Books that explore Russia’s impact on the world

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader and the last president of the USSR, celebrated his 80th birthday this month. We look at some Yale books that document changes in Russia during Gorbachev’s lifetime, as well as Russia’s larger cultural impact on the world.

In the last 80 years, Russia has undergone enormous political, economic and cultural changes. After Russia’s pivotal role during World War II, there was the infamous grandstanding of the Cold War, the historic breakup of the Soviet Union and the installation of its current Russian Federation. Yale University Press presents a large variety of fascinating books that look at crucial political events such as these, but also investigate the wider cultural role Russia has played in music, literature and art.

The following is just a small selection of Yale books on Russia and Russian culture:

Russia’s Cold War
From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall
Jonathan Haslam


The phrase ‘Cold War’ was coined by George Orwell in 1945 to describe the impact of the atomic bomb on world politics:

We may be heading not for a general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity’

The Soviet Union, he wrote, was ‘at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbours’. But as a leading historian of Soviet foreign policy, Jonathan Haslam, makes clear in this groundbreaking book, the epoch was anything but stable, with constant wars, near-wars, and political upheavals on both sides. Whereas the Western perspective on the Cold War has been well documented by journalists and historians, the Soviet side has remained for the most part shrouded in secrecy – until now. Drawing on a vast range of recently released archives in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and Eastern Europe, Russia’s Cold War offers a thorough and fascinating analysis of East-West relations from 1917 to 1989, and fills a significant gap in our understanding of the most important geopolitical rivalry of the twentieth century. More

Joseph Brodsky
A Literary Life
Lev Loseff

The work of Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), one of Russia’s great modern poets, has been the subject of much study and debate. His life, too, is the stuff of legend, from his survival of the siege of Leningrad in early childhood to his expulsion from the Soviet Union and his achievements as a Nobel Prize winner and America’s poet laureate.

Since the stern art of poetry calls for words, I, morose,
deaf, and balding ambassador of a more or less
insignificant nation that’s stuck in this super
power, wishing to spare my old brain,
put on clothes – all by myself – and head for the main
street: for the evening paper.

from “The End of a Beautiful Era,” (Leningrad 1969)

In this penetrating biography, published to great acclaim in Russia and now available in English for the first time, Brodsky’s life and work are illuminated by his great friend, the late poet and literary scholar Lev Loseff. Drawing on a wide range of source materials, some previously unpublished, and extensive interviews with writers and critics, Loseff carefully reconstructs Brodsky’s personal history while offering deft and sensitive commentary on the philosophical, religious, and mythological sources that influenced the poet’s work. More

Kandinsky and the Harmony of Silence
Painting with White Border
Elsa Smithgall

Russian artist and theoretician Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a significant figure in 20th-century abstraction. His masterwork “Painting with White Border” (1913, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), inspired by his native Moscow, emerged during an intensely creative period in his artistic development. Kandinsky and the Harmony of Silence presents a rare, in-depth examination of the painting and more than fifteen preparatory studies in watercolour, oil, and pencil, along with closely related works made during this influential chapter in Kandinsky’s career. More

Music for Silenced Voices
Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets
Wendy Lesser

Music for Silenced Voices looks at Shostakovich through the back door of his fifteen quartets, the works which his widow characterized as a ‘diary, the story of his soul’. The silences and the voices were of many kinds, including the political silencing of adventurous writers, artists, and musicians during the Stalin era; the lost voices of Shostakovich’s operas (a form he abandoned just before turning to string quartets); and, the death-silenced voices of his close friends, to whom he dedicated many of these chamber works. Wendy Lesser has constructed a fascinating narrative in which the fifteen quartets, considered one at a time in chronological order, lead the reader through the personal, political, and professional events that shaped Shostakovich’s singular, emblematic twentieth-century life. Weaving together interviews with the composer’s friends, family, and colleagues, as well as conversations with present-day musicians who have played the quartets, Lesser sheds new light on the man and the musician. More

Listen to Shostakovich’s Quartet no. 9 (performed by the Idomeneo Quartet)

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The Annals of Communism Series

The Annals of Communism series spans the 75-year history of the USSR, presenting selected documents concerning the history of Soviet and international communism from Russian state and party archives. Virtually all the material contained in these archives has never before been available to Western or even Russian scholars. Individual volumes focus on various topics, from the reactions of ordinary citizens to forced-draft industrialization and collectivization to the history of the Communist International (Comintern), from the last days of the Romanovs to the GULAG system, from victory in the Second World War to the collapse of the Soviet bureaucracy in the Brezhnev period.

“What Saudi Arabia is to oil, these records are to twentieth-century history” — Time

Each book contains documents selected by teams of Western and Russian editors which are published with scholarly commentary, annotation, and interpretation in both an English-language edition for Western audiences and a Russian-language edition for distribution in Russia. Documents are selected not for their support of any single predetermined interpretation, but for their historical significance or their value in deepening understanding and facilitating discussion. See the full list

The above books and more are available from Yale University Press

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