The best books to read when visiting Russia

Who am I?

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.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Sakhalin Island

By Anton Chekhov,

Book cover of Sakhalin Island

Why 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.

Sakhalin Island

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…


On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers

By Kate Marsden,

Book cover of On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers

Why 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.

On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers

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,…


Among the Russians

By Colin Thubron,

Book cover of Among the Russians

Why 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.

Among the Russians

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.


Black Earth City

By Charlotte Hobson,

Book cover of Black Earth City

Why 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.

Black Earth City

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…


Journey into Russia

By Laurens van der Post,

Book cover of Journey into Russia

Why 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.

Journey into Russia

By Laurens van der Post,

Why should I read it?

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


5 book lists we think you will like!

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

7,000+ 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 258 books about Russia
The Soviet Union Explore 251 books about the Soviet Union
Penal Colonies Explore 9 books about penal colonies

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like West with the Night, Travels in West Africa, and Tschiffely's Ride if you like this list.