I love history, more specifically I love Russian history, and it’s been a passion of mine for approaching 20 years. Why Russian history you ask? Because for an Englishman growing up in the 1980s Russia was a cold mysterious place somewhere far to the east with a completely different political system, which usually provided the bad guys in comics and films.
Famously described by Winston Churchill as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” it was this sense of mystery that initially attracted me to Russian history, combined with a real sense of Romance fostered by the occasional viewing of Dr. Zhivago (it’s still one of my favorite films) on wet Sunday afternoons. It’s the romance and tragedy on a breath-taking scale, which makes Russian History so fascinating, its rich pantheon of heroes and villains so irresistible; by understanding the history and culture of a people they become a lot less mysterious and more human too.
In order to take ones understanding of Russian history to the next level, it is my belief that a good knowledge of Russian is required, learning another Language has rewards which go beyond the obvious.
What I can do for the would be student of Russian history is provide a selection of books which will get him or her off to a solid start so they can develop their knowledge on solid foundations, all of these books are accessible and pleasant reading, I’ve savored many times.
20th Century Russian History
To the uninitiated the Russian Revolution can be a confusing period to understand. Orlando Figes’ Tour de Force will give the reader a complete understanding of the causes and the major figures of the Russian Revolution taking the reader from the Romanov Tercentenary up to the 1917 Revolution and the subsequent civil war, undoubtedly one of the major events in Russia’s 20th century. The beauty of this book is that it charts the impact of the revolution on a selection of figures both minor and major including the first head of the provisional Government Georgi Lvov and Tsarist General Aleksei Brusilov who ended up in the red army accepting that for better or worse the Russian people had rejected the imperial order, something the Whites had failed to grasp.
This book chronicles the 900 Day siege of Leningrad it’s a beautifully written book which puts a very human face on the siege. It does this by following a number of ordinary and not so ordinary Leningraders with a definite emphasis on Intelligentsia figures, such as Olga Bergholtts and Anna Akhmatova through the events of the siege. The zhdanovshchina and the post war Leningrad affair are covered in some detail as the Communist party politicized the siege. It’s given me a desire to visit Питер (Piter - a loving short name the native use for St. Petersburg), which remains undimmed until this day. I’ve read a few books about the Siege of Leningrad and this book stands out because of the empathy it shares with the victims of the blockade is what makes this book extraordinary, it’s a very human moving history, particularly heartbreaking is the story of Tanya Savicheva and family, and that’s one tragedy amongst many in this book, it’s a book you’ll never forget reading. In the Words of Olga Bergholtts : Let no one forget. Let nothing be forgotten. This masterpiece is a fitting tribute to those who fell in the Seige.
Complete Russian History
In this book the former BBC Moscow Correspondent Martin Sixsmith guides the reader through the history of Russia from the days of kievan Rus’ through to the Putin era; it’s especially strong on the post-soviet era. Sixsmith clearly knows Russia and understands its people and cultures, making this book the perfect introduction to Russia and its history for the inquisitive.
For the history lover there is plenty of additional of additional material online, You Tube in particular is a great resource with Mosfilm generously putting translated versions of their back catalogue online.
I have to admit I particularly enjoy the Lyubov Orlova films such as
Sergei Eisenstein’s classics films are also available on there
So there’s no need to go splashing out on DVDs
Historical Music & Songs are also well represented on YouTube with
- В Землянке (V Zemylanke - In the dugout)
- Синий Платочек (Ciny Platochek - Blue Shawl) – although I’m not a massive fan of the Klavdia Shulzhenko version
- Боже Царя Храни (God Save the Tsar)
- Вы жертвою пали (You fell victim) - played at Bolshevik funerals
All being available, Siny platochek being my personal favorite there’s a few versions there.
The real gold standard resource is www.sovmusic.ru , which has songs/posters/audio recordings from the Soviet Era, invaluable for someone with an interest in those times
Learning about the Russian History and using the recourses will force you to see lots of the Russian language. Rather than learn Russian from transliterating the Cyrillic text on the side of T-34 battle tanks Суворов (Suvorov) as I did (it took hours), why not make life easy on yourself? With the excellent Russian Step by Step Learning Series of books which breaks an initially daunting task into easily digested chunks you (as I am now!) can do just that.