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.