Adventures in Russian Reading

The New York Times recently posted some reading suggestions for Edward Snowden, who is seemingly still living in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Of course, what he needs is good advisors, not books about Russia. Besides, I was underwhelmed by the list.

Dostoevsky's grave at Alexander Nevsky Lavra

Dostoevsky’s grave at Alexander Nevsky Lavra

First off, I’m not a Dostoevsky fan, and the list was heavy on Crime and Punishment, one of the first books I never finished. I struggled from the start, valiantly stuck with it for about half , then gave up. I know, I’m a heathen. My sister who loved Dostoevsky looked at me blankly when she heard I had never finished C&P. Her response, perhaps you want to try Brothers Karamazov … She then went to her bookcase to pull out several other options. Alas.

I am, however, a huge Tolstoy fan. I tried to get G to read War and Peace before our trip. He loves Napolean. He likes social satire from that era (think: Pride and Prejudice). Didn’t happen.

So I certainly don’t claim to be a Russia expert (I’ve never read Chekov) but I here’s what I read to prepare for our recent trip:

Catherine the Great. Years ago, I read Nicholas and Alexandra and remembered liking it. I thought Massie did a great job (no pun intended) with Catherine. He assumes some basic knowledge, then recaps key information, just in case. As a reader, you never feel ignorant, just that the storyteller is reminding you of where we are in the story. And it reads like a story. Visiting the Hermitage and seeing the Old Masters, I was reminded that Catherine bought so many collections from various estates, forming a major foundation of the art on display today.

Another foundation of the Hermitage collection, of course, was the modern art that was nationalized in the Revolution. That was how our guide at the Hermitage described it, as we walked through rooms of Gaughins, Matisses, Picassos. So many were from the same two collections. And as our guide reminded us, under Russian law, there’s no possibility of restitution, ever. Which brings me to Former People, a look at what happened to the noble class post-Russian Revolution. The book, which follows two prominent families, recently won the Pushkin House prize. Yes, there was tremendous inequality and oppression, generations of it. Yet that doesn’t make the individual fates of people traced in the book any less horrific. It wasn’t just the so-called nobles, but all of the educated elite – teachers, government administrators (big and small), officers in the military, doctors, lawyers, etc. who were targeted. It makes me shudder to think what would happen if the oppressed in our own country ever took things into their own hands …

For a view of life under Stalinist Russia and during the modern collapse of the Soviet Union and today, I liked popular thrillers by Tom Rob Smith (the Child 44 series) and also the Martin Cruz Smith Arkady Renko novels. [Question: does one have to have three names to write novels set in Russia?] Of course, some of the novels were better than others, but as a whole, they provided insight into every day lives under Communism. And for life in the gulag, I thought Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a great account and perfect in length, as well.

For a surreal look at Stalinist Russia, I liked The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov’s classic. A friend who had studied abroad in Russia recommended it, so I can’t take credit for the selection. You’ll love it or you’ll hate it, but it’s a good read for someone about to visit Russia, he said. No doubt. I won’t claim to have understood the entire book, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, the fantastical and the absurd, both for itself and for the commentary. I also liked The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell which I read years ago. As we considered visiting Anna Akhmatova‘s house in St. Petersburg, I was reminded of her role in that novel of writers, dissidents, love and betrayal.

For this trip, I also re-read Anna Karenina, although I wasn’t able to finish before we left. Going to the ballet at the Marinsky, I was reminded of what a decadent life Anna lived, going to balls and the opera, gossiping about friends. But also how stultifying such a life would be. For someone who bristles at societal conformity, it would be horrific. Having read the novel before, I was also struck by all the time they spend on the train. Nice foreshadowing … For a modern retelling of Tolstoy’s classic, I recommend Whatever Happened to Anna K, set in an insular modern day Brooklyn community. I guess the constraints of society are as much alive today as 100 some years ago.

Although I remembered the fall of Communism, I wanted to read about it as a historical event. Lenin’s Tomb, written by the Washington Post Moscow reporter during the end of Communism, is an excellent and remarkably thorough account. I found it a bit overwhelming at times, and while I appreciated the detailed reporting, I wished it had been more of a story, with a classic protagonist. Yet in my reading, neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin ever rose to that role in Remnick’s telling.

For a taste of Leningrad during World War II, I liked City of Thieves, a coming of age story about survival and friendship. But I had also read Philip Kerr’s Man Without Breath, in which Bernie Gunther our cynical Berlin homicide investigator remarks on the NKVD’s efficiency disposing of bodies in Poland. Exceedingly dark … I decided that was enough of that era.

Of course, my short reading list only scratches the surface of Russia. But that should be enough to keep Snowden busy until he finds another home.

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