Simon Sebag Montefiore's Recommended Reading on Russia and its Revolutions
Of course, the history of Russia is as vast as the nation itself, a daunting prospect for anyone looking to properly unpick its past. Exclusively for Waterstones, Simon Sebag Montefiore presents his own reading roadmap to those eager to explore the Russian adventure.
Photo: Simon Sebag Montefiore (c) Amy Kerridge
Russia is ever more fascinating to us and never more important than it is now in 2017, the centenary of the Russian Revolution. From the time I wrote my first history book Catherine the Great and Potemkin, via my biographies of Stalin, to my new book The Romanovs 1613–1918, which tells the history of the last four hundred years from Ivan the Terrible to Putin via the dynasty of tsars, I have been reading Russian fiction and history. Let me recommend some of the best to you. Of course this is a just fraction of the great books on Russia, but they are a good place to begin: I hope you enjoy.
To understand Russia, you need to go back to the beginning with the Mongols and Byzantium and for those subjects, two recent biographies – Genghis Khan by John Man and Genghis Khan by Frank McLynn – engagingly tell the story while on the Eastern Roman Empire, John Julius Norwich’s three volumes of Byzantium are still the most accessible and entertaining [ed. Currently, only Volume 2 is in print, however A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich is available] Charting the rise of Muscovy, Isabel de Madariaga’s Ivan the Terrible is a brilliant biography of this demented sovereign who ruled over fifty years and conquered the Islamic khanates of Kazak and Astrakhan and yet almost destroyed his own empire with his murderous eccentricities.
Once the Romanovs had succeeded and become tsars, the essential figure is Peter the Great: he set the highest level for political brilliance. I don’t think Britain has ever had a monarch of such talents. Every Russian ruler from then onwards – including President Putin today – has wished to emulate Peter the Great. Lindsey Hughes’ Russia in the Age of Peter the Great is the best work on his amazing career; Robert Massie’s massive Peter the Great is the classic by that great storyteller of Russian history. The best recent book on the other great Romanov emperor is Catherine the Great by Simon Dixon. Robert Service’s Penguin History of Modern Russia is excellent, and on the culture of Russia, Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance. A brilliant overview is also provided by Catherine Merridale in Red Fortress, her history of the Kremlin.
A few books are unmissable along the way and fiction is as vital as history: everyone who wants to understand Russia must read Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, and of course Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the story of the 1812 invasion by Napoleon; Dominic Lieven’s outstanding history Russia Against Napoleon tells the real story. These are the foundation books to get an idea of the Russian background.
Jumping closer to the Revolution, A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes is the classic modern account, masterful in both anecdotage and analysis. The only proper political biography of Nicholas II is the one by Dominic Lieven, but perhaps the best way to understand Nicholas and Alexandra is to read their letters in A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra edited by Andrei Maylunas. Even more fascinating and essential is Joseph T. Fuhrman’s Complete Wartime Correspondence of Nicholas and Alexandra.
On the untold lives of the four daughters of the tsar and tsarina, Four Sisters by Helen Rappaport is excellent and touching. Douglas Smith’s new biography of Rasputin is the definitive study of their favourite and mystical advisor. Lost Splendour and the Death of Rasputin by Prince Felix Yusupov, Rasputin’s murderer, is gothic and preposterous, melodramatic and gruesome, filled with lies about the actual killing but a colourful and eccentric portrait of aristocratic life in St Petersburg at the end of the tsarist period. For those fascinated by the downfall and terrible killing of the last tsar and his wife and children, the outstanding books are Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport and also The Fate of the Romanovs by Greg King and Penny Wilson. The key biographies of the leading revolutionaries are Robert Service’s three biographies of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, all of them excellent and modern. Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train recounts the sealed train that brought Lenin to Russia and made the revolution possible.
The Russian Revolution started in 1917 – John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World is the classic personal account of the October Revolution – but it really lasted until the death of Stalin. Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and His Hangmen is a superb examination of the dictator and his secret police chiefs. The memoirs of Stalin’s top henchman Nikita Khrushchev are published as Khrushchev Remembers and are gripping. Stalin’s Letters to Molotov (edited by Lars T. Lih and others) is essential reading for the real voice of the dictator. Chris Bellamy’s Absolute War is the best book on Soviet Russia during the Second World War; Antony Beevor’s classics, Stalingrad and then Berlin 1945 are accessible and revelatory. Anne Applebaum’s Gulag is the best book on the prison camps. On Stalin’s family life, his daughter’s autobiography is well written and revealing: Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend.
Sometimes literature is the best way to grasp this turbulent time: the best fiction on the Civil War and the Revolutionary period are Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, a novel of a family in Kiev, and Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, the stories of a Jewish intellectual riding with the Bolshevik Cossacks. Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don tells of the Don Cossacks in this period. On the Stalinist phase of the Revolution, the great novels are Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman and The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. The short story The House on the Embankment by Yuri Trifonov reveals how the Communist elite waited for arrest and execution during the Terror. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich details the life of an innocent prisoner in Stalin’s camps, while his greatest novel The First Circle features Stalin himself and the prisoners who work in a specialist scientific prison-laboratory.
The poets sometimes tell the stories best: The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam and also The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova are wonderful and heartbreaking on the horror of Stalin’s rule. The KGB’s Literary Archive by Vitaly Shentalinsky gives the history of Stalin and his secret police harassment of the great novelists and writers. There are many memoirs on the period: two of the best are by Mandelstam’s widow Nadezhda, entitled Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandonded. Janusz Bardach’s Man is Wolf to Man is riveting and horrific and the best introduction to the memoirs of the time. The recent publication of Gulag Boss by Fyodor Mochulsky means we also have a camp guard’s side of the story.
Jumping ahead to our own times, William Taubman’s Khrushchev: The Man and His Era brings the story up to the Sixties. There are two great books on the fall of the Soviet Union: The Last Empire by Serhii Plokhy and Robert Service’s The End of the Cold War. The best Russian writer of late Soviet-imperial decay is Andrei Makine and one of his finest novels is Requiem for the East. For the crazy Nineties, the rise of Putin and the fall of the oligarchs, the most lurid pulp history-melodrama is Ben Mezrich’s Once Upon a Time in Russia. The surreal political and media culture from Nineties to the reign of Putin is brilliantly portrayed in Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. And finally the best new book on the rule of Putin as president and neo-tsar is All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin by Mikhail Zygar. It is better informed than any book by a Westerner and it is also as gripping as a thriller.