The best books if you want to understand Pre-Putin’s Soviet Russia

Susanne Schattenberg Author Of Brezhnev: The Making of a Statesman
By Susanne Schattenberg

Who am I?

When I had to choose another elective subject at school, my grandmother advised me: "Take Russian. We will have to deal with the Russians – for better or for worse.” So I chose Russian as my third foreign language and my grandmother was right – first it came good: perestroika and glasnost, then it came bad: Putinism. So I studied Russian and history, did my doctorate and habilitation in Russian-Soviet history, and today I am a professor of contemporary history and culture of Eastern Europe and head of the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. 

I wrote...

Brezhnev: The Making of a Statesman

By Susanne Schattenberg,

Book cover of Brezhnev: The Making of a Statesman

What is my book about?

Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982), who ruled from 1964 to 1982, has always been considered a falcon, Stalinist, and grey, bloated apparatchik. My book shows that nothing of this is true: Brezhnev sought wholeheartedly peace with the West, he suffered under Stalin, and claimed openly that this must never repeat; he supported Alexander Dubček and was one of the last men in the Warsaw Pact to argue against the invasion in Prague 1968; he did neither support the communist revolution nor the invasion in Afghanistan, and under his rule the Soviet welfare state was developed which is today glorified by many Russians as the “golden age”. Even more, Brezhnev was good-looking, a womanizer who loved fast cars, hunting, and cowboy-movies with Chuck Connors.  

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The books I picked & why

Lenin on the Train

By Catherine Merridale,

Book cover of Lenin on the Train

Why did I love this book?

This book made me a traveling companion of Lenin. Together with him we go on an incredible journey: from Switzerland across Europe via Finland to Petrograd. This journey changed the world, because it brought Lenin back to Russia, Russia the October coup, and the century of a Soviet regime. Merridale depicts the unique moment of the dawn of a new age as banally and grotesquely as if she had really been there. The best part: just before he left, Lenin called the American embassy because he would have preferred to be transported by the Americans rather than the Germans. But it was Easter Sunday and no one could be reached at the embassy, and so the story took its course....

By Catherine Merridale,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lenin on the Train as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The superb, funny, fascinating story of Lenin's trans-European rail journey and how it shook the world' Simon Sebag Montefiore, Evening Standard, Books of the Year

'Splendid ... a jewel among histories, taking a single episode from the penultimate year of the Great War, illuminating a continent, a revolution and a series of psychologies in a moment of cataclysm and doing it with wit, judgment and an eye for telling detail' David Aaronovitch, The Times

By 1917 the European war seemed to be endless. Both sides in the fighting looked to new weapons, tactics and ideas to break a stalemate that…

Book cover of The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution

Why did I love this book?

This book is incredible, because it tells the story of Stalinist terror through a single house. Moreover, Slezkine creates a world history around this house of victims and perpetrators, which literally begins in the primordial mud and ends on the Day of Judgment. Slezkine takes no prisoners: either you follow him and the apocalyptic horsemen, or you don't, he doesn't care. Like a man possessed, he tells the story of one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century and I found it almost impossible to escape his spell. 

By Yuri Slezkine,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The House of Government as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the epic story of an enormous apartment building where Communist true believers lived before their destruction The House of Government is unlike any other book about the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experiment. Written in the tradition of Tolstoy's War and Peace, Grossman's Life and Fate, and Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, Yuri Slezkine's gripping narrative tells the true story of the residents of an enormous Moscow apartment building where top Communist officials and their families lived before they were destroyed in Stalin's purges. A vivid account of the personal and public lives…

Book cover of Khrushchev's Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform after Stalin

Why did I love this book?

This book took me into the abysses of Soviet society, but in a very different way than the books on terror: Dobson does an incomparable job of describing what it meant for Soviet people to take in millions of Gulag returnees after 1953, and to do so in a society that was far from leaving the ravages of war behind, that itself had barely any housing and enough to eat, that on the one hand was severely traumatized by Stalin's terror, but on the other hand was in large part unwilling to accept the Gulag returnees as innocent victims. They were perceived as troublemakers and competitors for the few resources, their language as vulgar and outrageous, their culture as an attack on Stalinist "culturedness." Anyone who wants to understand what Stalinism did not only to the victims, but to society as a whole, must read this book. But be aware: you will feel cold while reading it.

By Miriam Dobson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Khrushchev's Cold Summer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Between Stalin's death in 1953 and 1960, the government of the Soviet Union released hundreds of thousands of prisoners from the Gulag as part of a wide-ranging effort to reverse the worst excesses and abuses of the previous two decades and revive the spirit of the revolution. This exodus included not only victims of past purges but also those sentenced for criminal offenses.

In Khrushchev's Cold Summer, Miriam Dobson explores the impact of these returnees on communities and, more broadly, Soviet attempts to come to terms with the traumatic legacies of Stalin's terror. Confusion and disorientation undermined the regime's efforts…

Book cover of K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist

Why did I love this book?

This book is the best proof that history can also be simply fun and insanely comical. The ten days that Khrushchev spent traveling through the U.S. in 1959, visiting both Hollywood and the farm of President Eisenhower, who gave him a calf, show, as if in a snow globe, all the comedy and tragedy of Soviet-American relations: the mutual fascination, the great similarities of wanting to please the world and dominate space, and the great mistrust that both sides could never quite put aside. And yet, these ten crazy days invite us to dream and speculate what would have been if the relations between the USA and the USSR had always been as good and cordial as in that September 1959. The US-Soviet story as a road movie with a happy ending!

By Peter Carlson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked K Blows Top as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Khrushchevs 1959 trip across America was one of the strangest exercises in international diplomacy ever conducteda surreal extravaganza, as historian John Lewis Gaddis called it. Khrushchev told jokes, threw tantrums, sparked a riot in a San Francisco supermarket, wowed the coeds in a home economics class in Iowa, and ogled Shirley MacLaine as she filmed a dance scene in Can-Can. He befriended and offended a cast of characters including Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe. Published for the fiftieth anniversary of the trip, K Blows Top is a work of history that reads like a…

Book cover of Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future

Why did I love this book?

This book grabbed me and I devoured it like a thriller. This is not just simply a history book about the biggest nuclear disaster of the 20th century, it is at the same time investigative journalism, exposing the international nuclear lobby that successfully downplayed the scale of the casualties and consequences, and exposing the do-gooderism of the West that thought it could patronizingly show that it was much better equipped to deal with such a disaster, when in fact the real experts on radiation sickness were in the Soviet Union, quietly doing their job without PR. Anyone who wants to know why workers in a wool spinning mill were rightly given the "liquidator" status of firefighters from day one and why jam made from berries from the Pripyat marshes around Chernobyl still end up on the European breakfast table must read this book.

By Kate Brown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Manual for Survival as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Dear Comrades! Since the accident at the Chernobyl power plant, there has been a detailed analysis of the radioactivity of the food and territory of your population point. The results show that living and working in your village will cause no harm to adults or children.

So began a pamphlet issued by the Ukrainian Ministry of Health-which, despite its optimistic beginnings, went on to warn its readers against consuming local milk, berries, or mushrooms, or going into the surrounding forest. This was only one of many misleading bureaucratic manuals that, with apparent good intentions, seriously underestimated the far-reaching consequences of…

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