J.T.’s 2020 Russia(n) bookshelf: An optimistic forecast

While the new year is still fresh and bright – and people still optimistic about their resolutions – the time is right to post predictions of what content might be covered here (or at least read offline).

Please note that this is not an “Upcoming in 2020” list. Several new discoveries are present, but most books here have been circulating in the infospace for years.


Двадцать городов. Попытка альтернативного краеведения by Dmitry Danilov. After three years of being disappointed by foreign-authored Russia travelogues, I am more interested in hearing what domestic Russian travelers have to say about their own country. Danilov promises a series of off-kilter fic-nonfic texts about monotowns, villages and neglected pockets of the Russian hinterland. And he was kind enough to post a free-to-download PDF version of the book on his website. Let’s go!


White Nights and Dark Days: A Conversation with St. Petersburg, Russia by Brian Patrick Kean. Downloaded on a whim from the Kindle store. White Nights and Dark Days is the memoir of an American businessman who has been living and working in St. Petersburg since 1994. He professes a love for Russia as many expats do. M’kay, familiar story. But what pulled me in was that somewhere in the overlong Amazon synopsis (or the first few pages?), he says that after he returned to the States, the city…called to him. As ridiculous as it seems, I have felt the same. Petersburg certainly has that air about it. If cities can bewitch, Petersburg must hold thousands under its sway. Kean seems a little self-congratulatory and humblebrags in the synopsis, but I am in it for his personal journey. I am in it for the city. Foolish, nostalgic little J.T., on wings of mothen scales, and Petersburg her flame.


Кубики by Mikhail Elizarov. I first learned about Mikhail Elizarov through Andrew Bromfield’s translation of The Librarian (Библиотекарь) and Lisa Hayden’s coverage of that same novel on her blog. I am not hardcore enough for the absurd and unapologetically violent Библиотекарь (read and DNFed in English), so instead I am using short story collection Кубики as my introduction to Elizarov. It has been described as a fusion of Platonov, Mamleev, Kafka and early Sorokin and is said to capture the spirit of Moscow (at least in the early noughties): post-Soviet hardship, senseless cruelty and everyday mysticism.


Сфумато by Aleksei Fedyarov. I know nearly nothing about this book. It is an antiutopia. It was a Kindle cheapie. The weird-ass cover called to me.


Ультранормальность by Natan Dubovitsky. A metallurgy student gets caught in a whirlwind of political intrigue after the Russian president leaves office in 2024. I purchased this for Kindle over 2 years ago, back when I was still interested in “Natan Dubovitsky” and his work…Might as well get my money’s worth. If Okolonolya, Dyadya Vanya: cover version and Mashinka i velik are anything to go by, then Ul’tranormal’nost will also sag in the middle and decline in the second half. Though the scant reviews I found point to a more developed novel than Dubovitsky’s previous ones. So, who knows.


Черный троллейбус by Dmitry Glebov. A literary shot in the dark selected because I could not locate Glebov’s debut novel Skeyt-gong. The author himself calls the book fantasy-horror. It involves three borderline gopniki embarking on a journey to the mysterious city of Mudrov and doing battle with the forces of evil. Like Dvadtsat’ gorodov, Chyorny trolleybus is free and available for download on the publisher’s website.


St. Petersburg: Shadows of the Past by Catriona Kelly. Yes, yes, another nostalgia choice. But not without its independent appeal. Shadows of the Past is notable for focusing on St. Petersburg during its (post)/Soviet days rather than Tsarist period and choosing to tell the city’s history through objects: buildings, oral history, personal observation, food, literary and artistic texts, journalism and archival materials. For a taste of its richness read an interview with the author at YUP’s blog. It inspires much confidence in the book.


Добыть Тарковского. Неинтеллигентные рассказы by Pavel Selukov. Selukov’s short story collection explores life in Perm during the 2000s, with marginalized people and troubled youths as its main characters. For real though, I cannot let that  t r a s h  reality show Real’nye patsany be the only cultural product I have consumed about Perm. Literary critic Galina Yuzefovich names the works of Erofeev and Dovlatov as spiritual predecessors to Dobyt’ Tarkovskogo.


Железная кость by Sergei Samsonov. The real book I am after is Держаться за землю, a (premature?) saga about Donbas miners caught up in the ongoing war in Ukraine, but I am using Iron Bone as a springboard into Samsonov. Something about the intersecting lives of a factory worker and a factory owner in the town of Mogutov.


Раунд: Оптический роман by Anna Nemzer. According to its synopsis, Raund is a novel constructed out of conversations: an interview, an interrogation, a session with a psychiatrist, a court testimony, a rap battle, an argument with one’s past self. It is a 21st-century spin on eternal themes, its formost being – according to Ludmila Ulitskaya – love and its ability to overcome death and gender. Time will tell if I am able to appreciate Raund’s innovation without being distracted by its in-your-face handshakability (though my track record with “woke” lit is poor, TBH).


Рюрик by Anna Kozlova. Edgy novel successfully pitched by a post on Lizok’s Books. Runaway teenager Marta hitches a ride north with a motorcyclist only to escape him by fleeing into the woods. The reader is left to unravel two mysteries: why Marta ran away in the first place and whether she will survive the forest.


О русском акционизме by Pyotr Pavlensky. I am not a supporter of Pavlensky’s performance “art,” but I am nevertheless interested in reading his memoir.


Soviet Space Dogs by Olesya Turkina. This art-book from Fuel Publishing (also responsible for the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia series) covers the dissemination and reproduction of “space dog” images in Soviet media. Laika, Belka and Strelka appeared on candy tins, badges, stamps and postcards. At one point you could apparently smoke a Laika cigar while reading your children a book about Belka and Strelka. As someone interested both in the Space Race and ephemera (which makes up a significant part of what I process in the archives), I had to add Soviet Space Dogs to this list.


Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files Volume 1. Similar to Danzig Baldaev’s volumes except consisting primarily of photographs. Also, mugshots.


What Remains: Everyday Encounters with the Socialist Past in Germany by Jonathan Bach. What Remains tackles the question of what happens when an entire state’s material culture becomes obsolete. Leading it on this journey are the fragments of things and places from East Germany which continue to shape memory politics today: products commodified as nostalgia, amateur museums dedicated to socialist life, the Berlin Wall.


My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File by Katherine Verdery. It is the student/researcher abroad’s nightmare: at the same time that they are collecting information about their host country, their host is collecting information on them. The longer the stay, the more the dossier grows. I imagine this is not commonplace now. There are bigger fish to fry: international businesspeople, for instance; or figures connected to the military-industrial complex. But the Soviet period…another story entirely. Katherine Verdery was monitored by the secret police while conducting doctoral fieldwork in communist Romania. After the end of the cold war, she gained access to her Securitate surveillance file and came face to face with a paranoid doppelgänger.


It Will be Fun and Terrifying: Nationalism and Protest in Post-Soviet Russia by Fabrizio Fenghi. A Brown University professor peels back the layers from National Bolshevism to discern the role of right-wing ideology in contemporary russian society/political life. It’s got an unusual name. It’s got a plug from Eliot Borenstein (whose Plots Against Russia did not make this list, but don’t you worry…soon.).


Вова, Володя, Владимир Путин. Тайната биография на властелина на Кремъл by Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich. Commentators have called her the Polish Politkovskaya. Informal reviewers have compared her to Masha Gessen. In any case, it should be interesting to see what baggage Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich brings to the subtle “art” of Putin biography. Because I cannot read Polish, I will be accessing Wowa, Wołodia via Bulgarian translation.


У них что-то с головой, у этих русских by Anna-Lena Lauren. A Finnish journalist joins the “Westerner Does Russia” canon. Someone cared enough to translate it into Russian.


Рождения и смерть похоронной индустрии: От средневековых погостов до цифрового бессмертия by Sergei Mokhov. This history of the funerary industry is something unique and unrelated to mix up the booklist.


Рома едет by Roman Svechnikov. A Belarusian blogger travels to 25 countries on almost no money.  Always wondered how these “adventurers” manage to do it. Out from Corpus, publisher of big beautiful editions. (No joke. Vremya Berezovskogo is massive and weighs 2 1/2 pounds.)


A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck. A recommendation from a reader and what journalist Danielle Ryan (remember her?) called the proper way to do a Russia travelogue if a Westerner. Having read Travels with Charley in Search of America, I know that Steinbeck is a capable travel writer. However, Russia is a space of exception – once on its soil, even otherwise rational writers are driven to produce drivel…

Featured image from Pexels.com by Dom J.


  1. Whoa, awesome booklist! You mentioned several that I’d like to read… on that distant day when my own shelf is finally clear. 🤣

    Черный троллейбус sounds kinda reminiscent of that terrible film Чужие против Гопников. Oops, I meant Притежение.🙄


  2. Re: Вова, Володя, Владимир Путин. Тайната биография на властелина на Кремъл
    I didn’t know you can read Bulgarian, can you?

    Re: У них что-то с головой, у этих русских by Anna-Lena Lauren. It was always fun to read her rantings about what’s wrong with Russia and how it should be rectified. In my opinion she’s extremely naive and biased. She’s a typical laowai as they say in China, i.e. a foreigner who tries to apply his/her own mentality to a different country and because of that constantly gets into (imaginary) trouble.


  3. I didn’t know you can read Bulgarian, can you?

    Surprise! Not as good as my Russian but good enough to tap nonfiction not yet translated into Russian or English.

    It was always fun to read her rantings about what’s wrong with Russia and how it should be rectified. In my opinion she’s extremely naive and biased.

    The translator of U nikh chto-to… must be in on the joke.

    She’s a typical laowai as they say in China, i.e. a foreigner who tries to apply his/her own mentality to a different country and because of that constantly gets into (imaginary) trouble.

    Gotta appreciate that China has invented a name for this concept. I think “ugly American” is a possible analogue if we strip away everything except semantic meaning.


  4. More books waiting in the wings…

    What About Tomorrow? by Alexander Herbert
    We Need to Talk About Putin by Mark Galeotti
    Criminal Subculture in the Gulag by Mark Vincent
    Plots Against Russia by Eliot Borenstein
    Proletariat by Vlad Ridosh
    Floating Coast by Bathsheba Demuth
    Between Two Fires by Joshua Yaffa
    The Code of Putinism by Brian D. Taylor
    И дольше века длится день by Chingiz Aitmanov
    Young Heroes of the Soviet Union by Alex Halberstadt
    The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post-Soviet Space by Owen Hatherley.

    The to-be-covered is a curious list.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hello J.T. Just stumbled on your blog via Goodreads.

    Samsonov should be good. Danilkin adores him.

    Why would not you read books about Soviet Russia that are written by a Soviet or a pro-Soviet writer?

    Have you read Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него?

    You read way too many books about Putin. Russia is zillion times more than its president).


    • Welcome, Person* from Podolsk.

      re: Soviet/pro-Soviet writer. Make a recommendation and we’ll see.

      re: Петровы в гриппе. Have not read. Is it any good?

      re: Putin. Tell that to someone who doesn’t already know – my country’s media and political establishment, or its literati, for example 😉

      *(Podolsk Man? Woman? We don’t assume gender in this neck of the woods.)


      • re Podolsk: it is a reference to a modern Russian play. The main character (yes, living in Podolsk) is a man. You can check the text on the author´s site: https://bit.ly/381eGXu

        re Soviet / pro-Soviet writer. Well, Danilkin for the one. He is not Soviet per se but at least he tries to stay objective. He has books Yury Gagarin, Lenin and Prokhanov. If you are interested in history, check out Vladlen Loginov. The guy (I think he is still alive) has been researching Lenin’s biography for decades. Funny enough, but his first name (Vladlen) stands for VLADimir LENin (one can muse whether he was destined from birth to consacrate his whole life to Lenin). Since Loginov is highly favorable toward Lenin (and knows everything about Lenin’s life), I doubt that his books will ever be translated into English. Then you have Alexander Zinoviev, who was first a dissident expelled from the USSR but then upon retun to Russia in the 90s and having witnessed what capitalism was doing to the country, became a proponent of socialism. .

        Then you have Soviet fiction: Kataev, Gaidar, Ilf and Petrov (the last two wrote together). How about Alexey Tolstoy (called “красный граф” as he was indeed a count in the Russian empire and a distant relative to Leo Tolstoy)? His Хождение по мукам (Tolstoy got the Stalin Prize for the book) is an epic story set in the times of First WW and Civil War in Russia. Sholokhov and his Тихий Дон, a monumental work of art (my edition has four volumes)? Sholokhov was a Nobel Prize winner. Boris Vasiliev and his books about Great Patriotic War: “А зори здесь тихие” and “В списках не значился”? Every time I watch the movie “А зори здесь тихие” (the Soviet one from the 70s, not the artificial, plastic new one), I can’t help shedding a tear. Here is a link to the full first part of the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCZK0htfmjo

        I can go on and on..

        re Петровы. The book was a small sensation two years ago. Finally an author writing about province (Yekaterinburg and Sverdlovsk oblast), finally someone aptly using the rich Russian language to weave a story which does not fit a single canon: the book can be classified as a mystery novel or as a detective or as a drama or as an allegory. Perhaps, it would be a tad difficult to read for a foreigner but still you should give it a try.


Join the discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.