The best books about the NKVD

1 authors have picked their favorite books about the NKVD and why they recommend each book.

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At Home in Japan

By Rebecca Otowa,

Book cover of At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman's Journey of Discovery

Otowa, originally from California, who later moved to Brisbane, Australia, has lived in Japan for over thirty years. When she married the eldest son of a prominent Japanese family near Kyoto, she became the lowly yome-san, or “bride,” of the household. Later, after the death of her in-laws, she inherited the role of chatelaine of a large, traditional Japanese house with a 350-year history. Through a series of vignettes, Otowa dives deep into the minutiae of Japanese country-living and family life. Otowa, who has also published a children’s picture book and a collection of short stories, provided the delightful illustrations for her memoir herself.

Who am I?

Japan is endlessly fascinating. Many foreigners who have spent a year or two engaging with Japanese culture have published memoirs. But there are also many who have lived here longer, perhaps marrying and raising families and retiring in Japan. The stories of long-term foreign residents dig deep into the culture and share unique challenges and triumphs. My own memoir, Squeaky Wheels is about my experience raising a biracial daughter who is deaf and has cerebral palsy in off-the-beaten-track Japan. It also details our mother-daughter travels around Japan, to the United States, and ultimately to Paris. It is ultimately a story of my attempt to open the world to my daughter.

I wrote...

Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair

By Suzanne Kamata,

Book cover of Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair

What is my book about?

Squeaky Wheels is a mother-daughter travel memoir woven with comparative culture and accessibility awareness. Kamata’s adventures with her teen—who happens to be deaf, with cerebral palsy, and in a wheelchair—through subterranean Tennessee, to the islands of Japan, and to the top of the Eiffel Tower ultimately lead to a daughter’s increasing independence, a mother letting go of expectations, and advocacy for travel which prohibits discrimination.

Night Soldiers

By Alan Furst,

Book cover of Night Soldiers

God help me, along with my fascination with espionage I am a history buff. I long to discover how things became what they are today and Furst does it in this series. While seeing the forces that launched the Second World War unfold, he shows you see the seeds sown for the cold war that follows. While I picked book one from my bias toward watching a world being born, all the books in the series are a great read.

Who am I?

As a child, I devoured historical works. In fact, the city librarian told my mother when I reached my teens. that I had read every book in the Children’s section on the Civil War and they recommended I get adult privileges. In my teenage years, I developed a taste for spy novels thanks to Ian Fleming. However, as I matured, I became drawn to the less gadgety stories in the genre like the books I recommend here and write myself. I have no unique expertise in the area beside a desire to learn more about the field so my own work will inform as well as entertain. 

I wrote...

Pact with the Devil

By Richard Powell,

Book cover of Pact with the Devil

What is my book about?

In the Second World War’s last days, Captain James Ross commands a rifle company, while Justine Rothstein leads a band of partisans hunting Nazis. They join forces to liberate a Nazi death camp in Austria. Once they succeed, each go their separate ways. With the Second World War drawing to a close, a second conflict between superpowers emerges. 

In this climate, Justine and Ross meet again at the Nuremberg war crimes commission. Justine searches desperately for her family deported by the Nazis and Ross investigates the Holocaust’s perpetrators. Together, they uncover a plot to supply a Nazi superweapon to the Russians—a bomber that can deliver a nuclear weapon from space. Despite this peril, Justine and Ross strive to expose this conspiracy. 


By J. Arch Getty, Oleg V. Naumov,

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

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…

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.

Dark Star

By Alan Furst,

Book cover of Dark Star

Alan Furst specialises in thrillers set in pre-War Europe with all the moral ambiguity of that time. I loved that aspect of this book, and I wanted to capture some of that in The Fulcrum Files; the idea that the horrors to come were not as inevitable as they now seem.

Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by history, and the time immediately preceding the Second World War is one of the most interesting. How inevitable was the tragedy that unfolded in Germany, Europe, and then around the globe? I was drawn to it after the 2008 economic crash, and the parallels of economic hardship and the resurgence in populist nationalism. I’ve read all that history in an attempt to learn from it, and I hope that some of that comes through in The Fulcrum Files.

I wrote...

The Fulcrum Files

By Mark Chisnell,

Book cover of The Fulcrum Files

What is my book about?

On the 7th March 1936, after almost two decades of peace in Europe, Hitler ordered the German Army back into the Rhineland. It was a direct challenge to Britain and France. Still unnerved by the toll of the Great War, the politicians dithered. The French Army stayed in its barracks, while the aristocratic British elite looked on from their country retreats. History teetered on a knife edge, but the spymasters were busy.

Just one man could make the difference between war and peace, victory or defeat. And that man was Ben Clayton. Thrown into the maelstrom of plot and counter-plot, into a world of murder, spies, and traitors, Ben must battle not just to survive, but to protect all that he loves and holds most dear.

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