Five Fascinating Russian History Books for Newbies

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If you have an upcoming trip to St. Petersburg, or Moscow, reading about Russian history certainly enriches your experiences at both cities. For example, visiting the Yusupov Palace in St.Petersburg would be more exciting, if you know beforehand that the owner of the palace killed Grigory Rasputin in the basement.

Russian history is extremely appealing. It has so many stories embedded in the passage of time from Rurik to Putin. Many of them were highly addictive. These five books about Russian history would keep you up all night. They are absolute page-turners!

Russian History Timeline

  • Pre-Romanovs: This is the period starting from the arrival of Rurik to the end of the Time of Troubles. The most interesting topics about this period are Ivan the Terrible and the Time of Troubles
  • Romanovs: The Romanov dynasty started when Mikhail I became Tsar in 1613. The dynasty lasted for 304 years until the abdication of Nicholas II. There were so many topics that you might want to read. This includes the life of Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great, Napoleonic Wars, and the biography of Nicholas II.
  • Russian Revolution: The time when the Russian people overthrew the monarchy. Lenin later seized power and proclaimed the Soviet state. Even though the period lasted only 5 years from 1917 to 1922, there are so many books written about it. Some are up to 1,000-pages long.
  • Soviet State: This was the period that Russia became a totalitarian socialist state. The most appealing topics to many are the Great Purge, Eastern Front in World War II, and the fall of the Soviet Union.
  • Russian Federation: The period from Yeltsin to Putin. This covers the time after the fall of the Soviet Union to the present day.

Now, it depends totally on you which period you are interested in. You can choose freely to read the times of the Romanovs or the Soviets. For me, I am interested in all periods. However, there are five books that I believe are very well-written and enjoyable to read

1. The Romanovs: 1613-1918

“The Romanovs: 1613-1918” is a brilliant book by an experienced writer, Simon Sebag Montefiore. The author summarizes the history of the Romanov dynasty from the coronation of the first Tsar, Mikhail I to the death of the last Tsar, Nicholas II. The book includes short biographies of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

I believe the author intended to write this book for newbies. The structure of the book is more like a screenplay (You can realize it when you read the table of contents.) The author divided the history of the Romanovs into several acts. In the beginning, he would provide a short list of characters that played a role in that act. This style successfully tempted me to continue reading endlessly. Excluding the bibliography, the book has 657 pages of content, but I managed to finish the book in 3-4 sittings.

As the book covers 300 years of Russian history, you would get only the superficial summary of what happened. Basically, it was a story that started with triumph and glory but ended with madness and tragedy. This book is one of the first books that lead me to become extremely interested in Russian history.

You can buy it here via Amazon

2. Nicholas & Alexandra

Probably my favorite book of all time, Nicholas & Alexandra was written by Robert Massie. The book was reprinted several times in the last three decades. This is the first book about Russian history that I completed. I don’t know to describe how much I admire the book.

The style of this history book is novel-like as if Massie wrote a novel that Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, and Alexandra, his empress are leading characters. To me, the book is an absolute page-turner. I read the whole book in two five-hour sittings, finishing the book at 2.00 AM.

Mainstream historians have been critical of the couple for almost a century. Many blame Nicholas for his incompetence and oppression of his own people, while devilize Alexandra for her relationship with Rasputin, and wicked intervention in the government. However, in his book, Massie reveals another side of the couple. Nicholas was a warm son, husband, and father. He upheld moralistic virtues and cared about his family more than everything. For Alexandra, she was a caring mother, who hold the interests of her children in the highest regard. The love between them was a pure love that even death could not separate them apart.

The ending made me want to cry. It was sad how the couple ended up that way. I feel very sorry for them and their children. What a warm and happy family they would have if they were not emperor and empress.

Besides the content, I admire the fluidity and coherence of each chapter, it keeps reminding you of the former chapters, so you could not get lost while reading the book. Overall, it was a 5-star book that you should own.

There was a 1971 film “Nicholas and Alexandra” based on this book. The film was later nominated six Academy awards.

This book is a must-read. Get it here.

3. Peter the Great: his life and world

Another great book by Robert Massie, his book “Peter the Great: his life and worldwon the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1981. This is certainly the most detailed biography of the Tsar in English. The 2012 version is 1,136 pages long, covering not only Peter’s life but also many aspects of the era that he lived as well. Compared to Nicholas and Alexandra, this book was less novel-like, as Massie spent several chapters providing information about 18th century Russia. Thus, possesses a small flavor of scholarly books. However, the book is still highly readable.

Peter the Great’s life was already remarkable in itself. However, Massie’s superb writing makes it even more interesting. His pace was not too slow or too fast. The readers would comfortably understand how a young prince became a formidable Tsar within decades of his reign. The numbers of pages might be overwhelming for some. However, I found out that the content was too irresistible for me to put down the book even at 3 AM. I recommend you give it a try, and you would realize how moody the Tsar was!

You can get the book here

4. Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror

This was the first book I read about Russian communism. The writer, Victor Sebestyen provides a clear depiction of Vladimir Lenin, the father of USSR, and how he became a revolutionary, and later the leader of the Bolsheviks and Revolutionary Russia. The book also uncovers Lenin’s personal life. This includes his relationship with his mother, his wife and his mistress. It was very interesting to see a father of revolution had this kind of feeling as well.

Sebestyen writes this book by placing Lenin at the center of attention. You will learn how he survived the Tsarist police and dealt with enemies in his own party. However, he does not provide many details for something else. Lenin’s complex ideology and belief are briefly touched, so is the situation in Imperial Russia. This style may not suitable for detail-lovers, as some parts are oversimplified. However, if you are really new on this, and just want to learn about the extraordinary life of this man, this book is exactly for you.

Overall, the book is well-written and well-researched. If you want to read only about his life, not his complex ideology, this book is probably the most comprehensive one in the market. To me, the book serves perfectly as an introduction to this subject, which I can explore further.

You can get the book here.

5. Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War

Unarguably, World War II was one of the most important events in Russian history. At least 20 million Russian killed in the war. The topic remains a sensitive one for the Russian people.

Absolute War is a book about the Eastern Front of the Second World War. It was written by Chris Bellamy. Unlike other books, Absolute War provides information and analysis not only on the military side, but also the economy, and foreign relations of the USSR as well. Bellamy points out that there are many factors, including American support, that led to the Soviets’ victory at the end.

What I really like about this book is the structure. Bellamy separated each chapter into several parts under headings. Thus, the content is not too overwhelming for many readers. In addition, he also displays many maps, photos, and statistical tables in the book, but they are all in perfect positions, so they do not ruin the readers’ experience at all.

This book is hence suitable for everyone who wants to read about the Eastern Front of the Second World War from the holistic scale. It is a flawless introduction for newbies to get the sense of what happened in those four years of total war.

Feel Free to get the book here

Final Thoughts

Above are books that I believe are great for beginners in Russian history. You can stay up all night reading them, make sure you get enough sleep though! However, many events or people mentioned in these books, such as Nicholas II or Lenin, are highly controversial. If you read multiple books on them, different authors could provide you opposite perspectives regarding those people. That’s why Russian history is so interesting to me.