Russia and the West’s relationship with it are again huge—and alarming—points of interest in the news. This, along with the country’s complex history, makes related reading both important and fascinating. The arresting array of titles below gives newbies and Russophiles alike a taste of the culture and politics that have shaped this nation, while also revealing its ordinary people to be educated, creative, and often in possession of an earthy sense of humor.
Katherine Arden’s debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale (Del Rey: Ballantine. Jan. 2017. ISBN 9781101885932. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781101885949), gives readers a fantastical look at Russia’s medieval predecessor, old Rus’. Drawing on Russian folk and fairy tales and including such elements as dark forests, household spirits, frost gods, talking horses, and vampires, Arden creates a rich world. There, Vasya, gifted with second sight, discovers she is destined to follow a difficult path: a woman seeking to lead in an Orthodox Christian, male-dominated society and wielding powers both natural and supernatural. It is the first in a planned trilogy in which Vasya will face new adventures as her country endures its own struggles to define its nascent national identity.
If fairy tales offer one window into the Russian soul, classical literature provides an equally compelling take. Russians hold poet Alexander Pushkin in the same reverence as English speakers do William Shakespeare. Pushkin’s masterpiece Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse (Oxford Univ. 2009. ISBN 9780199538645. pap. $10.95; ebk. ISBN 9780191606069) tells the intersecting stories of three men and three women in the Russia of the 1820s, showcasing its author’s wit and intelligence throughout his engaging and suspenseful narrative. Russian-language purists argue that this classic should be read only in its original tongue, but this sparkling translation by James E. Falen is the next best thing.
A century later, in 1911, Russia was again on the brink of change and upheaval. In that context, Inna, the heroine of Vanora Bennett’s Midnight in St. Petersburg (Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Jan. 2016. ISBN 9781250079435. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466892163), arrives in the big city, using stolen papers to flee discrimination against Jews. Welcomed into the Leman family, Inna finds a calling in their violin workshop and is drawn into relationships with three very different men. The revolution forces her to make wrenching choices in this detailed novel that touches on Fabergé creations, a priceless Stradivarius, and the enigmatic figure Rasputin.
The story of Russia and the Soviet Union is not limited to the country’s more European cities. Its far-flung eastern regions have long held both Russian and global imaginations. No one better captures Siberia—vast and sparsely populated but full of history and legend—than Ian Frazier in his rambling, personal tour Travels in Siberia (Picador. 2011. ISBN 9780312610609. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9781429964319). Honest and brimming with information, this travelog recounts the tragic tales of exiles and labor camps while also finding room for funny anecdotes about Bon Jovi, bad roads, worse driving, and mosquitoes.
Even further along the frontier lies the lesser-known Russian Far East. Dominic Ziegler uses its major artery, the Amur River, as a starting point for chronicling the area’s history in Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River Between Russia and China (Penguin. 2015. ISBN 9781594203671. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698410169). Starting at the river’s literal and figurative source along the Mongolian border, Ziegler weaves a story of Russia’s often violent clashes with its South Asian neighbors and relates the importance of the remote area to President Vladimir Putin’s vision of his nation’s imperial destiny.
Speaking of Putin, journalist Anne Garrels explores his appeal to ordinary Russians in Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia (Farrar. Mar. 2016. ISBN 9780374247720. $26; ebk ISBN 9780374710439). Through the stories of those she got to know over more than two decades visiting the city of Chelyabinsk, the NPR correspondent explains how, for many, Putin’s policies seem to be an invigorating return to the glories of the past. The book charts the course of the change in Russian attitudes from the heady post-Communist days of the 1990s through the disillusionment of the early part of the 21st century and into the resurgent nationalism of today. Many readers will still understandably find Putin and his followers scary, especially given the most recent revelations, but this book does portray today’s Russia as more human and understandable.