The best books on the Soviet Union

83 authors have picked their favorite books about the Soviet Union and why they recommend each book.

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Stumbling Colossus

By David M. Glantz,

Book cover of Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War

A truly extraordinary examination of the army that would do a majority of the fighting and suffer as well as inflict the largest portion of the military casualties of the European part of World War II. The "Bibliographic Essay and Selective Bibliography" is extraordinarily helpful in its account of the fate of Soviet archives and publications over the years.


Who am I?

Gerhard Weinberg fled Germany at the end of 1938 and experienced the first year of World War II – including the beginning of the Blitz – in England. He completed his PhD after serving in the US Army of Occupation in Japan, researched the captured German documents, established the program for microfilming them, and after writing an analysis of the origins of World War II decided to prepare a book covering the war as a whole.


I wrote...

A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II

By Gerhard Weinberg,

Book cover of A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II

What is my book about?

This is the first general history of World War II to be based both on the existing literature and on extensive work in British, American, and German archives. It covers all the theaters of war, the weaponry used, and developments on the home front. Taking a global perspective, the work deals with all belligerents and relates events in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and the Pacific to each other. The role of diplomacy and strategy, of intelligence and espionage, and the impact of war upon society are all dealt with, often on the basis of hitherto unknown material. New light is shed on the actions of great and small powers and on topics ranging from the beginning of the war to the dropping of the atomic bombs; the titanic battles on the Eastern Front are fitted into the war as a whole; the killing of six million Jews and millions of others is placed into context, and the fighting at sea and in the air is included in a coherent view of the great conflict.

Defending the Motherland

By Lyuba Vinogradova,

Book cover of Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler''s Aces

This is a gripping history of the Soviet female fighter, bomber and night bomber squadron pilots told through their interwoven biographies. These were the women who fought and died in the skies above Stalingrad and Kursk, and whose skills, as well as courage, astounded and terrified the Luftwaffe. Although invited to train and serve alongside their male comrades, the women were of course given uniforms and equipment designed for men, plenty of hostility, and a place, for those who survived, only at the back of the victory parades.


Who am I?

Clare Mulley is the award-winning author of three books re-examining the history of the First and Second World War through the lives of remarkable women. The Woman Who Saved the Children, about child rights pioneer Eglantyne Jebb, won the Daily Mail Biographers' Club Prize and is now under option. Polish-born Second World War special agent Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, is the subject of the Spy Who Loved, a book that led to Clare being decorated with Poland’s national honour, the Bene Merito. Clare's third book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, long-listed for the Historical Writers Association prize, tells the extraordinary story of Nazi Germany’s only two female test pilots, whose choices and actions put them on opposite sides of history. Clare reviews for the Telegraph, Spectator, and History Today. A popular public speaker, she has given a TEDx talk at Stormont, and recent TV includes news appearances for the BBC, Sky, and Channel 5 as well as various Second World War history series.


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The Women Who Flew for Hitler: A True Story of Soaring Ambition and Searing Rivalry

By Clare Mulley,

Book cover of The Women Who Flew for Hitler: A True Story of Soaring Ambition and Searing Rivalry

What is my book about?

The Women Who Flew For Hitler tells the extraordinary story of the only two women to serve Nazi Germany as test pilots, both of whom received the Iron Cross, yet who ended their lives on opposite sides of history. Brilliant pilot Hanna Reitsch was the world’s first woman to fly a helicopter, and later tested rocket planes and even a manned version of a prototype cruise missile - the V1 flying bomb or doodlebug. A fanatical Nazi, in the last days of the war she begged Hitler to let her fly him to safety from his Berlin bunker. Her nemesis, Melitta von Stauffenberg, an exceptional aeronautical engineer and test pilot for the Stuka dive bombers that were synonymous with the Blitzkrieg, was secretly part Jewish. In July 1944 Melitta was at the heart of the most famous attempt on Hitler's life, the Valkyrie bomb plot.

The Great Game

By Peter Hopkirk,

Book cover of The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia

Filled with larger-than-life characters risking life and limb in the quest for empire, Hopkirk recounts the contest between Britain and Russia for influence in remote inner Asia in the 19th century. Appropriate derring-do abounds as spies and soldiers traverse steppe, mountains and desert in search of glory, only to become entrapped in the ultimate folly of imperial designs. Hopkirk’s sharp eye for the epic would make Kipling proud.


Who am I?

Michael Schuman is the author of three history books on Asia, most recently Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World, released in 2020. He has spent the past quarter-century as a journalist in the region. Formerly a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine, he is currently a contributor to The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.


I wrote...

Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World

By Michael Schuman,

Book cover of Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World

What is my book about?

We in the West routinely ask: "What does China want?" The answer is quite simple: the superpower status it always had but briefly lost. In this colorful, informative story filled with fascinating characters, epic battles, influential thinkers, and decisive moments, we come to understand how the Chinese view their own history and how its narrative is distinctly different from that of Western civilization. More importantly, we come to see how this unique Chinese history of the world shapes China's economic policy, attitude toward the United States and the rest of the world, relations with its neighbors, positions on democracy and human rights, and notions of good government.

Four Soldiers

By Hubert Mingarelli,

Book cover of Four Soldiers

Not strictly speaking World War Two, this rather strange miniature masterpiece by a French author is set during the Russian Civil War and tells the story of the friendship of four very different soldiers. It is very short – it only takes about two hours to read – but its perfectly-drawn themes of life stripped bare, of comradeship, survival, and futility will stay with you for a very long time.


Who am I?

As a Brit growing up in the 1970s, I was obsessed with the Second World War as a heroic narrative and my country’s ‘Finest Hour’. Then I went out on the road and interviewed hundreds of veterans of the Battle of Monte Cassino and learned a somewhat different story…


I wrote...

Monte Cassino: The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II

By Matthew Parker,

Book cover of Monte Cassino: The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II

What is my book about?

Monte Cassino was the hardest battle fought by the Western Allies against the Germans. Fought over terrible terrain and in appalling conditions, the four-month struggle saw men from all over the world ordered to attack the most perfect defensive position in Europe. This is the story of the battle from the point of view of the men, on both sides, who did the actual fighting.

Bridge of Spies

By Giles Whittell,

Book cover of Bridge of Spies

Giles Whittell’s narrative history tells the true story of three colorful Cold War characters, revealing much about the extraordinary tension and paranoia of that febrile time. William Fisher, aka Rudolf Abel, was a British-born KGB agent arrested in New York City and jailed for his attempt to steal America’s nuclear secrets; Gary Powers was the American pilot captured when his plane was shot down while on a reconnaissance mission over Russia; Frederic Pryor was a young American student in Berlin arrested and held without charge by East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi. Whittell skilfully narrates the interwoven stories of these three men, highlighting the political tensions that brought the United States and the Soviet Union so close to nuclear war.


Who am I?

Giles Milton is the internationally bestselling author of twelve works of narrative history. His most recent book is Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World. His previous work, Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, is currently being developed into a major TV series. Milton’s works—published in twenty-five languages—include Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, serialized by the BBC. He lives in London and Burgundy.


I wrote...

Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World

By Giles Milton,

Book cover of Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World

What is my book about?

The lively, immersive story of the race to seize Berlin in the aftermath of World War II that fired the starting gun for the Cold War. Berlin's fate was sealed at the 1945 Yalta Conference: the city, along with the rest of Germany, was to be carved up between the victorious powers--American, British, French, and Soviet. On paper, it seemed a pragmatic solution. In reality, now that the four powers were no longer united by the common purpose of defeating Germany, they wasted little time reverting to their pre-war hostility toward and suspicion of each other. The veneer of civility between Allies and Soviets was to break down in spectacular fashion. Rival systems, rival ideologies, and rival personalities ensured that Berlin became an explosive battleground.

Venona

By John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr,

Book cover of Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America

This book is a true find for history buffs. It is based on the by now declassified thousands of KGB messages that were decoded by the Venona Project. It gives clear evidence of the Soviet espionage efforts by the KGB against the United States even while the two were allies in WWII. It also proves the hitherto only rumored deep penetration of Soviet assets into the United States government. In those decrypted documents there is proof that the much-maligned Senator Joseph McCarthy was more right than wrong, albeit too frenetic and sensationalist in his pursuit of communists in the US government.  


Who am I?

I am one of ten undercover illegal agents the Soviet Union sent to the United States during the height of the Cold War. We were admired and lionized as the elite of the elite. I spent altogether 10 years spying for the KGB in the US before cutting my ties to the espionage world for personal reasons. When the FBI introduced themselves nine years later, I had become what the KGB wanted me to become, a true blue American, and that is who I am today.  


I wrote...

Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America

By Jack Barsky, Cindy Coloma,

Book cover of Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America

What is my book about?

This is the story of my life.

It starts out with a flaming young communist who wants to change the world. He becomes an elite agent for the KBG and goes undercover in the USA. We follow many twists and turns in the agent’s path until the final life-changing moment. It is the power of love, the love for an 18-month old child that makes a human out of the communist playboy.

Former People

By Douglas Smith,

Book cover of Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

Beautifully written, the book follows the lives of Russia’s two great aristocratic families in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. Their fate was typical of the entire Russian aristocracy. It is a story of the Bolsheviks' cruelty and a painful survival of their many victims.


Who am I?

History has always been my passion. Since I was 16, I tried to understand the world around me and the forces that shaped it. I thought that history as a discipline provided the best answers. In the 1970s, because of the official anti-Semitism, it was impossible to get into the history department programs at the Soviet universities. Nonetheless, I resolved to study history after my emigration to the US in 1979 and joined a graduate program at the University of Chicago. For four decades I have been writing about Russian history, although I also read, teach, and write on global history.


I wrote...

Russia's 20th Century: A Journey in 100 Histories

By Michael Khodarkovsky,

Book cover of Russia's 20th Century: A Journey in 100 Histories

What is my book about?

Michael Khodarkovsky's innovative exploration of Russia's 20th century, through 100 carefully selected vignettes that span the century, offers a fascinating prism through which to view Russian history. Each chosen microhistory focuses on one particular event or individual that allows you to understand Russia not in abstract terms but in real events in the lives of ordinary people. Russia's 20th Century covers a broad range of topics, including the economy, culture, politics, ideology, law, and society. This introduction provides a vital background and engaging analysis of Russia's path through a turbuturbulent 20th century.

Moscow, 1937

By Karl Schlogel,

Book cover of Moscow, 1937

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.


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.


I wrote...

How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism

By Steven G. Marks,

Book cover of How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism

What is my book about?

In this sweeping history, Steven Marks tells the fascinating story of how Russian figures, ideas, and movements changed our world in dramatic but often unattributed ways.

On Europe’s periphery, Russia was an early modernizing nation whose troubles stimulated intellectuals to develop radical and utopian alternatives to Western models of modernity. These provocative ideas gave rise to cultural and political innovations that were exported and adopted worldwide. Wherever there was discontent with modern existence or traditional societies were undergoing transformation, anti-Western sentiments arose. Many people perceived the Russian soul as the antithesis of the capitalist, imperialist West and turned to Russian ideas for inspiration and even salvation.

Bomb

By Steve Sheinkin,

Book cover of Bomb: The Race to Build--And Steal--The World's Most Dangerous Weapon

Many books have been written about the development of the atomic bomb, most of them more technical than the average reader wants or needs. That is why I’m recommending this book. Don’t let the “Perfect for middle grade readers” in the Amazon book description put you off. The book was factual, yet read like a spy thriller. The only thing I missed was a cast of characters in the front matter, so I created a list as I read.


Who am I?

William L. McGee is an award-winning World War II Pacific war historian. His writing career has spanned six decades and his writing style has been described as journalistic and spare. Bill currently has nine titles in print; six with his co-author and wife, Sandra V. McGee.


I wrote...

Operation Crossroads - Lest We Forget!: An Eyewitness Account, Bikini Atomic Bomb Tests 1946

By William L. McGee, Sandra V. McGee,

Book cover of Operation Crossroads - Lest We Forget!: An Eyewitness Account, Bikini Atomic Bomb Tests 1946

What is my book about?

In the summer of 1946, William L. McGee, USN, was one of the 42,000 military, scientists, and civilian personnel assembled at the Bikini Atoll for the first postwar tests of the atomic bomb, code-named Operation Crossroads. The author witnessed Crossroads from the deck of the heavy cruiser, USS Fall River (CA-131), Target Vessel Control Ship, responsible for positioning 95 target vessels in the Bikini Lagoon. This is his story of what took place at Operation Crossroads in 1946.

The Gulag Archipelago

By Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn,

Book cover of The Gulag Archipelago

This is the classic account of the Great Terror and the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn roots Stalinist repression firmly in the Russian Revolution, blaming Marxist ideology for the camps. The literary value of this work is incontestable.


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.


I wrote...

Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

By Lynne Viola,

Book cover of Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

What is my book about?

Between the summer of 1937 and November 1938, the Stalinist regime arrested over 1.5 million people for "counterrevolutionary" and "anti-Soviet" activity and either summarily executed or exiled them to the Gulag. While we now know a great deal about the experience of victims of the Great Terror, we know almost nothing about the lower- and middle-level Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD), or secret police, cadres who carried out Stalin's murderous policies. Unlike the postwar, public trials of Nazi war criminals, NKVD operatives were tried secretly. And what exactly happened in those courtrooms was unknown until now.

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