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April 10, 2005 6:57 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for nonfiction accounts of daily civilian life in the former Soviet Union / Eastern Bloc nations. Please recommend some titles. Thanks!
posted by pieoverdone to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Stasiland. It's about peoples' connections to the Stasi (East German Secret Police). It's quite lightweight, but gives some good insights into the life of the people of the DDR prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and touches on their feelings towards reunification with the West.
posted by veedubya at 7:05 AM on April 10, 2005

books by dubravka ugresic include detailed accounts of live before (and after) the fall of communism in the former yugoslavia. while they're listed as fiction they're really autobiographical. i have the museum of unconditional surrender and whatever the book before that was (which i can't seem to find on my bookshelf at the moment).

they have the advantage that, unlike some of the books popular in the west during the cold war, they're not particularly critical of the regime, but instead have a tone that is more the "typical fondness for your childhood". although, of course, she has her own political viewpoint which is not neutral.

and they're enjoyable reads too.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:08 AM on April 10, 2005

i'm not sure about all the people mentioned here, but maybe it's a start? (tons of names to google and find out)
posted by amberglow at 7:12 AM on April 10, 2005

I read Love of Worker Bees for a class. I thought it was merely okay as stories. But it gives a neat look into day-to-day Soviet life.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:07 AM on April 10, 2005

Just Tell the Truth by John Strohm is an interesting read for a few reasons.

Strohm was a world traveler and journalist who made a career out of traveling to parts of the world that others (in the 40's) were writing very little about. He published a number of books and Just Tell the Truth was his book about "the common people of Russia under communism." We found a copy autographed to the previous owner of our house when we moved in (they were close friends), along with other Soviet era relics. His account tries to be very fair. The book contains 64 pages of black and white photographs which are extremely interesting.

There are a few books by travel writers which present interesting accounts. Richard Halliburton's Seven League Boots, though not his best work, has photos and stories from his travels through communist Russia in the early 30's. Get an out of print edition if you want the photos. (I think the best Halliburton book is Royal Road to Romance.)

Finally, Paul Theroux (I love his writing) has some stories of a trip through the Soviet Union in his book, The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia.
posted by jeanmari at 8:22 AM on April 10, 2005

If you are researching Russian culture and propaganda, look for anything involving VOKS...the All-Union Society of Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. We only have this one copy, but it is very interesting.
posted by jeanmari at 8:26 AM on April 10, 2005

Growing Up in Moscow, by Cathy Young.
posted by orange swan at 9:06 AM on April 10, 2005

The Twelve Little Cakes, by Dominika Dery.
posted by orange swan at 9:07 AM on April 10, 2005

This won't be as rich as the other recommendations, but those pictures from the Chernobyl area taken by the motor bike girl included several pictures of abandoned households from the Soviet era. They were preparing for May Day at the time of the accident, so there's all kinds of posters of Soviet leaders and slogans for the parade.
posted by sleslie at 11:06 AM on April 10, 2005

There are many excellent books. Are you interested in a certain time frame?

Masha Gessen just published a pretty good biographer of her grandmothers, Ester and Ruzya. I groaned over a couple of passages, but I found it a very compelling read, particularly for someone who is new to Soviet history.

As far as the Great terror goes, the most popular is Sheila Fitzpatrick's Everyday Stalinism. My very favorite is Sarah Davies' Popular Opinion under Stalin.

I would also suggest Evgenia Ginsburg's Out of the Whirlwind, Thomas Lahusen's Intimacy in Terror. The latter is just a collection of letters and historical documents. Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote some wonderful biographies, too, but they demand knowledge of the era.

IF you are interested in the 1980s, I remember a really good series of interviews by a Swedish feminist, Moscow Women, Eight Interviews

I could go on an on about Czechoslovak biographies. If you are interested, write me at
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 3:10 PM on April 10, 2005

Red Odyssey: A Journey Through the Soviet Republics, by Marat Akchurin, is a well-written and eye-opening account of a journalist's trip through (mainly) the Central Asian republics as the USSR was collapsing. It gives as vivid a sense of what life was like for normal people away from the big cities of European Russia as anything I've read.

Highlanders: A Journey to the Caucasus in Quest of Memory, by Yo'av Karny, is just what the subtitle says, and if you have any interest in that fascinating part of the world you won't be able to put it down.

Susan Richards' Epics of Everyday Life spends most of its time in European Russia (though with side trips to Baku, Dagestan, and Novosibirsk) and describes the lives of ordinary people as well as writers and artists.

For an academic account of the Bad Old Days, try Sheila Fitzpatrick's Everyday Stalinism; Fitzpatrick started out as one of the "revisionists" who thought the Soviet Union wasn't as bad as it was cracked up to be, but by 1999 even she recognized what a hellhole it was in the '30s. For a less academic account, you'll want to read Nadezhda Mandelstam's horrifying, compelling memoirs Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned and Journey into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg.

On preview: gesamtkunstwerk and I obviously think along similar lines, and how could I forget Masha Gessen, whose Dead Again is a vivid account of the Russian intelligentsia after the fall of communism.
posted by languagehat at 3:36 PM on April 10, 2005

I'm currently reading A Russian Journal which is an account, written by John Steinbeck, of a several month trip around the Soviet Union that he and Robert Capa took in around 1947. Robert Capa was a famous war photographer and the book includes many of the photos he took on this trip.

While the book may be a little dated, it is interesting because the trip happened only a couple of years after the Second World War and much of the country is still in ruins and almost universally the populace is bent on reconstruction. What this means is that alot of what he and Capa see is positive, because everyone is employed and bent on rebuilding and thus things seem pretty sunny. This was kind of a shock to me, having been a Russian Language and Lit major, because of course, everything since then has been almost universally miserable and cynical.

The other thing about the book is that Steinbeck insists on going out into the country and meeting 'normal' people, rather than being stuck in Moscow like any of the registered foreign journalists of the time. This means he and Capa get to travel everywhere from Kiev to Tiflis to Odessa to Stalingrad. Pretty damn cool. Plus, it's freakin Steinbeck. He's funny and charming and a freakin Nobel Prize/Pulitzer Prize winner.
posted by spicynuts at 7:05 AM on April 11, 2005

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