It’s time to fly your red banners high and turn up L’Internationale because next week marks the 100th anniversary of “The Great October Socialist Revolution!” (November 7 according to Pope Gregory XIII and the 16th of Aban for you followers of the Persian Calendar). To help celebrate, I have compiled an eclectic list of five books that span the history of the Soviet Union from the roots of revolution to its ultimate collapse. Anyone interested in the USSR should undoubtedly give these books a gander.
1) A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution (1891-1924) – Orlando Figes
Figes is considered one of the preeminent authorities on Russian history, and A People’s Tragedy is his foremost work. Explaining the roots of the revolution up through the civil war, Figes examines the social-economic factors of the period without losing sight of the major players who helped steer Russia to disaster. Figes takes a neutral stand, detailing the atrocities committed by both sides and exposing the ineptitude that made the Russian Revolution one of the most tragic events in human history.
2) We The Living – Ayn Rand
No matter what you think about Rand and her philosophy, We the Living is well worth a read. An almost autobiographical story of survival, We the Living details the breakdown of a middle-class family in Saint Petersburg at the hands of the Revolution, describing the real human toll that so many faced after the communist takeover. Devoid of grandiose political speeches and with characters that, surprisingly, exhibit more emotional depth than a piece of plywood, it is arguably Rand’s finest work.
3) The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
Without a doubt one of the best novels of the 21st Century, The Master and Margarita is a tour de force that asks what would happen if the Devil showed up in 1930s Moscow. As absurd as it is profound, Bulgakov expertly intertwines diverse narratives that expose the hypocrisy and utter moral bankruptcy of the Soviet regime (not to mention providing a scathing critique of state housing). And did I mention that it has a vodka-swigging, caviar-eating cat with a penchant for machine guns?
4) Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
Probably no book about the Soviet Union has had a greater impact on how we view the USSR than Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The three-volume account of Russia’s forced labor system can at times be tedious (luckily there are abridged versions), but the wealth of stories collected by Solzhenitsyn and his first-hand experience in the Gulag is invaluable. Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, Gulag Archipelago was challenging communism’s legacy behind the Iron Curtain and today is mandatory reading in Russian schools.
5) Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire – David Remnick
Part history, part journalism, Washington Post correspondent David Remnick skillfully chronicles the fall of the Soviet Union as it happened before him. Lenin’s Tomb is noteworthy not only for its interviews of ordinary Soviet citizens but also because it challenges our preconceived notions of how it all went down. Rather than crediting outside politicians or policies for the USSR’s demise, Remnick argues that the Soviet Union’s collapse was inevitable all along.
Have you read any of the above books? Do you agree with the above list, or would you propose an alternative five works? Let me hear your thoughts in the comment section!