The best books in Russian history—with an imperial twist

The Books I Picked & Why

A Public Empire: Property and the Quest for the Common Good in Imperial Russia

By Ekaterina Pravilova

A Public Empire: Property and the Quest for the Common Good in Imperial Russia

Why this book?

This is a remarkable book that defies categorization. Establishing a concept of property that existed between private property and the property of the state, Pravilova imaginatively unites a seemingly unrelated collection of topics: forests, rivers, icons, copyright, archaeological treasures, and much more besides. She offers a profoundly new way of thinking about property and about Russians’ attitudes towards ownership. Deeply rooted in the particularities of Russia, the book also raises issues of universal significance.


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The Baron's Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution

By Willard Sunderland

The Baron's Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution

Why this book?

This is a book of uncommon imagination and historical reconstruction. It focuses on the life of the eccentric Baron von Ungern-Shternberg and uses the Baltic German aristocrat’s adventures to reveal key characteristics of the late Russian Empire and the early Soviet years. Especially striking is the book’s geographical scope, which ranges from Austria to Mongolia and stops at many places in between. Written in engaging and fluid prose, the book is a truly original work of historical imagination that allows one to understand Russia and its place in the wider world—and in Asia, in particular.


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A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism

By Victoria Smolkin

A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism

Why this book?

This very compelling book explores a critical topic in the history of the USSR. In clear and expressive prose, it tells a crucial story that reveals a great deal about the Soviet project, about the relationship between ideology and politics, and about the scope and limits of authoritarian state power. It ultimately shows the striking irony that the USSR’s atheistic establishment found itself trying to replicate the spiritual and emotional offerings of the religion(s) that it simultaneously sought to destroy.


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The Jewish Century

By Yuri Slezkine

The Jewish Century

Why this book?

The history of modern Russia is almost inconceivable without the millions of Jews who, restricted to the Pale of Settlement in the years of the tsarist empire, went on to become major producers and interpreters of Russian culture in the Soviet Union. This remarkable book tells their story but is about so much more besides. In witty and idiosyncratic prose, it ultimately describes the modern condition and what it means to inhabit it.


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Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait

By Bathsheba Demuth

Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait

Why this book?

This book—about the United States as well as Russia and the USSR—skilfully draws diverse peoples, territories, and animals into a single compelling narrative. Exposing different phases of humans’ exploitation of Arctic resources under both capitalist and socialist regimes, Demuth compels the reader to think about humans, energy, and the implication of nature in the historical process in new ways.


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