The best books at the intersection of European art, culture, and history

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern Author Of Lenin's Jewish Question
By Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

Who am I?

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern is the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies and a Professor of Jewish History in the History Department at Northwestern University. He teaches a variety of courses that include early modern and modern Jewish history; Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah; history and culture of Ukraine; and Slavic-Jewish literary encounters.

I wrote...

Lenin's Jewish Question

By Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern,

Book cover of Lenin's Jewish Question

What is my book about?

In this first examination of Lenin's genealogical and political connections to East European Jews, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern reveals the broad cultural meanings of indisputable evidence that Lenin's maternal grandfather was a Jew. He examines why and how Lenin's Jewish relatives converted to Christianity, explains how Lenin's vision of Russian Marxism shaped his identity, and explores Lenin's treatment of party colleagues of Jewish origin and the Jewish Question in Europe.

Petrovsky-Shtern also uncovers the continuous efforts of the Soviet communists to suppress Lenin's Jewishness and the no less persistent attempts of Russian extremists to portray Lenin as a Jew. In this fascinating book, Petrovsky-Shtern expands our understanding not only of Lenin, but also of Russian and Soviet handling of the Jewish Question.

The books I picked & why

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Pieter Bruegel: The Complete Works

By Jürgen Müller, Thomas Schauerte,

Book cover of Pieter Bruegel: The Complete Works

Why this book?

Although it is published as a coffee-table book with beautiful and carefully prepared illustrations, this is the best biography of Pieter Bruegel and a cultural study of his times and works. Magnificently written, exuberantly rich, it will please anybody interested in early modern history, art, Reformation, and colonial wars. This is the book to read slowly, as one drinks vintage wine. 

Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake

By Daniel E. Sutherland,

Book cover of Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake

Why this book?

Known to broad public due to the hilarious “Whistler’s Mother” starring Mr. Bean, James Whistler is a paramount American participant in the Fin-de-siècle artistic life of France and England and a predecessor of most important artistic endeavors of the 20th century. Daniel Sutherland combed all possible archives and  produced a stunning study of Whistler’s private life, full of scandals, sufferings, travels, and triumphs. From the childhood Whister spent in the tsarist Russia to his vagabond life in Paris, his life is always a journey and a self-quest. Eminently readable and bright narrative of a somber and paradoxical character.

Marc Chagall: The Lost Jewish World

By Benjamin Harshav,

Book cover of Marc Chagall: The Lost Jewish World

Why this book?

One can read this book in two ways: as a highly representative collection of Marc Chagall’s works from different periods of his almost century-long life – and as an insightful study of the meaning of Chagall’s works. Harshav’s short analytical essays of Chagall’s major paintings emphasize how Yiddish idioms and the images of traditional Jewish world of the shtetl shape much of Chagall’s later artistic endeavors. Whatever the painter from Vitebsk put on canvas, he was bringing to life his recollections of the language his spoke as a child and artifacts among which he grew up.

Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust

By David Shneer,

Book cover of Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust

Why this book?

Written by one of the key scholars of Jewish history in the USSR, who died untimely in 2020, this book challenges our bias about the USSR and its Cold-War era culture. Shneer tells how the Soviet photographers, many of whom where Jews, documented the Nazi atrocities during World war II and how the Soviet officialdom used their visual narratives to create new cult of the Great Patriotic war and the image of the USSR as a humanistic society.

Modernism in Kyiv: Jubilant Experimentation

By Irena Makaryk, Virlana Tkacz,

Book cover of Modernism in Kyiv: Jubilant Experimentation

Why this book?

This excellent collection of articles by the top connoisseurs of East European art and culture discusses how Ukrainians and Jews created new trends in art and literature in the midst of the revolutionary turmoil Kyiv, then short-lived capital of the Ukrainian People’s Republic and later of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. This book proves that avant-garde images and trends emerge from the revolutionary utopianism and the desire to create a universalistic language understandable beyond the ethnic divide and languages.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in artists, theatres, and the Soviet Union?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about artists, theatres, and the Soviet Union.

Artists Explore 48 books about artists
Theatres Explore 41 books about theatres
The Soviet Union Explore 207 books about the Soviet Union

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, Ukraine: Movement without Change, Change without Movement, and Life and Fate if you like this list.