Recommended Books for Understanding Russia

From GeoHistory Editor-in-Chief Josh Wilson: The following books are those that have left a deep impression on me. They are books that I was driven to pick up and keep reading – sometimes even after I reached the end the first time. They are books that helped significantly influence how I currently understand those aspects of Russia that interest me the most: policy, food, culture, history – and where these all overlap. I hope that you find them interesting and valuable as well.

 

Law and the Russian State

Students of Russia are often bewildered by the country’s complex, heterogeneous federal structure. This highly readable text, however, cohesively overviews how it developed under tsarism and why it persists to this day. Presenting complex concepts in simple language, this book will leave you with a clear understanding of what has literally been the underpinnings of tsarist Russia, the USSR, and the current Russian Federation. In pragmatic detail, it reveals these states’ shortcomings, strengths, and inter-historical connections though clear discussions of how those states were ruled and how their rulers sought to implement their policies.

 

The Russian Moment in History

This is an excellent character study of a complex and fascinating country, told through pragmatic and relatable sketches. This very brief history covers Russia from prehistory as it developed and survived through various periods in various forms. As with most brief histories, the book’s conciseness and focus can be seen as both strengths and weaknesses, with a clarity of vision that only skims over hundreds’ of years worth of complex events. Further, written in 2003, it is somewhat dated, declaring an “end of history” for Russia that seems to have been quite premature. However, students who wish to know, in a nutshell, what makes Russia Russia will find this book highly rewarding and even worth reading more than once.

 

The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy

Although most histories of the fall of the USSR say that its economy was a major part of its downfall, very few actually discuss its downfall in economic terms. It turns out that doing so gives not only a fascinating and insightful account of the fall, but also of how China, another Communist country, was able to reform and thrive. This invaluable book has several drawbacks: it relies on text when graphs would be more useful, it repeats information over several chapters unnecessarily, and it meanders into asides superfluous to its stated focus. However, despite the added bulk, this book will change the way you look at the fall and hopefully give you a thirst for the incredible insights that economic histories can give.

 

Summerfolk: A History of the Dacha

The dacha is one of the most exotic differences between Russian and American cultures. If we understand Russians to be a primarily poor people, how is it that so many can afford a second home? Further, the very definition of a dacha is enigmatic. It is often romanitized as a simple shack for gardeners to drink tea in front of. However, it can also be a palace for rich parties. And increasingly, it’s not even a second country home, but a primary residence for some. While the enigma of the dacha cannot be dispelled, its complexity can be understood. This well-written and focused history will impart you with a sense of how the dacha evolved over time into a cultural institution of great economic importance in Russia.

 

Russian Folk Belief

Russia has many enigmas – including the intertwined customs of paganism and Christianity which co-exist as strong elements of its modern culture. This book gives, first, an overview of the history of pagan belief in Russia and how Christianity spread within pagan Russia. The second half of the book consists of translated examples of folktales, many of which blend pagan and Christian elements in richly told stories. The result is a highly readable book that shows how seeming contradictions can coexist, perhaps even symbiotically, in a single culture and a single person.

 

An Environmental History of Russia

This ambitious book covers the history of Russia’s relationship with the space it occupies. It focuses on the later tsarist era and the soviet era, which saw Russia increasingly industrializing with an ever-larger effect on local environments and indigenous cultures. Early environmental movements under the tsars and soviets are mapped out as are both failed and successful environmental policies. The book is epic in its scope and occasionally dense in its detail, but provides an excellent, thorough history of environmental policy and movements in Russia.

 

Food in Russian History and Culture

A collection of wildly different essays, this book discusses food in ancient Rus through the late Soviet era. Various lenses are used including history, policy, literature, and art. Along the way, the reader is introduced to topics like vegetarianism in Russia, Soviet food experiments, and ways in which peasants dealt with hunger. While episodic, with some entries stronger than others, the book succeeds in drawing a lively image of the fascinating role that food has played in Russia.

 

Stalin

This epic multi volume biography covers literally thousands of pages. However, it reads surprisingly quickly, providing engrossing personal detail about how Iosef Djugashvili became Stalin and how Stalin became one of history’s most powerful leaders. You will come away from this book feeling like you have personal knowledge of and connections with many of the characters that drove the Russian revolution and the subsequent events. You will see that history, even that which seems most inhuman, is still, in fact, driven by humans.

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