Kennan Institute Summer 2021 Reading List
The Kennan Institute recently asked some of our scholars to share their top book selections for the 2021 summer season. Here are a few of their picks, ranging from the Bolshevik Revolution to the environmental impact of human activity in Russia and Central Asia.
Paul Werth, Title VIII Summer Research Scholar
Kreshchennye krestami: Zapiski na koleniakh, by Eduard Kochergin
For readers of Russian: Eduard Kochergin, Kreshchennye krestami: Zapiski na koleniakh (St Petersburg: Vita Nova, 2009) (trans. Christened with Crosses: Notes Taken on My Knees). This remarkable memoir recounts the author's incredible journey over six years from an orphanage in Omsk to Leningrad after World War II. After the repression of his Russian father and Polish mother, the young Eduard was evacuated to an orphanage near Omsk, still unable to speak proper Russian (as opposed to Polish). He was 8 or 9 when the war ended, at which point he embarked on an amazing sojourn to find his mother, catching rides on freight and military trains, joining criminal gangs, supporting himself by making portraits of Lenin and Stalin out of steel wire, and wintering each year at an orphanage before escaping in the spring to travel further. He encounters an extraordinary range of curious people and gives a fascinating view of the USSR in the first years after the war. The language—the slang, the diminutives, etc.—makes for challenging reading, but the effort is handsomely rewarded.
1837: Russia's Quiet Revolution, by Paul Werth
At the risk of engaging in shameless self-promotion, but above all, because I genuinely want this book to reach a wider readership and feel that Kennan folks represent exactly the type of reader that could benefit most from it, I'd humbly suggest my own book, just published earlier this year: 1837: Russia's Quiet Revolution (Oxford, 2021). This book offers a new view of Russia in the 1830s, suggesting that behind the image of conservative stasis that usually informs our view of the reign of Nicholas I (1825-55) was a country amid dynamic and consequential change. Ranging from matters of culture, religion, and ideas to those of empire, politics, and industry, the book reveals that 1837 was pivotal for the country's entry into the modern age. From the romantic death of Pushkin in January to a colossal fire that destroyed the Winter Palace in December, the country experienced much that was astonishing: the railway and provincial press appeared, Russian opera made its debut, Orthodoxy marched westward, and the first Romanov visited Siberia. The result of all this was a quiet revolution, after which Russia would never be the same. The book has the advantage of being brief and written in an accessible style.
Thomas Rotnem, Title VIII Summer Research Scholar
Russian Nationalism: Imaginaries, Doctrines, and Political Battlefields, by Marlene Laruelle
This short book, a compendium of articles previously written by the author elsewhere, the prolific author, Marlene Laruelle of George Washington University’s Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies and an expert on nationalism, pieces together the historical roots of the ideology in Russia and provides an overview of many of the leading proponents of different shades of nationalism in today’s Russia, from Aleksandr Dugin to Aleksei Navalny. The well-sourced volume also discusses the use of nationalist ideology by the regime and its opponents.
Russia’s Arctic Policy in the Twenty-First Century, by Maria Lagutina
This volume provides a good, brief overview of not only Russia’s historical experiences in their Far North but also an excellent recap of the main legislative stages of the Kremlin’s development of an Arctic policy in the AZRF, that is, the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation. The volume also provides a worthy discussion of the central state bodies involved in planning for Russia’s Arctic developments. Other themes touched on in the book include Arctic militarization, the Northern Sea Route, hydrocarbon development plans, Russia’s efforts to improve the social and economic conditions for those living in the region, and Russia’s often-collaborative interactions with many of the other seven Arctic states in the Arctic Council and other Arctic-related organizations.
Jonathan Brunstedt, Title VIII Research Scholar
The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Yuri Slezkine
I recommend two books that attempt to reconceptualize our understanding of foundational moments from Soviet history. The first, Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government, is a monumental history of the Bolshevik Revolution and its fate from the perspective of a sprawling residential building – the “House of Government” – and its elite inhabitants. Constructed on a swamp across from the Kremlin, the massive apartment complex was home to many luminaries of the Bolshevik movement who later fell victim to Stalin’s terror. Slezkine intersperses the narrative with often-lengthy passages from the novels that inspired the residents of the House of Government, offering an unparalleled glimpse into their hopes, desires, and overall mentality. But the book is much more than this. Provocatively, the author breaks with current mainstream scholarship to frame Bolshevism as an apocalyptic sect with its origins in religious movements as far back as the ancient Israelites and early Christians, and with identifiable connections to the Anabaptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among other millenarians. Whether or not one is fully convinced by this framing (I personally am), the book is quite simply a masterpiece of historical scholarship and a must-read for anyone interested in comprehending the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet state that emerged in its wake.
The Stuff of Soldiers: A History of the Red Army in World War II through Objects, by Brandon M. Schechter
My second recommendation is Brandon Schechter’s The Stuff of Soldiers, which focuses on the Soviet experience during the Great Patriotic War (as World War II was known in the USSR). Schechter, who happens to have studied under Slezkine, takes a truly innovative approach by telling the story of the Red Army at war through the everyday objects that soldiers carried—the spoons, spades, rifles, uniforms, and so on, that were at once essential to survival and pivotal in defining the state’s relationship to its modern, fighting citizenry. Schechter utilizes an impressive array of archival and literary sources to recount the meaning with which these soldiers imbued their “stuff” and, by extension, shows how a “diverse collection of individuals” came together “around a set of objects, learning to use them and winning a war of epic scale,” to borrow the apt words of the author. In the postwar era, the Soviet state went to great lengths to mythologize the war as unambiguously heroic; during the 1960s, the war victory famously became the object of a state-sanctioned commemorative cult. Aspects of this victory myth continue to be perpetuated in Russia today, where Victory Day remains the most important public holiday. Schechter cuts through the myth to offer a compelling account of the war as experienced on the ground by men and women, peasants and urbanites, Russians and non-Russians. In short, it is a one-of-a-kind examination of a topic of vital historical importance and contemporary relevance.
Dr. Anna Whittington, Title VIII Research Scholar
Pipe Dreams: Water and Empire in Central Asia's Aral Sea Basin, by Maya K. Peterson
Recent years have seen increased attention on the environmental impact of human activity. The near-total disappearance of the Aral Sea, on the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, is widely recognized as one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters in recent history. While we typically blame late Soviet cotton production for the progressive desiccation of what was once the world’s fourth largest lake, Maya Peterson’s Pipe Dreams offers a magisterial account of the prehistory of the crisis, based on extensive research in Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Peterson convincingly demonstrates that the origins of the crisis lie in the late nineteenth century, when the tsarist regime initiated a transformation of the region’s lakes, rivers, and lifeways in the wake of imperial conquest. Over the next century, the Russian imperial and Soviet regimes imposed their own visions of “progress,” often without serious input from local inhabitants. This elegant study offers a sobering reminder that our current crises have both deep roots and cascading effects, a perspective that will be sorely missed in the wake of Peterson’s untimely death in June 2021.
Nested Nationalism: Making and Unmaking Nations in the Soviet Caucasus, by Krista A. Goff
The last three decades have seen an explosion of interest in the Soviet Union’s non-Russian peoples, but to date, most attention has focused on “titular” peoples—those who had their own republic or other administrative unit—Ukrainians in Ukraine, Kazakhs in Kazakhstan, etc. Krista Goff’s Nested Nationalism provides a much-needed perspective on the country’s smaller minorities. Early Soviet policy placed sustained emphasis on promoting many of these groups, but the period after World War II saw their progressive assimilation in some non-Russian republics, leaving already marginalized communities in an even more precarious position. Grounded in the particularities of Soviet Azerbaijan, Goff offers a sweeping study of the “layered inequalities” built into the Soviet system. Notably, her study is based not only on extensive archival research in the Caucasus and Russia, but also on 120 oral history interviews, conducted entirely by Goff herself. The extensive use of interviews, which recovers voices otherwise lost to history, drives a highly original and eminently readable narrative that prioritizes local over state perspectives, shedding light on the conflicts that continue to shape the Caucasus and beyond.
Yasha Klots, James H. Billington Fellow
Chernobyl Prayer, by Svetlana Alexievich
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Prize Laureate for literature in 2015, is the story of the nuclear disaster of 1986 narrated by eyewitnesses and survivors, whom the author had interviewed for several years throughout perestroika, the fall of the USSR, and the “wild 1990s.” Focusing on the survivors’ private lives and emotions, rather than the political and scientific aspects of the disaster, Alexievich tackles the genre of oral history while still orchestrating her subjects’ accounts stylistically and compositionally, making her work a true literary masterpiece. It is an invaluable precursor of the recent HBO miniseries Chernobyl (2019).
In Memory of Memory, Maria Stepanova
Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, masterfully translated into English by Sasha Dugdale, is a captivating exploration of the author’s family history and the entire country’s cultural and political history throughout the past century. Stepanova introduces the Russian belle lettres contemporary Western trends in memory studies, which she transplants onto the Russian soil. Working in a genre distinct from Alexievich’s oral history project, Stepanova is preoccupied as a poet, making In Memory of Memory an extension of her poetic talent, and earning it the status of perhaps the most significant female voice in contemporary Russian literature.
Andrey Shlyakhter, Title VIII Research Scholar
If you want to understand the origins of Soviet and post-Soviet suspicion of the West, and the outsized role of the secret services in Russian history and culture - both defining features of the Putin regime - start here. Schneer, a distinguished historian of modern Britain, tells the story of a multinational conspiracy to overthrow the Bolsheviks and pull Russia back into the First World War. Led by urbane, cynical, and daring British agents, the plot pitted Western powers and local allies against the months-old Cheka (the forerunner to the KGB) in a high-stakes contest that invites readers to ponder questions of morality, realpolitik, and what-if. One theme I find particularly interesting (and relevant to my current research on smuggling across the early Soviet borders) is how efforts to subvert a system or a regime can end up reinforcing it. Oh, and there is a love story unfolding throughout the narrative. Small disclaimer: I worked as a research assistant on this book.
Spies of No Country : Secret Lives at Birth of Israel by Matti Friedman
This is a book about spies: four men, Jews from Arab lands, who operated behind enemy lines during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. But it's about much more than that. It's a book about improbable survival, both personal and national. It's about identities - Arab, Jewish, Israeli; soldier and civilian; open and secret - and the interplay between them. If you're anything like me, you will continue to dwell on the book long after finishing it. Consider getting Simon Vance's audiobook - but also get a hard copy to study the endnotes if you want to go deeper.
About the Authors
Professor, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Thomas Eric Rotnem
Professor of Political Science and Associate Director, School of Government and International Affairs, Kennesaw State University
Assistant Professor of History, Texas A&M University
Assistant Professor of Russian, Hunter College (CUNY)
Ph.D. in History, University of Chicago; Center Associate, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange. Read more