Favorite Books About Russia

With all the talk about Russian intrigues in the news, along with the bitingly cold temperature outside, I’ve thought back on my favorite books about Russia that have come out in the last few years.  Once the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, a number of both novels and memoirs detailed the hardships of life in Russia behind the Iron Curtain – stories and history lessons we in America are just now hearing.

Like modern Russia itself, many of these stories are rich with drama – but filled with heartbreak as well.  When I first travelled to Russia several years ago, it was described to me as “the wild, wild East.”  Indeed, my travels to Russia were experiences of a lifetime.  Among the crumbling infrastructure and scarcities of many of the common conveniences we take for granted in America, we met many Russians who showed kindness, resilience, and friendliness to us as Americans.  In the Russian Arctic, we found ourselves driven around by a former Soviet fighter pilot who loved to make turns by hitting snow banks at top speed.  We visited a local “mall” that turned out to be not much more than a flea market.  Our eyes widened at the sight of a huge poster of Andrew Jackson on a twenty dollar bill at the one currency exchange outside the one western grocery store in town.  Finding ourselves snowed in at our hotel, we dined old school, with a gourmet meal served on a white linen tablecloth, accompanied by a string quartet so beautiful it made me weep.

We were also told that Moscow is “a country within a country,” and we found this to be true as well.  While Russians in the provinces welcomed us, in Moscow we found ourselves under surveillance at all times.  A hotel manager followed me into a bathroom to watch while I changed my child’s diaper.  The hotel maids felt free to come into our room at any time, without knocking, to check on us.  A restaurant across the street from the US Embassy refused us service.  When politics went really south, I had to get in our guide’s face and yell at him before he would take us to the Delta office to change our tickets.  After leaving our hotel at 4 in the morning, our cab was stopped on the way to the airport for the proverbial check of our “papers.”

We got only a taste of the bare bones existence and the ultra-paranoid police state experienced by most Russians after the Russian Revolution.  For full stories by those who lived or travelled extensively in Russia, here are some of my favorite books about contemporary Russia and its recent history:

Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag, by Karl Tobien.  An American family moves from Detroit to Gorky in the early 1930’s to work in a new Ford factory.  This book shows, from an American standpoint, the ruthlessness of life under Stalin, told by Margaret Werner’s son.

The Bronze Horseman, Paullina Simons.  This novel details the life of a young woman enduring the siege of Leningrad by the Germans during World War II.  One million people died of starvation.  This book has it all – romance, sex, death, suffering.  It’s a little romance-novel-ish at times, but the story of the siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) is one I’ve not read anywhere else (and especially this graphically).

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food & Longing, Anya von Bremzen.  This beautifully written memoir is the story of an average young girl growing up in the Soviet Union during the 1960’s era of post-Stalinist Russia.  It gives a superb picture of what daily life was like in the late 20th century, along with the author’s immigrant experience in the United States.  Highly recommended.

Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia, David Greene.  Written by an NPR Morning Edition journalist, this wonderful travel book chronicles the author’s train journey from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway, stopping to meet ordinary Russians along the way.  This is an insightful look into present day Russia.

I hope you enjoy these marvelous books on cold winter nights!

Happy New Year, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is a writer and author of two novels, based in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ginger’s Reckoning – About This Book

Of all the writing projects I’ve done, Ginger’s Reckoning is my all-time favorite.  This book recalls the early days of my marriage, when we had the time and the money to travel, enjoy life, and look forward to a bright future.  Things didn’t turn out quite the way we imagined.  The investment bank my husband worked for went under, leaving us with an income of exactly zero at one point.  We faced the heartbreak of infertility.  I hated my job practicing law.  Eventually I left the practice of law to do what I always wanted to do – write novels.  Ginger’s Reckoning was written during that time.

I’m often asked of my fiction, “is this a true story?” This book is really and truly fictitious.  There are, of course, similarities between my life in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. But as the novel developed, my fictional characters eventually found their own lives. Portions of this novel are set in the Fort Sanders neighborhood, where I lived while a student at the University of Tennessee. The characters who lived in my fictional Fort Sanders started out based on real people I knew or observed back in the early 1980’s, but they also became their own people.  (My husband thinks one of these characters deserves his own novel. I’m mulling that over.)

The portions of the novel set in Berlin, immediately after the Wall came down, are absolutely sights and circumstances I personally experienced in the late summer of 1990.  It was a great time to be an American in Berlin.  Berliners greatly appreciated what Americans had done to keep them in the Western Bloc since the last days of World War II and throughout the Cold War.  Cab drivers really did turn the meter off when they heard us speaking American English.  The hotel where we stayed insisted on giving us a free upgrade to Berlin Philharmonic conductor Herbert von Karajan’s suite.  East Germans, “Osties” lined up to gawk at the live eels, the wall of mustards, and over-the-top bounty of the food gallery of the KaDeWe department store.

The scenes set in Moscow are, oddly enough, realistic as well.  I originally wrote these scenes based on an old tourist guide to Russia I found in a used book store.  I had, at that time, never visited Russia.  When we eventually visited Moscow in 2005, I was astonished to find that the scenes and circumstances described in Ginger’s Reckoning were actually fairly true to life.  The hotel where we stayed was actually much worse than the hotel described in my novel.  We felt relieved to get out of there, much like Ginger and Steve so many years before us.

I hope you enjoy reading Ginger’s Reckoning as much as I enjoyed writing it and then re-reading and polishing it for publication.  It’s available in both print and Kindle editions at http://amzn.to/2hwtxTi .

Blessings, Cindy