I’ve been on a bit of a Russia kick in my nonfiction reading of late. In part that was because I felt like knowing more about the history of Communism would help me understand China better, and in part because I just wanted to know more than what I learned from my initial immersion in its 19th-century literature at university. So far I’m batting a thousand, as all three of the books I somewhat randomly chose have turned out to be very worthwhile:
- Orlando Figes, Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991: A History. A concise and very nicely written general history, which did exactly what this kind of book is supposed to: conveyed the big picture in a clear and vivid way, and made me want to learn more about many specific questions.
- Rosemary Sullivan, Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva. Overly long, as is so often the case with biographies, but still consistently fascinating and moving. She was dealt a horrible hand from birth, and tried valiantly to live an ordinary and decent life anyway–it is impossible not to feel sympathy for her, though she also made many poor choices. The book is definitely about her and not really about Stalin, though it still conveys something of an insider’s perspective on the USSR.
- Charles Clover, Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism. One of the most interesting pieces of intellectual and political history I’ve read in a long time. The book starts as quirky historical detective story, digging out the origin of some unlikely ideas in an unusual cast of characters, including Russian aristocrats and structural linguists. Then it morphs into a more journalistic account of recent Russian political history, detailing how those unlikely ideas came to have real political force. Altogether an excellent explanation of where Russia is today and how it got there, highly recommended. Check out this excerpt for a taste.
I haven’t decided what Russia book I’m going to tackle next, but I do feel like I need to know some economic history of the Soviet Union, and have added some recommended titles to my list.