The best books on Stalinism

2 authors have picked their favorite books about Stalinism and why they recommend each book.

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Comrade Pavlik

By Catriona Kelly,

Book cover of Comrade Pavlik: The Rise And Fall Of A Soviet Boy Hero

This book is intriguing as it reads like a historical detective mystery. Pavlik Morozov was murdered in Siberia and the Soviet state used the murder to further its propaganda effort to inculcate youth into proper modes of socialist behavior. He was turned into a martyr for the Soviet cause and some relatives were railroaded into confessing to his murder, however the author sheds considerable doubt that the true culprits were caught. The whole story reeks of cynicism and fickleness on the part of the powers that be as they tried to make an example of the life of Morozov.


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.

Yezhov

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.

It's Only A Joke, Comrade!

By Jonathan Waterlow,

Book cover of It's Only A Joke, Comrade!: Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin (1928-1941)

Jonathan Waterlow’s book It’s Only a Joke Comrade looks at humor in the Stalinist period, exploring how average citizens used humor to understand the contradictions of their daily reality and to relieve stress. Looking at the way Soviet leaders were mocked Waterlow investigates how people subversively commented on policies that left them hungry and poorly clothed, joking for example that Stalin rid himself of pubic lice (crabs) by announcing he would create a crab collective farm, causing even the lice to flee in terror. Jokes also touched on policy issues such as five-year plans, repression, and even the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, showing how people thought about and discussed these issues. Furthermore, Waterlow looks at the social aspects of telling jokes, which could have dire consequences if told to the wrong person. He studies how jokes helped create and reinforce trust circles, challenging old notions of atomization in the USSR. This witty,…


Who am I?

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Foreign Language Teaching Methodologies at Vyatka State University in Kirov, Russia. My book Stalin’s Constitution: Soviet Participatory Politics and the Discussion of the 1936 Draft Constitution was published in November 2017.  Most recently I have published an article-length study entitled Peasant Communal Traditions in the Expulsion of Collective Farm Members in the Vyatka–Kirov Region 1932–1939 in Europe Asia Studies in July 2012. I am currently conducting research for a future book manuscript on daily life on the collective farms and the day-to-day relationships between collective farmers and local officials.


I wrote...

Stalin's Constitution: Soviet Participatory Politics and the Discussion of the 1936 Draft Constitution

By Samantha Lomb,

Book cover of Stalin's Constitution: Soviet Participatory Politics and the Discussion of the 1936 Draft Constitution

What is my book about?

Upon its adoption in December 1936, Soviet leaders hailed the new so-called Stalin Constitution as the most democratic in the world. Scholars have long scoffed at this claim, noting that the mass repression of 1937–1938 that followed rendered it a hollow document. This study does not address these competing claims, but rather focuses on the six-month-long popular discussion of the draft Constitution, which preceded its formal adoption in December 1936.

Drawing on rich archival sources, this book uses the discussion of the draft 1936 Constitution to examine discourse between the central state leadership and citizens about the new Soviet social contract, which delineated the roles the state and citizens should play in developing socialism. 

The Akhmatova Journals

By Lydia Chukovskaya, Milena Michalski, Sylva Rubashova

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

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.


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.


I wrote...

St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past

By Catriona Kelly,

Book cover of St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past

What is my book about?

Fragile, gritty, and vital to an extraordinary degree, St. Petersburg is one of the world's most alluring cities--a place in which the past is at once ubiquitous and inescapably controversial. Yet outsiders are far more familiar with the city's pre-1917 and Second World War history than with its recent past. In this beautifully illustrated and highly original book, Catriona Kelly shows how creative engagement with the past has always been fundamental to St. Petersburg's residents. Weaving together oral history, personal observation, literary and artistic texts, journalism, and archival materials, she traces the at times paradoxical feelings of anxiety and pride that were inspired by living in the city, both when it was socialist Leningrad, and now. Ranging from rubbish dumps to promenades, from the city's glamorous center to its grimy outskirts, this ambitious book offers a compelling and always unexpected panorama of an extraordinary and elusive place.

Intimacy and Terror

By Veronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya, Thomas Lahusen

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

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.


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.

Post-Soviet Russia

By Roy A. Medvedev,

Book cover of Post-Soviet Russia: A Journey Through the Yeltsin Era

Russian historian Roy Medvedev, who has written classic works on Stalinism, recounts in this detailed and highly informed book the true consequences for Russia of Yeltsin era "shock therapy," including the impoverishment of the people, the destruction of the nation's health, and the rise of a criminal business oligarchy which in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn was totally indifferent to the Russian people or "even if they survived at all."

Who am I?

David Satter is a leading commentator on Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is the author of five books on Russia and the creator of a documentary film on the fall of the U.S.S.R. He is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. He has been a fellow of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and an associate of the Henry Jackson Society in London.


I wrote...

The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia's Road to Terror and Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin

By David Satter,

Book cover of The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia's Road to Terror and Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin

What is my book about?

In December 2013, David Satter became the first American journalist to be expelled from Russia since the Cold War. The Moscow Times said it was not surprising he was expelled, "it was surprising it took so long." Satter is known in Russia for having written that the apartment bombings in 1999, which were blamed on Chechens and brought Putin to power, were actually carried out by the Russian FSB security police.

In this book, Satter tells the story of the apartment bombings and how Boris Yeltsin presided over the criminalization of Russia, why Vladimir Putin was chosen as his successor, and how Putin has suppressed all opposition while retaining the appearance of a pluralist state. As the threat represented by Russia becomes increasingly clear, Satter's description of where Russia is and how it got there will be of vital interest to anyone concerned about the dangers facing the world today.

Through Soviet Jewish Eyes

By David Shneer,

Book cover of Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust

Written by one of the key scholars of Jewish history in the USSR, who died untimely in 2020, this book challenges our bias about the USSR and its Cold-War era culture. Shneer tells how the Soviet photographers, many of whom where Jews, documented the Nazi atrocities during World war II and how the Soviet officialdom used their visual narratives to create new cult of the Great Patriotic war and the image of the USSR as a humanistic society.


Who am I?

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern is the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies and a Professor of Jewish History in the History Department at Northwestern University. He teaches a variety of courses that include early modern and modern Jewish history; Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah; history and culture of Ukraine; and Slavic-Jewish literary encounters.


I wrote...

Lenin's Jewish Question

By Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern,

Book cover of Lenin's Jewish Question

What is my book about?

In this first examination of Lenin's genealogical and political connections to East European Jews, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern reveals the broad cultural meanings of indisputable evidence that Lenin's maternal grandfather was a Jew. He examines why and how Lenin's Jewish relatives converted to Christianity, explains how Lenin's vision of Russian Marxism shaped his identity, and explores Lenin's treatment of party colleagues of Jewish origin and the Jewish Question in Europe.

Petrovsky-Shtern also uncovers the continuous efforts of the Soviet communists to suppress Lenin's Jewishness and the no less persistent attempts of Russian extremists to portray Lenin as a Jew. In this fascinating book, Petrovsky-Shtern expands our understanding not only of Lenin, but also of Russian and Soviet handling of the Jewish Question.

Requiem and Poem Without a Hero

By Anna Akhmatova,

Book cover of Requiem and Poem Without a Hero

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. 


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.


I wrote...

The Creep: A First of Its Kind Narrative Poetry in a Thriller Genre!

By Chriselda Barretto,

Book cover of The Creep: A First of Its Kind Narrative Poetry in a Thriller Genre!

What is my book about?

“A collection of poems that highlight the most evil things and happenings, the author writes in an almost wistful way, capturing some of Edgar Allan Poe’s essence, in that the poems are grisly while getting under your skin in a subtle way. There seems to be a running theme of horrible things happening to ordinary people, from The Secret Amulet to Deepak, the Full Moon, and more. The Creep is a presence that pervades people’s lives, takes over and exerts an extreme evil influence. This is an interesting take on putting together a collection of poetry, highly unique and innovative.” - Valery

The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

By Anna Akhmatova, Judith Hemschemeyer (translator),

Book cover of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

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. 


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.


I wrote...

We Shall See the Sky Sparkling

By Susana Aikin,

Book cover of We Shall See the Sky Sparkling

What is my book about?

Like other young women in Edwardian England, Lily Throop is expected to think of little beyond marriage and motherhood. To her father’s dismay, she secures an apprenticeship at London’s famous Imperial Theatre. Soon, her talent and beauty bring coveted roles and devoted admirers. With her reputation threatened by her mentor’s vicious betrayal, Lily flees to St. Petersburg with an acting troupe. Life in Russia is as exhilarating as it is difficult. The streets rumble with talk of revolution and Lily is drawn into an affair with Sergei, a Count with revolutionary ideals. Following Sergei when he is banished to Vladivostok, Lily struggles to find her role in an increasingly dangerous world. As Russian tensions with Japan erupt into war, only fortitude and single-mindedness can steer her to freedom and safety at last.

North of the DMZ

By Andrei Lankov,

Book cover of North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea

As a Russian, Lankov has a particular affinity for North Korea; he intuits how such economic systems work. A historian with some of the best work on the politics of the 1950s, he has more recently turned to projects interviewing refugees including on the economy of the North. He introduces the country’s weird political system, but also analyzes daily life, from personal status badges to schools, food and surviving in the underground market economy as well. 


Who are we?

We teamed up about fifteen years ago around a common interest in the political economy of North Korea; Haggard is a political scientist, Noland an economist. Both of us had spent our careers focused on Asia but looking largely at the capitalist successes: Japan and the newly industrializing countries of Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. But what about the anomalous cases in the region that did not get on the growth train? The “Asian miracle” was hardly ubiquitous…what had gone wrong? North Korea was clearly the biggest puzzle, and we ended up researching and writing on the famine, refugees, and the complexities of international sanctions. 


We wrote...

Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights Into North Korea

By Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland,

Book cover of Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights Into North Korea

What is our book about?

The North Korean famine was a train wreck of unbelievable proportions, resulting not only in starvation and death but a massive refugee outflow and heartbreaking human rights abuses. But refugees were also fonts of information, as a flood of memoirs demonstrated. Our approach was to survey refugees in a more systematic fashion, in effect polling them on everything from their views of the regime and interactions with the security apparatus to household finances and aspirations beyond North Korea. We show that in the aftermath of the famine, households engaged in entrepreneurial activity, moved around the country, and even engaged in trade with China. Although the future of North Korea does not look bright at the moment, much more is going on below the surface than you might think including a thriving market economy. 

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