Top Books: Modern Russia - The Revolution and After

Russian soldiers marching in Petrograd in February 1917
Russian soldiers marching in Petrograd in February 1917. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

The Russian Revolution(s) of 1917 may be the most important and world-altering event of the twentieth century, but restrictions on documents and 'official' communist histories have often affected the efforts of historians. Nevertheless, there are plenty of texts on the subject; this is a list of the best.

Covering the events of 1891 to 1924, Figes' book is a masterclass of historical writing, mixing the personal effects of revolution with the overall political and economic effects. The result is huge (almost 1000 pages), but don't let that put you off because Figes covers almost every level with verve, style, and a highly readable text. Myth-breaking, academic, gripping, and emotive, this is marvelous.

Pick 1 may be excellent, but it's simply too large for many people; however, while Fitzpatrick's book may only be a fifth of the size, it's still a well-written and comprehensive look at the Revolution in its broader period (i.e., not just 1917). Now into its third edition, The Russian Revolution has become standard reading for students and is arguably the best shorter text.

Gulag by Anne Applebaum
(Photo from Amazon)

There’s no getting away from it, this is a difficult read. But Anne Applebaum’s history of the Soviet Gulag system should be read widely and the subject as well known as Germany’s camps. Not one for younger students.
 

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Short, sharp, and fiercely analytical, this is the book to read after some of the longer histories. Pipes expects you to know the detail and thus provides little himself, focusing every word of his short book on presenting his challenge to the socially orientated orthodoxy, using clear logic and insightful comparisons. The result is a powerful argument, but not one for beginners.

This is actually the second edition of a successful, not now very outdated, study of the Soviet Union that was originally published in the early 1980s. Since then, the USSR has collapsed and McCauley's hugely revised text is thus able to study the Union across its whole existence. The result is a book that's as important for politicians and observers as it is for historians.

This reference book provides a reservoir of facts, figures, timelines, and biographies, perfect for supplementing a study or simply using to check the occasional detail.

Another very modern text, Wade's volume strikes a middleground between picks 1 and 2 in terms of size, but pushes ahead in terms of analysis. The author ably describes the complex and involved nature of the revolution while spreading his focus to include different approaches and national groups.

The 1917 revolutions may attract the most attention, but Stalin's dictatorship is an equally important subject for both Russian and European histories. This book is a good general history of the period and particular effort is made to place Stalin in context with Russia both before and after his rule, as well as with Lenin.

The End of Imperial Russia presents a distinctly long-term analysis on a subject which, although hugely important, is often found only in the introductions to texts on 1917: What happened to the Russian Imperial system that caused it to be swept away? Waldron handles these broader themes with ease and the book makes a helpful addition to any study on Imperial or Soviet Russia.

In 1917, the majority of Russians were peasants, upon whose traditional ways of living and working Stalin's reforms wreaked a massive, bloody, and dramatic transformation. In this book, Fitzpatrick explores the effects of collectivization on Russia's peasants, in terms of both economic and socio-cultural change, revealing the changing dynamic of village life.

There are a lot of books on contemporary Russia, and many look at the transition from Cold War thaw to Putin. A good primer for the modern day.

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Stalin’s rise to power has been compellingly documented, but what Simon Sebag Montefiore did was to look at how a man with his power and position ran his ‘court.’ The answer may surprise, and it may be chilling, but it’s well written.
 

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The Whisperers by Orlando Figes
(Photo from Amazon)

What was it like to live under the Stalinist regime, where everyone seemed to be at risk of arrest and exile to the lethal Gulags? An answer is in Figes’ The Whisperers, a fascinating but horrifying book that was well received and which shows a world you might not believe was possible if you found it in the science fiction section.

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