The best books on modern Russian history

Steven G. Marks Author Of How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism
By Steven G. Marks

Who am I?

Steven G. Marks is a historian who has written extensively on Russian economic and cultural history, the global impact of Russian ideas, and the history of capitalism. He received his PhD from Harvard University and has spent more than 30 years teaching Russian and world history at Clemson University in South Carolina.


I wrote...

How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism

By Steven G. Marks,

Book cover of How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism

What is my book about?

In this sweeping history, Steven Marks tells the fascinating story of how Russian figures, ideas, and movements changed our world in dramatic but often unattributed ways.

On Europe’s periphery, Russia was an early modernizing nation whose troubles stimulated intellectuals to develop radical and utopian alternatives to Western models of modernity. These provocative ideas gave rise to cultural and political innovations that were exported and adopted worldwide. Wherever there was discontent with modern existence or traditional societies were undergoing transformation, anti-Western sentiments arose. Many people perceived the Russian soul as the antithesis of the capitalist, imperialist West and turned to Russian ideas for inspiration and even salvation.

The books I picked & why

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Moscow, 1937

By Karl Schlogel,

Book cover of Moscow, 1937

Why this book?

Karl Schlögel’s masterpiece, Moscow,1937, is a gripping study of Moscow at the peak of the Stalinist Great Terror. With short chapters and a multitude of illustrations, the book leads the reader on a panoptic tour of every aspect of the city’s life in this year of mass arrests and waves of executions. Step by step, Schlögel builds a convincing case that as the Communist regime struggled to get a grip on the chaos unleashed by the regime’s own collectivization and industrialization drives, its reflexive response was to resort to political violence. The murderous frenzy that resulted changed the society beyond recognition.


Secondhand Time

By Svetlana Alexievich, Bela Shayevich,

Book cover of Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

Why this book?

Written by the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time is an oral history of the USSR from World War II through the early 1990s. If you want to feel that you were a Soviet citizen and experienced its collapse, this is the book to read. Alexievich presents the kaleidoscope of emotions felt by contemporaries, from the disappointment and despair of those who saw their world crumbling around them, to the excitement and enthusiasm of those who felt stifled under Communism. The opinions of the young, the old, women and men, Russians and ethnic minorities, urban and rural residents, are all represented here, telling us the stories of their lives and in the process revealing to us what it was like to live through some of the most traumatic events of the twentieth century.


The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921

By Mark D. Steinberg,

Book cover of The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921

Why this book?

There are many excellent histories of the Russian Revolution that chronicle the main events, but none convey the complexity of experiences in Tsarist Russia during its final years and the Soviet regime in its initial phase as Mark Steinberg’s short but powerful and original work. This book gives us the bird’s-eye view of developments as they unfold, but also places them under the microscope to give us personal stories and experiences from different wakes of life. Using contemporary journalism and diaries, Steinberg recovers the voices of a range of ethnic groups in various regions of the empire—Jews, Ukrainians, and Central Asians--as well as workers, peasants, women, and members of the intelligentsia. As we witness their lives being thrown into upheaval by rapid political and economic transformation in the first years of the 20th century, followed by World War I, the two revolutions of 1917, and civil war, we gain a deeper and broader understanding of a revolutionary epoch that shifted the course of modern history.


Mr. Putin

By Clifford G. Gaddy, Fiona Hill,

Book cover of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin

Why this book?

In this readable and informative biography, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy dissect every aspect of the life, career, mentality, and evolving political views of Vladimir Putin. After reading this book, you feel as though you have gotten inside the head of the ex-KGB operative who became one of the longest-serving Russian leaders and can understand the motives that drive his authoritarianism at home and interventionism in foreign policy. This is absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to understand contemporary geopolitics and the fraught relationship between Russia and the West.


Imagining the Unimaginable

By Aaron J. Cohen,

Book cover of Imagining the Unimaginable: World War, Modern Art, and the Politics of Public Culture in Russia, 1914-1917

Why this book?

Fully abstract art was a Russian invention, but until this remarkable book by Aaron Cohen came out, there was no treatment of the subject that explained the historical context in which it emerged in the work of Kandinsky, Malevich, Tatlin, and others. Other art historians have traced the aesthetic process that led, seemingly ineluctably, toward abstraction, but Cohen shows us how closely linked it was to the despair felt during the First World War. In this short but accessible work that makes extensive use of previously untouched Russian sources, he brings to life the debates over the issue among Russian artists and critics and details the response of the art market to the turmoil of the period and the birth of avant-garde movements that revolutionized art worldwide.


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