The most recommended books on the Great Purge

Who picked these books? Meet our 9 experts.

9 authors created a book list connected to the Great Purge, and here are their favorite Great Purge books.
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Book cover of The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties

Michael Isikoff Author Of Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump

From my list on Russian espionage.

Who am I?

As a child of the Cold War, I was fascinated from an early age by Russia—and the history of U.S.-Soviet relations. I still remember devouring everything I could about many of the events of the 1960’s—the Cuban Missile Crisis, the coup that replaced Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. These and much else from this period inspired me to become a journalist. And while I have had a wide-ranging and occasionally globe-trotting career, returning to the subject of U.S.-Russia relations in Russian Roulette  and the feeling that we made a genuine contribution to contemporary history—was unusually satisfying.

Michael's book list on Russian espionage

Michael Isikoff Why did Michael love this book?

No book exposed the horrors of Josef Stalin’s purges more graphically and with greater power than Robert Conquest’s epic, The Great Terror. The book chronicled how a paranoid Stalin, convinced his power was threatened by his rival Leon Trotsky and his allies, unleashed a wave of terror by his country’s NKVD—a forerunner of the KGB--  that decimated the Soviet leadership and its military with millions of Russians executed or marched to Siberian prison camps. While Stalin’s henchmen staged mock “trials” in Moscow, marked by phony confessions, extracted by torture, liberal apologists in the West sought to justify Stalin’s lunatic crackdown. I read this book in college and it has stayed with me for years-- providing an eye-opening lesson in the willingness of those of all political stripes to turn a blind eye to the evils of totalitarianism.

By Robert Conquest,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Robert Conquest's The Great Terror is the book that revealed the horrors of Stalin's regime to the West. This definitive fiftieth anniversary edition features a new foreword by Anne Applebaum.

One of the most important books ever written about the Soviet Union, The Great Terror revealed to the West for the first time the true extent and nature Stalin's purges in the 1930s, in which around a million people were tortured and executed or sent to labour camps on political grounds. Its publication caused a widespread reassessment of Communism itself.

This definitive fiftieth anniversary edition gathers together the wealth of…


Book cover of Moscow, 1937

Steven G. Marks Author Of How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism

From my list on modern Russian history.

Who am I?

Steven G. Marks is a historian who has written extensively on Russian economic and cultural history, the global impact of Russian ideas, and the history of capitalism. He received his PhD from Harvard University and has spent more than 30 years teaching Russian and world history at Clemson University in South Carolina.

Steven's book list on modern Russian history

Steven G. Marks Why did Steven love this book?

Karl Schlögel’s masterpiece, Moscow,1937, is a gripping study of Moscow at the peak of the Stalinist Great Terror. With short chapters and a multitude of illustrations, the book leads the reader on a panoptic tour of every aspect of the city’s life in this year of mass arrests and waves of executions. Step by step, Schlögel builds a convincing case that as the Communist regime struggled to get a grip on the chaos unleashed by the regime’s own collectivization and industrialization drives, its reflexive response was to resort to political violence. The murderous frenzy that resulted changed the society beyond recognition.

By Karl Schlogel,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Moscow, 1937 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Moscow, 1937: the soviet metropolis at the zenith of Stalin s dictatorship. A society utterly wrecked by a hurricane of violence. In this compelling book, the renowned historian Karl Schlogel reconstructs with meticulous care the process through which, month by month, the terrorism of a state-of-emergency regime spiraled into the Great Terror during which 1 1/2 million human beings lost their lives within a single year. He revisits the sites of show trials and executions and, by also consulting numerous sources from the time, he provides a masterful panorama of these key events in Russian history. He shows how, in…


Book cover of Stalin's Door

Paul Clark Author Of The Price of Dreams

From my list on life in the Soviet Union.

Who am I?

At the age of 16, I briefly joined the International Socialists, a small British Trotskyist party. Though I soon became disillusioned, it was a formative experience that left me with a lifelong fascination with communism and the Soviet Union. Over the following decades, I read everything I could about the subject, both fiction and non-fiction. In the years after the fall of communism, the ideas that eventually culminated in the writing of this book began to form in my head.

Paul's book list on life in the Soviet Union

Paul Clark Why did Paul love this book?

A brilliant evocation of the paranoia of the Stalin regime and the extraordinary extent of its surveillance of members of the Communist elite. We follow the story of a young girl as her family is destroyed and she is sent to the GULAG. Although it delves deep into the horrors of Stalinist persecution, this book is also an uplifting tale of love, courage, and survival.

By John St. Clair,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stalin's Door as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the dangerous time of Russia’s Great Terror, a knock on the door late at night could mean only one thing!

Moscow, 1937. As mortal fear engulfs the capital city, a singular man cements his lethal grip of absolute power over an entire nation. Accusations, mass arrests, executions, and deportations become de rigueur. Stalin’s cult of personality is so fearsome, that even a simple question could get you killed—or worse. Stalin’s dreaded secret police, the NKVD, would pit neighbor against neighbor in the insatiable hunt for the spies and saboteurs which threaten the supreme leader’s tyranny. The crisis will irrecoverably…


Book cover of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

Susana Aikin Author Of We Shall See the Sky Sparkling

From my list on Russian literature that I consider masterpieces.

Who am I?

I am a writer and a filmmaker who has lived in New York City since 1982. In 1986 I started my own independent film production company, Starfish Productions, through which I produced and directed documentary films that won multiple awards, including an American Film Institute grant, a Rockefeller Fellowship, and an Emmy Award in 1997. I started writing fiction full-time in 2010. My debut novel, We Shall See the Sky Sparkling (Kensington Books) was published in 2/2019; my second novel The Weight of the Heart (Kensington Books) came out in 5/2020.

Susana's book list on Russian literature that I consider masterpieces

Susana Aikin Why did Susana love this book?

I love Akhmatova for her talent and her immense courage. Considered to be the ‘Soul of the Silver Age,’ the greatest modernist Russian woman poet, Akhmatova was a brilliant master of conveying raw emotion in her portrayals of everyday situations. She began to write poetry at age eleven and was first published in her late teens. Her father considered this to be an unsuitable and even shameful occupation and forbade her to write using the family name so she chose the surname of her great-grandmother, Akhmatova. Her works range from short lyric love poetry to longer, more complex poems, such as Requiem, a tragic depiction of the Stalinist terror, and written as a testament to the hardship and suffering of the people during this time, particularly women whose husbands and sons were imprisoned and executed. 

By Anna Akhmatova, Judith Hemschemeyer (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Initially published in 1990, when the New York Times Book Review named it one of fourteen "Best Books of the Year," Judith Hemschemeyer's translation of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova is the definitive edition, and has sold over 13,000 copies, making it one of the most successful poetry titles of recent years.This reissued and revised printing features a new biographical essay as well as expanded notes to the poems, both by Roberta Reeder, project editor and author of Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet (St. Martin's Press, 1994). Encyclopedic in scope, with more than 800 poems, 100 photographs, a historical…


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

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

From my list on Stalinism from every angle.

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.

Roger's book list on Stalinism from every angle

Roger R. Reese Why did Roger love 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…

By J. Arch Getty, Oleg V. Naumov,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The definitive study of Nikolai Yezhov's rise to become the chief of Stalin's secret police-and the dictator's "iron fist"-during the Great Terror

Head of the secret police from 1937 to 1938, N. I. Yezhov was a foremost Soviet leader during these years, second in power only to Stalin himself. Under Yezhov's orders, millions of arrests, imprisonments, deportations, and executions were carried out. This book, based upon unprecedented access to Communist Party archives and Yezhov's personal archives, looks into the life and career of the enigmatic man who administered Stalin's Great Terror.

J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov seek to…


Book cover of Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s

Lynne Viola Author Of Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

From my list on Stalin’s Great Terror.

Who am I?

Lynne Viola is a University Professor of Russian history at the University of Toronto. Educated at Barnard and Princeton, she has carried out research in Russian and Ukrainian archives for over 30 years. Among her books, are two dealing with Stalinist repression: Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine and The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements. Both are based on work in previously classified archives, including the archives of the political police.

Lynne's book list on Stalin’s Great Terror

Lynne Viola Why did Lynne love this book?

This is a collection of diaries written by a wide range of individuals during the Stalin era. The diaries address the terror in a variety of surprising ways, demonstrating the diversity of Soviet citizens in this time.

By Veronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya, Thomas Lahusen

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The private lives of a broad section of Russians who lived during Stalin's purge are revealed in this book. The nine diaries here capture the day-to-day thoughts of these people, and represent a vast selection of opinions, from those oblivious to the terror and those deeply affected by it.


Book cover of The Akhmatova Journals: Volume 1, 1938-1941

Catriona Kelly Author Of St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past

From my list on modern St Petersburg.

Who am I?

I particularly enjoyed writing this book about a city that I love and have visited many times (starting in the late 1970s, when I was a student), and whose history I know well too. Most books, by foreigners anyway, talk about the city from a distance; I wanted to write something visceral, about sounds and smells as well as sights, and above all, how locals themselves think about their city, the way in which its intense and in some respects oppressive past shapes St Petersburg’s life today – yet all the same, never gets taken too seriously. Readers seem to agree: as well as an appreciative letter from Jan Morris, whose travel writing I’ve always admired, I treasure an email message from someone who followed my advice and tramped far and wide – before ending up in the room for prisoners’ relatives to drop off parcels at Kresty (the main city prison) when he wrongly assumed he was using an entrance to the (in fact non-existent) museum.

Catriona's book list on modern St Petersburg

Catriona Kelly Why did Catriona love this book?

Akhmatova was one of the most important poets in the city’s history, and here she is brought to life by an exceptionally talented diarist: elusive, but at times extremely frank, hesitant, vulnerable, while at the same time demanding. It is a riveting portrait. Chukovskaya also draws a fraught picture of Leningrad during the Stalinist Great Terror, as evoked in Akhmatova’s famous cycle of memorial poems, Requiem. Look out also for Chukovskaya’s novel about the Terror, Sofia Petrovna.

By Lydia Chukovskaya, Milena Michalski, Sylva Rubashova

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Even in her own day Anna Akhmatova was ranked as one of the great Russian poets of the century. Yet she suffered scathing attacks from the Soviet establishment, was famously denounced as ""half-nun, half-whore"", and was finally expelled from the Writers' Union. Lydia Chukovskaya, an admirer who became the poet's close friend, kept intimate diaries that reveal the day-to-day life of a passionate artist forced to endure sorrow and oppression, yet still able to create poetry and friendship. This volume contains the journals kept between the years 1938 and 1941.


Book cover of The Great Fear: Stalin's Terror of the 1930s

Lynne Viola Author Of Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

From my list on Stalin’s Great Terror.

Who am I?

Lynne Viola is a University Professor of Russian history at the University of Toronto. Educated at Barnard and Princeton, she has carried out research in Russian and Ukrainian archives for over 30 years. Among her books, are two dealing with Stalinist repression: Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine and The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements. Both are based on work in previously classified archives, including the archives of the political police.

Lynne's book list on Stalin’s Great Terror

Lynne Viola Why did Lynne love this book?

Written by one of the UK’s best historians of the Soviet Union, this book explores how fears of conspiracy and foreign invasion influenced Stalin and the Great Terror. The introduction contains a valuable survey and critique of major historical interpretations of the terror.

By James Harris,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Between the winter of 1936 and the autumn of 1938, approximately three quarters of a million Soviet citizens were subject to summary execution. More than a million others were sentenced to lengthy terms in labour camps. Commonly known as 'Stalin's Great Terror', it is also among the most misunderstood moments in the history of the twentieth century. The Terror gutted the ranks of factory directors and engineers after three years in which all major plan targets were
met. It raged through the armed forces on the eve of the Nazi invasion. The wholesale slaughter of party and state officials was…


Book cover of Hope Against Hope: A Memoir

Lynne Viola Author Of Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

From my list on Stalin’s Great Terror.

Who am I?

Lynne Viola is a University Professor of Russian history at the University of Toronto. Educated at Barnard and Princeton, she has carried out research in Russian and Ukrainian archives for over 30 years. Among her books, are two dealing with Stalinist repression: Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine and The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements. Both are based on work in previously classified archives, including the archives of the political police.

Lynne's book list on Stalin’s Great Terror

Lynne Viola Why did Lynne love this book?

Written by the wife of Russia’s great poet, Osip Mandelstam, this book is one of the most important—and brilliant--memoirs of the Stalin years. Perhaps more than any other book, it captures the atmosphere of fear and terror that surrounded members of the creative intelligentsia under Stalin.

By Nadezhda Mandelstam, Max Hayward,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Suddently, at about one o'clock in the morning, there was a sharp, unbearably explicit knock on the door. 'They've come for Osip', I said'.

In 1933 the poet Osip Mandelstam- friend to Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova- wrote a spirited satire denouncing Josef Stalin. It proved to be a sixteen-line death sentence. For his one act of defiance he was arrested by the Cheka, the secret police, interrogated, exiled and eventually re-arrested. He died en route to one of Stalin's labour camps.

His wife, Nadezhda (1899-1980) was with him on both occasions when he was arrested, and she loyally accompanied…


Book cover of Requiem and Poem Without a Hero

Chriselda Barretto Author Of The Creep: A First of Its Kind Narrative Poetry in a Thriller Genre!

From my list on poetry from the world's greatest female poets.

Who am I?

Chriselda is a multi-genre, prolific author, and speaker, with a background in Business Administration and Chemistry/Microbiology. She speaks 5 languages & has published over 50 books. Her expansive writing covers poetry, horror, thriller, romance, children’s illustration, educational... but she enjoys telling a story in narrative poetry the most. Currently, she is working on her next dark poetry book Me and Him, where she will invoke one of the greatest poets – EA Poe. In her effort to promote more learning, she is also wrapping up the fourth book in her - Sigils, Symbols and Alchemy Series. Her passion for writing, lifelong learning, creativity, and her curiosity all help spark her innovative mindset.

Chriselda's book list on poetry from the world's greatest female poets

Chriselda Barretto Why did Chriselda love this book?

One of the most significant Russian poets of the 20th century, Anna was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in 1965. Her distinctive work ranging from short lyric poems to intricately structured pieces set her apart from her contemporaries. Her work deals heavily with the struggles of living and writing under the Stalinist era.

In this elegy, written over three decades, between 1935 and 1961, Anna relates details of her personal struggles together with the reflection of other voices during the "Great Purge". In an emotional call to help, she offers empathy to others faced with the same, dire predicament. Feel the gravity of suffering, pain, and mourning, ultimately teaching you one of the most important lessons in healing, which is acceptance and letting go. 

By Anna Akhmatova,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Requiem and Poem Without a Hero as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With this edition Swallow Press presents two of Anna Akhmatova’s best-known works that represent the poet at full maturity, and that most trenchantly process the trauma she and others experienced living under Stalin’s regime.

Akhmatova began the three-decade process of writing “Requiem” in 1935 after the arrests of her son, Lev Gumilev, and her third husband. The autobiographical fifteen-poem cycle primarily chronicles a mother’s wait—lining up outside Leningrad Prison every day for seventeen months—for news of her son’s fate. But from this limbo, Akhmatova expresses and elevates the collective grief for all the thousands vanished under the regime, and for…