The best books on Russia and the USSR from someone fascinated by their culture and history

Donald Rayfield Author Of Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him
By Donald Rayfield

Who am I?

Since adolescence, I have been fascinated by Slavonic languages, literature, cultures, and history, and by what can be retrieved from archives all over Eastern Europe. And because so much has been suppressed or distorted in everything from biographies of writers to atrocities by totalitarian governments, there has been much to expose and write about. Studying at Cambridge in the 1960s gave me an opportunity to learn everything from Lithuanian to Slovak: I have been able to write histories of Stalin and of Georgia, biographies of Russians such as Chekhov, Suvorin, and Przhevalsky, and the field is still fresh and open for future work.

I wrote...

Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

By Donald Rayfield,

Book cover of Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

What is my book about?

Stalin did not act alone. The mass executions, the mock trials, the betrayals and purges, the jailings and secret torture that ravaged the Soviet Union during the three decades of Stalin's dictatorship, were the result of a tight network of trusted henchmen (and women), spies, psychopaths, and thugs. At the top of this pyramid of terror sat five indispensable hangmen who presided over the various incarnations of Stalin's secret police. Now, in his harrowing new book, Donald Rayfield probes the lives, the minds, the twisted careers, and the unpunished crimes of Stalin's loyal assassins.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?

Why did I love this book?

If an international criminal court ever decides to throw the book at Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, then Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy is the book the prosecutor would pick up. Dawisha has followed up every trace of Putin’s activity since the KGB was officially dissolved and given, with varying certainty and assurance, the dates, the locations, associates, and outcomes of some twenty years of criminal activity — hit-and-run car accidents, fraud, misappropriation of national and international funds, chicanery, grand larceny, false accusation, torture, murder, war crimes, terrorism. The British reader could not for some years buy Dawisha’s book; in the UK it was rejected by a publisher afraid of being sued.

By Karen Dawisha,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Putin's Kleptocracy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The raging question in the world today is who is the real Vladimir Putin and what are his intentions. Karen Dawisha’s brilliant Putin’s Kleptocracy provides an answer, describing how Putin got to power, the cabal he brought with him, the billions they have looted, and his plan to restore the Greater Russia.

Russian scholar Dawisha describes and exposes the origins of Putin’s kleptocratic regime. She presents extensive new evidence about the Putin circle’s use of public positions for personal gain even before Putin became president in 2000. She documents the establishment of Bank Rossiya, now sanctioned by the US; the…

Book cover of Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs

Why did I love this book?

Rasputin’s ghost will rejoice to have the centenary of his murder marked by 800 pages of painstakingly researched, objective, accurate, and even sympathetic biography. For this authoritative work, Douglas Smith mined the entire Russian press of Rasputin’s last years, the reports of up to 5,000 the agents sent by authorities in the government and church to protect or to incriminate Rasputin, as well as every extant memoir. He has discounted many sensational and scandalous reports of this self-made monk or priest’s wild behaviour and magical powers. Rasputin’s sexuality, drinking, and propensity to violence, Smith insists, are much exaggerated. As police agents confirmed, he would visit two or three prostitutes a day; he bedded many of his female acolytes and petitioners. But, as others testify, he was no rapist or pervert. His performance was unimpaired by three bottles of Madeira. Understandably, he drank and whored heavily in the last four years of his life, after two serious assassination attempts by demented former admirers, when he feared a third, successful attempt.

By Douglas Smith,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

On the centenary of the death of Rasputin comes a definitive biography that will dramatically change our understanding of this fascinating figure

A hundred years after his murder, Rasputin continues to excite the popular imagination as the personification of evil. Numerous biographies, novels, and films recount his mysterious rise to power as Nicholas and Alexandra's confidant and the guardian of the sickly heir to the Russian throne. His debauchery and sinister political influence are the stuff of legend, and the downfall of the Romanov dynasty was laid at his feet.

But as the prizewinning historian Douglas Smith shows, the true…

Book cover of Mirror of the Soul: A Life of the Poet Fyodor Tyutchev

Why did I love this book?

The most compelling aspect of Mirror of the Soul is its analysis of the great poet Tyutchev’s bi-polar temperament and compulsive philandering. He was a forgivable Don Juan, in that he deeply empathized with his victims, although his misbehaviour shortened the lives of his first wife and of his most infatuated mistress. Morbidly irresponsible, he impregnated at least two mistresses and both his wives before marriage. Joy was for Tyutchev a thin veneer of light over misery and darkness; deaths of those close to him and contrition (if not guilt) finally reconciled him, in a death-bed poem, with a “punitive God” who removes everything — “breath, willpower, sleep” — leaving just an aggrieved, loving wife as his intermediary. Mirror of the Soul is beautifully written and edited. It will be, for a long time, the standard work on Tyutchev, doubtless in Russia, too.

Book cover of Stalin's Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky

Why did I love this book?

Patenaude focuses just on the Mexican period, from January 1937 to August 1940, of Trotsky’s exile, although the previous stages of his exile — Kazakhstan in 1928, then Turkey for four years, France for another three, followed by interment in Norway — are dealt with in a series of flashbacks. In fact, the whole book is written as if Trotsky in Coyoacán were recalling his past, from his prosperous farmer’s boyhood to his underground militancy, his Civil War military brilliance, and his blundering incompetence as a Bolshevik power-broker. The danger that Patenaude flirts with is to let Trotsky’s charisma and undoubted genius charm him into overlooking his subject’s monstrous indifference to the suffering and deaths of others, sometimes even of those close to him, as well as his overweening conceit.

By dealing with the last phase of the tragedy, nemesis, Trotsky is seen to pay in fear, resignation, failure, and personal loss a price that may not be commensurate with the destruction of life that he himself caused between 1918 and 1922. Only Vladimir Nabokov might have written a more compelling account of Trotsky’s end (and its relationship to his beginnings). A dethroned Russian in exile, waiting for his killer to come from the homeland even while he is desperately trying to complete his biography of the killer (Stalin), is life imitating Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Invitation to a Beheading or Bend Sinister. Only Humbert Humbert’s murder of Quilty can match the sheer incompetence of the first attempt to murder the Trotskys — a group of Stalinists led by Siqueiros, the rival mural-painter to Diego Rivera, Trotsky’s protector, is let in by a young American traitor, rakes all the bedrooms with machine-gun fire but fails to see that the Trotskys, hiding under their bed, have survived unscathed — followed by clumsy success (almost requiring Trotsky’s collusion) in which NKVD agent Ramón Mercader, calling himself Jacson, a French Canadian sympathiser, despite a dubious French accent, enters the study unchallenged wearing a hat and a raincoat on a Mexican summer’s day and hits Trotsky on the head with the wrong side of an ice-pick. Patenaude’s narrative skill, however, keeps a wry smile, rather than a wicked grin, on the reader’s face.

By Bertrand M. Patenaude,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Leon Trotsky was the charismatic intellectual of the Russian Revolution, a brilliant writer and orator who was also an authoritarian organizer. He might have succeeded Lenin and become the ruler of the Soviet Union. But by the time the Second World War broke out he was in exile, living in Mexico in a villa borrowed from the great artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, guarded only by several naive young Americans in awe of the great theoretician. The household was awash with emotional turmoil - tensions grew between Trotsky and Rivera, as questions arose over his relations with Frida Kahlo.…


By Mikheil Javakhishvili, Donald Rayfield,

Book cover of Kvachi

Why did I love this book?

Like Felix Krull, or Jonathan Wild, this is the story of a con-man, murderer, traitor, somehow redeemed by his charm and incidents of bravery The novel is at its best when Javakhishvili starts to describe Kvachi’s experiences with the Russians during the Revolution, the civil war and the early years of the Soviet state; it becomes clear that what has seemed a send-up of morality and a celebration of the picaresque is in fact equally valid as a cold assessment of revolutionary realpolitik. This is a wonderful novel, subtle and extravagant at the same time, seeming to fly by the seat of its pants but in fact consistently aware of exactly how to tread the line between structure and improvisation. It is extremely generous, bursting out of what appear to be its narrow confines to give us far more than we initially expected.

By Mikheil Javakhishvili, Donald Rayfield,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This is, in brief, the story of a swindler, a Georgian Felix Krull, or perhaps a cynical Don Quixote, named Kvachi Kvachantiradze: womanizer, cheat, perpetrator of insurance fraud, bank-robber, associate of Rasputin, filmmaker, revolutionary, and pimp. Though originally denounced as pornographic, Kvachi's tale is one of the great classics of twentieth-century Georgian literature--and a hilarious romp to boot.

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