RA+C put together the list of books that will help you to understand Russia’s past and present

The House of Government. A Saga of the Russian Revolution by Yuri Slezkine

The House of Government is unlike any other book about the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experiment. Written in the tradition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Grossman’s Life and Fate, and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Yuri Slezkine’s gripping narrative tells the true story of the residents of an enormous Moscow apartment building where top Communist officials and their families lived before they were destroyed in Stalin’s purges. A vivid account of the personal and public lives of Bolshevik true believers, the book begins with their conversion to Communism and ends with their children’s loss of faith and the fall of the Soviet Union.

A Spy in the Archives by Sheila Fitzpatrick

Moscow in the 1960s was the other side of the Iron Curtain: mysterious, exotic, even dangerous. In 1966 the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick travelled to Moscow to research in the Soviet archives. This was the era of Brezhnev, of a possible ‘thaw’ in the Cold War, when the Soviets couldn’t decide either to thaw out properly or re-freeze. Moscow, the world capital of socialism, was renowned for its drabness. The buses were overcrowded; there were endemic shortages and endless queues. This was also the age of regular spying scandals and tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and it was no surprise that visiting students were subject to intense scrutiny by the KGB. Many of Fitzpatrick’s friends were involved in espionage activities – and indeed others were accused of being spies or kept under close surveillance. In this book, Sheila Fitzpatrick provides a unique insight into everyday life in Soviet Moscow. Full of drama and colourful characters, her remarkable memoir highlights the dangers and drudgery faced by Westerners living under communism.

Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History by Catherine Merridale

Both beautiful and profoundly menacing, the Kremlin has dominated Moscow for many centuries. Behind its great red walls and towers many of the most startling events in Russia’s history have been acted out. It is both a real place and an imaginative idea; a shorthand for a certain kind of secretive power, but also the heart of a specific Russian authenticity. Catherine Merridale’s exceptional book revels in both the drama of the Kremlin and its sheer unexpectedness: an impregnable fortress which has repeatedly been devastated, a symbol of all that is Russian substantially created by Italians. The many inhabitants of the Kremlin have continually reshaped it to accord with shifting ideological needs, with buildings conjured up or demolished to conform with the current ruler’s social, spiritual, military or regal priorities. In the process, all have claimed to be the heirs of Russia’s great historic destiny.

A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924 by Orlando Figes

It is history on an epic yet human scale. Vast in scope, exhaustive in original research, written with passion, narrative skill, and human sympathy, A People’s Tragedy is a profound account of the Russian Revolution for a new generation. Many consider the Russian Revolution to be the most significant event of the twentieth century. Distinguished scholar Orlando Figes presents a panorama of Russian society on the eve of that revolution, and then narrates the story of how these social forces were violently erased. Within the broad stokes of war and revolution are miniature histories of individuals, in which Figes follows the main players’ fortunes as they saw their hopes die and their world crash into ruins. Unlike previous accounts that trace the origins of the revolution to overreaching political forces and ideals, Figes argues that the failure of democracy in 1917 was deeply rooted in Russian culture and social history and that what had started as a people’s revolution contained the seeds of its degeneration into violence and dictatorship. A People’s Tragedy is a masterful and original synthesis by a mature scholar, presented in a compelling and accessibly human narrative.

A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra edited by Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko

Members of Russia’s royal Romanov family were compulsive letter-writers and diary-keepers. By splicing the writings of Czar Nicholas II, his wife, Empress Alexandra, their children, relatives and confidants with excerpts from memoirs and supporting documents (newly released by the Russian State Archive, much of the material is published here for the first time), this chronologically organized documentary provides a lustrous, highly revealing and involving family portrait. It opens in 1881 with the assassination of 12-year-old Nicholas’s grandfather, Czar Alexander II, and closes in 1918 with the Bolshevik murder of Nicholas, Alexandra, their children and servants. Noteworthy among the diary entries are the tortured, guilt-ridden confessionals of Nicholas’s cousin, Grand Duke Konstantin, poet, intellectual, translator of Hamlet and closet homosexual, and the premonitory rumblings of the czar’s sister, Grand Duchess Xenia, who scorns the royal couple’s worshipful infatuation with Siberian peasant Grigory Rasputin. Most moving of all is the unwavering devotion and love between Nicholas and Alexandra. Replete with scandals, romance, rocky marriages and murders, the Romanovs’ writings at times banal, more often vivid and intense reveal just how out of touch they were with the common people.

Lost Splendour and the Death of Rasputin by Felix Yusupov

On the night of 30th December 1916, Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov murdered the ‘mad monk’ Rasputin, an event relayed in chilling detail in these memoirs.

This book as a gothic and preposterous, melodramatic and gruesome account of his life   filled with lies about the actual killing but a colourful and eccentric portrait of aristocratic life in St Petersburg at the end of the tsarist period, his  glamorous time in England, partying with the rich and famous at Oxford and London and marriage with  Princess Irina of Russia, the Tsar’s only niece.

Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization by Stephen Kotkin

This study is the first of its kind: a street-level inside account of what Stalinism meant to the masses of ordinary people who lived it. Stephen Kotkin was the first American in 45 years to be allowed into Magnitogorsk, a city built in response to Stalin’s decision to transform the predominantly agricultural nation into a “country of metal.” With unique access to previously untapped archives and interviews, Kotkin forges a vivid and compelling account of the impact of industrialization on a single urban community.

Kotkin argues that Stalinism offered itself as an opportunity for enlightenment. The utopia it proffered, socialism, would be a new civilization based on the repudiation of capitalism. The extent to which the citizenry participated in this scheme and the relationship of the state’s ambitions to the dreams of ordinary people form the substance of this fascinating story. Kotkin tells it deftly, with a remarkable understanding of the social and political system, as well as a keen instinct for the details of everyday life.

Kotkin depicts a whole range of life: from the blast furnace workers who labored in the enormous iron and steel plant, to the families who struggled with the shortage of housing and services. Thematically organized and closely focused, Magnetic Mountain signals the beginning of a new stage in the writing of Soviet social history.

Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No MoreThe Last Soviet Generation by Alexei Yurchak

Soviet socialism was based on paradoxes that were revealed by the peculiar experience of its collapse. To the people who lived in that system the collapse seemed both completely unexpected and completely unsurprising. At the moment of collapse it suddenly became obvious that Soviet life had always seemed simultaneously eternal and stagnating, vigorous and ailing, bleak and full of promise. Although these characteristics may appear mutually exclusive, in fact they were mutually constitutive. This book explores the paradoxes of Soviet life during the period of “late socialism” (1960s-1980s) through the eyes of the last Soviet generation.

Focusing on the major transformation of the 1950s at the level of discourse, ideology, language, and ritual, Alexei Yurchak traces the emergence of multiple unanticipated meanings, communities, relations, ideals, and pursuits that this transformation subsequently enabled. His historical, anthropological, and linguistic analysis draws on rich ethnographic material from Late Socialism and the post-Soviet period.

The model of Soviet socialism that emerges provides an alternative to binary accounts that describe that system as a dichotomy of official culture and unofficial culture, the state and the people, public self and private self, truth and lie–and ignore the crucial fact that, for many Soviet citizens, the fundamental values, ideals, and realities of socialism were genuinely important, although they routinely transgressed and reinterpreted the norms and rules of the socialist state.

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen

Hailed for her “fearless indictment of the most powerful man in Russia” (The Wall Street Journal), award-winning journalist Masha Gessen is unparalleled in her understanding of the events and forces that have wracked her native country in recent times. In The Future Is History, she follows the lives of four people born at what promised to be the dawn of democracy. Each came of age with unprecedented expectations, some as the children and grandchildren of the very architects of the new Russia, each with newfound aspirations of their own – as entrepreneurs, activists, thinkers, and writers, sexual and social beings. Gessen charts their paths not only against the machinations of the regime that would crush them all but also against the war it waged on understanding itself, ensuring the unobstructed reemergence of the old Soviet order in the form of today’s terrifying and seemingly unstoppable mafia state.

Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman

This is the definitive biography on one of the most important and controversial figures of the 20th century. Drawing on interviews with Gorbachev himself, transcripts and documents from the Russian archives, and interviews with Kremlin aides and adversaries, as well as foreign leaders, Taubman’s intensely personal portrait extends to Gorbachev’s remarkable marriage to a woman he deeply loved, and to the family that they raised together. Nuanced and poignant, yet unsparing and honest, this sweeping account has all the amplitude of a great Russian novel.

When Mikhail Gorbachev became its leader in March 1985, the USSR was still one of the world’s two superpowers. By the end of his tenure six years later, the Communist system was dismantled, the cold war was over and, on 25th December 1991, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist. While not solely responsible for this remarkable upheaval, he set decisive changes in motion. Assessments of Gorbachev could not be more polarised. In the West, he is regarded as a hero. In Russia, he is widely hated by those who blame him for the collapse of the USSR. Admirers marvel at this vision and courage. Detractors, including many of his Kremlin comrades, have accused him of everything from naivete to treason.