A Russian Reading List with a Nod to Amor Towles
I remember when I sat down in the backyard on a lazy summer day in 2011 and started reading Amor Towles’s first book, Rules of Civility. I didn’t get up for the next eight hours! It was one of the best “pure pleasure” reading experiences I’ve ever had.
Rules of Civility is a romance, both between a man and a woman and between an author and a time and place – Manhattan in the 1930s, right before World War II, where the glamorous people of that era dwelled.
The narrator is Katy, the daughter of a Russian immigrant who rises through the ranks of publishing thanks to sheer talent and grit.
The lives of Katy, her friend Eve and Tinker, a wealthy young man, are bound together when they are all involved in an auto accident. Eve is seriously injured and Tinker (one of those goofy upper-crust nicknames) feels a sense of obligation to Eve that propels him into a romantic relationship with her, though his heart belongs to Katy.
That’s the bones of the plot, but the true pleasure is Towles’ total immersion into a place and time before the world changed forever.
Now, I want to move on to one of my favorite subjects – and Amor Towles’, apparently. That’s Russian history, and two books on my list are by one of my favorite Russian historians.
I don’t have a single drop of Russian blood, but in college I took a course on the Russian revolution from a great teacher – it was my introduction to history as it should be told. I simply couldn’t believe all the drama, heartbreak, brutality and violence of that time, and I’ve been reading about it ever since.
English author Simon Sebag Montefiore has made Russian history his specialty. His book The Romanovs: 1613-1918 is the story of the family that ruled Russia for 300 years.
This is a compulsively fascinating book, chock full of outsized characters, from the very first Romanov ruler to larger than life characters like Catherine the Great to the doomed Nicholas II, who, along with his entire family, was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
Along the way, we get an intimate look at the Romanovs’ bizarre entertainments, which included dwarf-tossings, carriages pulled by pigs, and lots of sex. Plus wave after wave of gruesome political murders and executions. Absolute power does strange things to people. Maybe you already knew that, but learn it again by reading this book.
In 2004, Montefiore published another book featuring one Russian tyrant who had an extraordinary impact – Stalin.
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar investigates the personal life of Josef Stalin. Stalin was a man of extremes. He could sign an order condemning thousands of people to death, then relax by watching an American cowboy movie with his Kremlin entourage. It was good to be on Stalin’s side, until you weren’t; then you were summarily demoted, or imprisoned, or tortured.
Stalin led the country through World War II, but after the war he descended completely into paranoia. He was about to order the mass deportation of Soviet Jews when he died in 1953. Montefiore portrays him as an undeniably effective politician and leader, but one who ordered the death of millions and ruined every personal relationship, family or friend, by insisting on political expediency above all things.
An equally strange, fascinating book is Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan.
If you are of a certain age, you’ll remember the huge dust-up created by Svetlana’s defection to the West in 1967. Stalin’s daughter abandoned the Soviet Union! It was considered a great propaganda victory for America and her allies at the height of the Cold War.
Sullivan tells the back story, documenting a life so fraught with tragedy, melodrama and poisonous politics, the defining miracle of Svetlana’s existence is that she survived at all.
As a child, Svetlana lived in an apartment at the Kremlin, cheek by jowl with some of the most terrifying figures of the reigning autocracy, including Stalin, her father. She endured her mother’s suicide and the systematic extermination, on her father’s orders, of many members of her extended family.
Svetlana would spend much of her life trying to reconcile her father’s crimes with the fact that he occasionally tried to be a father to her. But it’s clear that the looming presence of her remote, sociopathic and all-powerful father created a hole in Svetlana’s life that she spent the rest of her life trying to fill.
The Cold War period in the former Soviet Union yielded a lot of unforgettable stories, and one is told in The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee.
Today we remember Dr. Zhivago the movie, the story of the passionate affair between Dr. Yuri Zhivago and his nurse Lara Antipova during the cataclysmic events in Russia that unfolded during World War I and the Russian Revolution.
But first it was a book – a novel by esteemed Russian poet Boris Pasternak. Pasternak was a talented writer whose family lost everything in the revolution. He adjusted, kept writing poems, and managed to survive the Stalinist purges of writers in the 1930s. The state even furnished him with a dacha in the country.
Life was pretty good, until he decided to publish a novel.
Dr. Zhivago did not toe the party line, that the state was all-powerful and not to be questioned. The Soviet authorities read the manuscript and banned its publication in the Soviet Union.
Then Pasternak, who had a burning desire to have his book read, slipped it to an Italian publisher.
The ordeals Pasternak suffered as his book became more and more famous, and the real-life parallels between that of Pasternak and the soulful Yuri Zhivago, make for a fascinating, moving read. If you ever have doubts about the power of a book, refresh your memory by reading this one.