’s struggle to understand his mysterious French heritage, symbolized by his grandmother, with whom he identifies spiritually, and to reconcile this heritage to his experience growing up in the U.S.S.R.
A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov, 1841 – Lermontov’s brooding Byronic hero, Pechorin, influenced all of modern Russian literature’s biggest names, including Nabokov, who undertook A Hero of Our Time’s English translation. Widely regarded as Russia’s first psychological novel, it is considerably more manageable than Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment for those who are pressed for time.
The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967 – Considered some of the best literature to come out of the Soviet Union, Bulgakov’s novel, which he began writing as early as 1928, is part scathing political satire, part philosophical allegory, part slapstick comedy, and part Faustian fantasy. The Master is a persecuted novelist, and Margarita is his lover and spiritual devotee. Bulgakov’s plot ensues when they receive a visit from the devil.
The Master of Petersburg, J.M. Coetzee, 1995 – Coetzee makes a literary character of Dostoyevsky, subjecting the great novelist to the torment and paranoia that many of his own protagonists have endured. Though perhaps a more satisfying read for connoisseurs of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamozov, Coetzee’s novel offers a lush portrayal of pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg as a den of depravity and corruption.
Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, Robert Chandler, 2006 – For those who prefer short fiction, this well-rounded anthology offers a sense of how Russian literature has evolved through the ages. In addition to such literary celebrities as Gogol, Dosteyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Solzhenitsyn, Chandler has included a thoughtful selection of lesser known writers.
The Winter Queen, Boris Akunin, 1998 – The first of Akunin’s cult favorite series of period detective novels, The Winter Queen, published in English in 2004, is a murder mystery set among Moscow’s 19th-century nobility.
Culture Smart! Russia, Anna King, 2007 – This practical guide helpfully contextualizes cultural differences that tend to become pitfalls for uninformed travelers. Readers will appreciate learning both the essentials of Russian social etiquette and the stories behind it.
Literary St. Petersburg, A Guide to the City and its Writers, Elaine Blair, 2007 – An apt resource for a city with such a prolific literary legacy, Blair’s book profiles fifteen preeminent Russian writers with a focus on each of their relationships to St. Petersburg (references to museums, monuments, gathering places, and hideouts included).
Odyssey Guide: Moscow, St. Petersburg & the Golden Ring, Masha Nordbye, 2007 – An authoritative and affectionately composed guide to the cultural inheritance of Russia’s two greatest cities, enriched with fine maps and lovely color photographs.
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