The best books on Russia

90 authors have picked their favorite books about Russia and why they recommend each book.

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Black Earth City

By Charlotte Hobson,

Book cover of Black Earth City

A wonderful account of a young Englishwoman’s year as a student in Voronezh in the potato belt. Crucially, that year was 1991, and Hobson saw it all. At once lyrical, funny and grim, this is a book that stands the test of time despite it all.

Who am I?

Sara Wheeler is a prize-winning non-fiction author. Sara is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Contributing Editor of The Literary Review, a Trustee of The London Library, and former chair of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award. She contributes to a wide range of publications in the UK and US and broadcasts regularly on BBC Radio. Her five-part series, ‘To Strive, To Seek’,  went out on Radio 4, and her book Cherry was made into a television film. 


I wrote...

Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age

By Sara Wheeler,

Book cover of Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age

What is my book about?

With the writers of the Golden Age as her guides – Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol and Turgenev, among others – Wheeler travels across eight time zones, from rinsed north-western beetroot fields and far-eastern Arctic tundra to the cauldron of ethnic soup that is the Caucasus. She follows nineteenth-century footsteps to make connections between then and now: between the places where flashing-epauletted Lermontov died in the aromatic air of Pyatigorsk, and sheaves of corn still stand like soldiers on a blazing afternoon, just like in Gogol’s stories. On the Trans-Siberian railway in winter she crunches across snowy platforms to buy dried fish from babushki, and in summer she sails the Black Sea where dolphins leapt in front of violet Abkhazian peaks. She also spends months in fourth-floor 1950s apartments, watching television with her hosts, her new friends bent over devices and moaning about Ukraine.

Journey into Russia

By Laurens van der Post,

Book cover of Journey into Russia

The author was an old fraud but this is a delightful period piece which reveals a good deal, sometimes inadvertently, about the lives of Russians in the benighted Soviet sixties.

Who am I?

Sara Wheeler is a prize-winning non-fiction author. Sara is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Contributing Editor of The Literary Review, a Trustee of The London Library, and former chair of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award. She contributes to a wide range of publications in the UK and US and broadcasts regularly on BBC Radio. Her five-part series, ‘To Strive, To Seek’,  went out on Radio 4, and her book Cherry was made into a television film. 


I wrote...

Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age

By Sara Wheeler,

Book cover of Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age

What is my book about?

With the writers of the Golden Age as her guides – Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol and Turgenev, among others – Wheeler travels across eight time zones, from rinsed north-western beetroot fields and far-eastern Arctic tundra to the cauldron of ethnic soup that is the Caucasus. She follows nineteenth-century footsteps to make connections between then and now: between the places where flashing-epauletted Lermontov died in the aromatic air of Pyatigorsk, and sheaves of corn still stand like soldiers on a blazing afternoon, just like in Gogol’s stories. On the Trans-Siberian railway in winter she crunches across snowy platforms to buy dried fish from babushki, and in summer she sails the Black Sea where dolphins leapt in front of violet Abkhazian peaks. She also spends months in fourth-floor 1950s apartments, watching television with her hosts, her new friends bent over devices and moaning about Ukraine.

Between the Lines

By Audrey Fawcett Cahill,

Book cover of Between the Lines: Diaries and Letters from Elsie Inglis's Russian Unit

History is just “one damned thing after another” is a common phrase. For me this is the book which has led me to my next project. Cahill traces the story of the women who went to Russia in 1916 with the voluntary outfit the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Set up by a Scottish surgeon, Elsie Inglis, the SWH became the biggest women’s medical organisation serving abroad in the war. The SWH women ran hospitals in France, Serbia and Russia. Here Cahill tells the story of their astonishing adventures in Russia – driving ambulances close to the firing line, retreating with the Serbian and Russian armies, surviving the cold, food shortages and the Russian Revolution – through the women’s own words. It’s staggering stuff – and great material for my next book about one of those incredible women pioneers.


Who am I?

Wendy Moore is a journalist and author of five non-fiction books on medical and social history. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, Times, Observer and Lancet. Her new book is about Endell Street Military Hospital which was run and staffed by women in London in the First World War.


I wrote...

No Man's Land: The Trailblazing Women Who Ran Britain's Most Extraordinary Military Hospital During World War I

By Wendy Moore,

Book cover of No Man's Land: The Trailblazing Women Who Ran Britain's Most Extraordinary Military Hospital During World War I

What is my book about?

No Man’s Land tells the story of the pioneering women who set up and ran a major military hospital in the heart of London in the First World War. Apart from a handful of men Endell Street Military Hospital was entirely staffed by women. The staff treated 24,000 men sent back from the frontline and when war ended the hospital stayed open to care for the victims of the Spanish flu pandemic. I wrote it to give voice to the women who worked there and the men who were treated there.

Inge's War

By Svenja O'Donnell,

Book cover of Inge's War: A German Woman's Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler

We hear a lot about the wars of soldiers and spies, but much less about the lives of ordinary people. In this book, O’Donnell pieces together the story of her grandmother’s life as a young woman in Germany before and during the war. Unlike the tales of daring action, this is a story that is unexceptional, but all the more powerful for it. A reminder that for many people in Europe, the war was something that happened to them, rather than something they did.


Who am I?

Robert Hutton is the author of Agent Jack, the previously untold tale of the surprisingly large number of British people who tried to help Hitler win World War 2. He spent a decade and a half following British prime ministers around the world for Bloomberg and now writes parliamentary sketches for The Critic while researching intelligence history.


I wrote...

Agent Jack: The True Story of Mi5's Secret Nazi Hunter

By Robert Hutton,

Book cover of Agent Jack: The True Story of Mi5's Secret Nazi Hunter

What is my book about?

Agent Jack tells the incredible true story of Eric Roberts, a seemingly inconsequential bank clerk who, in the guise of "Jack King", helped uncover and neutralize the invisible threat of fascism on British shores. Gifted with an extraordinary ability to make people trust him, Eric Roberts penetrated the Communist Party and the British Union of Fascists before playing his greatest role for MI5: Hitler's man in London. Pretending to be an agent of the Gestapo, Roberts single-handedly built a network of hundreds of British Nazi sympathizers--factory workers, office clerks, shopkeepers --who shared their secrets with him. It was work so secret and so sensitive that it was kept out of the reports MI5 sent to Winston Churchill.

Quartered in Hell

By Hayes Otoupalik, Dennis Gordon,

Book cover of Quartered in Hell: The Story of the American North Russia Expeditionary Force 1918-1919

A well-researched and fascinating story of the little-known American intervention in the North Russia/Siberia campaigns between the Red Bolshevik forces and the “White Russian” forces with small American and British units essentially caught in the middle.


Who am I?

I have written 13 books and over 200 national magazine articles on U.S. Military weapons and am Field Editor for the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine. The story of the World War II weapons and campaigns have been widely covered but the First World War is sometimes all but forgotten. Those who are not familiar with America’s rather brief, but important, role in the conflict often do not realize how the First World War helped make the United States one of the world’s “superpowers.”


I wrote...

U. S. Infantry Weapons of the First World War

By Bruce Canfield,

Book cover of U. S. Infantry Weapons of the First World War

What is my book about?

The definitive guide to U.S. infantry weapons of World War I. Best-selling author and arms expert Bruce N. Canfield gives you the inside scoop on everything that was carried into combat by the Army and Marines, including rifles, pistols, shotguns, automatic rifles, machine guns, bayonets, knives, grenades, mortars, flame throwers, and accessories. It's all in here! Filled with the kind of practical, "hands-on" advice and information that you will turn to again and again, with unique "collector's notes" that tell you what you need to know about markings, rarity, rebuilds, and fakes. Nowhere else will you find this amount of useful information under one cover - and it's complete with exciting combat reports describing how this equipment performed at the front!

Rasputin

By Douglas Smith,

Book cover of Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs

Rasputin’s ghost will rejoice to have the centenary of his murder marked by 800 pages of painstakingly researched, objective, accurate, and even sympathetic biography. For this authoritative work, Douglas Smith mined the entire Russian press of Rasputin’s last years, the reports of up to 5,000 the agents sent by authorities in the government and church to protect or to incriminate Rasputin, as well as every extant memoir. He has discounted many sensational and scandalous reports of this self-made monk or priest’s wild behaviour and magical powers. Rasputin’s sexuality, drinking, and propensity to violence, Smith insists, are much exaggerated. As police agents confirmed, he would visit two or three prostitutes a day; he bedded many of his female acolytes and petitioners. But, as others testify, he was no rapist or pervert. His performance was unimpaired by three bottles of Madeira. Understandably, he drank and whored heavily in the last four years…


Who am I?

Since adolescence, I have been fascinated by Slavonic languages, literature, cultures, and history, and by what can be retrieved from archives all over Eastern Europe. And because so much has been suppressed or distorted in everything from biographies of writers to atrocities by totalitarian governments, there has been much to expose and write about. Studying at Cambridge in the 1960s gave me an opportunity to learn everything from Lithuanian to Slovak: I have been able to write histories of Stalin and of Georgia, biographies of Russians such as Chekhov, Suvorin, and Przhevalsky, and the field is still fresh and open for future work.


I wrote...

Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

By Donald Rayfield,

Book cover of Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

What is my book about?

Stalin did not act alone. The mass executions, the mock trials, the betrayals and purges, the jailings and secret torture that ravaged the Soviet Union during the three decades of Stalin's dictatorship, were the result of a tight network of trusted henchmen (and women), spies, psychopaths, and thugs. At the top of this pyramid of terror sat five indispensable hangmen who presided over the various incarnations of Stalin's secret police. Now, in his harrowing new book, Donald Rayfield probes the lives, the minds, the twisted careers, and the unpunished crimes of Stalin's loyal assassins.

Kvachi

By Mikheil Javakhishvili, Donald Rayfield,

Book cover of Kvachi

Like Felix Krull, or Jonathan Wild, this is the story of a con-man, murderer, traitor, somehow redeemed by his charm and incidents of bravery The novel is at its best when Javakhishvili starts to describe Kvachi’s experiences with the Russians during the Revolution, the civil war and the early years of the Soviet state; it becomes clear that what has seemed a send-up of morality and a celebration of the picaresque is in fact equally valid as a cold assessment of revolutionary realpolitik. This is a wonderful novel, subtle and extravagant at the same time, seeming to fly by the seat of its pants but in fact consistently aware of exactly how to tread the line between structure and improvisation. It is extremely generous, bursting out of what appear to be its narrow confines to give us far more than we initially expected.


Who am I?

Since adolescence, I have been fascinated by Slavonic languages, literature, cultures, and history, and by what can be retrieved from archives all over Eastern Europe. And because so much has been suppressed or distorted in everything from biographies of writers to atrocities by totalitarian governments, there has been much to expose and write about. Studying at Cambridge in the 1960s gave me an opportunity to learn everything from Lithuanian to Slovak: I have been able to write histories of Stalin and of Georgia, biographies of Russians such as Chekhov, Suvorin, and Przhevalsky, and the field is still fresh and open for future work.


I wrote...

Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

By Donald Rayfield,

Book cover of Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

What is my book about?

Stalin did not act alone. The mass executions, the mock trials, the betrayals and purges, the jailings and secret torture that ravaged the Soviet Union during the three decades of Stalin's dictatorship, were the result of a tight network of trusted henchmen (and women), spies, psychopaths, and thugs. At the top of this pyramid of terror sat five indispensable hangmen who presided over the various incarnations of Stalin's secret police. Now, in his harrowing new book, Donald Rayfield probes the lives, the minds, the twisted careers, and the unpunished crimes of Stalin's loyal assassins.

Romanoff Gold

By William Clarke,

Book cover of Romanoff Gold

This is an updated version of William Clarke’s Lost Fortune of the Tsars with additional information added since first publication. It gives a detailed, comprehensive account of the immense wealth of the Imperial family before the revolution and what happened to the money, jewels, palaces, and other riches in the chaos that followed. Faced with bank confidentiality and reluctance to talk, it reads like a detective story as the author investigates bank accounts, vaults, and jewels spirited away. The result is a fascinating account of what belonged to the Tsar’s family and what belonged to the state.


Who am I?

I developed a fascination for Imperial Russia in childhood when I learned that my great-grandmother was born in St Petersburg, an almost exact contemporary of Nicholas II. I have studied the Romanovs and Imperial Russia for over 40 years and lectured in England (including the Victoria & Albert Museum), America, Denmark, The Netherlands, and Russia. My many books include To Free the Romanovs and Queen Victoria and the Romanovs.


I wrote...

Little Mother of Russia: A Biography of Empress Marie Feodorovna

By Coryne Hall,

Book cover of Little Mother of Russia: A Biography of Empress Marie Feodorovna

What is my book about?

Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia lived one of the most dramatic lives of anyone to mount the steps of the Russian throne. Her husband Alexander III died in his prime and two of her sons died young. During the First World War she watched in despair as her son Nicholas II refused to heed her advice and the country she loved was governed by her daughter-in-law Empress Alexandra and Rasputin, with disastrous results. In the revolution that followed she lost two of her sons and five of her grandchildren, murdered by the Bolsheviks. She escaped on a British warship having lost her home, her country, her church and many of her family. She died in her native Denmark – the tragic relic of a bygone age.

The Fate of the Romanovs

By Greg King, Penny Wilson,

Book cover of The Fate of the Romanovs

This is a comprehensive account of what happened to Nicholas, Alexandra, and their family from the fall of the monarchy to their last days in Ekaterinburg. It covers fully all the details of their confinement, their brutal murder, the discovery of the Romanov grave outside Ekaterinburg in 1989, and the controversy over the bones, using many previously unpublished Russian archival documents. If you think you know what happened, then read this because there are some surprising revelations.


Who am I?

I developed a fascination for Imperial Russia in childhood when I learned that my great-grandmother was born in St Petersburg, an almost exact contemporary of Nicholas II. I have studied the Romanovs and Imperial Russia for over 40 years and lectured in England (including the Victoria & Albert Museum), America, Denmark, The Netherlands, and Russia. My many books include To Free the Romanovs and Queen Victoria and the Romanovs.


I wrote...

Little Mother of Russia: A Biography of Empress Marie Feodorovna

By Coryne Hall,

Book cover of Little Mother of Russia: A Biography of Empress Marie Feodorovna

What is my book about?

Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia lived one of the most dramatic lives of anyone to mount the steps of the Russian throne. Her husband Alexander III died in his prime and two of her sons died young. During the First World War she watched in despair as her son Nicholas II refused to heed her advice and the country she loved was governed by her daughter-in-law Empress Alexandra and Rasputin, with disastrous results. In the revolution that followed she lost two of her sons and five of her grandchildren, murdered by the Bolsheviks. She escaped on a British warship having lost her home, her country, her church and many of her family. She died in her native Denmark – the tragic relic of a bygone age.

Stalingrad

By Antony Beevor,

Book cover of Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege

Beevor has a rare gift of presenting war at the level of both the ordinary soldier and the generals and distant leadership making decisions both good and bad. His sources range from letters home, to diaries, to dispatches on both the Soviet and German side. He writes without flinching about the horrors of war, or too overtly playing the cheerleader as so many military histories do, to their detriment. 


Who am I?

I'm an award-winning teacher and writer who introduces students and readers to war in a profession that today is at best indifferent to military history, and more often hostile. That gives me a wry sense of irony, as colleagues would rather teach about fashion than fascism and truffles over tragedy. Having written a multiple award-winning book that covered 2,000 years of war, frankly I was sickened by how the same mistakes were made over and again. It has made me devoted to exploring possibilities for humane behavior within the most inhumane and degraded moral environment humanity creates; where individuality is subsumed in collective violence and humanity is obscured as a faceless, merciless enemy.


I wrote...

Mercy: Humanity in War

By Cathal J. Nolan,

Book cover of Mercy: Humanity in War

What is my book about?

War presents the most degraded moral environment humanity creates. It is an arena where individuality is subsumed in collective violence, and humanity is obscured as a faceless, merciless enemy pitted against its reflection in an elemental struggle for survival.

A barbaric logic has guided the conduct of war throughout history. Yet as Cathal Nolan reveals in this gripping, poignant, and powerful book, even as war can obliterate hope and decency at the grand level, it simultaneously produces conditions that permit astonishing exceptions of mercy and shared dignity. Pulling the trigger is usually both the expedient thing and required by war's grim and remorseless calculus. Yet somehow, the trigger is not always pulled. A different choice is made. Restraint triumphs. Humanity is rediscovered and honored in a flash of recognition.

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