I am not a pundit and I am not an expert: my five-to-seven years of Ph.D. study of Soviet history remain as of yet un-begun, much like society’s path toward socialism. But over my years of obsession with the history of the workers’ paradise, I’ve read quite a few books—some of which my standing now as a near-Ph.D-student grants me the liberty to recommend.
These five are not all about Soviet history per se: some of these are fictional works written by Soviet authors, while others are history (i.e. nonfiction) books written by contemporary authors. This list is in no way exhaustive, but it should give any reader, from the newest initiate to the most seasoned shock worker, a greater appreciation for the Iron Curtain and all that lay behind it.
1) Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich
This book is a masterpiece written by the laureate of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. By training, Alexievich is a journalist—which means that she has a skill that many trained historians lack: the ability to listen. Her books, then, are nearly all oral histories: she collects the stories of the average Soviet citizen and juxtaposes and compiles them into one volume, this one being about their recollections of the fall of the USSR, what life in the USSR was like, and how their lives in Russia today differ from the Soviet lives in which they grew up. It is often hard to feel empathy for the “bad guy”—and, trust me, Russians are the bad guy in just about every Marvel movie you watch—but Alexievich is able to give the reader the opportunity to not only sympathize but also empathize with their average Soviet counterpart. It is also very much worth reading Alexievich’s other books, such as Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II, Voices from Chernobyl: the Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, and others.
2) Journey into the Whirlwind by Evgenia Ginzburg
My copy of this book is so old that it actually bears a different name—one that I have been unable to find in any online reference! While not necessarily a literary masterpiece, this extremely personal memoir shows the reader the reality of Stalin’s repressions. Ginzburg goes from a devoted Party member to a persona non grata, hunted and vilified by the regime, among (literally) thousands of others in her hometown of Kazan alone. This book takes us from the beginnings of her doubts regarding the Stalinist regime to prison…to another prison…to the Gulag… and so on. The western reader generally knows little of the Gulag—often referring to it as “Soviet camps”—but this book helps to humanize the massive network of forced labor camps that affected nearly every aspect of Soviet life. (P.S. Ginzburg is the mother of famed Russian writer Vasily Aksyonov! So the writing gene was passed on.)
3) The Fur Hat by Vladimir Voinovich
This book, written in 1988, is a breath of perestroika! Voinovich is one of my favorite Soviet writers. He is chiefly a satirist—and rather than showing us, say, the flaws of the Soviet system as Ginzburg or Alexievich would, he makes fun of them. This book tells us the story of a somewhat deluded B-grade Soviet writer who believes he is entitled to a fur hat, as all writers in the Writers’ Union are. This book tells the story of his mission to get the hat, as well as the characters who approve—or disapprove—of his methods to do so along the way. This book sheds light on Soviet attitudes toward sex, bureaucracy, Zionism and Jews, friendship, infidelity, and (jammed) Western broadcasts such as the Voice of America.
4) Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region by Masha Gessen
When I lived in Russia, I needed to periodically order things—shoes, books, hackers, etc. It always thought it strange that, when filling out the address section of the order form, I had the option to mark “Jewish Autonomous Region” instead of, say, Moscow (where I lived) or St. Petersburg (where my parents are from). While absurd, the Jewish Autonomous Region still exists: it’s right near China, and its official language is Yiddish, despite its population being about 1% Jewish. Masha Gessen (who has written a number of other outstanding books, mostly about contemporary Russian affairs) tells all in this fascinating book.
5) Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s by Sheila Fitzpatrick (aka the patron saint of the contemporary study of Soviet history)
I bought this book at a used bookstore many years ago when I first began to contemplate studying Soviet history—and it was the only book I took with me when I spent the summer in Tajikistan in 2017 to work on my Persian. (I later learned that it was illegal to bring any non-Tajik print material into the country. Or something like that. Oh well.) So it was the only book I read that summer—and I read it over and over and over again. This book tells the Western reader what it was like to live under Stalinist rule: what books people read, what clothes they wore, what their commutes looked like. This book actually works well in concert with Alexievich’s since this provides much of the historical background for the oral history.
I hope that these books feed your curiosity about Soviet history. It is a topic to which I plan to devote my life (academically and personally), and I hope that these books will allow you to see just why I love it so. See you in class!
Leora Eisenberg is an incoming PhD student at Harvard in Russian and East European History. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton in Slavic Languages and Literatures, and is now completing a Labouisse Project on Kazakhstani language policy. In her spare time, she enjoys learning foreign languages, reading Soviet dignitaries’ memoirs, and cooking vegetarian food. She can be reached at leoraeisenberg@g.Harvard.edu