The best Soviet historical fiction which skips the cliches

Why am I passionate about this?

I was born in Odessa, USSR, a Southern Ukrainian city that many more people know now than when my family and I immigrated in 1977. Growing up in the US, everything I read about Soviet immigrants was either cliched, stereotyped, or plain wrong. A 1985 short film, Molly’s Pilgrim, about a (presumably Jewish) Soviet immigrant girl showed her wearing a native peasant costume and a scarf on her head which, for some reason, Americans insisted on calling a “babushka.” “Babushka” means “grandmother” in Russian. Why would you wear one of those on your head? I was desperate for more realistic portrayals. So I wrote my own. And the five books I picked definitely offer them.

I wrote...

My Mother's Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region

By Alina Adams,

Book cover of My Mother's Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region

What is my book about?

In the 1930s, in the middle of Josef Stalin’s Great Terror, 18-year-old Regina flees Moscow for Birobidzhan, the first independent Jewish homeland of the 20th century, located on the border of Russia and China, a Siberian wasteland where saying or doing the wrong thing—even being accused of it—could mean a death sentence.

Sweeping from Soviet repression to World War II prisoner of war camps, to the perestroika era of the USSR, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region finds a woman trapped between idealism and reality, a mother facing a heartbreaking choice, and a daughter digging up a past many want forgotten. A saga of past Russia filled with lessons for the present day.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Something Unbelievable

Alina Adams Why did I love this book?

Most books about the USSR, World War II, and refugees, feature saintly people suffering in noble silence. Something Unbelievable reminds us that the Soviet citizens fleeing Communism and Nazis were all individuals, not one-dimensional ciphers. They were sometimes vain, sometimes selfish, sometimes bored, and sometimes frustrated. They were real, flesh and blood, petty, complicated human beings who lived through the unthinkable… while still managing to think about sex, romance, jealousy, and betrayal. The granddaughter in Something Unbelievable is moved to learn all this and more about her grandmother’s evacuation to Asia during World War II. And so is the reader.

By Maria Kuznetsova,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An overwhelmed new mom discovers unexpected parallels between life in twenty-first-century America and her grandmother’s account of their family’s escape from the Nazis in this sharp, heartfelt novel.

“A fresh perspective—one that’s both haunting and hilarious—on dual-timeline war stories, a feat that only a writer of Kuznetsova’s caliber could pull off.”—Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Lions of Fifth Avenue

Larissa is a stubborn, brutally honest woman in her eighties, tired of her home in Kiev, Ukraine—tired of everything really, except for her beloved granddaughter, Natasha. Natasha is tired as well, but that’s because she just had…

Book cover of Mother Country

Alina Adams Why did I love this book?

While Americans imagined all Soviet refusniks as political prisoners fighting tirelessly for the cause of freedom, Mother Country reminds that the majority of those who apply to immigrate aren’t firebrand orators or wanted criminals. They are regular people, worried about providing for their families and betting that there has to be a better life on the other side of the world. Sharansky and Sakharov may have made international headlines about being prevented from immigrating, but most people were simply waiting, going about their lives, tolerating causal Antisemitism along with periodic bursts of violence, while also managing to find joy in simple things, and just getting through life one day at a time. The same as anyone else anywhere else in the world.

By Irina Reyn,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The war back home is always at the forefront of her reality. On television, Vladimir Putin speaks of the 'reunification' of Crimea and Russia, the Ukrainian president makes unconvincing promises about a united Ukraine, while American politicians are divided over the fear of immigration. Nadia internalises notions of 'union' all around her, but the one reunion she has been waiting six years for - with her beloved daughter - is being eternally delayed by the Department of Homeland Security. When Nadia finds out that her daughter has lost access to the medicine she needs to survive, she takes matters into…

Book cover of The Orchard

Alina Adams Why did I love this book?

Mariza Kuznetsova (Something Unbelievable), Irina Reyn (Mother Country), and I all left the Soviet Union as children, before Putin and before all the changes he brought. Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry came of age in the new Russia. The Orchard is a tale of what our own lives might have been if our families had stayed. This loose retelling of Chekov zeroes in on how a childhood begun in the USSR and a young adulthood lived in Russia affected everyone who went through it, how it shaped worldviews, and how it continues to resonate even after decades of immigrant life in America.

By Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Four teenagers grow inseparable in the last days of the Soviet Union—but not all of them will live to see the new world arrive in this powerful debut novel, loosely based on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.

“Spectacular . . . intensely evocative and gorgeously written . . . will fill readers’ eyes with tears and wonder.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

Coming of age in the USSR in the 1980s, best friends Anya and Milka try to envision a free and joyful future for themselves. They spend their summers at Anya’s dacha just outside of Moscow, lazing in the apple orchard, listening…

Book cover of Divide Me by Zero

Alina Adams Why did I love this book?

Math reigned supreme in the USSR. I was never particularly good at it. I had to immigrate to the United States to marry an American nuclear engineer turned math and physics teacher. In Divide Me By Zero the heroine’s widowed mother describes love in mathematical terms. The passage reminded me of my husband. I forced him to listen to me read it out loud to him. “Wow,” he said. "That’s hot." Read this book for the heart-wrenching story—and the hot math.

By Lara Vapnyar,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Divide Me by Zero as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Editor’s Choice

As a young girl, Katya Geller learned from her mother that math was the answer to everything. Now, approaching forty, she finds this wisdom tested: she has lost the love of her life, she is in the middle of a divorce, and has just found out that her mother is dying. Nothing is adding up.

With humor, intelligence, and unfailing honesty, Katya traces back her life’s journey: her childhood in Soviet Russia, her parents’ great love, the death of her father, her mother’s career as a renowned mathematician, and their immigration to the United…

Book cover of The Naked World: A Tale with Verse

Alina Adams Why did I love this book?

Part poetry, part flash fiction; part memoir, part imagination; part history, part fantasy. The Naked World is like a dream, images, and snatches of phrases wrestle with fact and trauma. It’s a story of survival, it’s a story of suffering. It’s a story of immigration, it’s a story of remaining stuck. It’s ephemeral and it stays with you. Did it happen to you? To someone else? To all of us?

By Irina Mashinski,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Naked World begins with Mashinski’s birth:“Stalin had been dead for 5 years 1 month and 4 days.” The concluding notes tell us that currently “38% of Russians consider Stalin the greatest man in history.” The eerily exact figures underline the survivor’s dilemma: do I live in the past and allow my identity to be determined by atrocities, or do I cling to the present and sanitize my own experience?

Mashinki’s response is a brilliant poet’s: “each time when you raise your eyes to the stars, you see the past, and each time when you raise your eyes to the…

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By Shawn Michel De Montaigne,

Book cover of Melody and the Pier to Forever: Parts Five and Six

Shawn Michel De Montaigne

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What is my book about?

A young adult and epic fantasy novel that begins an entire series, as yet unfinished, about a young girl named Melody who discovers that the pier she lives near goes on forever—a pier that was destroyed by a hurricane that appeared out of blue skies in mere moments in 1983.

Melody doesn't know it, but a king has been searching for her for more than twenty years—longer than she's been alive. His kingdom is readying for the day when they may return to the world found beyond the end of that very pier, a world cast into darkness by an…

Melody and the Pier to Forever: Parts Five and Six

By Shawn Michel De Montaigne,

What is this book about?

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Interested in the Soviet Union, women in mathematics, and immigrants?

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