Wondering how to expand your knowledge about Russia over the summer? Here are some books that will help you learn more about the country, from art to the history of Russia’s imperial dynasty.
This summer, there are five noteworthy books on Russia that might be of interest to anyone looking for insights into current Russian foreign policy. These books cover a broad range of subjects − art, war, the imperial family and daily life in Russia – and have a sweeping timeframe.
The Romanovs, a history of Russia’s imperial dynasty, starts in the early 17th century. The Empress of Art is set in the world of Catherine the Great at the end of the 18th century. The Crimean War is about a major geopolitical standoff between Russia and the West in the middle of the 19th century. Secondhand Time is about life in post-Soviet Russia at the end of the 20th century. Finally, The Blizzard is a fictional story set sometime in the future.
It’s impossible to understand modern Russia without understanding its complex past. Whether it’s Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich writing about the Soviet experience during the Cold War, or Orlando Figes writing about the Crimean War, the topics remain relevant today.
1. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets By Svetlana Alexievich (New York: Random House, 2016)
Americans know what it was like to win the Cold War. Secondhand Time is a testament of what it was like to be on the losing side, and this book is one of the main reasons why its author Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature.
This book is part of Alexievich’s long project to capture the Soviet experience before it fades from the collective memory. She does it in the manner of a psychiatrist, by letting her interviewees speak freely. Stream-of-consciousness is the format, and the result is a snapshot of the Soviet people’s collective mindset in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
The interviewees come from all walks of life − secretary of the district Communist party committee, doctor, police sergeant, migrant worker, waitress, entrepreneur, student, Armenian refugee, architect, writer, musician, war veteran − but they all share the feeling of the ontological shock brought about by the sudden disintegration of the familiar life around them, including society’s economic laws, its social structure, and even the very notion of right and wrong.
For all its dark corners, Brezhnev era socialism offered a safe, and even comfortable existence. Whatever flaws existed in the U.S.S.R., a certain level of hardship could be tolerated because many, probably even most, people believed they were building a more just world. But when the old notions and ideas fell apart, the new post-Soviet era offered nothing to believe in. As one character puts it, you may have read all of Hegel, but it no longer mattered in a new world that was about “money, sex, and two smoking barrels.”
Secondhand Time is about the problem of adaptation: how people survive inhumane conditions, and how one goes on living, after discovering that his or her brain had been presented an artificial view of the world. For most, the transition to reality was very difficult, and for quite a few, it proved impossible. Suicide is a recurring theme of the book. One example is an older man who burned himself alive in his vegetable patch because he had nothing left to live for. But some people did adapt to the new world, and they came to own and rule the post-Soviet space.
2. The Crimean War: A History By Orlando Figes (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010)
Eclipsed by the world wars of the 20th century, the Crimean War is nearly forgotten now, but for its contemporaries it was a major calamity that involved several empires fighting around the globe. It was the first war that was fought by industrial age weapons, and a conflict that left nearly one million people dead and helped to redraw the map of Europe.
The book draws on Russian, French and Ottoman sources to illuminate the geopolitical, cultural and religious factors that led to the conflict. It is an early example of the clash-of-civilizations conflagration between Russia and the West. But the book also conveys the author’s appreciation for the experience of the common people. Letters and memories of ordinary men, from the British officers to Russian serf soldiers, help to enliven the text.
Figes is one of the leading Western historians of Russia, whose previous books on Russia include Natasha’s Dance and A People’s Tragedy. The Crimean War was published six years ago, but its relevance has risen due to the events of 2014. This book is an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to understand the dynamics of the events in Ukraine during the past two years. The book ends with a note that the loss of Crimea in 1991 was a severe blow to Russia’s national pride, and that some nationalists in Russia campaigned for Crimea to return to Russia. Written in 2010, these observations now appear prophetic.
3. The Romanovs: 1613–1918 By Simon Sebag Montefiore (New York: Alfred D. Knopf, 2016)
Twenty sovereigns of the Romanov dynasty reigned for three centuries, from the rule of Ivan the Terrible to the time of Grigori Rasputin and the last tsar. As builders of the Russian state, the dynasty was a great success. When Mikhail Romanov was crowned in 1613, Russia was a struggling entity on the fringes of Europe, squeezed by powerful Poland on the West, the Ottoman empire from the South, and various remnants of the Golden Horde from the East. For the next three hundred years, the Russian state grew by 20,000 square miles per year, adding a territory the equivalent of California every eight years.
The Romanovs is a study of the character of the individual rulers, and an examination of one of the primary dilemmas of power in Russia – how does one rule such a large and diverse country?
The author believes that the rise and fall of the Romanovs remains as fascinating as it is relevant. “Russia’s imperial interests – from Ukraine to the Baltics, Caucasus, to Crimea, Syria and Jerusalem to the Far East – continue to define Russia and the world as we know it.” Montefiore provides a convincing analysis to the question of why an empire whose rules were so often flawed was so successful.
4. The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia By Susan Jaques (New York: Pegasus Books, 2016)
If The Romanovs is a broad overview of the imperial dynasty, the biographical work by Susan Jaques, docent at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, is about one aspect of Catherine the Great, one of the most illustrious representative of Russia’s rulers.
The Empress of Art is a biography of an ambitious woman who rose from modest origins to become one of the most powerful sovereigns of her time. Jaques focuses on Catherine as an art collector, but the stories about Catherine’s artistic endeavors are painted against a backdrop of Russia’s rise as a major European power in the second half of the 18th century.
Catherine showed voracious appetite for art, just as she did for power and for lovers. The art was both the object, and a tool for legitimizing Catherine’s initially shaky claim to power. Her contribution to the improvement of Russia’s cultural scene – including the creation of the Hermitage Museum – can only be matched by her expansion of Russia’s territory, which included the annexation of large parts of Poland, Ukraine and Crimea.
Much of Catherine’s artistic legacy is still with us, and can be seen both in St. Petersburg and Washington D.C. After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, a large part of Catherine’s art collection was secretly acquired by Andrew Mellon, whose donation became the foundation of the National Gallery of Art.
5. The Blizzard By Vladimir Sorokin (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)
Vladimir Sorokin is probably one of the most important, and surely one of more controversial, contemporary Russian writers who uses phantasmagoria as a tool for social and political commentary. The Blizzard is devoid of some of the political satire that marked his earlier works, such as Day of the Oprichnik, but it is a mesmerizing work nonetheless.
The story starts when Platon Ilyich Garin, a conscientious small town doctor, is called to a village where a mysterious virus turns people into zombies. A blizzard is coming just as the doctor’s sledge disappears into a wintry night. It is a story of men struggling with the lifeless cold expanse, of conversations about good and evil, and with many hallucinations, including one in which the doctor is cooked alive in sunflower oil.
This futuristic novella is Anton Chekov meets Stephen King. Just like in King, the storytelling captivates by its vivid and elaborate realism, and just like in Chekhov, the reader should not expect a happy end.