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A Soviet Reader: An Annotated Bibliography of Recent Reads

14 Oct

This bibliography is an attempt at keeping a quick record of my recent reads (both fiction and non-fiction) regarding the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its history.  The eagle-eyed among you will notice all of the volumes are English translations, and as such this imposes a boundary between what has and has not been translated.  As always when one reads for pleasure and information personal choices are made, authors and tastes are developed and pursued, and books that should be read remain unread.  Choices are partly dictated by access.

For instance, I discovered Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don on my dad’s bookshelf, others such as the modern author Svetlana Alexievich by reading literary reviews and becoming aware of her work.  Sometimes there is surprise that so monumental an author can remain forgotten within the sphere of common knowledge, such as Vasily Grossman, of whom I personally did not discover for far too long a time.  Some volumes, such as Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales which is based on his experiences in the Gulag, are soon to be republished and I keenly await the volume.  There are plenty of other volumes that have not been translated into a language I can read or simply authors that I remain ignorant of.

Conference room of the Supreme Council in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, by noted photojournalist Max Penson (1893-1959). Following his forced movement to Uzbekistan with his family in 1914, Penson became one of the best-known photojournalists in the Soviet Union from 1920-40, particularly for his images of life in Uzbekistan. In later life he was forced to leave his employment in 1948 due to a rise in anti-Semitism. Photograph: M. Penson.

Having wrote out a quick list of Soviet-era novels I’ve had the pleasure (and often sadness) to read, I find it thoroughly hard to pick one that is my favourite as the styles are so varied and the approaches so different.  However and on reflection, there are three novels that stand out for me.  They are the Don Epic (includes And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Back to the Sea, 1928-40) by Mikhail Sholokhov, The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov, and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (1960).  All three offer varying degrees of criticism or support of the USSR and all three differ in their approach and in their individual authors fate.  Some circulated as samizdat (underground literature), whereas others were State sanctioned and celebrated.  Many authors who were active during the revolutions of 1917, such as Teffi and Yury Felsen, saw the writing on the wall in the bitter winter months of 1917-18 and sought sanctuary elsewhere in a fractured Europe, riven by war.  Later events, such as the so-called Terror Famine (and associated famines in Soviet lands) of 1933-34 and the Great Purge (or Great Terror) of 1936-38, turned many Old Bolsheviks away from the Party.

I’m also interested in this era of writing because of its historical context.  To write critically, to write truthfully, took some strength to do when the repercussions could be so severe.  Fictional works too were often suppressed or destroyed.  In recent days I have read a number of news articles focused on the killing or physically harming of journalists and educators worldwide, from Turkey (political oppression and murder) to Brazil (harassment), America (political pressure and threats) to Bulgaria (murder) and Malta (murder).  In many countries facts, the search for justice and the will to present the truth to the public (and the public’s willingness to digest this) are under open attack, even in so-called democratic states where media, particularly investigative journalism, is demonised openly and widely.  It would be crass to directly contrast the two wildly different contexts, but we must be aware that it is a continuing balancing act – to report and to be critical, either through fiction or non-fiction, is always an act on a knife-edge.  To tell the truth you sometimes have to give up your freedom; you may even have to give up your life and those of who you love to inform the world.

Please be aware that this post will be regularly updated to include annotations on the volumes listed below.  It will also be added to as and when I read new volumes.

Political & Social History

Alexievich, S. 2016. Chernobyl Prayer. Translated from the Russian by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait. London: Penguin Classics.

Alexievich, S. 2016. Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets. Translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Alexievich, S. 2017. The Unwomanly Face of War. Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Penguin Classics.

Svetlana Alexievich (1948-), a recent Nobel Prize Winner for Literature from Belarus, is justly famous for ‘her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’ as cited in her award.  A recent trio of English-language translations have brought her to greater attention within the Anglo-sphere and introduced many to her unique style of letting her interviewees talk uninterrupted.  For some this may blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, but the results are an intimate look into the lives of those that have been hidden for so long.  The above trio of volumes deal, respectively, with the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the fall of the Soviet Union throughout the late 80s and 90s and its impact, and the role of females in the Second World War and the aftermath in the USSR.

Applebaum, A. 2004. Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps. London: Penguin Books.

Applebaum, A. 2013. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. London: Penguin Books.

Applebaum, A. 2017. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. London: Allen Lane.

Beevor, A. 2007. Stalingrad. London: Penguin.

This is the book that started my initial interest in understanding the Russian position in the Second World War, particularly in understanding the impact that the pivotal battle of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) had in breaking Hitler’s Wehrmacht.  Beevor (1946-) writes a cogent, richly sourced analysis of the battle and its historical importance as it raged in the cold winter of 1942-43

Conquest, R. 2007. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kotkin, S. 2015. Stalin: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928. London: Penguin.

Kotkin, S. 2017. Stalin: Waiting for Hitler 1928-1941. London: Allen Lane.

Together, with the volume ‘Paradoxes of Power’, ‘Waiting for Hitler’ is the second in a trio of volumes that paint a deeply researched biography of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), a Soviet revolutionary and General Secretary and Premier of the USSR.  I’m currently half-way through the second volume and it is an eye-opening body of work, one that I highly recommend to anybody with an interest in history or modern history.  Understanding the USSR (and the transformations after its fall) is fundamental to today’s world state and to the underpinning of politics on the international stage.  By focusing on the figure who helped take over after the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, Kotkin (1959-)provides a richly researched narrative of the day-to-day running of the Russian Soviet Republic and eventual USSR as viewed through Stalin’s immense capability for work, political understanding, and brutality. 

Merridale, C. 2013. Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History. London: Allen Lane.

Plokhy, S. 2017. Lost Kingdom: A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin. London: Allen Lane.

Solzhenitsyn, A. 2003. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-56: A Experiment in Literary Investigation. Translated from the Russian by Thomas Whitney and Harry Willets, abridged by Edward Ericson Jr. London: The Harvill Press.

Steinbeck, J. & Capa, R. 2000. A Russian Journal with Photographs by Robert Capa. London: Penguin Classics.

It is always a pleasure to read Steinbeck’s non-fiction work and this journal, wrote in the late 1940’s after a visit throughout the USSR with the celebrated war photographer Robert Capa, bears all the hallmarks of his wit and comedic flair.  Still this is a sombre read of the after effects of the Second World War, a war which devastated the population and infrastructure of the Soviet Union.  The chapter regarding the visit to Stalingrad (today called Volgograd) is particularly harrowing.  Criticism of the USSR is lacking however and this was noted in the reviews and discussions following the book’s publication.

Teffi. 2016. Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea. Translated from the Russian by R. Chandler, E. Chandler, A. M. Jackson & I. Steinberg. London: Pushkin Press.

Teffi (1872-1952, pen name of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya) was a famous humourist writer in the early 20th century best known for her contributions to the magazine Satyricon.  ‘Memories’ documents her overland flight from St. Petersburg to the Black Sea where she caught a ferry to Turkey in 1919, following the twin revolutions of 1917 (the February overthrow of the Tsar and the Bolshevik revolution in October) and the subsequent political crack downs that followed.  Although the volume deals with a particularly dark affair of fleeing one’s home country, this memoir is particularly funny as Teffi makes her observations and relies on her hilarious and indefatigable guide, Gooskin.  She spent the remainder of her life in Paris, France, never to return to Russia.

Wells, H. G. 2012. Russia in the Shadows (Classic Reprint). London: Forgotten Books.

Folk and Magic Tales

Chandler, R. (ed.). 2012. Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

A fundamentally important introduction to the cultural and traditional importance of magic tales within the Russian and Slavic imagination.  Chandler introduces a range of authors, including Platonov and Teffi, who tackle long-standing magic tales where transformation of both lives and forms becomes a bubbling, and often humorous, vehicle to comment on their own historical context.  This is a great book to become familiar with figures mentioned throughout Russian traditional culture, such as Baba Yaga, which still appear in modern media (think of Zvyagintsev’s 2017 film Loveless and the grandmother figure living in the woods.

Novels

Babel, I. 2016. Odessa Stories. Translated from the Russian by Boris Drayluk. London: Pushkin Press.

Isaac Babel (1894-1940) was one of the highest writers authors to die during Stalin’s Great Purge (otherwise known as the Great Terror).  The Great Purge dated from roughly 1936-38 and spread across the Soviet Union and ultimately saw many hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) put to death or sent to prisons during purges of the military, political, cultural, and professional classes, and the so-called ‘Kulak’ class.  ‘Odessa Stories’ is a collection of Babel’s thrilling tales set in the primarily Jewish coastal city by the Black Sea.  Famously introducing the character of Benya Krik, the gangster, the tales uncover the seedy underbelly of the Ukrainian city.  Among the stories is a moving account of the effect of a program against the Jewish residents. 

Berberova, N., Felsen, Y., Gazdanov, G. & Kuznetsova, G. 2018. Four Russian Short Stories. London: Penguin Classics.

Not strictly historical, but an insight into four disparate writers who fled Russia following the Bolshevik takeover in 1917 and spread themselves across Europe in an émigré cultural diaspora.  Each story in this short paperback deals with the outcome of a death and its impact, eith the feeling of loss rippling through the pages.

Bulgakov, M. 2007. The Master and Margarita. Translated from the Russian by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. London: Penguin Classics.

Gessen, K. 2018. A Terrible Country. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Whilst not dealing directly with the Soviet Union (as Keith Gessen’s highly personal novel is set in 2008), the turbulent 20th century does cast a long shadow in this entertaining and often hilarious novel of one man rediscovering his birth country whilst having to look after an aging relative.  The historical and modern social impacts of violently shifting cultural and political landscapes are well observed and captured in this novel.  They are gently, and believably, entwined with both family members and the friends that the main Soviet-born character, Andrei Kaplan, make in modern-day Moscow after leaving behind his life in America.

Grossman, V. 2006. Life and Fate. Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler. London: Vintage.

Often described as the 20th century’s War & Peace, Life & Fate is a monumental novel of insight into the USSR during the raging battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43.  Centered upon the family of Vicktor Shtrum and the Shaposhniokova sisters, Grossman introduces a panoply of figures across the length and breadth of the USSR and develops their role within the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War is known in Russia).  This multifaceted novel dissects Stalinism and Nazism, the nature of the State itself, and the vying reality of Jewish identity caught between the Soviet sphere and the impact of invading German forces.

Grossman, V. 2011. Everything Flows. Translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and Anna Aslanyan. London: Vintage.

Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. Translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and Olga Meerson. London: Vintage.

Sholokhov, M. 2017. And Quiet Flows the Don. Translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry. London: Penguin Classics.

Sholokhov, M. 1984. The Don Flows Home to the Sea. Translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry. London: Penguin Classics.

Solzhenitsyn, A.. 2000. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. London: Penguin Classics.

Solzhenitsyn, A. 2003. Cancer Ward. Translated from the Russian by Alexander Dolberg. London: Vintage Classics.

Zamyatin, Y. 1993. We. Translated from the Russian by Clarence Brown. London: Penguin Classics.

Graphic Novels

Nury, F. & Robin, T. 2017. The Death of Stalin. London: Titan Comics.

Second World War Memoirs

Koschorrek, G. K. 2002. Blood Red Snow: The Memoirs of a German Solider on the Eastern Front. London: Greenhill Books.

Sajer, G. 1999. The Forgotten Soldier: War on the Russian Front – A True Story. London: Cassel Military Paperbacks.

The above two volumes, and their veracity of truthful experience, have both been discussed time and time again by critics and reviewers in their description of life on the Eastern Front as German soldiers.  Regardless of the truth both volumes present hideous experiences on facing the Red Army during WWII, first claiming new territories and then slowly losing them, mile after bloody mile.

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The Don Epic by Mikhail Sholokhov (1905-1984)

23 Jan

During the my gap year between university degrees, I volunteered heavily and looked longingly for paid employment.  Alas that was not forthcoming in any shape or form, and as I traveled the miles to and from York to gain valuable archaeological experience, I realised I needed reading material to occupy my mind (when no interesting passengers to engage with were forthcoming!).  During my early school years I hated learning to read, I loathed the minutes and hours spent trying to visualise and make sense of sentences and words; I wanted to be free, running in the back garden, digging up the dirt.  Now I won’t stop reading!  If I am bored, I’ll scan around and read everything in sight.  Now I only wish I could remember all of what I’ve read but such is life.

Scanning my dad’s book shelf high and low, I realised I had not read hardly any of Russia’s distinctive, world class and moving literature; from either the all encompassing and demanding Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or regime changers such as Solzhenitsyn, or any Nabokov or Pasternak.  I had made my way through the Beat writers alongside most works by Kurt Vonnegut, some Bret Easton Ellis, a lot of Joseph Heller, a good dose of David Foster Wallace, plenty of Bernard Cornwall, and a good clutch of Will Self’s work; I gorged upon travel books (and still do); I’d read some of the classics such as Camus, Melville  & Shelley, and engorged on plenty of modern novels; but here was a whole swathe of literature to which my mind drew a blank.  Aside from a (mighty) Stalin biography or two, Imperial Russian and USSR literature classics were a mystery to me.

And so, I scanned the shelves and found novels by Tolstoy & Solzhenitsyn amongst others.  Possibly in a foolish move, I worked my way backwards, reading through Solzhenitsyn’s short stories and novels (Cancer Ward, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, August 1914, Matyrona’s Place, and An Incident At Krechetovka Station), and found a movingly painted portrait of a country that had changed drastically, and a population who had been through much.

After reading through these books, my eyes fell onto a writer who was also producing books at the same time on the same subjects as Solzhenitsyn.  Mikhail Sholokhov, a Nobel Prize winner for literature, was a name I did not recognise but would come to love.  I stumbled upon his Don epics, consisting of two parts, firstly And Quiet Flows The Don & its  sequel The Don Flows Home To The Sea, and I was entranced by the comings and goings of the Melekhov family, center stage in a cast of gregarious Don cossacks in a country that is ripped apart before and during World War One, and the subsequent Russian Revolution of 1917 and Civil War that led to the formation of the Soviet Union.

The story concentrates on this one family, and in particular on Grigori Panteleevich Melekhov, who falls in love with his neighbours wife, Aksinia Astakhov.  It is a moving family portrait, vast in scope and beautifully told, and rightly compared to Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace.  Ultimately I cannot do it justice here, and so I implore you the reader to find and read the book yourself – I promise you will not be bored.

Since reading the Don epic, I have started to read Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, which was only slightly marred by the fact I had to hand my University library copy in 60 pages short of the ending (and the local libraries haven’t got a copy!).  Meantime I have picked up a copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls, and finding his writing style very different from his near contemporary Tolstoy, and both  of the Soviet era writers Solzhenitsyn and Sholokhov.

I am intensely glad I have started to have uncovered the vast travel trove of literature that Russia has to offer, and long may it continue.  I have found novels that have since lain close to my heart (especially Cancer Ward by Sozhenitsyn) and characters that will stick with me throughout my life.