The best books on Russia’s history and culture

The Books I Picked & Why

The Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin

By Simon Sebag Montefiore

Book cover of The Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin

Why this book?

I read Prince of Princes when I was researching Empress of the Night--the sequel to The Winter Palace--and needed to get to know the man who had been the greatest love of Catherine’s life. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s expansive, multifaceted biography of Catherine’s favourite viceroy, and secret husband, was the best introduction I could hope for. Grigory Potemkin was an extraordinary man of grand passions, learning, and political brilliance. He was Russian to the core, embodying both the enlightenment ideals and the mysticism of his country and times. Laying to rest many myths, including that of ‘Potemkin Villages,’  Montefiore offers one of the best accounts of life at the Russian Imperial court in the 18th century. 

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Anna Karenina

By Leo Tolstoy

Book cover of Anna Karenina

Why this book?

Anna Karenina does what the best novels do so well, it fully transports the reader into another time and place. Tolstoy, the novelist, is a perfect guide to Russia at the end of the 19th century. He does not judge but observes, does not preach but portrays. His characters--aristocrats, servants, landowners, serfs--grapple with universal human problems of love, betrayal, duty, freedom, all solidly rooted in the world the writer knows in all its minute details. Moscow winter streets team with carriages, private sledges, and sledges for hire; two boys are selling kvas at the train station; Anna Karenina, already in love with another man, notices her husband’s ugly ears; an upper-class child is chastised for addressing her mother in Russian, not French. A masterpiece!

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Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs

By Bronislava Nijinksa, Irina Nijinska, Jean Rawlinson

Book cover of Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs

Why this book?

I came across Early Memoirs when I set off to explore the fiery end of Catherine’s Russia and quickly realized I found a brilliant first-hand account of the dramatic transformation of Russian art and culture in early 20th century. Bronislava (Bronia) Nijinska, a talented dancer and choreographer herself, was the younger sister of Vaslav Nijinsky—the God of Dance—one of the best dancers of all times. In these memoirs she describes their childhood spent with dancer parents touring provincial Russian theatres, their education at the prestigious Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, and their years in the Ballets Russes, the ground-breaking Russian dance company which took Paris by storm in 1906.

Both clear-eyed and passionate about art Nijinska not only offers personal, intimate portraits of
 Vaslav Nijinsky, Sergey Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, but documents the transformation of Russian ballet from its imperial glory to the breathtaking and blood stirring 1913 Parisian premiere of The Rite of Spring, one of the most famous moments in ballet history.

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Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

By Vladimir Nabokov

Book cover of Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

Why this book?

Out of all Vladimir Nabokov’s books, Speak Memory -- this rebellion “against the two eternities of darkness which bookend a human life” -- is the one I return to most often.  Exiled and dispossessed by the Russian Revolution of 1917, Nabokov manages to escape the snares of nostalgia. He does not grieve the lost past, but revisits the very heart of his Russia, the people, the sites, the tastes of his childhood and adolescence. Speak Memory does not end with exile. Nabokov chronicles the lives of the Russian emigres in Berlin and Paris, the necessary adjustments and transformations of transplanted lives. When the book ends, in 1940, the author, accompanied by his wife and son, leaves Europe for America where he will write his best and most enduring novels.

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Shostakovich: A Life Remembered

By Elizabeth Wilson

Book cover of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered

Why this book?

Having studied cello in Soviet Russia in the 1960s, Elizabeth Wilson used her extensive musical contacts to produce this unique study of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the most innovative composers of the 20th century. Prompted by Wilson’s queries, family members, friends, fellow musicians, and other artists offered their recollections that might have otherwise been lost. Gathered together these testimonies offer a gripping picture of Shostakovich as an artist and a man. They describe his extraordinary successes and his struggles for survival and dignity during the brutal Stalinist purges and horrors of World War II. One of the most moving testimonies sheds light on the creation and the first performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7 which, in the world of music, became a symbol of resistance to fascism and all forms of totalitarianism anywhere.

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