Churchill described Russia as a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Here you can start getting to grips with the best books on Russian history. Most of our interviews cover book recommendations for post-Revolutionary Russian history, but Andrei Maylunas looks at pre-Revolutionary Russia. Roland Chambers looks at the Revolution itself, as does Thomas Keneally. Both of them choose A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes.
Turning to the broader experience of Communist Russia and the Soviet Union, we haver Francis Spufford looking at 20th century Russia, Robert Service looking at Totalitarian Russia, trying to answer the difficult question of who was worse, Lenin, Trotsky or Stalin. Archie Brown chooses his best books on the Cold War and Stephen Lucas considers Soviet Law. Bringing things up to date, but putting them in their historical context, Edward Lucas discusses Putin and Russian history.
The Cold War: A World History
by Odd Arne Westad
For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War
by Melvyn P Leffler
Russia and the Idea of the West
by Robert English
The Enigma of 1989: The USSR and the Liberation of Eastern Europe
Jacques Lévesque (trans. Keith Martin)
Reagan and Gorbachev
by Jack Matlock
American military and economic superiority cannot explain why the Cold War came to an end in the late 1980s and early 1990s. According to the historian Archie Brown, you need to accept the primacy of politics and human agency both in the USSR and the West. He chooses five books to understand the Cold War and offers some broader reflections on the qualities of good political leadership—then and now.
The Russian revolution was the beginning of the modern age, says award-winning author Roland Chambers. He tells us what Solzhenitsyn imagined Lenin was like, and about the children’s author who led a double life as a spy in Bolshevik Russia.
Russia at War
by Alexander Werth
A Writer At War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945
by Vasily Grossman, translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova
Reflections on the Russian Soul
by Dmitry Likhachov
Less Than One
by Joseph Brodsky
Conversations with Stalin
by Milovan Djilas
Reading about Russia’s 20th century is like finding another vision of how the world might have been. Francis Spufford, author of Red Plenty, recommends books that tell the story of Russia in the last century — from Soviet science fiction set in capitalist wastelands to Khrushchev as raconteur.
Robert Service, Professor of Russian Studies at Oxford, when forced to choose between Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, says Stalin was definitely the worst of the lot. He takes a look at the dynamics of totalitarian Russia, gleaning insights from Thucydides to Orwell.
Best-selling author Thomas Keneally explains that the Cold War biographies couldn’t afford to say that Stalin was attractive, or that Lenin was magnetic, but they were, because otherwise people wouldn’t have followed them. He picks some great introductions to Revolutionary Russia.