Russian History in Book Form: A Quest for a Gift
December 17, 2006 5:15 PM   Subscribe

Can you help me find a book which traverses Russian history from, well, as far back as possible up to the Russian Revolution of 1917?

My specialladyfriend is a little bit of a Russophile and would like to know a bit more about the history of Russia before the Bolsheviks. So, this is my quest for a Christmas (Hanukkah, really) gift she'll enjoy. I think she'd prefer something well-written and not too textbooky. Any suggestions in this would be superly appreciated.
posted by The Great Big Mulp to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Land of the Firebird by Suzanne Massie is pretty standard.
posted by dilettante at 5:18 PM on December 17, 2006

If you're thinking of casual rather than scholarly reading, Russka by Edward Rutherford fits the bill. It's historical fiction that traces the lives of a few characters and their descendants throughout Russia's history. It's written very much in the style of James Michener.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:06 PM on December 17, 2006

Best answer: Suzanne Massie is a fine writer, but 1) she's not actually a historian, and 2) the book is as much about art as history. If your gal wants a more general book by an actual historian, I recommend James Billington's classic The Icon and the Axe : An Interpretive History of Russian Culture or Orlando Figes' more recent Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia; those focus on culture as much as history, but I'm afraid the straight history books I have are probably too textbooky. Feel free to write me if you want to discuss them, though.
posted by languagehat at 6:12 PM on December 17, 2006

languagehat - I had issues with Natasha's Dance, but it's been several years since I read it. As I recall, it was (in part) a question of internal contradiction within the book. It could still be useful for the purposes of the question, though.
posted by dilettante at 6:21 PM on December 17, 2006

I'll second Natasha's Dance. Watch for Robert Massie's stuff. [I wish I had my books in front of me. I'm a Russophile by education & vocation, and there are a lot of good ones out there.] One I remember is Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia from Indiana UP.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:32 PM on December 17, 2006

Best answer: _____________________

A History of Russia, Riasanovsky
Reinterpreting Russia, Hosking
A People Born to Slavery: Russia in Early Modern European Ethnography, 1476-1748, Marshall Poe
Vagabond Life: The Caucasus Journals of George Kennan
The Russian Moment in World History, Marshall Poe
other recommendations:
Of Religion and Empire: Missions, Conversion, and Tolerance in Tsarist Russia, Geraci
Ibn Fadlan's Journey To Russia, Richard Frye

Mushrooms, Russia and History
, the Wassons
Early Slavic Paths and Crossroads, Roman Jakobson
Imperial and National Identities in Pre-Revolutionary, Soviet, and Post-Soviet Russia

If she reads Russian there are some (more) interesting books out there...
posted by cottoncandyhammer at 7:25 PM on December 17, 2006 [2 favorites]

Wow, what a great set of suggestions, cottoncandyhammer—I'm going to update my Amazon wish list! I somehow doubt the Mulp's girlfriend reads Russian, but I do, so I'd be glad of an e-mail with some recommendations (I'm intensively into the WWI-Revolution-Civil War period now, but I'm interested in everything).
posted by languagehat at 6:16 AM on December 18, 2006

Um, having done a little investigation, I'm confused by your recommendation for Mushrooms, Russia. and History. For one thing, it seems to be unavailable; according to this page, it was published in a limited edition of 512 copies and costs thousands of dollars today if you can find a copy. For another, it's mainly focused on other countries, devoting "only a single chapter to the role of mushrooms in Russia." What did you have in mind?
posted by languagehat at 6:53 AM on December 18, 2006

Riasanovsky is the standard history for college courses. I don't assign it myself because I use it to crib for my lectures ;) actually, I find it a bit hard to plow through. Other academic-type big names include Hosking, Martin Malia, and Orlando Figes. Billington's Icon and Axe is interesting, but maybe not at the beginner level. There are some older Russian historians - Florinsky, Vernadsky - who are good although very focused on politics and the state. Gregory Freeze and Paul Dukes have nice surveys. Look for Robert K. Massie's books on Nicholas and Alexandra, etc. Popular, narrative - good reads. Also Edward Crankshaw - Shadow of the Winter Palace, about the revolution.
A very controversial scholar is Richard Pipes. He's somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan, but he's a truly brilliant writer. Russia under the Old Regime and A Concise history of the Russian Revolution are so great to read, if you keep in mind that he's a live one.
Have fun - Russian history is fascinating.
posted by annabkr at 8:01 AM on December 18, 2006

re: Mushrooms, Russia. and History:

Heh, glad you brought this up. True, it's a bit of a stretch! Most of the book does in fact deal with Russia, albeit obliquely at times... RG Wasson (former JP Morgan VP, would later be a character witness for Roman Jakobson's citizenship application and the founder of 'ethnomycology' and the Soma-as-Fly Agaric hypothesis) and his wife were interested in the differences between Russian/Slavic cultures that venerate mushrooms (mushroom-picking, preservation of references in language/superstition) and the 'mycophobic' cultures of Western Europe. The first chapter is 'Mushrooms and the Russians', but the bulk of the book is devoted to 'The Riddle of the Toad and Other Secrets Mushroomic' (pp 65-374), investigating the role of mushrooms in world folklore/language; not exclusively Russian, true, but very definitely peppered throughout with info. But, it's the appendices that are very useful for non-native Russian speakers: 'Mushrooms in Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina"', 'Aksakov's "Remarks and Observations of a Mushroom Hunter"', and the index of 'Fungal Metaphors and Semantic Associations'.

It's very definitely rare and very definitely a beautifully-made book - last copy was around $4k on eBay - but for me it's a sort of Turing Test for libraries (and rare book policies). I don't own it - I scanned it and work off a .pdf copy and Wasson's own annotated copy from the archives. As far as the review from the CT Mycological Society (COMA!?!) you cited above, it's a valid lay assessment - later specialists on entheogens (Richard Schultes, Jonathan Ott) are much more 'traditional' academics and not as controversial and more cautious ('restrained', maybe) in their hypotheses. But Wasson is no Allegro. That's what makes Wasson so engaging for me, at least - he didn't have the background or baggage of a professional academic.

On a lighter note, Mark Chilton's compilation of all references to hallucinogenic mushrooms in the journals/accounts of early Russian explorers (Shouting and Reeling About: Hallucinogenic Mushrooms and the Observations of Siberian Explorers in the 19th Century) is also an interesting non-traditional read for anthropologists/Slavophiles - basically verbatim extracts culled from first-person accounts of native cultures in Siberia. Not as rare as Wasson.
posted by cottoncandyhammer at 9:54 PM on December 18, 2006

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