The best books to read when visiting Russia

Why am I passionate about this?

Sara Wheeler is a prize-winning non-fiction author. Sara is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Contributing Editor of The Literary Review, a Trustee of The London Library, and former chair of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award. She contributes to a wide range of publications in the UK and US and broadcasts regularly on BBC Radio. Her five-part series, ‘To Strive, To Seek’,  went out on Radio 4, and her book Cherry was made into a television film. 


I wrote...

Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age

By Sara Wheeler,

Book cover of Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age

What is my book about?

With the writers of the Golden Age as her guides – Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol and Turgenev, among others – Wheeler travels across eight time zones, from rinsed north-western beetroot fields and far-eastern Arctic tundra to the cauldron of ethnic soup that is the Caucasus. She follows nineteenth-century footsteps to make connections between then and now: between the places where flashing-epauletted Lermontov died in the aromatic air of Pyatigorsk, and sheaves of corn still stand like soldiers on a blazing afternoon, just like in Gogol’s stories. On the Trans-Siberian railway in winter she crunches across snowy platforms to buy dried fish from babushki, and in summer she sails the Black Sea where dolphins leapt in front of violet Abkhazian peaks. She also spends months in fourth-floor 1950s apartments, watching television with her hosts, her new friends bent over devices and moaning about Ukraine.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Sakhalin Island

Sara Wheeler Why did I love this book?

The writer’s account of a journey across Siberia and into the Russian Far East to investigate prison conditions on an island in the Sea of Okhotsk north of Japan. A book of investigative journalism and a finely worked travel narrative conjuring spongy mud, ‘smoky, dreamy mountains’ and ‘lithe’ rivers while the author dreams of turbot, asparagus and kasha.

By Anton Chekhov,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In 1890, the thirty-year-old Chekhov, already knowing that he was ill with tuberculosis, undertook an arduous eleven-week journey from Moscow across Siberia to the penal colony on the island of Sakhalin. Now collected here in one volume are the fully annotated translations of his impressions of his trip through Siberia and the account of his three-month sojourn on Sakhalin Island, together with his notes and extracts from his letters to relatives and associates. Highly valuable both as a detailed depiction of the Tsarist system of penal servitude and as an insight into Chekhov's motivations and objectives for visiting the colony…


Book cover of On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers

Sara Wheeler Why did I love this book?

Also published in 1893, the same year as Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island. Marsden, a London-born nurse, found her vocation tending to sick and abandoned Russians. The book offers a remarkable portrait of the remotest reaches of the Russian Empire, as well as the author’s indomitable spirit.

By Kate Marsden,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Kate Marsden (1859-1931), the youngest of eight children from a poor family, was a highly committed nurse. She cared for soldiers in the Russo-Turkish War in 1877-8, and undertook missionary travels to various countries, but she was especially concerned about the plight of those suffering from leprosy. This volume, published in 1893, describes her remarkable journey to Siberian leper colonies. At first she travelled by sledge with a friend, but continued alone on horseback, facing appalling weather conditions with her customary courage. Her commitment to leprosy sufferers led her to found the St Francis Leprosy Guild in London in 1895,…


Book cover of Among the Russians

Sara Wheeler Why did I love this book?

Ten thousand miles in a Morris Minor. The reader might wonder, after closing this book, what has changed in Russia in forty years, despite regime collapse. An excellent companion on the road – though I found it hard to choose between this and Thubron’s later book on Russia, In Siberia.

By Colin Thubron,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Among the Russians as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Thubron learnt Russian and entered the then Soviet Union in an old Morris Marina in which he camped and drove for almost 10,000 miles between the Baltic and Caucasus. This book provides a revealing picture of the many races who inhabit the country and the human side behind state socialism.


Book cover of Black Earth City

Sara Wheeler Why did I love this book?

A wonderful account of a young Englishwoman’s year as a student in Voronezh in the potato belt. Crucially, that year was 1991, and Hobson saw it all. At once lyrical, funny and grim, this is a book that stands the test of time despite it all.

By Charlotte Hobson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The story of a young woman's heady encounter with Russia - and a society in collapse. In 1991, Charlotte Hobson went to study for a year in the provincial town of Voronezh. She captures the lives of her young contemporaries as the Soviet Union breaks up around them: Viktor, and his brutal memories of military service; Lola who sleeps with her fellow students for a share of their dinner; Yakov, blowing a million roubles of the Salvation Army's money on a taxi to Minsk to see a girl. Here too is the author's story and Mitya's. Their love affair begins…


Book cover of Journey into Russia

Sara Wheeler Why did I love this book?

The author was an old fraud but this is a delightful period piece which reveals a good deal, sometimes inadvertently, about the lives of Russians in the benighted Soviet sixties.

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I Am Taurus

By Stephen Palmer,

Book cover of I Am Taurus

Stephen Palmer

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Philosopher Scholar Liberal Reader Musician

Stephen's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

The constellation we know as Taurus goes all the way back to cave paintings of aurochs at Lascaux. This book traces the story of the bull in the sky, a journey through the history of what has become known as the sacred bull.

Each of the sections is written from the perspective of the mythical Taurus, from the beginning at Lascaux to Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, and elsewhere. This is not just a history of the bull but also a view of ourselves through the eyes of the bull, illustrating our pre-literate use of myth, how the advent of writing and the urban revolution changed our view of ourselves, and how even bullfighting in Spain is a variation on the ancient sacrifice of the sacred bull.

I Am Taurus

By Stephen Palmer,

What is this book about?

The constellation we know as Taurus goes all the way back to cave paintings of aurochs at Lascaux. In I Am Taurus, author Stephen Palmer traces the story of the bull in the sky, starting from that point 19,000 years ago - a journey through the history of what has become known as the sacred bull. Each of the eleven sections is written from the perspective of the mythical Taurus, from the beginning at Lascaux to Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Greece, Spain and elsewhere. This is not just a history of the bull but also an attempt to see ourselves through…


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Interested in Russia, the Soviet Union, and penal colonies?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Russia, the Soviet Union, and penal colonies.

Russia Explore 345 books about Russia
The Soviet Union Explore 319 books about the Soviet Union
Penal Colonies Explore 12 books about penal colonies