The best books in Russian history—with an imperial twist

Who am I?

I have been studying Russia and its history for over 30 years and find that it continues to intrigue me. Having previously focused my attention on religion and its imperial dimensions (including The Tsar’s Foreign Faiths, with Oxford University Press in 2014), I have more recently sought to understand the importance of Russia’s nineteenth century and I am now exploring the history of Russia’s territory with a view to writing a history of the longest border in the world. I teach at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

I wrote...

1837: Russia's Quiet Revolution

By Paul W. Werth,

Book cover of 1837: Russia's Quiet Revolution

What is my book about?

Historians often think of Russia before the 1860s in terms of conservative stasis, when the "gendarme of Europe" secured order beyond the country's borders and entrenched the autocratic system at home. This book offers a profoundly different vision.

Drawing on an extensive array of sources, it reveals that many of modern Russia's most distinctive and outstanding features can be traced back to 1837, a seemingly inconspicuous but in fact exceptional year. From the romantic death of Russia's greatest poet Alexander Pushkin in January to a colossal fire at the Winter Palace in December, Russia experienced much that was astonishing in 1837. The cumulative effect was profound. The country's integration accelerated, and a Russian nation began to emerge, embodied in new institutions and practices, within the larger empire. The result was a quiet revolution, after which Russia would never be the same.

The books I picked & why

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

By Ekaterina Pravilova,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Willard Sunderland,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Victoria Smolkin,

Book cover of 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.

The Jewish Century

By Yuri Slezkine,

Book cover of 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.

Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait

By Bathsheba Demuth,

Book cover of 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Soviet Union, Russia, and modernity?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Soviet Union, Russia, and modernity.

The Soviet Union Explore 207 books about the Soviet Union
Russia Explore 210 books about Russia
Modernity Explore 21 books about modernity

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like They Fought for the Motherland: Russia's Women Soldiers in World War I and the Revolution, Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, and Twenty Letters to a Friend: A Memoir if you like this list.