The best books about the Soviet Union under Brezhnev

Daniel Treisman Author Of The Return: Russia's Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev
By Daniel Treisman

The Books I Picked & Why

Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation

By Alexei Yurchak

Book cover of Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation

Why this book?

Like the French Revolution, the collapse of Soviet communism shocked—but somehow did not surprise—those who lived through it. (The former struck Tocqueville as “inevitable yet … completely unforeseen.”) This brilliant study by the Berkeley anthropologist Alexei Yurchak comes closer than any other I’ve read to explaining the strange sense of immutability that pervaded late Soviet life. One fascinating detail—whenever Brezhnev awarded himself another medal, artists had to sneak into official buildings at night to paint the new addition onto the General Secretary’s portraits. Such continual tweaks were essential to preserving the impression of stasis.

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Good Stalin

By Victor Erofeyev

Book cover of Good Stalin

Why this book?

The Brezhnev era was when the Soviet elite decided not to come to terms with Stalin. This “fictional” memoir by one of Russia’s most interesting living writers is a penetrating meditation on fathers and sons, set against the backdrop of post-War Moscow. Erofeyev senior was Stalin’s official French interpreter, a believer in world revolution, avid tennis player, and tender parent. Erofeyev junior was a literary enfant terrible, who, by helping edit an almanac of underground writing in 1979, ended his father’s diplomatic career. The book is a beautifully crafted window into the personal and political of late communism.

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Omon Ra

By Victor Pelevin, Andrew Bromfield

Book cover of Omon Ra

Why this book?

Pelevin exploded onto the Russian literary scene in the 1990s, propelled by a postmodern sensibility and satirical flair. In his masterpiece, Omon Ra, the Soviet space program becomes a metaphor for all the lies and cant of post-War communism. The Politburo cannot admit it trails the US in rocket technology. So it trains naïve recruits to secretly pilot “unmanned” one-way space missions. In fact, it’s even stranger than that, but no spoilers here. Hilarious satire, while at the same time weirdly true to life. A tale of pimply youths and slogans, empty sacrifices, moon landings, and port wine guzzled in garages.

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The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov

By Alexander Gribanov, Joshua Rubenstein

Book cover of The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov

Why this book?

The emergence of a dissident movement and the KGB’s efforts to control it were one of the dramas of the Brezhnev era. What better way to read the history than through the agency’s reports on the period’s premier dissident? Andrei Sakharov, nuclear physicist and “Domestic Enemy Number One,” survived the mind games and isolation, emerging to lead the campaign for memory in the late 1980s as Gorbachev loosened up. The book is fascinating on the fumbling efforts of Politburo gerontocrats, who often seem confused and outplayed, as well as on the circumlocutions and ideological distortions of a security agency determined to blur the true character of its operations.  

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The Suitcase

By Sergei Dovlatov

Book cover of The Suitcase

Why this book?

Another literary take on the era that’s impossible to leave out. The suitcase of the title is the one Dovlatov took into exile when he rode the wave of Jewish emigration to New York in 1979. On the bottom of the suitcase, a picture of Karl Marx; on the inside lid, a photograph of Joseph Brodsky—and in between the debris of a life lived between the dual myths of revolution and poetry. Each story in the collection takes off from a different item in the suitcase—three pairs of Finnish stockings, a pair of driving gloves, a prison guard’s belt… Dovlatov is one of those authors who is hard to imagine writing in any other period—his style, mentality, humor, and turn of phrase are so perfectly attuned to time and place. Whimsical, dark, and often funny.

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