The best biographies that show how grit transforms people’s lives

Why am I passionate about this?

After more than thirty years of teaching Russian literature and culture at Yale and Harvard, and publishing numerous academic articles and monographs, I switched to writing historical biographies for a general audience. The catalyst was my discovery of Frederick Bruce Thomas, the remarkable son of former slaves in Mississippi who became a multimillionaire impresario in tsarist Moscow and the “Sultan of Jazz” in Constantinople. This resulted in The Black Russian, a widely praised biography that is now well on track to being made into a TV series. I am always drawn to stories of people whose grit makes them rebel against the limits that life seems to impose and allows them to achieve something transcendent.


I wrote...

To Break Russia's Chains: Boris Savinkov and His Wars Against the Tsar and the Bolsheviks

By Vladimir Alexandrov,

Book cover of To Break Russia's Chains: Boris Savinkov and His Wars Against the Tsar and the Bolsheviks

What is my book about?

A biography of the Russian revolutionary who spent his life fighting to transform his homeland into a liberal and democratic republic, and about whom Winston Churchill said "few men tried more, gave more, dared more and suffered more for the Russian people.” A complex and fascinating individual, Boris Savinkov was a paradoxically moral terrorist, a scandalous novelist, a friend of epoch-defining artists and writers, a government minister, an organizer of private armies, and an advisor to senior statesmen. At the end of his life, he allowed himself to be captured by the Soviet secret police, but, as I argue in my book, he did so because he had a secret plan to strike one last blow against the tyrannical regime. Savinkov’s epic life challenges many popular myths about the Russian Revolution, and his goals remain a poignant reminder of how things in Russia could have been, and how, perhaps, they may still become someday. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Jackie Robinson: A Biography

Vladimir Alexandrov Why did I love this book?

Because it’s the amazing story of how a supremely gifted and charismatic young Black man overcame his impoverished background and the racism endemic in the United States to break the color barrier in the national sport—baseball, and became an iconic figure in the struggle for civil rights. Rampersad’s unprecedented access to Robinson’s papers allowed him to paint a detailed, intimate, and moving portrait of a courageous and defiant man.

By Arnold Rampersad,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jackie Robinson as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The extraordinary life of Jackie Robinson is illuminated as never before in this full-scale biography by Arnold Rampersad, who was chosen by Jack's widow, Rachel, to tell her husband's story, and was given unprecedented access to his private papers. We are brought closer than we have ever been to the great ballplayer, a man of courage and quality who became a pivotal figure in the areas of race and civil rights.

Born in the rural South, the son of a sharecropper, Robinson was reared in southern California. We see him blossom there as a student-athlete as he struggled against poverty…


Book cover of Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Vladimir Alexandrov Why did I love this book?

Because it’s the celebrated biography of a remarkable young woman born into a minor German noble family, who, through her ingenuity and determination, transformed herself into the Empress of Russia, defined a Golden Age in her adopted country’s history and culture, and became one of the most influential figures in late 18th c. Europe. Robert Massie’s masterful narrative encompasses dozens of vivid portraits of Catherine’s associates and places them into a sweeping historical canvas.

By Robert K. Massie,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Catherine the Great as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The fascinating true story behind HBO's Catherine the Great starring Dame Helen Mirren as Catherine the Great.

Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into empress of Russia by sheer determination. For thirty-four years, the government, foreign policy, cultural development and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution.

Robert K. Massie brings an eternally fascinating woman together with her family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers and enemies - vividly and triumphantly to life.

History offers…


Book cover of Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt

Vladimir Alexandrov Why did I love this book?

It’s inspiring to read how a sickly boy became the larger-than-life figure who dominated turn of the century America. Although born into a famous and wealthy family, the young Theodore’s future seemed hopeless because of his repeated bouts with an illness that almost killed him. But through his own will, and with the inspiration and support of his remarkable family, he managed to overcome his ailment and grow into robust and productive manhood. McCullough’s discovery of a rich cache of family letters allowed him to create a fine-grained and moving narrative about how this exceptional man came to be.

By David McCullough,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Mornings on Horseback as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The National Book Award–winning biography that tells the story of how young Teddy Roosevelt transformed himself from a sickly boy into the vigorous man who would become a war hero and ultimately president of the United States, told by master historian David McCullough.

Mornings on Horseback is the brilliant biography of the young Theodore Roosevelt. Hailed as “a masterpiece” (John A. Gable, Newsday), it is the winner of the Los Angeles Times 1981 Book Prize for Biography and the National Book Award for Biography. Written by David McCullough, the author of Truman, this is the story of a remarkable little…


Book cover of Unbroken

Vladimir Alexandrov Why did I love this book?

Just the story of how Louis Zamperini, a troubled youth from a humble background, became an Olympic runner would have been enough for a remarkable life. But when WWII broke out, Zamperini enlisted in the Air Force and went on to survive an incredible series of harrowing experiences, any one of which would have destroyed a weaker man—survival of a plane crash, a month adrift in an ocean full of sharks, and years of unbelievable brutality in Japanese POW camps. Zamperini’s indomitable spirit prevailed after the war as well when he overcame the darkness into which he slipped and was able to rebuild his life on a new foundation of faith.

By Laura Hillenbrand,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked Unbroken as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the author of the bestselling and much-loved Seabiscuit, an unforgettable story of one man's journey into extremity. On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane's bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War. The lieutenant's name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood,…


Book cover of The Path to Power

Vladimir Alexandrov Why did I love this book?

The first volume in Robert Caro’s magisterial, multi-volume biography of LBJ describes in unprecedented detail the daunting obstacles—financial, geographical, educational, familial—that Johnson had to overcome during his extraordinary career, and the phenomenal drive that allowed him to rise to the summit of political power in the United States. Caro’s brilliant biography sheds light not only on an extraordinary man but also on the political processes that are the nation’s lifeblood.

By Robert A. Caro,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Path to Power as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The greatest biography of our era ... Essential reading for those who want to comprehend power and politics' The Times

Robert A. Caro's legendary, multi-award-winning biography of US President Lyndon Johnson is a uniquely riveting and revelatory account of power, political genius and the shaping of twentieth-century America.

This first instalment tells of the rise to national power of a desperately poor young man from the Texas Hill Country, revealing in extraordinary detail the genesis of the almost superhuman drive, energy and ambition that set LBJ apart. It charts his boyhood through the years of the Depression to his debut…


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Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

Book cover of Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

Kathleen DuVal Author Of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a professional historian and life-long lover of early American history. My fascination with the American Revolution began during the bicentennial in 1976, when my family traveled across the country for celebrations in Williamsburg and Philadelphia. That history, though, seemed disconnected to the place I grew up—Arkansas—so when I went to graduate school in history, I researched in French and Spanish archives to learn about their eighteenth-century interactions with Arkansas’s Native nations, the Osages and Quapaws. Now I teach early American history and Native American history at UNC-Chapel Hill and have written several books on how Native American, European, and African people interacted across North America.

Kathleen's book list on the American Revolution beyond the Founding Fathers

What is my book about?

A magisterial history of Indigenous North America that places the power of Native nations at its center, telling their story from the rise of ancient cities more than a thousand years ago to fights for sovereignty that continue today

Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

What is this book about?

Long before the colonization of North America, Indigenous Americans built diverse civilizations and adapted to a changing world in ways that reverberated globally. And, as award-winning historian Kathleen DuVal vividly recounts, when Europeans did arrive, no civilization came to a halt because of a few wandering explorers, even when the strangers came well armed.

A millennium ago, North American cities rivaled urban centers around the world in size. Then, following a period of climate change and instability, numerous smaller nations emerged, moving away from rather than toward urbanization. From this urban past, egalitarian government structures, diplomacy, and complex economies spread…


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