Thursday, May 16, 2019

Alexandra Popoff's "Five Best Books on Russia and the Soviet Union"

In the Books section of each weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal is a list of "five best books" on a particular topic. I've found some good leads on books I'd like to read every now and then from this feature.

This past weekend edition had a list from Alexandra Popoff, former Moscow journalist and author of Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century (which I just started and is great...more to come on it) on books about Russia and the Soviet Union. It's quite the task to narrow down such a list to just five. The list can be found here, but since it's behind the WSJ paywall I'll list the books here in case you're interested in adding more books to your To Be Read pile. Notes on the books are mine, while direct quotes are from the article.

Red Famine by Anne Applebaum (2017)
Having read this, Gulag, and Iron Curtain, I think it's apparent I like Applebaum's work. While I might favor Gulag over Red Famine, both are brutal indictments of the Soviet system. One of the strengths of Red Famine is not just laying out the deliberate effort to eliminate as many Ukrainians as possible, but in detailing the effort to cover up Stalin's policy and its rippling effects.

The Foresaken by Tim Tzouliadis (2018)
While I'm familiar with this book on Americans trapped in the Soviet Union and sent to gulags, I have not had a chance to read it yet. A "must acquire" for my TBR pile.

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev (2014)
A wild ride through Putin's Russia where nothing is...well, you can read the title. The book follows a specific story of an individual caught between competing Kremlin factions. I don't think I could wish that scenario on anyone.

A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia by Alexander N. Yakovlev, translated by Anthony Austin (2002)
What Yakovlev has been through and the access he's had to classified Soviet documents, you can bet this book is a strong "testimony against the regime he devotedly served."

An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler (2013)
Grossman deserves to be included, but which work? Life and Fate is one of my favorite novels. These notes on his Armenian travels, right after Life and Fate was seized by the KGB, provide an uncensored view of unofficial Soviet policy in action.

Again, how can you narrow this to just five? It's an impossible task to please everyone with such a short list. And while I might want to see Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, Platonov, Babel, or the Mandelstams (among others) on the list, I don't think any of their works are going to be read less because of exclusion. Since I currently have a few books I'm reading or lined up related to the topic, I'll make a note of them.

I mentioned Popoff's excellent book on Grossman, which I hope to focus more on soon. It's a history on more than just the writer. Then there's Grossman's Stalingrad which is coming out next month. Needless to say I'm excited to see that being released.

I'll mention Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C. Hayden. Set in the early 1930s, this recent novel follows a Tartar kulak woman exiled to Siberia. I hope to comment on this soon, especially since Lisa seems to shy away from much self-promotion on her wonderful Lizok's Bookshelf blog.

And a book I'll be getting later this week, Judgment in Moscow: Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity by Vladimir Bukovsky, covers Western dupes carrying out Soviet policy (only 700 pages?). From Anne Applebaum's blurb: "Judgment in Moscow provides the written Nuremberg trial the Soviets never got when the USSR fell."


Jean said...

Dangit! The list of fascinating Russian history books is endless. I can't keep up at all, I just acquire them and the pile gets bigger.

Dwight said...

I feel your pain. My list gets longer and the pile wobbles more, in large part because of the Russian books.

Lisa C. Hayden said...

Thank you so much, Dwight, for your kind mention of Zuleikha and my blog! I also couldn't agree more about the "five books" pieces in the WSJ: I, too, often find excellent recommendations.

Dwight said...

Best wishes on Zuleikha, Lisa! I hope to finish it this weekend and post on it next week.

"Five Books" seems to be hit or miss with me. This piece coincided with several Russian books I'm reading, so obviously it was a hit.