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What to Read about Russia?

Updated: Dec 18, 2021

Which books about Russia were attention-grabbing, enlightening, eye-opening, or simply interesting to you?

Here is my list of books about different facets of Russia, written in English:

Everything was Forever, until it was no more By Alexey Yurchak

Great insights into the mindset of the last Soviet generation written by a USSR-born American professor. It offers a much more nuanced portrait of the society than just a binary of “indoctrinated fools” vs “free-spirited rebels”, telling about various sub-cultures and methods of ignoring official rhetoric.

Red Plenty By Francis Spufford

Half fiction, half documentary, this book pictures Russian post-Stalin decade - the time of rapid growth of Soviet economy. Jumping between characters and story lines, Spufford also explains the mechanisms - both official and implicit - of planned economy. I was surprised to learn that the author does not read Russian. So authentic the feel from the book was. How could he know / guess all these typical and so dear details?..

Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two By Vladimir Paperny

A fresh take on the Soviet architecture of the 1920ss (constructivism) to 1950ss (Stalin's grand style). Paperny noticed that architecture evolved in cycles - from denial of the past to the cult of history, from egalitarianism to hierarchy, from merging into the landscape to standing out of it.

Summerfolk By Stephen Lowell

A lovely research of a concept of “dacha” - from its appearance in 1700ss to the end of the 20th century. A dacha has always been a place for intensive domesticity, a healing breaking away from urbanization, freedom to wear whatever at hand without being worried how you look, and a meaning in life after the retirement.

A Sacred Place is Never Empty

By Victoria Smolkin

How did communists try to make people go away from religion? Looks like they used all possible tools: promotion, terror, education. Atheism was expected to create an alternative cosmology for a new, non-religious human - it even became a study taught in universities. However, religion was never "banned" in the USSR, but there were many implicit complications for the believers.

It is an interesting reading, full of facts and details, and at the same time precise in facts - a section on how space flights were used in promoting atheism is truly funny.

Land of the Firebird

By Suzanne Massie

Written in 1980, this monumental book explores "beauty of the old Russia": it is a comprehensive pursuit of pre-Revolutionary history, with an emphasis on culture and art. Pushkin, Gogol, Faberge, Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible - the book helps these names to come alive. It is beautifully, almost poetically written, with very accurately presented facts.

Suzanne's husband Robert Massie - is another well-known historian of Russia.

Putin’s Country By Anne Garells

When Anne had to decide which Russian city would be the field for her anthropological research, she just pointed to the map with her eyes closed. Her hand blindly chose Chelyabinsk - quite a brutal place to live, by Russian standards as well, even though economically it is relatively successful city. She pictures modern Russian mindset via multiple interviews and decades-long friendships.

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