The most recommended books on the Russian Empire

Who picked these books? Meet our 9 experts.

9 authors created a book list connected to the Russian Empire, and here are their favorite Russian Empire books.
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Book cover of The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia

Elizabeth Wayland Barber Author Of The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance

From my list on European dance in female fertility and health.

Who am I?

I’m an information junkie who loves to dance. I fell in love with folk dancing at age 6, European archaeology at 11, linguistics and cognition at 21—and could never drop any of them. My scientist-father always said, “Follow the problem, not the discipline,” and I began to see how these fields could help answer each other’s questions. Words can survive for millennia—with information about what archaeologists don’t find, like oh-so-perishable cloth. Determining how to reconstruct prehistoric textiles (Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years) then led me to trace the origins of various European folk costumes, and finally even to reconstruct something about the origins of the dances themselves.

Elizabeth's book list on European dance in female fertility and health

Elizabeth Wayland Barber Why did Elizabeth love this book?

I chose this book because it is such a wide-ranging compendium of Russian folk beliefs in general (in English!) as well as of Russian customs involved in trying to ensure the fertility and health of crops, farm animals, and women, all desperately needed for the survival of the community. It is these fascinating and picturesque customs that so often get incorporated into dances. Furthermore, the Dancing Goddesses were often pressed into service for divination of the future, especially by young girls worrying about whom they would marry and how many children they would have, or if they would die first. (I accidentally witnessed one of these ceremonies in Danzig in 1993—they have not died!)

By W.F. Ryan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The title of this book refers to the classic time and place for magic, witchcraft, and divination in Russia. The Bathhouse at Midnight, by one of the world's foremost experts on the subject, surveys all forms of magic, both learned and popular, in Russia from the fifth to the eighteenth century. While no book on the subject could be exhaustive, The Bathhouse at Midnight does describe and assess all the literary sources of magic, witchcraft, astrology, alchemy, and divination from Kiev Rus and Imperial Russia, and to some extent Ukraine and Belorussia. Where possible, Ryan identifies the sources of the…


Book cover of To the Harbin Station: The Liberal Alternative in Russian Manchuria, 1898-1914

Sören Urbansky Author Of Beyond the Steppe Frontier: A History of the Sino-Russian Border

From my list on Russia in Asia.

Who am I?

Sören Urbansky was born and raised in East Germany next to the Iron Curtain. Since embarking on an overland journey from Berlin to Beijing after high school, he became hooked by peoples’ lifeways in Northeast Asia. In college, Sören began studying history in earnest and grew intrigued by Russia and China, the world’s largest and most populous countries. He has published widely on this pivotal yet forgotten region. Sören is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute Washington and is currently embarking on a new project that examines anti-Chinese sentiments from a global perspective.

Sören's book list on Russia in Asia

Sören Urbansky Why did Sören love this book?

Published in 1999, David Wolff’s To the Harbin Station was a pioneering work that paved the path for many historical studies that followed, and which remains an unparalleled analysis of Russia’s only colony and its imperial expansion into China in the two decades leading up to the 1917 revolution. The monograph is more than an urban history of Harbin. It is the history of a region, a railroad, and the nature of late tsarist imperialism.

By David Wolff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked To the Harbin Station as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1898, near the projected intersection of the Chinese Eastern Railroad (the last leg of the Trans-Siberian) and China's Sungari River, Russian engineers founded the city of Harbin. Between the survey of the site and the profound dislocations of the 1917 revolution, Harbin grew into a bustling multiethnic urban center with over 100,000 inhabitants. In this area of great natural wealth, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and American ambitions competed and converged, and sometimes precipitated vicious hostilities.

Drawing on the archives, both central and local, of seven countries, this history of Harbin presents multiple perspectives on Imperial Russia's only colony. The…


Book cover of Tsarina

Ken Czech Author Of The Tsar's Locket

From my list on the triumphs and tragedies of Russia's Romanovs.

Who am I?

The Romanov saga has intrigued me since I was an undergraduate student in history many moons ago. Three hundred years of Romanov rule were filled with exotic beauty, violence, and tragedy. I went on to teach Russian history at university and was able to share some of the stories of the tsars and tsarinas with my students. Having authored books and articles in my academic field, my teaching career has ended. Now it is historical fiction that has captured my imagination and spurred me to pen my own novels set in 19th-century Africa and Afghanistan, as well as Russia during the reign of Ivan the Terrible.

Ken's book list on the triumphs and tragedies of Russia's Romanovs

Ken Czech Why did Ken love this book?

Empress Catherine the Great immediately comes to mind when referring to women who ruled Russia. In Tsarina, however, author Alpsten focuses on Catherine Alexeyevna, the wife of Peter the Great, who rose to power in the early 18th century. Born into devastating poverty, Catherine is a woman who holds her cards close and plays them judiciously. She seduces Peter, revels in the riches and debauchery of the Russian court, and emerges not only as his wife, but a linchpin to Russia's future when Peter dies. This is an extraordinary tale of a powerful and intelligent woman often ignored in history.

By Ellen Alpsten,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"Makes Game of Thrones look like a nursery rhyme." —Daisy Goodwin, New York Times bestselling author of The Fortune Hunter

“[Alpsten] recounts this remarkable woman’s colourful life and times." —Count Nikolai Tolstoy, historian and author

Before there was Catherine the Great, there was Catherine Alexeyevna: the first woman to rule Russia in her own right. Ellen Alpsten's rich, sweeping debut novel is the story of her rise to power.

St. Petersburg, 1725. Peter the Great lies dying in his magnificent Winter Palace. The weakness and treachery of his only son has driven his father to an appalling act of cruelty…


Book cover of A Public Empire: Property and the Quest for the Common Good in Imperial Russia

Paul W. Werth Author Of 1837: Russia's Quiet Revolution

From my list on Russian history—with an imperial twist.

Who am I?

I have been studying Russia and its history for over 30 years and find that it continues to intrigue me. Having previously focused my attention on religion and its imperial dimensions (including The Tsar’s Foreign Faiths, with Oxford University Press in 2014), I have more recently sought to understand the importance of Russia’s nineteenth century and I am now exploring the history of Russia’s territory with a view to writing a history of the longest border in the world. I teach at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

Paul's book list on Russian history—with an imperial twist

Paul W. Werth Why did Paul love this book?

This is a remarkable book that defies categorization. Establishing a concept of property that existed between private property and the property of the state, Pravilova imaginatively unites a seemingly unrelated collection of topics: forests, rivers, icons, copyright, archaeological treasures, and much more besides. She offers a profoundly new way of thinking about property and about Russians’ attitudes towards ownership. Deeply rooted in the particularities of Russia, the book also raises issues of universal significance.

By Ekaterina Pravilova,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"Property rights" and "Russia" do not usually belong in the same sentence. Rather, our general image of the nation is of insecurity of private ownership and defenselessness in the face of the state. Many scholars have attributed Russia's long-term development problems to a failure to advance property rights for the modern age and blamed Russian intellectuals for their indifference to the issues of ownership. A Public Empire refutes this widely shared conventional wisdom and analyzes the emergence of Russian property regimes from the time of Catherine the Great through World War I and the revolutions of 1917. Most importantly, A…


Book cover of The Forged Coupon: and Other Stories

Miguel Farias Author Of The Oxford Handbook of Meditation

From my list on religious experience.

Who am I?

From about the age of 14, I have been exploring how unusual ideas and experiences might change a person’s life. This led me to become an author and experimental psychologist studying the effects of religious beliefs, rituals, and meditation exercises on our minds and bodies. I have spent a good part of the last 4 years putting together a book which tries to answer many of my questions on the varieties of meditation practices around the world.   

Miguel's book list on religious experience

Miguel Farias Why did Miguel love this book?

Tolstoy describes and plays with religious experiences across various of his novels. He doesn’t take them for granted: the initial enthusiasm and prospect of personal change seldom leads to real transformation. Here, though, in one of his last writings, we follow the contagious spell of true conversion of heart. When a serial murderer meets a pure soul his self is transformed and goes on to change the life of others. 

By Leo Tolstoy,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828 – November 20, 1910) was a Russian writer who earned fame and global renown for his novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Writing during the late 19th century, Tolstoy lived during a literary period in which Realism flourished, and today his two novels are considered the apex of realist fiction. Tolstoy is also known for his complex and somewhat paradoxical persona, holding both moralistic and ascetic views during the final decades of his life.


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

Mickey Mayhew Author Of Rasputin and his Russian Queen: The True Story of Grigory and Alexandra

From my list on Rasputin and his Russian queen.

Who am I?

I can’t explain the fascination with Rasputin, but one hears the name so frequently via the Boney M pop song, so I took that as the inspiration - and the title - of my book. I saw a book about him in Waterstones one day and had to pick it up, even though it was so big it might’ve doubled as a doorstop. But from then I was hooked; I read everything I could, watched more, and researched until I actually went to Russia. And then I research some more!

Mickey's book list on Rasputin and his Russian queen

Mickey Mayhew Why did Mickey love this book?

This was the book that inspired me to visit Russia, while researching Rasputin and the Romanovs, and then to write my own take on the relationship between Rasputin and Alexandra.

It’s a great book but hard-going for a novice, but I like to dive in at the deep end.

By Douglas Smith,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

On the centenary of the death of Rasputin comes a definitive biography that will dramatically change our understanding of this fascinating figure

A hundred years after his murder, Rasputin continues to excite the popular imagination as the personification of evil. Numerous biographies, novels, and films recount his mysterious rise to power as Nicholas and Alexandra's confidant and the guardian of the sickly heir to the Russian throne. His debauchery and sinister political influence are the stuff of legend, and the downfall of the Romanov dynasty was laid at his feet.

But as the prizewinning historian Douglas Smith shows, the true…


Book cover of Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy, Volume One: From Peter the Great to the Death of Nicholas I

Stefan B. Kirmse Author Of The Lawful Empire: Legal Change and Cultural Diversity in Late Tsarist Russia

From my list on how cultural diversity sustained the Russian Empire.

Who am I?

You can experience Russia by exploring the churches and palaces of St Petersburg and Moscow. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not my approach. For me, it has always made more sense to look at the largest country on earth from its edges, the distant mountains, steppes, forests, and waters that surround it. For three decades, I have travelled across this space, studied its languages, written books and articles about it. And I have tried to look through the lens of the diverse peoples and cultures that have been part of Russian history, for better or worse. The rise and fall of the Russian Empire are unthinkable without them.    

Stefan's book list on how cultural diversity sustained the Russian Empire

Stefan B. Kirmse Why did Stefan love this book?

Recommending a two-volume tome may seem odd at first sight.

But this is a truly majestic work (no pun intended). Ingeniously, Richard Wortman attributes a distinctive “scenario of power” to every Russian emperor from the 1700s to the downfall of the Romanovs in 1917, with some rulers promoting a national myth and others framing their reign as a bond of love with their subjects.

The account is deeply captivating and honest, showing every emperor and empress with all their quirks and human weaknesses, but also helping us understand their enigmatic appeal.

While the other books I recommend explore the Russian Empire “from below”, through the eyes of the people, this one is top down, focusing on how the empire and its rulers saw themselves.

The read is worth every page.        

By Richard S. Wortman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Russian imperial court, with its extravagant ceremonies and celebrations, was perhaps the most impressive theater in the world. The show, however, was no mere diversion, as Richard Wortman demonstrates in this first scholarly study of the principal myths, symbols, and rituals of Russian monarchy. Focusing on the period from the reign of Peter the Great to the death of Nicholas I, Wortman shows how the presentations and representations of the Russian ruler played a central role in the exercise of monarchical power. These presentations--from ceremonies and staged events to architectural and literary monuments--sustained an image of a supreme and…


Book cover of The Fate of the Romanovs

Coryne Hall Author Of Little Mother of Russia: A Biography of Empress Marie Feodorovna

From my list on Imperial Russia and the Romanovs.

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.

Coryne's book list on Imperial Russia and the Romanovs

Coryne Hall Why did Coryne love this book?

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.

By Greg King, Penny Wilson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Abundant, newly discovered sources shatter long-held beliefs

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 revealed, among many other things, a hidden wealth of archival documents relating to the imprisonment and eventual murder of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their children. Emanating from sources both within and close to the Imperial Family as well as from their captors and executioners, these often-controversial materials have enabled a new and comprehensive examination of one the pivotal events of the twentieth century and the many controversies that surround it.

Based on a careful analysis of more than 500 of these previously…


Book cover of Romanoff Gold

Coryne Hall Author Of Little Mother of Russia: A Biography of Empress Marie Feodorovna

From my list on Imperial Russia and the Romanovs.

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.

Coryne's book list on Imperial Russia and the Romanovs

Coryne Hall Why did Coryne love this book?

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.

By William Clarke,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

When World War I broke out in 1914 Russia's Romanov dynasty was among the world's richest families. Yet ever since the Bolsheviks executed Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their children at Ekaterinburg, the mystery of what happened to their wealth has remained unsolved. This book is an account of the authors' answers to the Tsar's lost fortune.


Book cover of The Volga: A History of Russia's Greatest River

Stefan B. Kirmse Author Of The Lawful Empire: Legal Change and Cultural Diversity in Late Tsarist Russia

From my list on how cultural diversity sustained the Russian Empire.

Who am I?

You can experience Russia by exploring the churches and palaces of St Petersburg and Moscow. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not my approach. For me, it has always made more sense to look at the largest country on earth from its edges, the distant mountains, steppes, forests, and waters that surround it. For three decades, I have travelled across this space, studied its languages, written books and articles about it. And I have tried to look through the lens of the diverse peoples and cultures that have been part of Russian history, for better or worse. The rise and fall of the Russian Empire are unthinkable without them.    

Stefan's book list on how cultural diversity sustained the Russian Empire

Stefan B. Kirmse Why did Stefan love this book?

The Volga is key to understanding Russian history.

The river helped the empire to spread and rule, it carried dangers and diseases, protected and divided people. As a frequent site of battle, it also helped to shape collective memory. Janet Hartley’s history of the Volga captures these dimensions beautifully.

Containing a wealth of detail and written in elegant and accessible language, her book delivers new insights on a broad range of topics, from religious policy and piracy to the Volga in poetry and painting.

It is a great introduction to Russian empire-building, while, at the same time, offers even historians of Russia new insights in almost every chapter.

Take a long river cruise – down the Danube or Mississippi – and enjoy.

By Janet M. Hartley,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A rich and fascinating exploration of the Volga River and its vital place in Russian history-named a Best Book of 2021 by the Financial Times

"A memorable journey into the heart of Russian social, political, and cultural history."-Jennifer Eremeeva, Moscow Times

"'Without the Volga, there would be no Russia.' The final words of Janet Hartley's book sound sweeping. But its 400 pages make the case powerfully."-The Economist

The longest river in Europe, the Volga stretches more than three and a half thousand km from the heart of Russia to the Caspian Sea, separating west from east. The river has played…