Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Between the Pages: Reading on Russia

Each year I write a post on my reading from the prior year. Often, my reading focuses on specific topics and this year Russia took center stage. My Russia reading was in preparation for a trip we took there through the Museum of Russian Art. Our group included two authors, R.D. Zimmerman (Robert Alexander-pen name) and Douglas Smith. Zimmerman writes historical fiction and Smith writes about history in a manner that feels like an engaging novel. Their books had been recommended to me so I was quite delighted to learn that they would be accompanying us. They each brought a perspective to our experience in Russia that was especially meaningful, and you will note their books on my list. 

For anyone who is interested in traveling to Russia or just understanding this complex and often puzzling country, here’s the background reading that prepared me for our travels.

The Czars
I began with the Czars and particularly Catherine the Great who began the art collection now held at the Hermitage. I was surprised at how easy it was to relate to her as a person. She was intellectually curious, strategic, thoughtful and passionate about both learning and art. German-born, she stepped into Russian culture and accepted it as her own. I was also struck by the complexity of Russia, the enormous land mass and cultures within it, the economic and cultural divide between nobility, peasants and serfs. It was not an easy country to govern and Catherine, while initially idealistic, brought a steady hand and a realistic appraisal of the dangers it presented. 

Massey’s Catherine the Great is a good foray into this period and introduces the reader to Catherine and her evolution from a young girl in a troubled marriage to a powerful and respected Czar.  The Pearl, by Douglas Smith, explores the love affair and marriage between the richest Russian noble of the time and his serf, something which was unthinkable at that time in history.  In doing so, it paints a picture of what life was like as a serf. Serfdom encompassed 23 million Russians when it was eliminated in 1861. Its history created a fault line within Russia that may still reverberate today. Both of these books are nonfiction but read like a novel.

The Russian Revolution
Catherine lived from 1729 to 1796. Her husband was the grandson of Peter the Great and was a Romanov by birth. The Romanov reign concluded with Nicholas II, their 3rdgreat-grandson.  Nicholas was born in 1868 and murdered along with his family by the Bolsheviks in 1918 after the Russian revolution. Three books paint the picture of this era. The non-fiction Nicholas and Alexandra, by Massey, explores how the Russian revolution came about and the actions of Nicholas and his wife that contributed to that destabilization. The Kitchen Boy, by R.D. Zimmerman, is a fictionalized account, beginning at their imprisonment and telling the tale up until their deaths. Former People, by Douglas Smith, takes a look at the fearsome losses suffered by Russian nobility who were lucky to escape with their lives.

These books took me up to and through the revolution, but it was in a book of historical fiction that I began to get the flavor of what it was like to live in a totalitarian regime, particularly as an artist. The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes takes you into the mind of the composer Shostakovich in Soviet times. He is alternatingly feted and condemned by Stalin. Shostakovich struggled to use his talents in a totalitarian regime that dictated what was acceptable, offering rewards if he conformed and terror if he didn’t. How he strikes this difficult bargain is the material of his life and this book.

Also in this category, I would recommend a prior-year book that I've previously written about by one of my favorite authors, Masha Gessen, Ester and Ruyza: How My Grandmothers survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace.

The Fall of the Soviet Union
At first, I found myself thinking in terms of two Russias, Czarist Russia and Soviet Russia, forgetting that there is yet another Russia, the one that exists today after the fall of the Soviet Union. Two books help to paint the picture of the Russia today, one from the perspective of an American-born British financier, the other from that of an ex-pat Russian.  You may have heard of the Magnitsky Act, legislation that can freeze assets of human-rights offending individuals and prevent them from coming to the United States. Basically, this law closes off the avenues by which they can hide or enjoy their often stolen money. In retaliation, Russia forbade adoption of Russian children, the purported subject of the Trump Tower meeting. See, it all connects to politics. Author Bill Broder was the key person lobbying for this act after his lawyer was imprisoned and murdered by the Russians following the theft and looting of Broder's investment fund by the Russian oligarchs. His retelling of this saga in Red Notice is a gripping story.

The other book that rounds out the picture is by Masha Gessen who was born in Russia, but has since moved to the United States. Gessen does a thoughtful exploration into totalitarianism through multiple lens in her National Book Award winner, The Future is History. She follows the lives of several protagonists who were born at the time of Gorbachev's reforms as their search for personal autonomy collides with the political environment. I learned that many Russians, viewed the collapse of the Soviet Union as a loss, weakening their place in the world and creating instability in their life, hence the broad support for Putin. At the conclusion of the book, Gessen explores totalitarianism and I found myself reflecting on today’s push towards totalitarianism in the US.

The Art of Russia
I rounded out my reading with two books focused on art in Russia. The Empress of Art by Susan Jacques looks at the various collections that entered the Hermitage under Catherine’s reign. While interesting background for scholars, it was a lot of detail that I found challenging to retain. What I found more interesting was the book My Hermitage by Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the museum, which explores collections, but adds the most important element, images of the actual work.

You will find a listing of these books below. Stay tuned for other books that I recommend from my past year of reading.

The Czars
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert Massey
The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia, by Douglas Smith

The Russian Revolution & Soviet Rule
Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massey
Former People by Douglas Smith
The Kitchen Boy by R.D. Zimmerman
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
Ester and Ruyza: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace by Masha Gessen

The Fall of the Soviet Union
Red Notice by Bill Broder

The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen

Art of Russia
The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia by Susan Jaques

My Hermitage: How the Hermitage Survived Tsars, Wars, and Revolutions to Become the Greatest Museum in the World by Mikhail Piotrovsky

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