Books I’ve Read This Week: Russian History and Literature

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 21: Russian History and Literature: In late May and early June, I read some works of modern Russian history and literature including a history of Saint Petersburg (which I am looking forward to visiting for the second time this August), a very somber history of Russian gulags in the 20th century, a history of the October Revolution written by a science fiction author and a Dostoyevsky novel that critiqued the revolutionary movements of his times. After taking a break to read some royal biographies (reviewed here last week) and some fun novels (to be reviewed later this week), I finished reading a biography of Mikhail Gorbachev that I started earlier in the month and concluded with a Trans-Siberian railway travelogue. Here are this week’s reviews:

#142 of 365 Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia by W. Bruce Lincoln

Genre: History

Format: Hardcover, 470 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from a friend

Date Read: May 28-30, 2018

Review: A excellent overview of Saint Petersburg’s history, especially the art and literature inspired by the city, with a strong focus on the 19th and 20th centuries. The chapters about the Silver Age of Russian poetry and the Siege of Leningrad are especially well written. The eighteenth century, however, including the seminal reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, however, do not receive as much attention as they merit and the building of the city goes by quite quickly. Overall, however, Sunlight at Midnight is a well written and insightful biography of Russia’s old Imperial capital.

#143 of 365 Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

Genre: History

Format: Audiobook, 27 hours and 45 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: May 27-30, 2018

Review: A well researched, comprehensive and heartbreaking history of the gulag forced labour camps in Soviet Russia. The chapters concerning child and adolescent inmates are particularly difficult to read. Journalist Anne Applebaum balances the history of how and why the gulag system was established with a comprehensive analysis of daily life in the camps including food, visitors, labour, and relations between prisoners and guards. Sources include memoirs and archival documents. The focus on the voices of the inmates makes the history very compelling.

While the book is excellent, the audiobook has a few shortcomings. The narrator has difficulty with Russian names and sometimes pronounces the same name in a few different ways over the course of the book. Also, the chapter subheadings do not match the audiobook sections and so it can be difficult to find subsections within a chapter. Otherwise, an excellent book.

#144 of 365 October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville

Genre: History

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 37 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Date Listened: May 30-June 1, 2018

Review: Since October is a history book written by a novelist, I was expecting the book to be more of a page turner. Instead, it is a history of the Russian Revolution that consists primarily of revolutionaries attending meetings (“And still the soviet continued to debate.”) The author also tends to romanticize the Bolsheviks, especially Lenin and Trotsky as well as the October Revolution, even though this event ultimately led to a great deal of suffering for the Russian people. There are some one dimensional portrayals of some of the other major historical figures (Czar Nicholas II is described as having “bovine passivity”) and a few historical inaccuracies (Princess Putiatina was a friend of Grand Duke Michael, not his wife). Readable but not as engaging as I expected.

#145 of 365 Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman

Genre: Russian History/Biography

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Hardcover, 928 pages

Dates Read: June 3-18, 2018

Review:  The definitive biography of Mikhail Gorbachev, informed by extensive research and interviews. The subject of the book warned the author in the introduction that “Gorbachev is complicated” and Taubman unravels this complexity by placing Gorbachev within the context of his times. The influence of Gorbachev’s parents and grandparents and how their experiences countered the prevailing soviet cultural narrative is especially well presented.

Taubman also provides an excellent account of Gorbachev’s marriage. Raisa Gorbachev was the most influential spouse of a Russian leader since the Czarina Alexandra and her role both within Russia and abroad is discussed in detail. There is also extensive analysis of Gorbachev’s interactions with world leaders including American president Ronald Reagan, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as well as King Juan Carlos of Spain, whom Gorbachev admired for managing Spain’s transition from Francisco Franco’s rule to democracy. A fascinating and absorbing biography of one of the 20th century’s most significant political leaders.

#146 of 365 Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Genre: Russian Literature

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: June 3-7, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 28 hours and 2 minutes

Review: An intense and difficult listen. There are some powerful scenes but I preferred Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov as novels. Dostoevsky’s philosophy is front and centre in Devils and it tends to overwhelm the characters. Like all Dostoevsky novels. there are desperate men committing unspeakable acts, long suffering women, meditations on the nature of Russian society and spirituality and a few moments of dark humour amidst all the depressing developments but, in my opinion, these characteristics don’t come together in Devils to create a satisfying whole. The audiobook was well read by George Guidall but I did not find this book as compelling as Dostoevsky’s other novels.

#147 of 365 Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey Into The Heart of Russia by David Greene

Genre: Travel Writing

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 320 pages

Date Read: June 19, 2018

Review: I expected Midnight in Siberia to focus closely on the author’s journey aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway and the major cities along its route. Instead, the book focuses on the author’s efforts, as an American journalist, to understand Russian political attitudes and culture. His interviews provide a series of snapshots of rural life in modern Russia. Since the author is the former Moscow bureau chief of NPR, I was surprised that he was not more familiar with the language (he relies heavily on his translator, Sergei) and that his mentions of Russian history were limited to Stalin’s gulags and the Decemberists. There are some interesting chapters that illustrate the complexities of Russian society today but there are also repetitive straightforward observations from the author such as “Russians like tea” or “history and culture matter.” Interesting but not quite what I expected.

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