The best books to understand Stalinism from every angle

Roger R. Reese Author Of The Imperial Russian Army in Peace, War, and Revolution, 1856-1917
By Roger R. Reese

Who am I?

Roger Reese has studied, researched, and or taught Soviet history since 1984. He has been on the faculty of Texas A&M University since 1990. He has published five books and numerous articles and book chapters on the military history of Russia and the Soviet Union. He was awarded the Norman B. Tomlinson, Jr. book prize for his most recent book, The Imperial Russian Army in Peace, War, and Revolution, 1856-1917.


I wrote...

The Imperial Russian Army in Peace, War, and Revolution, 1856-1917

By Roger R. Reese,

Book cover of The Imperial Russian Army in Peace, War, and Revolution, 1856-1917

What is my book about?

Reese’s comprehensive social history takes readers beyond the battlefield to examine living conditions, military education, and officer-soldier relations in the late Imperial Russian Army. He argues that the officer corps’ incompetence, abusive behavior, and reactionary attitudes eventually drove the soldiery to revolt. Thorough, critical, and well written, it challenges numerous myths and presents a provocative new explanation for Russia’s collapse in 1917. He uses letters and memoirs to get the soldiers’ and officers’ view of their experience in the army, which humanizes the reader’s understanding of what the men went through.

The books I picked & why

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Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag

By Nicolas Werth, Steven Rendall,

Book cover of Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag

Why this book?

I love this book because it “names names.” It is a tragic recounting of the sending of petty criminals combined with a mostly random rounding up of innocent “undesirables” off the street by the police in the USSR in 1934 who are then shipped to exile in Siberia where they were expected to work for the good of the Soviet state. In a matter of months thousands of them died from maltreatment, exposure, and starvation. The book traces the chain of events from inspiration by head of the Gulag Berman and chief of the secret police Iagoda all the way down the chain of command of the Party and police officials to the man responsible for stranding the people on a river island in Siberia. The book gives a glimpse into the nature of the repressive organs and mentality of the Soviet state in a way that humanizes the experience by showing the predicament many of the authorities found themselves in. The “cogs in the wheel” who had to transport, feed, care for, and guard the prisoners were not necessarily cruel and unfeeling people but mostly found themselves in machine that demanded obedience and left them with few or even no options. In some ways it can be viewed as analogous to Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, in that evils act are sometimes perpetrated by not so obviously evil people.


Comrade Pavlik: The Rise And Fall Of A Soviet Boy Hero

By Catriona Kelly,

Book cover of Comrade Pavlik: The Rise And Fall Of A Soviet Boy Hero

Why this book?

This book is intriguing as it reads like a historical detective mystery. Pavlik Morozov was murdered in Siberia and the Soviet state used the murder to further its propaganda effort to inculcate youth into proper modes of socialist behavior. He was turned into a martyr for the Soviet cause and some relatives were railroaded into confessing to his murder, however the author sheds considerable doubt that the true culprits were caught. The whole story reeks of cynicism and fickleness on the part of the powers that be as they tried to make an example of the life of Morozov.


Yezhov: The Rise of Stalin's Iron Fist

By J. Arch Getty, Oleg V. Naumov,

Book cover of Yezhov: The Rise of Stalin's Iron Fist

Why this book?

This is a great book because it is probably the only truly even-handed treatment of one of the most reviled people in Soviet history, Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD during the great terror. The authors by no means treat him as a sympathetic character, but they convincingly dismiss the many myths about him that have gotten in the way of understanding his relations with Stalin and his true motivations and behavior during the purge. They show that he played a truly significant role in convincing Stalin to let him purge the party and then the whole Soviet population because he believed there was a vast conspiracy to undermine Stalin’s version of Soviet power. Rather than a psychophant who groveled at Stalin’s feet, it is clear that he exercised agency to accomplish a task he believed in. You almost get to know Yezhov as a real human being, which is rather frightening.


Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

By Lynne Viola,

Book cover of Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

Why this book?

This book is very interesting because it puts the reader inside the workings of the great terror at the local level with the words of the perpetrators themselves. The author uses the records of trials of numerous low level secret police interrogators to show how the regime created the conditions under which the policemen rationalized how they understood their work and made it possible for them to persecute innocent people.


The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution

By Yuri Slezkine,

Book cover of The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution

Why this book?

This is a long book, but easy to read and worth the investment in time. It is about the USSR primarily in the 1920s and 1930s as seen through the lives of people who lived and worked in the House of Government in Moscow. The book traces the lives of people as they (and their children) rose and fell in power and grace. It uses interviews of many of the people so you get the real human story here with all the passion and pain.


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