A Day In The Life Of The Soviet Union
December 22, 2017 1:45 PM   Subscribe

I would like some non-fiction books about daily life throughout the USSR, particularly post-Stalin.

I actually have A Day In The Life Of The Soviet Union, which is very interesting.

I would like some book recommendations about things like education, research, fashion, production of clothing and household goods, music and culture, facilities for kids, etc. As a child of the eighties, I have read plenty of things along the lines of the Gulag Archipelago and am not looking for books centered around political repression, the gulag or Stalinism. I expect that books about daily life, or memoirs that focus on [the arts, research, etc] would talk about those things, but I'm not looking for books that center on them. I'm interested in understanding how various kinds of ordinary people would have lived, especially post-Stalin.

Consider Red Plenty to have already been recommended. Is there a David Kynaston for the USSR?
posted by Frowner to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
The seminal book on the subject was probably journalist Hedrick Smith's The Russians, published in 1975.

From Wikipedia:
Another highly successful book of his was The Russians, based on his years as The New York Times' Moscow Bureau Chief from 1971–74, which smashed the charts as a No. 1 American best-seller. It has since been translated into 16 languages and has been widely used in university and college courses.
I read it in college in the late 1980s.
posted by uberchet at 2:06 PM on December 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

Second-Hand Time focuses on the collapse of the Soviet Union but regularly hearkens back to earlier stages of the USSR. FWIW the author won the Nobel for literature in 2015 and it's a cracking good read.
posted by orrnyereg at 2:09 PM on December 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

I strongly recommend Vladislav Zubok's Zhivago's Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia; you can read my review here. Donald J. Raleigh's Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation is also excellent, though it focuses on a narrow slice of society (Russians who graduated from high school in 1967 from the well-known Moscow School #20 and Saratov School #42, both elite institutions focused on teaching English). For a scholarly (lots of tables!) and wide-ranging (chapters on the city, the village, the educational system, social classes, etc.), there's Basile H. Kerblay's Modern Soviet Society. Svetlana Boym (who, sadly, died of cancer a couple of years ago) did wonderful work on (to quote that Times obit) "the haunting, quicksilver counterpoint of myth, memory and identity" in her Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia and The Future of Nostalgia; I'm sure her other books are good too, but those are the ones I have. I'll add more as I think of them; are you interested in accounts by foreign journalists, like David Remnick (whose Lenin's Tomb is fantastic)?
posted by languagehat at 2:10 PM on December 22, 2017 [7 favorites]

A book that rang very true for me personally is Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Ania von Bremzen. It's not as intellectually challenging as some of the books above, but it's full of color and life, and is exactly how I remember the USSR. I gave it to my mom to read and she loved it too.
posted by tatiana131 at 2:30 PM on December 22, 2017 [11 favorites]

Seconding Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. I have seldom enjoyed a memoir more.
posted by skybluepink at 2:37 PM on December 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

I second languagehat's suggestions. I would also add Alexey Yurchak's Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, which concerns the meanings that accrued to official political rhetoric in the context of people's everyday lives. Another book that might be of interest, if the very late Soviet period fits your criteria, is Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation During Perestroika by Nancy Ries.
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 3:07 PM on December 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

How up to date do you want it? You might enjoy The Young Traveller in Russia, from 1958. Accuracy is not guaranteed, but if nothing else it's an interesting view of how some British people saw the Russians at the time. MeMail me if you want to know more about the book.
posted by paduasoy at 3:27 PM on December 22, 2017

OK, I trawled through my Librarything catalog and found a bunch more books to recommend; I'm too lazy to link 'em, but you can google for more info, and I'll be glad to answer any questions you have—I love talking about this stuff!

Moscow Summer by Mihajlo Mihajlov (my review)

Genevra Gerhart, The Russian's World: Life and Language (my review)

Leona Schecter, An American Family in Moscow

Colin Thubron, Among the Russians

Anthony Barnett, Soviet Freedom (my review)

Susan Richards, Epics of Everyday Life: Encounters in a Changing Russia

Marat Akchurin, Red Odyssey: A Journey Through the Soviet Republics (mostly about Central Asia; really great, personal reporting)

Lois Fisher-Ruge, Survival in Russia: Chaos and hope in everyday life

Thomas Lahusen, Late Soviet Culture: From Perestroika to Novostroika

Adele Marie Barker (ed.), Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, and Society since Gorbachev

Mary Buckley, Post-Soviet Women: From the Baltic to Central Asia

Masha Gessen, Dead Again: The Russian intelligentsia after Communism

Musya Glants, Food in Russian history and culture

Mark Taplin, Open Lands : Travels Through Russia's Once Forbidden Places

Elena Zubkova, Russia After the War: Hopes, Illusions, and Disappointments, 1945-1957

Dale Pesmen, Russia and Soul: An Exploration

Anna Politkovskaya, Putin's Russia : Life in a failing democracy

Andrew Meier, Black Earth: A Journey through Russia After the Fall

Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (my review)

Margaret Paxson, Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village

Birgit Beumers, Pop Culture Russia!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle

Olga Shevchenko, Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow

Serguei Alex Oushakine, The Patriotism of Despair: Nation, War, and Loss in Russia

Robert Edelman, Spartak Moscow: A History of the People's Team in the Workers' State

Ian Frazier, Travels in Siberia

A novel, but you'll never get a better feel for working-class life in the '60s: Venedikt Erofeev, Moskva-Petushki [translated as Moscow to the End of the Line and Moscow Circles]
posted by languagehat at 3:36 PM on December 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you are ever interested in venturing into other Eastern European countries, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulic does this with Yugoslavia. Lots here particularly on the daily lives of women. Barbara Ehrenreich called it “the first ever grassroots feminist critique of communism.”
posted by FencingGal at 5:10 PM on December 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Soviet Colossus.
posted by Buddy_Boy at 6:39 PM on December 22, 2017

Not a book, but if you're a podcast person, check out The Eastern Border; Kristaps is a Latvian journalist who does a good job of poring through old Soviet material and translating material that doesn't make it to the West very often.

For slice-of-life, check out the earlier episodes, talking about life on a kolkhoz, procurement of food and consumer goods, etc.
posted by Seeba at 4:40 AM on December 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Seconding How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed as a great read, especially on women's experiences.
posted by perrouno at 3:03 AM on December 24, 2017

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