I’ve been asked many times how I became interested in Eastern European history. First, disclaimer: I am a historian, I have always been interested in history, and my education was in medieval history. I’ve never not been interested in history because that is always been a lifelong passion of mine. So it became a dream job of sorts when I was a research fellow for Dr. Leonard Latkovski. Problem is, what I knew of European history, particularly Eastern European, was only in connection to the medieval period.
So how did I go from knights and lords of the 1300s to Soviet gulags and the USSR in the 1900s?
Books. Lots of books.
And some podcasts.
I’ve mentioned the Eastern Border Podcast in the past, but there’s also Mark Schauss’s Russian Rulers History Podcast. Mark is not a historian by profession, but he has given years of his time to study each individual tsar and ruler of Russian history, going back to the ancient Rus to today and how the Russians have battled against the Germans, the Polish, the Lithuanians, the Ukrainians, the Mongols, and many more. While Russia is its primary focus, the sheer size of the nation allows Schauss to cover the history of nearby neighbors.
If you want to go more into the culture and less the history, there is no greater way to do this than to learn the language itself. You can’t go wrong with Duolingo for a quick fifteen-minute daily session. But also check out Mark Thomson’s Russian Made Easy. He not only goes into detail of pronunciation, but the nitty-gritty grammar of syntax, declensions, grammatical cases, and so on. He makes it all understandable, and you’ll actually feel comfortable speaking по-русский. А вы можете етот понимать!
For the readers out there, I could go on and on with a list of literally a hundred books from linguistics (like dictionaries) to memoirs and primary sources. I’ll break it down and give at least the top 5 or so books for each category, including general histories to memoirs.
Hopefully, this will help on your journey!
Peter the Great: His Life and World by Robert Massie (1981)
The Romanovs: the Final Chapter by Robert Massie (1996)
The Romanovs 1613–1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore (2016)
Khrushchev Remembers by Nikita Khrushchev (1970)
The Collapse of Communism by Bernard Gwertzman and Michael T. Kaufman, eds (1990)
The First Directorate: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West by Oleg Kalugin and Fen Montaigne (1994)
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore (2003)
Khrushchev: The Man and His Era by William Taubman (2003)
The Unknown Stalin by Zhores A. Medvedev and Roy Aleksandrovich Medvedev (2006)
Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Frederick Kempe (2011)
Lenin: A Biography by Robert Service (2011)
I Was a Slave in Russia by John Noble (1970)
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1975)
Testament from Prison by Georgi Vins (1975)
The Gulag Handbook: An Encyclopedia Dictionary of Soviet Penitentiary Institutions and Terms Related to the Forced Labor Camps by Jacques Rossi (1989)
I Lived Through Hell on Earth by Helena Latkovska Wojtuszkiewicz (1998)
Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2004)
The Latvians: A Short History by Andrejs Plakans (1995)
Between Giants: The Battle for the Baltics in World War II by Prit Buttar (2013)
Latvia: A Short History by Mara Kalnins (2015)
Seven Days of Freedom: The Hungarian Uprising, 1956 by Noel Barber (1974)
The State Against Society: Political Crises and Their Aftermath in East Central Europe by Grzegorz Ekiert (1996)
Nationalism and the Crowd in Liberal Hungary, 1948 – 1914 by Alice Freifeld (2000)
Hungary by Raymond Hill (2004)
A Good Comrade: Janos Kadar, Communism, Hungary by Roger Gough (2006)
One Day That Shook the Communist World: The 1956 Hungarian Uprising and Its Legacy by Paul Lendvai (2008)
Imre Nagy: A Biography by János Rainer (2009)
Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life by Leon Aron (2000)
Midnight Diaries by Boris Yeltsin (2000)
First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President by Vladimir Putin (2000)
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen (2013)
The New Russia by Mikhail Gorbachev (2016)