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Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Books for a Course on 20th Century Russia

Today's topic for Top Ten Tuesday is "Top Ten Books That Would Be On Your Syllabus If You Taught X 101". Since I am a die-hard Russophile, here are some picks for if I am ever asked to teach a course on 20th Century Russia; all of these books would complement the course materials. I chose some books by Russian / Soviet authors, as well as others by Western authors who have written about the area. There is one memoir on the list, but the rest are fiction.

Mother Russia!

1. Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore: I really liked this book by Montefiore, who is both a novelist and a historian. It covers the founding the USSR as well as the purges of the 1930s.

2. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: Another look at the purges, but also a classic of Soviet literature that everyone should read.

3. Between Shades of Gray by Ruth Sepetys: This book covers the deportation of Lithuanian citizens to Siberia following the annexation of the Baltic States in 1939. I think it's important as there were a lot of ethnic groups deported internally during World War Two, and it's not widely known.

4. Russian Winter by Daphne Kolotay: A look at the post-war climate and the arts scene.

5. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: This is the definitive fiction piece on the Gulag system, and I think everyone should read a little Solzhenitsyn at some point. (Probably pick this book to start with, since his others are reallllly long. :P) Psst: If you're up for it, you can read more about the Gulag system in Anne Applebaum's fabulous Gulag: A History.

6. A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokova: A look at the later years of the USSR through the eyes of a citizen. I loved it too because of the focus on language learning.

7. The Free World by David Bezmozgis: This book covers the massive emigration of Soviet Jews in the 1980s.

8. Petropolis by Anya Ulinich: I didn't love this novel. I found it on sale at some point and was intrigued. It's not entirely my cup of tea, but it is a quirkly look at the post-Soviet era. If you really want to immerse yourself in the early years of the Russian Federation, with all its inflation and issues, try the movie Brat' ("Brother") starring Sergei Bodrov Jr. It's a guilty pleasure of mine, especially as it shows scenes from Vasilievsky Island, where I lived when I studied in St. Petersburg eleven years ago.

9. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra: A beautiful book which takes place in Chechnya and looks at the impact of the civil war there. Psst, here's another film recommendation: Prisoner of the Mountains (1996), also starring the late Sergei Bodrov Jr.

10. The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis: Oh, hey, let's keeping talking about how I like Bezmogis... This book is also relevant to contemporary Israeli politics and actually takes place in Ukraine; however, I included it because it looks back at the Jewish emigration noted above, and therefore is relevant to the topic. In addition, it covers a lot of heavy issues about how we deal with those who have wronged us, in particular in a totalitarian society, and how we engage with issues of historical blame and memory.

Speaking of issues of historical memory, here's me with a bust of Lenin.


  1. wow, what a unique topic!! I'm loving the theme this week because everyone's posts are so different from each other. Going to check into several of these books :) My TTT

  2. Yaaaaas, great topic :D I've been meaning to check out The Betrayers, the premise of the novel sounds fantastic and right up my alley of interests :) Will have to bump it up the want-to-read queue :)

    My TTT

    1. I really enjoyed The Betrayers. I was so sad to find out Bezmozgis did a free talk and book signing at the Toronto Reference Library this spring and I missed it.

  3. Love your topic this week as I have Russian language degree from the University of Iowa!! I love Russian literature... The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is one of my favorite books of all time... I am also a HUGE FAN of Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time as well.

    1. Oh wow! I have a Master's in European and Russian Studies. I read A Hero of Our Time earlier this year. I'm trying to read through all the big Russian classics, but War and Peace has eluded me thus far. :)

    2. I should go back and grab my Master's Degree/PhD... As a side note, I started out as an Eastern European Studies major, but in the end, I decided to stick with the language degree instead.

      I still have plenty of Russian literature to cover... I still can't believe I have yet to read Anna Karenina!

  4. What a fascinating topic. While I've always been interested in the Romanovs my main dealings with Russian literature was in high school when we had to read Crime and Punishment and Fathers and Sons. Needless to say at 17 I was not impressed. Between Shades of Gray has been on my TBR and there are a few others that catch my eye.

    1. Thanks! I definitely think Crime and Punishment is something to read a bit later than high school age. At least, it would have gone way over my head! Between Shades of Gray really is fantastic.