The best books for understanding the Soviet Union and Post-Soviet Russia

David Satter Author Of Never Speak to Strangers and Other Writing from Russia and the Soviet Union
By David Satter

The Books I Picked & Why

The Russian Tradition

By Tibor Szamuely

The Russian Tradition

Why this book?

Tibor Szamuely was the nephew of a leading Hungarian communist who was killed in the purges. In this book, completed just before his death at 47, he traces the process through which Russians were enslaved by the state. Peasants were progressively bound to the land. The Russian church accepted the fusion of political and religious authority in the person of the Tsar. After the fall of Byzantium, the tsars, as the heads of the only surviving Orthodox state, treated Moscow as the ”Third Rome” and began to claim worldwide moral and political leadership. This claim was supported by the Russian people who saw in it justification for their miserable conditions. Communism was supposed to be entirely new but as Szamuely eloquently shows, it merely modernized the Russian state tradition.


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Vekhi: Landmarks

By Nikolei Berdiaev, Sergei Bulgakov, Mikhail Gershenson, A. S. Izgoev, Bogdan Kistiakovskii, Petr Struve, Frank Semen

Vekhi: Landmarks

Why this book?

In a vain effort to prevent the disaster they knew was coming, Russia’s leading religious philosophers in 1909 called on the increasingly radical Russian intelligentsia to return to religion as a means of grounding the individual. The philosopher, Nikolai Beryaev wrote that the intelligentsia sought a universal theory but was only ready to accept one that supported their social goals. They, therefore, denied man’s absolute significance. Bogdan Kistyakovsky wrote that the intelligentsia’s attraction to formalism and bureaucracy as well as its faith in the omnipotence of rules contained the seeds of a future police state. The authors of the various essays in this classic book, in fact, foresaw all of the characteristics of the future Soviet police state that arose out of the drive of Russian radicals to create “heaven on earth.”


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Origins of Totalitarianism

By Hannah Arendt

Origins of Totalitarianism

Why this book?

In her classic study of totalitarianism, Arendt describes the contours of the fictitious world that existed in the Soviet Union. Like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union was engaged not only in a constant fight with invented enemies but with reality itself. The communist system was based on concentric circles of power with the inner circles characterized by their total contempt for reality. As Arendt explains, the object was to create and force people to act out a false version of reality that would conform to Marxist-Leninist ideology. This could only be achieved by force which is why the combination of ideology and terror was the essence of the Soviet Union.


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The Seven Days of Creation

By Vladimir Maximov

The Seven Days of Creation

Why this book?

In this multi-generational novel, Maximov showed what the Soviet system meant for ordinary people whose speech he had a rare gift for capturing. In his portrait of seven decades of the Lashkov family, he showed how the drive of the communists to control the lives of others on the basis of an ideology whose implications they themselves did not understand tore families apart. Pyotr Lashkov, the patriarch, became totally alienated from his alcoholic anti-communist brother.  Vadim Lashkov, a member of the third generation, is put in a mental hospital. A fellow prisoner advises him: “If ever you think of trying to escape, the search will be thorough, very thorough. And they’ll find you… because you’ve found out a little more than ordinary mortals are supposed to know.”


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Moscow - 2042

By Vladimir Voinovich

Moscow - 2042

Why this book?

Vladimir Voinovich was probably the greatest Russian satirical writer since Gogol. After the fall of the U.S.S.R., he was asked if it was still possible to write satire in Russia. He insisted that it was. “The Soviet Union was a giant mental hospital but it was organized,” he explained. “Now, the inmates have been told that they can do whatever they want. So Russia is funnier than ever.”

In this novel, published in 1986, Voinovich demonstrated his stunning ability to divine the future. He described a new Russian regime dominated by state security and based not on Marxism-Leninism but on the teachings of the Orthodox Church. Like Russia today, the regime of his novel tells its citizens that they are surrounded by “three rings of hostility.” The first is the former Soviet republics; the second, the former Soviet satellites, the third, the West – the former “capitalist enemy.” This makes it easier to impose the rule of a new leader, “Serafim the First, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias.”


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