June 1, 2011 6:49 PM   Subscribe

Help me feed my obsession with all things Russia.

I have been kind of obsessed with Russia for some time now and I'm hoping that people here can point me towards good things to read that have Russia as a theme. Generally, I am looking for fiction books that take place in the Soviet Union/Russia (or other former Soviet republics) anytime in the 20th century onward. Stalin-era and Cold War era preferred. I've read a few books that take place in Russia that I have loved - Charm School, Child 44 and City of Thieves are a few off the top of my head. I do like mystery/thriller/spy novels but am open to other types of fiction as well. I have Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Gorky Park in my pile of books to read. I know about people like Ken Follet and Tom Clancy and similar authors but I've always been a little reluctant to read them because I don't want to get bogged down in technical/military details and this is the (maybe uninformed) impression I've always had of these authors. I want to read these books to learn more about Russia and its more recent history primarily.

I also like non-fiction, and I do own both the Gulag Archipelago (not started yet) and Execution by Hunger (which I've read part of), but I prefer to get my non-fiction reading from quality essays or magazine articles. This article on corruption and this one on AIDS, both from the New Yorker, are examples of articles I've really enjoyed.

So mefites, if you have any ideas on anything else I can read - or even any interesting documentaries or podcasts - I would love to hear about them. I have seen most, if not all, old AskMe posts on this topic - I'm just looking for new ideas. Thank you!
posted by triggerfinger to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: We the Living by Ayn Rand ? Supposed to be semi-autobiographical.
posted by Dukat at 6:53 PM on June 1, 2011

Best answer: Read this: The Liberators and this: Inside the Aquarium: Making of a Top Soviet Spy. Russian authorities disagree with this account of the events, and it might have been novelized a bit, but it's still a great set of books.

You can read some of his more "historical" books as well: Suvorov.

Vodka by Boris Starling is also pretty decent (though it's post-perestroyka)
posted by pyro979 at 7:00 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For articles: enjoy!
posted by StrikeTheViol at 7:02 PM on June 1, 2011

Best answer: Definitely check out Victor Pelevin, for one. Omon Ra is a good book and my mother liked Yellow Arrow.

this article in the Awl, which is about the current literary scene in Russia. Among other things, there's a great quote in it which sums up the conceits of contemporary Russian fiction:
“But you see, when you start writing out the details of everyday Russian life, the absurdity just overwhelms you. At some point, you give up. Your characters start flying around, they sprout fangs and tails. Because that’s the only way to stay true to the material. Russian reality is too phantasmagoric to fit into realist logic.”

posted by griphus at 7:05 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Couple more:

Documentary about Russian Prison Tattoos (haven't seen it yet myself, but had it bookmarked).

This is supposed to be good too: The Brest Fortress / Brestskaya krepost [ENGLISH SUBTITLES]

English Russia blog has some current stuff and some older stuff, so browse around the archives.

If I think of something else in English, I'll try to post it. Meanwhile if you have any question about some words you come across or cultural concepts, feel free to memail me.
posted by pyro979 at 7:08 PM on June 1, 2011

Best answer: Seconding Boris Starling's Vodka and all things Russian-prison-tattoo related.

After you read Gorky Park, keep reading--I think the later Arkady Renko books are more interesting.
posted by box at 7:12 PM on June 1, 2011

I'm confused by what you want because you mention John Le Carre as an example of what you've been reading. Do you want novels/works by American/English authors that take place in Russia or do you want Russian novels that take place in Russia? For example, what about Doctor Zhivago? Not Stalin era but 20th Century. I was a Russian Language/Lit major and have most of my texts. I can go home and look at the collections of 20th century fiction that I have and see if any are still in print.
posted by spicynuts at 7:21 PM on June 1, 2011

Best answer: While I do that, I can recommend Martin Amis' House of Meetings which was AMAZING and is about life in the Gulag. Also, the book Young Stalin is non-fiction about the life of Stalin and was awesome. Amis also wrote a book about Stalin called Koba The Dread. I perused it a bit and didn't like it all that much. John Steinbeck went to the Soviet Union with Robert Capa and wrote a book about it called A Russian Journal. Envy by Yuri Olyesha is supposed to be good but I have never read it. The Slynx by Tatiana Tolstaya is early 21st Century Magical Realism and is pretty good. We by Zamyatin is one of my favorites but it is futurist and so doesn't really take place in Stalinist or Cold War Soviet Union per se. More later.
posted by spicynuts at 7:29 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is a huge subject. I will recommend two things that everyone reads at some point: Bulgakov's Master and Margarita and Ilf & Petrov's "duology" The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf.

Both are set in the early Soviet years. Both are monuments of world literature. The Bulgakov is a phantasmagoric satire, the Ilf/Petrov is a satirical picaresque.

There's a new, reportedly good translation of The Golden Calf. An interview with the translators is here. The blog where the interview is hosted is a fantastic resource on contemporary and historical Russian lit.

There are several translations of M&M, including one by the maligned/controversial duo of Pevear & Volokhonsky.
posted by Nomyte at 7:48 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: spicynuts - either English/American or Russian authors are fine with me
posted by triggerfinger at 8:21 PM on June 1, 2011

Best answer: I would suggest the book Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski. It's like a travelogue memoir of his time in the Soviet Union. Amazing writer.
posted by fso at 8:27 PM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I loved this book, and tried to find more like it, without success.

In addition to the excellent suggestions already, you might like Sholokhov's Fate of a Man (Судьба человека).

I also loved the second part of Maxim Gorky's autobiography (В людях).
posted by vidur at 9:26 PM on June 1, 2011

Best answer: My Soviet History class relied on for a lot of primary sources. You have to sign up, but signing up is easy & free, and then you can access all sorts of useful and interesting things. They also have a very useful glossary for people, terms, dates, et cetera.
posted by aniola at 10:26 PM on June 1, 2011

Best answer: Metro by Alexander Kaletski is about the lives of a group of artists in the USSR. It was quite a hit in the 1980s and worth checking out.
posted by plep at 12:51 AM on June 2, 2011

Best answer: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is good. The classic is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which is about daily life in a gulag. I also enjoyed The Cancer Ward.

For more direct documentary type history, try Lenin's Embalmbers.
posted by chiefthe at 2:52 AM on June 2, 2011

Best answer: Yellow Blue Tibia. Read it. It's a sci-fi tinged thriller that I believe was shortlisted for a Booker Prize a couple years ago, which takes place in the Stalinist WW2-into-the-Cold-War era and then flashes forward to the Chernobyl disaster.
posted by Sara C. at 6:16 AM on June 2, 2011

Best answer: My first recommendation is going to be Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, a twentieth-century War and Peace except without the peace—I really do think it's one of the great books of the last century and will give you a panoramic view of Soviet life during WWII (it's focused on the Battle of Stalingrad, but not much of it is actual fighting, it's mostly about ordinary people's lives and their worries about their families).

This is, obviously, a huge subject, and since I've been reading about it obsessively for years now, I know a lot about it; feel free to e/Me-mail me for more recommendations. In general, I wouldn't focus too heavily on the Stalin/Gulag stuff; it's important, obviously, and I'm not saying to ignore it, but a steady diet of it will give you a very false impression of Russia and Russian life.

Black night, white snow: Russia's Revolutions 1905-1917 Harrison E. Salisbury 1978
A concise history of the Russian Revolution Richard Pipes 1996
A people's tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 Orlando Figes 1997
A sentimental journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922 Viktor Shklovsky
Behind the front lines of the civil war: Political parties and social movements in Russia, 1918-1922 Vladimir N. Brovkin 1994
Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary life in extraordinary times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s Sheila Fitzpatrick 1999
The Great Terror: A Reassessment Robert Conquest 1991
Gulag: A History Anne Applebaum 2004
The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia Orlando Figes 2007
The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 Terry Martin 2001
Russia's War: A History of the Soviet Effort: 1941-1945 Richard Overy 1997
Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 Catherine Merridale 2006
The 900 days: The siege of Leningrad Harrison E. Salisbury 1969
Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 Antony Beevor 1998
Zhivago's Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia Vladislav Zubok 2009
Late Soviet Culture: From Perestroika to Novostroika Thomas Lahusen 1993
Common places: Mythologies of everyday life in Russia Svetlana Boym 1994
Dead again: The Russian intelligentsia after Communism Masha Gessen 1997
The Exile : Sex, drugs, and libel in the new Russia Mark Ames 2000
Russia and Soul: An Exploration Dale Pesmen 2000
Black Earth: A Journey through Russia After the Fall Andrew Meier 2005
Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation Alexei Yurchak 2005
Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow Olga Shevchenko 2008
The Patriotism of Despair: Nation, War, and Loss in Russia Serguei Alex Oushakine 2009
Travels in Siberia Ian Frazier 2010

This covers the whole history of the city, but most of it is about Soviet times and it's full of gossipy fun:
St Petersburg : A Cultural History Solomon Volkov 1997

And this is mostly about prerevolutionary Russia, but it's the best basic history of Russian life and culture I've read:
The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture James Billington 1970

Red Cavalry Isaac Babel (and anything else by Babel)
The naked year Boris Pilniak 1921
Cement F.V. Gladkov 1925 (not a great book, but foundational for Soviet literature, and gives you a sense of the results of the Civil War)
Utopias: Russian Modernist Texts 1905-1940 ed. Catriona Kelly 1999
The Foundation Pit Andrey Platonov 1931 (an amazing novel, which I wrote about here)
The case of Comrade Tulayev Victor Serge 1948
Children of the Arbat Anatoli Rybakov 1987 (sequel Fear 1990)
Babi Yar: A document in the form of a novel A. Anatoli 1970
Kolyma Tales Varlam Shalamov
Cancer Ward Alexander Solzhenitsyn 1967
Moskva-Petushki (translated as Moscow Circles and as Moscow to the End of the Line: "Venedikt Erofeev's 'poem in prose,' written in 1970, circulated in samizdat in tens of thousand copies before it was published in the USSR in 1988. The drunken saga of a Russian intellectual gives a vision of the whole of contemporary Russia, parodying Russian classical texts and the rituals and habits of late Soviet life.") Venedikt Erofeev 1970
House on the embankment Yuri Trifonov 1976
A school for fools Sasha Sokolov 1977
Omon Ra Viktor Pelevin 1992
Lines of Fate Mark Kharitonov 1992
Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia Jeff Parker 2009

I omit Ilf/Petrov and Bulgakov because they're covered by others in the thread, but definitely read them.
posted by languagehat at 6:35 AM on June 2, 2011 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Oooh I forgot about A School For Fools. Definitely a must read.
posted by spicynuts at 7:00 AM on June 2, 2011

Best answer: I would second the recommendation of Venedikt Erofeev's "Moscow to the End of the Line" and add Emmanuel Carrere's My Life as a Russian Novel.
posted by mattbucher at 7:18 AM on June 2, 2011

Best answer: Ian Fraizer's Travels In Siberia (nonfiction)
Russian Ark (documentary-ish film)
posted by statolith at 8:55 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, I had no idea I'd get so many great responses, THANK YOU all so much!

I've gone through most of these books and it's really hard to decide where to start - there's almost too much to choose from. All the suggestions look excellent and I will refer back to this thread often, but the ones I'm going to look for first are the ones that look the most interesting to me as well as the ones that were recommended multiple times:

- Inside the Aquarium: Making of a Top Soviet Spy (The Liberators looks great too and I'll definitely pick it up if I like this one as much as I suspect I will)

- Vodka by Boris Starling

- Omon Ra and Yellow Arrow by Victor Pelevin

- House of Meetings by Martin Amis

- The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf (I forgot to mention The Master and Margarita is already on my to-read list, but from the Amazon reviews these sound like the kind of satire I love to read so I'll look at these these first)

- Saturn is Almost Invisible by Vasily Ardamatsky

- Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski

- Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

- Cancer Ward and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

- The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov

- Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier

- A School For Fools by Sasha Sokolov

- Moscow to the End of the Line by Venedikt Erofeev (thanks for the link to the book mattbucher)

Also, while reading the very interesting article in The Awl which griphus provided, I came across this book (The Stone Bridge by Alexander Terekhov) which looks GREAT but unfortunately doesn't appear to have an English translation as yet. I really hope one is produced as I'd love to read this book.

A few other things:

While looking up information on "Saturn is Almost Invisible", I cam across this (pdf) link to a paper which analyzes one specific author (Viktor Dotsenko), but the first few pages provide an introduction to the genre, which from what I can tell, is Russian crime fiction by Russian authors. It specifically talks about dokumental'nyi (documentary) detektiv fiction - which is what I'm intersted in - and it gives a few other names of authors and books for anyone else who is interested.

The Awl article is about a literary event in Moscow and has some information and names of modern day Russian authors, which is another real area of interest for me - any perspective on post-Soviet Russia. The article is worth a read.

StrikeThe Viol - that is exactly what I was looking for - I can't believe I didn't think of searching Longform. I love books, but I think I love well-researched and well-written magazine articles even better, so that's a great wealth of info, thank you.

When I get tired from reading, I'll start to make my way through some of the documentaries linked. In any case, it looks like I'll spend the summer with my head in Russia, so thank you all so much for your recommendations and I will gladly look at any more that people may think of.
posted by triggerfinger at 10:35 AM on June 2, 2011

Response by poster: Oh, forgot to mention - seems to have some great essays linked so I'll be looking through that as well. I've also joined the English Russia page on facebook so I can get a steady feed of interesting articles, thank you.
posted by triggerfinger at 10:39 AM on June 2, 2011

Inside the Aquarium: Making of a Top Soviet Spy (The Liberators looks great too and I'll definitely pick it up if I like this one as much as I suspect I will)

Read The Liberator first if you want to keep it in chronological order.
posted by pyro979 at 12:04 PM on June 2, 2011

Response by poster: Read The Liberator first if you want to keep it in chronological order.

Okay, will do. Thanks.
posted by triggerfinger at 1:35 PM on June 2, 2011

A blog you might want to bookmark is Lizok's Bookshelf; she reads books in Russian but discusses translations a lot and is a good source for what's being translated now for future publication. You can get exposed to a lot of authors, old and new, there.
posted by languagehat at 4:44 PM on June 2, 2011

If you like urban fantasy I recommend the "Nightwatch" series and "The Secret History of Moscow."
posted by gretchin at 10:42 AM on June 6, 2011

Late to this and see LH has mentioned one of Victor Serge's great works; since you mention liking thrillers, I would think you'd get a lot from his Conquered City too.
posted by Abiezer at 1:20 AM on June 15, 2011

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