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

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

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

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.

My January-February 2018 course at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies: Family Life from Medieval to Modern Times

On Wednesday afternoons in January and February 2018, I will be teaching an eight week history course about Family Life from Medieval to Modern Times.

Click here for more information and to register.

Course Description:

Our views on marriage and childrearing would seem very strange to families of past centuries. We’ll see the influence of romanticism on the current understanding of family life, the changing role of grandparents in relation to family traditions, and the emergence of a distinct children’s culture including the birth of children’s literature, due in part to the expansion of formal education. Join us for a look at marriage and parenting customs and advice through the centuries, and the surprising influence of history on family life today.
Learning Outcomes:

Imperial Russia Book Reviews: 1913 Diary of Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna and Maria and Anastasia: The Youngest Romanov Grand Duchesses in Their Own Words

Grand Duchess Maria (1899-1918) is the least well known of the four daughters of Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II and his consort, Empress Alexandra. Her two older sisters, Grand Duchess Olga (1895-1918) and Grand Duchess Tatiana (1897-1918) came of age and made their debut in Russian high society before the outbreak of the First World War and continued to be prominent public figures in wartime as nurses and heads of charitable organization. Maria’s younger sister, Grand Duchess Anastasia (1901-1918) became famous after her death as she was impersonated by numerous women who claimed to have survived the massacre of the Imperial family in 1918. In the context of her family, Maria was overshadowed by her sisters and younger brother, the heir to the throne, Grand Duke Alexei (1904-1918) and there is evidence that she sometimes felt overlooked in her own lifetime.

 In recent decades, the publication of new primary source material concerning the imprisonment and murder of the Romanovs has done little for Maria’s reputation and historical legacy. A 1918 interview with Vassili Yakolev, the Bolshevik Commissar who escorted Nicholas, Alexandra and Maria from Tobolsk to Ekaterinburg (their final place of imprisonment), translated and reprinted in The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution dismisses Maria in a few lines: “Maria, the Romanovs’ daughter, is completely immature for her years. She has no understanding at all of life in the broad sense of the word. She is under the strong influence of her mother.” The 2005 book The Fate of the Romanovs, quotes extensively from biased Bolshevik sources and presents the teenaged Maria as a flirt who was censured by her family because of her friendly relations with the soldiers who kept the Romanovs under guard in 1917 and 1918.  Helen Rappaport’s books about the Imperial family are kinder to Maria but Rappaport still emphasizes Maria’s perceived flirtations, concluding that “Gauche and naive, she was an innocent abroad in the company of men” in The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg.

Two new volumes of Maria’s letters and diaries,1913 Diary of Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna: Complete Tercentennial Journal of the Third Daughter of the Last Tsar and Maria and Anastasia: The Youngest Romanov Grand Duchesses In Their Own Words: Letters, Diaries, Postcards, edited by Helen Azar, finally allow the Grand Duchess to speak for her herself and demonstrate that she was not fully understood by those who met her in passing during the final months of her life. Klavdia Bitner, a tutor employed in 1917 noted that the Grand Duchesses were unfamiliar with certain contemporary authors and concluded that they were indifferently educated but Maria’s 1913 diary reveals that at the age of thirteen and fourteen, Maria’s days were dominated by lessons. On February 5, 1913, she wrote, “Had lessons in the morning…[In the afternoon] Had a dance lesson. Had a music lesson…Then did homework.” A report card from that year demonstrates that Maria received top marks from all of her tutors and that she experienced a wide variety of educational opportunities from frequent visits to theatre and ballet to physics lessons in the science lab of a secondary school near the Alexander Palace.

During the First World War, Nicholas II spent months at a time at military headquarters as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army and his daughters wrote him frequent letters. Of the four sisters, Maria may have been the most descriptive letter writer, providing detailed and thoughtful accounts of the hospital where she volunteered with her sister Anastasia. On May 29, 1916, Maria wrote to her father, “This afternoon we rode around then went to our infirmary. Almost all the wounded are lying in the tent…Those who are able, walk to the Catherine Park and sail around the lake in row boats. They really enjoy this and always ask the nurses to go with them.”

Both Maria’s 1913 diary and her wartime letters demonstrate how closely she and her sisters were integrated into their father’s close relationship with the military: all four of the Grand Duchesses became honourary Colonels-in-Chief of regiments from the age of fourteen, attended military reviews, organized social events for military personnel and volunteered in military hospitals. This routine meant that Maria was comfortable socializing with soldiers from a young age. Her interest in the daily lives of soldiers and ability to create a friendly rapport would be interpreted as flirtation by Bolshevik observers after her family was placed under guard following Nicholas’s abdication in March 1917.

Maria’s diaries and letters also provide insights concerning the daily routine and social circle of the Russian Imperial family during the 1913 tercentennial of the Romanov dynasty and the First World War. The involvement of two of Czar Nicholas II’s relatives, his cousin Grand Duke Dmitri and nephew by marriage Prince Felix Yusupov, in the 1916 murder of Grigori Rasputin seems to demonstrate a longstanding estrangement between Nicholas and his extended family but Maria’s letters and diaries demonstrate that Nicholas, Alexandra and their children had a warm relationship with numerous members of the Romanov extended family. Maria appears to have been particularly close to the “Ai-Todorsky,” the children of her Aunt, Grand Duchess Xenia, including Princess Irina, who married Felix Yusupov.

Maria was murdered with the rest of her family on the night of July 16-17, 1918, soon after her nineteenth birthday. Her final letters demonstrate that she was the most hopeful member of her family in their final months. In a letter written just two months before her death, Maria wrote, “It is difficult to write anything pleasant, because there is very little of it here to report, but on the other hand, God does not abandon us, the sun shines and the birds sing.” The publication of Maria’s letters and diaries provide valuable new insights about life within Russia’s last Imperial family from 1913 to 1918 and show Maria to be an intelligent and thoughtful observer of her family’s experiences during the Romanov tercentennial, First World War and Russian Revolution.

My October-November 2017 course at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies: Women In Power

“Boadicea Haranguing the Britons” by John Opie

In the Fall of 2017, I will be teaching an eight week course about the history of Women in Power at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Click here for more information and to register:

Time and Date:

03 Oct 2017 – 21 Nov 2017 
7:00PM – 9:00PM

Course Description:

Powerful women have presented themselves as warrior queens, rulers by divine right, wives and mothers and, most recently, as elected officials. We’ll examine the most significant female political figures in history, including Boadicea, Queen Isabella, Queen Elizabeth I, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton. Through lively lectures and discussions, you’ll learn the story of women in political life. Why are women still underrepresented in political life? Join Carolyn Harris for a fascinating look at the often-neglected place of women in power from Cleopatra to Angela Merkel.

Learning Outcomes:


National Post review of Raising Royalty: “Murder your children’s rivals, and other parenting tips from royals”

19th century portrait of Peter the Great interrogating his son, Alexei

My new book, Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting, is featured in the weekend National Post including quotes from the chapters about Peter the Great, Queen Victoria and Henry VIII.

“[The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge] want Princess Charlotte and Prince George to go to the local school. They want to be hands-on parents. On the day George left the hospital, William wrestled with the lad’s car seat, a performance reenacted daily by new dads the world over. The message they hoped you’d glean from it? Will and Kate are just like you and me.

In her new book, Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting, Canadian historian Carolyn Harris reveals there may be other parenting tips to be gleaned from royal watching. With Harris as inspiration, we offer six tips from moms and dads who also happened to be monarchs.”

Click here to read “Murder your children’s rivals, and other parenting tips from royals” in the National Post

Smithsonian Russian Revolution Series: May 1917: The Women Warriors of the Russian Revolution

Maria Bockareva, who issued a call to arms for Russian women in May 1917

The May article in my Russian Revolution series in Smithsonian Magazine examines the May Day celebrations in Russia on May 1, 1917 and the subsequent call to arms for Russian women to take up combat roles during the First World War. Advocates of women’s rights in Russia and around the world, including the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, paid close attention to the mobilization of women on the eastern front.

Click here to read “The Women Warriors of the Russian Revolution” in Smithsonian Magazine

Links to all of my Russian history articles in Smithsonian Magazine are available here.

Sources and Further Reading:

 The Cavalry Maiden: Journals of a Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars Nadezhda Durova is quoted at the beginning of the article. The experiences of Durova, a woman who served with distinction in the Napoleonic Wars influenced Russian popular culture during the years preceding the First World War.

The May Day celebrations in Saint Petersburg on May 1, 1917 are described in detail in Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge by Helen Rappaport. The book also discusses Emmeline Pankhurst’s visit to Russia in the Spring on 1917.

Excerpts from the former Czar Nicholas II’s diaries, including his account of the May Day celebrations outside the Alexander Palace, where the Imperial family were under house arrest in 1917, are available to read in A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story.

Maria Bockareva, the soldier who formed The Women’s Battalion of Death in 1917, wrote a memoir about her experiences, which was reprinted in 2013 as Maria’s War: A Soldier’s Autobiography.

The newspaper account of Russian women disguising themselves as men to enlist in the war effort as early as 1914 is available to read in Conflict and Cooperation: Documents on Modern Global History, edited by Tracey J. Kinney.

Midwives of the Revolution: Female Bolsheviks and Women Workers in 1917 by Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar provides further context for the mobilization of women in 1917 as well as the role of women in the Bolshevik party.

Smithsonian Russian Revolution Series: April 1917: The Provisional Government

Prince Georgy Lvov, 1st Prime Minister of the Russian Provisional Government in 1917

The April 1917 article in my monthly Smithsonian Russian Revolution series examines the struggles faced by the new Provisional Government after Czar Nicholas II abdicated. The new Prime Minister, Prince Georgy Lvov, a Russian nobleman, found himself politically isolated and unable to reconcile the competing demands of conservative and socialist political factions.

The rising star in Lvov’s government was Alexander Kerensky, Minister of Justice, whose first order of business was investigating former Czar Nicholas II. When Lvov’s government faced protests because of its determination to fulfill Czarist diplomatic and military obligations including Russia’s participation in the First World War, Kerensky orchestrated a coalition government with socialist parties and became Minister of War, events that became known as the April Crisis. Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik party, however, remained in opposition to this government, demanding an immediate end to hostilities on the eastern front.

Click here to read “In a Czar-less Russia, Winning was Easy. Governing was Harder” in Smithsonian Magazine

Click here to read my entire Russian Revolution series (so far) in Smithsonian Magazine

Sources and Further Reading:

The quote at the beginning of the article is from Leo Tolstoy’s celebrated novel, Anna Karenina. Tolstoy and Lvov had been neighbours and shared a common disdain for the ostentatious lifestyle expected of members of the Czarist nobility before the Russian Revolution.

Lvov’s early life and career are discussed in detail in Orlando Figes’ history of the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy. The book also discusses the difficult position faced by the Provisional Government in the Spring of 1917.

Accounts of celebrations of the establishment of the Provisional Government across Russia are included in War and Revolution in Russia 1914-1922 by Christopher Read.

Documents related to the Provisional Government’s arrest and investigation of the former Imperial family are translated and reprinted in The Fall of the Romanovs, a collection of primary sources about the Romanovs during and after the Russian Revolutions of 1917.

The memoirs of Alexander Kerensky have recently been reprinted in e-book form as The Catastrophe: Kerensky’s Own Story of the Russian Revolution

Lenin’s return to Russia is the subject of a recent book, Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale, author of Red Fortress, a history of Moscow’s Kremlin. Lenin’s writings and speeches are also available online.

CBC Books Interview: 6 Must Reads for the Royal Obsessed

I discussed my new book Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting and some of my favorite royal books – fiction and non-fiction – with CBC books. The books I recommend include Our Queen by Robert Hardman, Monarchy and the End of Empire: The House of Windsor, the British Government, and the Postwar Commonwealth by Philip Murphy, Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn, Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund and The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak.

Click here to read “6 must-reads for the royal obsessed from expert and author Carolyn Harris” at CBC Books

Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting now available for purchase

My 3rd book, Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting, has been published by Dundurn Press in Canada. (The USA and UK release date is May 2).

Click here to purchase your copy of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting

How royal parents dealt with raising their children over the past thousand years, from keeping Vikings at bay to fending off paparazzi.

William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, are setting trends for millions of parents around the world. The upbringing of their children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, is the focus of intense popular scrutiny. Royalty have always raised their children in the public eye and attracted praise or criticism according to parenting standards of their day.

Royal parents have faced unique challenges and held unique privileges. In medieval times, raising an heir often meant raising a rival, and monarchs sometimes faced their grown children on the battlefield. Conversely, kings and queens who lost their thrones in wars or popular revolutions often found solace in time spent with their children. In modern times, royal duties and overseas tours have often separated young princes and princesses from their parents, a circumstance that is slowly changing with the current generation of royalty.

Click here to purchase your copy of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting

Smithsonian Russian Revolution Series: The Abdication of Czar Nicholas II

Czar Nicholas II under guard after his abdication in 1917

The March article in my monthly series for Smithsonian Magazine about the Russian Revolutions of 1917 is about the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, which took place nearly 100 years ago on March 15, 1917. Since becoming Czar in 1894, Nicholas II had remained in power through a number of crises including Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 and Bloody Sunday in 1905. The difference in 1917 was that Nicholas II lost the support of the military during the First World War and his generals urged him to abdicate in the interests of continuing the war on the eastern front.

Click here to read “The Abdication of Nicholas II Left Russia Without a Czar for the First Time in 300 Years” in Smithsonian Magazine

Sources and Further Reading:

After his abdication, Czar Nicholas II caught up on reading, completing War and Peace  by Leo Tolstoy for the first time while under house arrest. My article begins with a quote from the novel from Part 2, when Napoleon invaded Russia during the reign of Czar Alexander I.

Key documents concerning the abdication of Nicholas II including the telegrams from his generals, announcements by the Duma and the abdication manifesto itself are translated and reprinted in The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution

 The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra has been published in its entirety. Excerpts from the Imperial couple’s letters are also printed in A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story

Dominic Lieven’s latest book discusses The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution. He is also the author of a political biography of Czar Nicholas II entitled Nicholas II: Twilight of the Empire

The impressions of foreigners resident in Saint Petersburg during the Russian Revolutions of 1917 feature in Helen Rappaport’s new book, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge. Rappaport is also the author of a number of other excellent books about the last Imperial family including The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra and The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg

In The Last of the Tsars, historian Robert Service examines Nicholas II’s political views and his conversations with his household and guards after his abdication.

Numerous members of Czar Nicholas II’s extended family, household and social circle survived the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and fled abroad, where they wrote their memoirs about Russia’s last Imperial family. I include excerpts from three of these works in the article: The Education of a Princess by Czar Nicholas II’s cousin, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, The Real Tsaritsa by Empress Alexandra’s friend, Lili Dehn and Thirteen Years at the Russian Court by the Imperial children’s French tutor, Pierre Gilliard.