The best books on Russia’s history and culture

Who am I?

I am a Polish-born Canadian author of historical fiction. In my Polish life, Russia was a looming presence, the empire next door which, in 1795, wiped Poland from the map of Europe for over a century. In my Canadian life Russia has acquired a more universal significance as a cultural and political powerhouse rooted in the fertile territory between East and West, becoming an inspiration for several novels. The Winter Palace and Empress of the Night re-imagined the life of a Prussian princess who became more Russian than the Russians and turned out to be the greatest empress Russia has ever had. The Chosen Maiden told the story of a Polish-Russian dancer Bronia Nijinska who, having grown up in the shadow of her genius brother, managed to forge her own artistic path at a time of tragic upheavals which kept destroying her world.


I wrote...

The Winter Palace (A novel of the young Catherine the Great)

By Eva Stachniak,

Book cover of The Winter Palace (A novel of the young Catherine the Great)

What is my book about?

The Winter Palace tells the epic story of Catherine the Great’s improbable rise to power—as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne.

With dazzling details and intense drama, Eva Stachniak depicts Varvara’s secret alliance with Catherine as the princess grows into a legend—through an enforced marriage, illicit seductions, and, at last, the shocking coup to assume the throne of all of Russia. Impeccably researched and magnificently written, The Winter Palace is an irresistible peek through the keyhole of one of history’s grandest tales.

The books I picked & why

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Catherine the Great & Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair

By Simon Sebag Montefiore,

Book cover of Catherine the Great & Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair

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. 

Catherine the Great & Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair

By Simon Sebag Montefiore,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Catherine the Great & Potemkin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A widely acclaimed biography from thebestselling author of The Romanovs: "One of the great love stories of history” (The Economist) between Catherine the Great and the wildly flamboyant and talented Prince Potemkin. • "Captures the genius of two extraordinary Enlightenment figures—and of the age as well." —The Wall Street Journal

Catherine the Great was a woman of notorious passion and imperial ambition. Prince Potemkin was the love of her life and her co-ruler. Together they seized Ukraine and Crimea, territories that define the Russian sphere of influence to this day. Their affair was so tumultuous that they negotiated an arrangement…


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!

Anna Karenina

By Leo Tolstoy,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Anna Karenina as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1872 the mistress of a neighbouring landowner threw herself under a train at a station near Tolstoy's home. This gave Tolstoy the starting point he needed for composing what many believe to be the greatest novel ever written.

In writing Anna Karenina he moved away from the vast historical sweep of War and Peace to tell, with extraordinary understanding, the story of an aristocratic woman who brings ruin on herself. Anna's tragedy is interwoven with not only the courtship and marriage of Kitty and Levin but also the lives of many other characters. Rich in incident, powerful in characterization,…


Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs

By Bronislava Nijinksa, Irina Nijinska (editor), Jean Rawlinson (translator)

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.

Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs

By Bronislava Nijinksa, Irina Nijinska (editor), Jean Rawlinson (translator)

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Now in paperback, Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs-originally published in 1981-has been hailed by critics, scholars, and dancers alike as the definitive source of firsthand information on the early life of the great Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950). This memoir, recounted here with verve and stunning detail by the late Bronislava Nijinska (1891-1972)-Nijinsky's sister and herself a major twentieth-century dancer and leading choreographer of the Diaghilev era-offers a season-by-season chronicle of their childhood and early artistic development. Written with feeling and charm, these insightful memoirs provide an engrossingly readable narrative that has the panoramic sweep and colorful vitality of a Russian novel.


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.

Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

By Vladimir Nabokov,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Speak, Memory as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An autobiographical volume which recounts the story of Nabokov's first forty years up to his departure from Europe for America at the outset of World War Two. It tells of his emergence as a writer, his early loves and his marriage, and his passions for butterflies and his lost homeland. Written in this writer's characteristically brilliant, mordant style, this book is also a tender record of lost childhood and youth in pre-Revolutionary Russia.


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.

Shostakovich: A Life Remembered

By Elizabeth Wilson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Shostakovich: A Life Remembered is a unique study of the great composer Dmitri Shostakovich, based on reminiscences from his contemporaries. Elizabeth Wilson covers the composer's life from his early successes to his struggles under the Stalinist regime, and his international recognition as one of the leading composers of the twentieth century. She builds up a detailed picture of Shostakovich's creative processes, how he was perceived by contemporaries, and of the increased contrast between his private life and public image as his fame increased. This new edition, produced to coincide with the centenary of Shostakovich's birth, draws on many new writings…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Russia, the Soviet Union, and World War 2?

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