Monday, September 14, 2015

TTT: Russia/USSR 101

Time for another Top Ten Tuesday post!  Love that The Broke and The Bookish put this together for all of us.

They gave us a freebie this week, so I'm going back to the near past, when we all taught intro level courses on topics near and dear to our bookish little hearts.  I had such a hard time choosing between topics, so I'm excited to get a chance to dive into another one on my list.  Say a big privyet to Russian and USSR literature 101!

A little background: being of Baltic descent, I was always interested in that part of the world.  As a history major, way back in the days of Gorbachev and perestroika (look it up, kids!), the closest relevant courses my small college offered were in Russian history.  So I took all two or three of those, and spent some time with some very interesting books.  I also took a 200 level Russian literature (in translation) course when I was a senior, and it was one of the most fun classes I ever had.  Seriously great teacher.  I went on to spend about five years living in Latvia over 3 different visits between 1992 and 2008, and then I adopted my kids from Lithuania, which is where my grandfather was born, taking us back full circle to my original interest in that part of the world.  (Did you know that in the 12th century, Lithuania controlled the area between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea?)  Along the way, I've continued to pick up many books that deal with Russian and Baltic history and culture.  (BTW, if any Balts are reading this I TOTALLY KNOW THAT YOU ARE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT LINGUISTICALLY AND CULTURALLY FROM RUSSIA, but for better or worse, you are neighbors geographically, and your histories have intertwined in various ways over the centuries, so bear with me.)

(No pun intended on the "bear" thing.)

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie.
Published in 1967, this is the first book I read about the Russian royal family. I strongly suspect I read the Readers' Digest Condensed version, of which we had many volumes at our little beach house. It was so romantic, and tragic, and mildly titillating to my 9 year old self. What was up with Rasputin and the queen, anyway? Maybe not 100% historically accurate--definitely pop history, not scholarly history-- but it still introduces you to the major players and issues, and it is a lot of fun.

The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad by Harrison E. Salisbury
My dad had a copy of this 1969 book, and I read it the summer after my freshman year in high school. WOW. The scale of human suffering is astounding; you keep having to wrap your brain around things like a million people dying in one city, or children documenting the deaths of their entire families from starvation. There is also the courage of those who ventured across miles of ice on the chance of getting food for the city, and the sheer resilience of the Petersburg residents who made it through. The author was there just after the siege ended, and includes a lot of interviews in the text, making it come alive even more.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
When I took that Russian lit course, our professor told us that usually he assigned Anna Karenina, but that he was tired of justifying a book which ends in the adulturous woman throwing herself in front of a train while her seducer and lover gets a toothache. So we worked our way through W&P, writing 20 word summaries of each section (what great practice in distilling the most important elements down) and keeping response journals. I remember my shock at the implication that a character has an abortion, and my fond impatience with Pierre. This book makes "sprawling" and "saga" seem inadequate. It's huge, and complex, and frustrating, and old fashioned, and intelligent, and humane. It's a window into a completely foreign time and place, and a mirror of our own.

A Hero of Our Times by Mikhail Lermontov
Pretty much any book is shorter than W&P, but this one is really more of a novella. (Is there a rule about that? When a short story becomes a novella and when a novella becomes a novel? Somebody educate me. Someone besides Dr. Google, I mean.) Another one read in the Russian Lit class, and then our assignment was to make something other than an essay to show our understanding and interpretation of it. I made two collages, about (I think) the light and dark elements of the story. The duel scene was popular; I remember a puppet re-enactment and a live re-enactment with rubber bands for weapons. I think our professor's rationale was that nobody needed a Russian Lit class for their major, so we were all taking the class out of interest, so why make it serious and scholarly? The books had plenty of intellectual heft already.

Execution By Hunger: The Hidden Holocaust by Miron Dolot.   I read this in the 20th century Russian history course.  It's about the famine Stalin deliberately created in the Ukraine in order to force collectivization.  Each week in my course, we turned in a 1-2 page reaction piece to the week's readings, and the professor evaluated our writing on each.  But the week we read Execution by Hunger, he told us, "I am not going to grade these, because this is such an emotional reading that I don't feel like I have the right to judge your response to it."  Considering that the book includes accounts of cannibalism, and describes how Stalin first took the harvest, then even the seeds so that there would be no future harvests, he certainly had a point.  Dolot combines memoir (he was a teenager who survived the events he describes) and history to illuminate an event that still doesn't get much press.  

Side note: my husband and I once visited Stalin's hometown in Georgia, and went to the museum at the home he grew up in.  Amazingly, in 2008, the museum was still unabashedly pro-Stalin, and when the guide who insisted on showing us around got to the room that addressed atrocities like these, her comment was, "Mistakes were made."  We exchanged glances and tried not to laugh (or puke).  It has, of course, become a catchphrase between us when we notice someone dodging blame, or when we want to jokingly do so ourselves.  

If you're not literally taking a course in Russian history, you probably don't need to read both of these. They were the backbone of my 19th century Russian history class, and I remember the same professor who let us process Execution by Hunger in our own ways complaining that all the major Russian historians of the time seemed to hate Russians. Crankshaw lights into the Romanovs pretty unforgivingly, and Pipes explains that Russians have a serf mentality in which they'd rather be led by a brutal dictator than make their own decisions. Considering that they've managed to go from Yeltsin to Putin in under 30 years, he may have a point.

Okay, that was all pretty intense. The remaining books on my list are fiction, and are much more accessible reads.

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
I LOVE THIS BOOK. It's a serial killer mystery set in Stalinist Russia. The protagonist is a KGB officer named Leo Demidov. His sense of patriotism, duty, and honor led him to the job, and they are about to get him in trouble. He begins investigating what may be a serial killer, but how can the perfect Soviet Union produce such a depraved beast? Only capitalists are capable of murder, right? As he starts to see the problem with this thinking, he begins to question more and more of his life. His wife, the love of his life--was she ever in a position to turn him down for that first date or for the marriage proposal, knowing what he did for a living? Does he bear personal responsibility for things he did in obedience to orders? The society he lives in is one in which sanity and morality have trouble co-existing. The mystery is solid, but the detailed world building and Leo's internal journey are what make this an all time favorite. There are two sequels to this, and they are both good without being quite as great.

City of Thieves by David Benioff
If 900 Days was too dense for you, read this instead. If you loved 900 Days, read this next. During the siege of Leningrad, two teenaged boys are offered a deal: instead of execution for looting and deserting, they can earn their freedom by obtaining a dozen eggs for the Colonel's daughter's wedding cake. They set off across the city and even outside it on this fool's quest. It's funny, it's horrendous (more cannibalism!), it's touching and gorgeous. My main complaint when I read it was that it is framed in a prologue as being the dramatization of the actual story of Benioff's grandfather. Finding out that it was BS was disappointing to me.

I adore this cover, incidentally.

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepytis
Come on, you knew this would be on here. Maybe I should have called this list "Why Stalin Sucks 101." In case you are somehow unaware of this book, it is the story of a Lithuanian girl whose family is arrested and sent to Siberia in the great deportations of 1940/41.  I "only" gave this book three stars, because the story wasn't as surprising to me as I think it was to most readers.

When I was living in Latvia in the 1990s, I'd say that easily two out of three people I talked to had a relative who had either hidden from conscription (in the woods, under the floorboard in the barn, etc.) or been deported to Siberia.  In the town where I lived, hot water from the taps had been standard until the economic crash that followed independence, and the town could only afford enough coal to provide us with hot water on Wednesday evenings and every other Saturday. One of my coworkers asked me if it was hard for me, not having hot water daily. I told her it was no harder for me than for anyone else. She nodded and remarked that people could get used to anything--why, her aunt had to wash clothes in an icy river when she lived in Siberia, and it was just what you did, NBD.

Sepytis has made this awesome video about how she researched and wrote the book. She does not address how she thought about her book being released so soon to the similarly named Shades of Gray, but I imagine it was not a great feeling.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin
This is a quick MG novel, heavily illustrated, but as you can tell from the title, it is as fiercely anti-Stalin as the rest of this list. Sasha can't wait to become a Young Pioneer, and is thrilled that his father, a prominent party member, will be presenting the students with their red kerchiefs himself. Then his father is arrested, his uncle and aunt refuse to take him in for fear of being tainted by the situation, and he becomes ostracized. The descripiton of communal living is harsh and accurate (it becomes clear that his father was accused of disloyalty by a neighbor who was yearning for their bigger room), and it is wrenching to see Sasha's naivity being ripped away.

Bonus points for being about a boy named Sasha, which in Russia is short for Alexander. My son gets really tired of "But that's a girl's name!" from other kids.

Special Bonus Book:

There's a Kurt Wallander mystery set in Latvia. Henning Mankell's The Dogs of Riga is set in the neighborhood I lived in in 2007, and during the time period I was first in Latvia in the early nineties. It doesn't technically qualify for this list, since it isn't set in Russia and is post-USSR, but I love the bleak Scandinavian take on my second home.

It kind of makes me sad that all the "serious" books on the list were read so long ago; I feel like I was a more intellectual reader in my teens and twenties than I am now. Maybe once the kids are grown and gone I'll have the mental capacity to read things besides YA and mysteries. There are still many classics literature by Russians and about Russia that I have yet to read. The Gulag Archipelgo, Master and Margarita, and Dr. Zhivago are all on my Someday List. Have you read any of those? What did you think? Do you have other suggestions? I did just pick up Sekret (at the Dollar Tree, of all places) and am hoping it's a fun YA paranormal mystery in the "Stalin is a Gigantic A-hole" vein.


  1. Wow, great list -- as it happens I just read Symphony for the City of the Dead and it was my introduction to the seige of Leningrad, I somehow missed that in history class. Putting City of Thieves on my list. .And I also just finished Anna Karenina, which is worth reading in spite of Anna's fate (but note that Vronsky also heads toward fairly certain death on a train at the end, when he goes off to the Serbian war). I want to read War and Peace too, but not right now.

    1. And now I want to read Sympohny for the City of the Dead. Yes, I went back and read Anna Karenina after college, and it's also pretty dang awesome. Then I read The Last Station, a novel about Tolstoy written by the professor I took 19th century English lit from...Tolstoy is just one of those larger than life geniuses.

  2. oh what a wonderful list! I would take this class :) My TTT

  3. Love your list!! The Hero of Our Time is one of my favorite novels ever... I've read it 4-5 times already.

    Here's a link to my TTT post for this week:

  4. My husband's favorite book is Anna Karenina.
    My ttt


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