Russia on Your Mind? Best Books, Movies to Satisfy Your


Russia has always loomed large in the imagination, probably never more than during the Cold War, when it was the Evil Empire whose communist leaders projected a desire for world domination.

These days, anyone following the news has to wonder if we've entered Cold War 2.0. In addition to seeing Vladimir Putin's steely-eyed designs on territory, we've read about cyber-hackers trying to influence our election and shadowy operatives allegedly trying to blackmail our government officials or kill off journalists and diplomats. Watching the acclaimed FX series "The Americans," about a couple of KGB spies posed as an American couple in the early '80s, piques our interest even more.

It's no wonder that curious Americans have long turned to Russia's finest export -- its culture -- to gain insights into the country and its leaders. To learn more, we checked in with Bay Area experts for recommendations for books, films and other works that they believe will offer a window into the Russian soul.

They mentioned many of the greatest hits: the novels of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn; the plays and short stories of Chekhov; the films of Sergei Eisenstein; and the music of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. But they also came up with other favorite works that that may be lesser known but worthy of consideration.

These experts are: Norman Naimark, professor of East European studies at Stanford University; Yuri Slezkine, director of the Institute of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies at UC Berkeley; Suzi Weissman, professor of history at St. Mary's College and Yves Franquien, director at the Museum of Russian Culture in San Francisco.


Book: "Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know": Just as it sounds, Timothy J. Colton's 2016 book serves as a excellent primer for "general readers wanting to understand Russia today," says Naimark.(Oxford University Press, 2016).


Book: "Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Russia": When Ronald Reagan was looking to end the Cold War, he tapped Suzanne Massie, the author of this 1980 classic, to gain insight. The book runs from Russia's beginning in the 9th century to right before the 1917 Revolution. Massie's advice to Reagan: pay attention to the importance of the Russian Orthodox Church. (Touchstone, 1980).

Book: "The Russian Empire 1450-1801": In this new book, Stanford history professor Nancy Kollmann looks at how Russia's early rulers, through Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, successfully grew their country from a backwater principality in the northern forests into a major player in Ottoman and European geopolitics. (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Film: "Russian Ark": Alexander Sokurov's 2002 film takes viewers on what the late Roger Ebert called a "breathtaking" visual tour of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg -- the Czars' former Winter Palace. Shot in a single 96-minute take, the film travels through 300 years of history. (Available through Netflix DVD).


Book: "Dr. Zhivago": David Lean's 1965 film version of Boris Pasternak's novel follows the Bolshevik Revolution from its early stirrings in 1905 through to the post-Revolution Civil War. Russians tend to shrug off the movie, though gorgeous, because it features actors with British accents trying to act like Russians. Experts say if you want to immerse yourself in Pasternak's vision of individual human struggle against the forces of history, go to the poet's 1959 novel, which helped him win the Nobel Prize. (Everyman's Library, reprint edition, 1991)

Book and film: "Ten Days That Shook the World": Socialist American journalist John Reed's 1919 eyewitness account of the Bolshevik overthrow of the Russian government inspired another sweeping Hollywood film epic, Warren Beatty's 1980 "Reds," which Weissman shows to her classes at St. Mary's. Reed's book can be ordered online but is also available via the Gutenberg Project. You can stream "Reds" on Amazon Prime.

Book: "A Gentleman in Moscow": Amor Towles' novel begins a few years after the Revolution, when the Bolsheviks sentence Count Alexander Rostov to house arrest in the Metropol, the grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. There he remains while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history unfold just outside the hotel's doors. (Viking, 2016).


"Journey into the Whirlwind": After the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, Joseph Stalin consolidated power and led his murderous repression of so-called enemies of the state in the 1930s. One target was journalist Eugenia Ginzburg, who spent 18 years in the Gulag. Released from exile after Stalin's 1953 death, Ginzburg managed to have her memoir published in 1967 after it was smuggled to the West. (Mariner Books, 2002 edition)

"Burnt by the Sun": Winning the Academy Award for best foreign picture, this 1994 film opens lyrically enough on a summer day in 1936, with a military hero of the Revolution enjoying a holiday at his country dacha with his wife and daughter. But with what one critic calls a "Chekhovian sense of a brutal future," the hero, played by director Nikita Mikhalkov, quickly becomes aware of the reach and horror of Stalin's rule. (Available on Netflix DVD).


"Babi Yar": Yevgeny Yevtushenko's 1961 poem about the Nazi massacre of 33,000 Jews in a ravine near Kiev in 1941 helped to expose rampant anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union as well as inspire the opening movement of composer Dmitri Shostakovich's 13th symphony. Even Putin is a fan, saying the poet's legacy will always remain a "part of Russian culture."


Book: "The Russians": As Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times from 1971-74, Hedrick Smith won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the U.S.S.R. His classic nonfiction best-seller focuses less on politics than on the day-to-day lives of regular people under Soviet rule. (Ballantine Books, reissue edition, 1984).

Film: "Little Vera": This 1988 work is regarded as the first Soviet film to deal with youth rebellion and discontent within the Soviet system, as well as frank sexuality. A restless teenager wants to escape life in her provincial town, along with her alcoholic father and disillusioned mother. (Stream on Amazon Prime)


Book: "The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union": Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin are the alpha male adversaries at the center of Serhii Plokhy's nonfiction account of how random events, rather than grand design, led to the dismantling of the world's biggest country in 1991. (Basic Books, Reprint edition 2015).

Film: "Brother": This 1997 American-style gangster film became a cult classic for its cinematically inventive way of depicting the lawlessness of criminal undergrounds following the fall of the Soviet Union. (Stream or rent on Amazon).


Book: "The New Tsar": What does Putin want? Stephen Lee Meyers offers up some possible answers in this comprehensive biography of the one-time KGB agent who first became president in 2000 and was re-elected for a third time in 2012. (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2016).

Book: "Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia": Putin may present himself as the virtuous leader who's saving Russia from falling back into chaos, but author Karen Dawisha presents compelling evidence that he's actually running a colossally corrupt nation with the help of mega-rich friends. (Simon and Schuster, 2015).


Pussy Riot in book and film: Three members of the feminist art collective were tried and imprisoned for their 40-second "punk prayer protest" on the altar of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. Their story became the subject of a 2013 documentary "Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer" (streaming on Netflix) and "Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot" (Riverhead Books, 2014) by Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, an openly gay opponent of Putin who left Russia out of concern for her family's safety. Gessen is also a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books on the nature of autocracy as it could relate to Donald Trump's administration.

Film: "Leviathan": Andrey Zvyagintsev's 2014 film, nominated for a best foreign film Oscar, was hailed by The Guardian as a compelling tragic drama about corruption and intimidation in contemporary Russia. (Available On Demand).

Michael McFaul: The Stanford senior fellow at Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies -- and a Stanford alum, class of 1986 -- was the U.S. Ambassador to Russia under Barack Obama from 2012 to 2014. He's now a regular contributor to op-ed pages, podcast interviews and social media, commenting on the current state of Russia-U.S. relations. You can follow him on Facebook at or on Twitter @McFaul. He also rated a major 2014 profile in the New Yorker "Watching the Eclipse" by New Yorker editor David Remnick, a Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post in the 1980s.

Museum of Russian Culture: This museum, located in the Russian Center in San Francisco's Pacific Heights, showcases Russian art works, memorabilia and vintage newspapers and other texts that were smuggled out by emigres settling in San Francisco from the Revolution through the Soviet era. The museum is free and open to the public 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. 2450 Sutter St., (415) 921-4082, ___

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