The best books to see how cultural diversity both sustained and brought down the Russian Empire

Why am I passionate about this?

You can experience Russia by exploring the churches and palaces of St Petersburg and Moscow. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not my approach. For me, it has always made more sense to look at the largest country on earth from its edges, the distant mountains, steppes, forests, and waters that surround it. For three decades, I have travelled across this space, studied its languages, written books and articles about it. And I have tried to look through the lens of the diverse peoples and cultures that have been part of Russian history, for better or worse. The rise and fall of the Russian Empire are unthinkable without them.    


I wrote...

The Lawful Empire: Legal Change and Cultural Diversity in Late Tsarist Russia

By Stefan B. Kirmse,

Book cover of The Lawful Empire: Legal Change and Cultural Diversity in Late Tsarist Russia

What is my book about?

This book makes a daring suggestion: Was the Russian Empire more “lawful” than commonly assumed? Did it seek to integrate and empower ethnic and religious “minorities”, rather than suppress them? These questions are uncomfortable, and while the answers are complex, the book does away with numerous assumptions about Russian imperial rule. It examines the gradual introduction of a new court system from the 1860s.

Focusing on two culturally diverse regions, it follows the spread of the courts into the Black Sea region, especially Crimea, and into the fields and forests around Kazan, the ancient Tatar capital on the Volga River. As these former frontier zones were home to large Tatar populations, the book also breaks new ground on Muslims in Russian imperial society.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel

Stefan B. Kirmse Why did I love this book?

This early 20th-century courtroom drama, set in late imperial Kiev, is a truly satisfying read: suspenseful and riveting, yet also persuasive as a scholarly work.

I have rarely come across an academic book on the Russian Empire so difficult to put down, with virtually every chapter ending on a cliffhanger.

Telling the true story of a ritual murder charge against a Jewish factory clerk in 1911, his sufferings, and ultimate acquittal, the book is a meticulously researched and deeply captivating story of desperation and hope.

I might disagree with some of its claims about the judiciary, and yet, with its multitude of Jewish, Russian, and Ukrainian actors and ever more unexpected twists, the story told is as multilayered and diverse as the late imperial court system as a whole. 

By Edmund Levin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Child of Christian Blood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Jewish factory worker is falsely accused of ritually murdering a Christian boy in Russia in 1911, and his trial becomes an international cause célèbre.
 
On March 20, 1911, thirteen-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky was found stabbed to death in a cave on the outskirts of Kiev. Four months later, Russian police arrested Mendel Beilis, a thirty-seven-year-old father of five who worked as a clerk in a brick factory nearby, and charged him not only with Andrei’s murder but also with the Jewish ritual murder of a Christian child. Despite the fact that there was no evidence linking him to the crime,…


Book cover of For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia

Stefan B. Kirmse Why did I love this book?

This book was a milestone in the study of tsarist Russia as a multiethnic and multireligious empire, especially its large Muslim population.

By the 2000s, we had become used to thinking that the Russian Empire had suppressed or ignored its religious minorities who, in turn, had avoided state institutions as much as possible. Crews’ book shattered that idea.

Exploring court cases and other disputes across time and space, he boldly argued that Muslims turned to the state as protector of their faith and that Islam became a pillar of Russian imperial policy. Many scholars have attacked his argument since then, partly for good reasons.

And yet, his contribution has proven to be more important and long-lived than those of most of his critics. On top, it’s a wonderful read. 

By Robert D. Crews,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked For Prophet and Tsar as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Russia occupies a unique position in the Muslim world. Unlike any other non-Islamic state, it has ruled Muslim populations for over 500 years. Though Russia today is plagued by its unrelenting war in Chechnya, Russia's approach toward Islam once yielded stability. In stark contrast to the popular 'clash of civilisations' theory that sees Islam inevitably in conflict with the West, Robert D. Crews reveals the remarkable ways in which Russia constructed an empire with broad Muslim support. In the 18th Century, Catherine the Great inaugurated a policy of religious toleration that made Islam an essential pillar of Orthodox Russia. For…


Book cover of The Volga: A History of Russia's Greatest River

Stefan B. Kirmse Why did I love this book?

The Volga is key to understanding Russian history.

The river helped the empire to spread and rule, it carried dangers and diseases, protected and divided people. As a frequent site of battle, it also helped to shape collective memory. Janet Hartley’s history of the Volga captures these dimensions beautifully.

Containing a wealth of detail and written in elegant and accessible language, her book delivers new insights on a broad range of topics, from religious policy and piracy to the Volga in poetry and painting.

It is a great introduction to Russian empire-building, while, at the same time, offers even historians of Russia new insights in almost every chapter.

Take a long river cruise – down the Danube or Mississippi – and enjoy.

By Janet M. Hartley,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A rich and fascinating exploration of the Volga River and its vital place in Russian history-named a Best Book of 2021 by the Financial Times

"A memorable journey into the heart of Russian social, political, and cultural history."-Jennifer Eremeeva, Moscow Times

"'Without the Volga, there would be no Russia.' The final words of Janet Hartley's book sound sweeping. But its 400 pages make the case powerfully."-The Economist

The longest river in Europe, the Volga stretches more than three and a half thousand km from the heart of Russia to the Caspian Sea, separating west from east. The river has played…


Book cover of The Elusive Empire: Kazan and the Creation of Russia, 1552-1671

Stefan B. Kirmse Why did I love this book?

Why read a book on the early modern frontier?

You may think that all you need to know about Russia in the 1500s is Ivan the Terrible, but this gripping book will teach you otherwise.

It’ll ring familiar bells for those fascinated by the American West: it’s about an expanding state struggling to secure an unruly frontier. It features plenty of competition, even conflict, between local governors and distant lawmakers, between secular and church figures.

It also shows the suppression, but also systematic cooptation (nearly absent in the American case!), of an indigenous population.

As the title suggests, though, the Russian colonial system remained “elusive” – more rhetorical than real – as accommodation became the key form of interaction across many frontier regions.

This is bold, but argued pretty convincingly.          

By Matthew P. Romaniello,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Elusive Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1552, Muscovite Russia conquered the city of Kazan on the Volga River. It was the first Orthodox Christian victory against Islam since the fall of Constantinople, a turning point that, over the next four years, would complete Moscow's control over the river. This conquest provided a direct trade route with the Middle East and would transform Muscovy into a global power. As Matthew Romaniello shows, however, learning to manage the conquered lands and peoples would take decades.

Russia did not succeed in empire-building because of its strength, leadership, or even the weakness of its neighbors, Romaniello contends; it succeeded…


Book cover of Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy, Volume One: From Peter the Great to the Death of Nicholas I

Stefan B. Kirmse Why did I love this book?

Recommending a two-volume tome may seem odd at first sight.

But this is a truly majestic work (no pun intended). Ingeniously, Richard Wortman attributes a distinctive “scenario of power” to every Russian emperor from the 1700s to the downfall of the Romanovs in 1917, with some rulers promoting a national myth and others framing their reign as a bond of love with their subjects.

The account is deeply captivating and honest, showing every emperor and empress with all their quirks and human weaknesses, but also helping us understand their enigmatic appeal.

While the other books I recommend explore the Russian Empire “from below”, through the eyes of the people, this one is top down, focusing on how the empire and its rulers saw themselves.

The read is worth every page.        

By Richard S. Wortman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Russian imperial court, with its extravagant ceremonies and celebrations, was perhaps the most impressive theater in the world. The show, however, was no mere diversion, as Richard Wortman demonstrates in this first scholarly study of the principal myths, symbols, and rituals of Russian monarchy. Focusing on the period from the reign of Peter the Great to the death of Nicholas I, Wortman shows how the presentations and representations of the Russian ruler played a central role in the exercise of monarchical power. These presentations--from ceremonies and staged events to architectural and literary monuments--sustained an image of a supreme and…


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By Jim Brown,

Book cover of Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

Jim Brown Author Of Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

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Why am I passionate about this?

I have spent my entire professional life quietly patrolling the frontiers of understanding human consciousness. I was an early adopter in the burgeoning field of biofeedback, then neurofeedback and neuroscience, plus theory and practices of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, plus steeping myself in systems theory as a context for all these other fields of focus. I hold a MS in psychology from San Francisco State University and a PhD from Saybrook Institute. I live in Mount Shasta CA with Molly, my life partner for over 60 years. We have two sons and two grandchildren.

Jim's book list on brain, mind, and consciousness

What is my book about?

In this thoroughly researched and exquisitely crafted treatise, Jim Brown synthesizes the newest understandings in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and dynamical systems theory for educators and others committed to nurturing human development.

He explains complex concepts in down-to-earth terms, suggesting how these understandings can transform education to engender optimal learning and intelligence. He explores the nature of consciousness, intelligence, and mind.

Brown then offers a model of optimal human learning through lifelong brain development within a supportive culture--drawing on the work of Piaget, Erickson, Maslow, Kohlberg, and Steiner--and how that work is being vastly expanded by neuroscience and dynamical systems thinking.

Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

By Jim Brown,

What is this book about?

In this thoroughly-researched and exquisitely crafted treatise, Jim Brown synthesizes the newest understandings in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and dynamical systems theory for educators and others committed to nurturing human development. He explains complex concepts in down-to-earth terms, suggesting how these understandings can transform education to truly engender optimal learning and intelligence. He explores the nature of consciousness, intelligence, and mind. Brown then offers a model of optimal human learning through life-long brain development within a supportive culture--drawing on the work of Piaget, Erickson, Maslow, Kohlberg, and Steiner--and how that work is being vastly expanded by neuroscience and dynamical systems thinking.


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