Close out the year with the latest lit in Russian and Eurasian studies. You’ll probably get around to reading them long before I do.
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with any of the publishers below. This list is the result of trawling 3rd-party bookseller sites like Amazon.com and Paperback Swap. Inclusion ≠ endorsement, but these books are on the list because they *do* look interesting.
Tales of the Narts: Ancient Myths and Legends of the Ossetians, trans. Walter May, edited by John Colarusso and Tamirlan Salbiev (Princeton University Press, 2020)
The Nart sagas are to the Caucasus what Greek mythology is to Western civilization. Tales of the Narts expands the canon of this precious body of lore by presenting a wide selection of fascinating tales that are part of a living tradition among the peoples of Ossetia in southern Russia. A mythical tribe of nomad warriors, the Narts are courageous, bold, and good-hearted, but also capable of envy, cruelty, and violence. In this wonderfully vivid and accessible collection, colorful and exciting heroes, heroines, villains, and monsters pursue their destinies though a series of exploits, often with the intervention of ancient gods.
Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow by Alexander Radishchev, trans. Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman (Columbia University Press, November 2020)
Alexander Radishchev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow is among the most important pieces of writing to come out of Russia in the age of Catherine the Great. An account of a fictional journey along a postal route, it blends literature, philosophy, and political economy to expose social and economic injustices and their causes at all levels of Russian society. Not long after the book’s publication in 1790, Radishchev was condemned to death for its radicalism and ultimately exiled to Siberia instead.
Radishchev’s literary journey is guided by intense moral conviction. He sought to confront the reader with urgent ethical questions, laying bare the cruelty of serfdom and other institutionalized forms of exploitation. The Journey’s multiple strands include sentimental fictions, allegorical discourses, poetry, theatrical plots, historical essays, a treatise on raising children, and comments on corruption and political economy, all informed by Enlightenment arguments and an interest in placing Russia in its European context. Radishchev is perhaps the first in a long line of Russian writer-dissenters such as Herzen and Solzhenitsyn who created a singular literary idiom to express a subversive message. In Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman’s idiomatic and stylistically sensitive translation, one of imperial Russia’s most notorious clandestine books is now accessible to English-speaking readers.
Nonfiction – History
Not According to Plan: Filmmaking Under Stalin by Maria Belodubrovskaya (Cornell University Press, November 2020)
In Not According to Plan, Maria Belodubrovskaya reveals the limits on the power of even the most repressive totalitarian regimes to create and control propaganda. Belodubrovskaya’s revisionist account of Soviet filmmaking between 1930 and 1953 highlights the extent to which the Soviet film industry remained stubbornly artisanal in its methods, especially in contrast to the more industrial approach of the Hollywood studio system. Not According to Plan shows that even though Josef Stalin recognized cinema as a “mighty instrument of mass agitation and propaganda” and strove to harness the Soviet film industry to serve the state, directors such as Eisenstein, Alexandrov, and Pudovkin had far more creative control than did party-appointed executives and censors.
Stalin: Passage to Revolution by Ronald Grigor Suny (Princeton University Press, 2020)
This is the definitive biography of Joseph Stalin from his birth to the October Revolution of 1917, a panoramic and often chilling account of how an impoverished, idealistic youth from the provinces of tsarist Russia was transformed into a cunning and fearsome outlaw who would one day become one of the twentieth century’s most ruthless dictators.
In this monumental book, Ronald Grigor Suny sheds light on the least understood years of Stalin’s career, bringing to life the turbulent world in which he lived and the extraordinary historical events that shaped him. Suny draws on a wealth of new archival evidence from Stalin’s early years in the Caucasus to chart the psychological metamorphosis of the young Stalin, taking readers from his boyhood as a Georgian nationalist and romantic poet, through his harsh years of schooling, to his commitment to violent engagement in the underground movement to topple the tsarist autocracy. Stalin emerges as an ambitious climber within the Bolshevik ranks, a resourceful leader of a small terrorist band, and a writer and thinker who was deeply engaged with some of the most incendiary debates of his time.
Nonfiction – Cultural Studies
Storytelling in Siberia: The Olonkho Epic in a Changing World by Robin P. Harris (University of Illinois Press, 2017)
Olonkho, the epic narrative and song tradition of Siberia’s Sakha people, declined to the brink of extinction during the Soviet era. In 2005, UNESCO’s Masterpiece Proclamation sparked a resurgence of interest in olonkho by recognizing its important role in humanity’s oral and intangible heritage.
Drawing on her ten years of living in the Russian North, Robin P. Harris documents how the Sakha have used the Masterpiece program to revive olonkho and strengthen their cultural identity. Harris’s personal relationships with and primary research among Sakha people provide vivid insights into understanding olonkho and the attenuation, revitalization, transformation, and sustainability of the Sakha’s cultural reemergence. Interdisciplinary in scope, Storytelling in Siberia considers the nature of folklore alongside ethnomusicology, anthropology, comparative literature, and cultural studies to shed light on how marginalized peoples are revitalizing their own intangible cultural heritage.
Cold War II: Hollywood’s Renewed Obsession with Russia by Tatyana Prorokova-Konrad et al (University Press of Mississippi, December 2020)
In recent years, Hollywood cinema has forwarded a growing number of images of the Cold War and entertained a return to memories of conflicts between the USSR and the US, Russians and Americans, and communism and capitalism. Cold War II: Hollywood’s Renewed Obsession with Russia explores the reasons for this sudden renewed interest in the Cold War. Essayists examine such films as Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U. N.C. L.E. , Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s Hail, Caesar!, David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, and Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow, among others, as well as such television shows as Comrade Detective and The Americans.
Contributors to this collection interrogate the revival of the Cold War movie genre from multiple angles and examine the issues of patriotism, national identity, otherness, gender, and corruption. They consider cinematic aesthetics and the ethics of these representations. They reveal how Cold War imagery shapes audiences’ understanding of the period in general and of the relationship between the US and Russia in particular. The authors complicate traditional definitions of the Cold War film and invite readers to discover a new phase in the Cold War movie genre: Cold War II.
Consumer Culture, Branding and Identity in the New Russia: From Five-Year Plan to 4×4 by Graham H.J. Roberts (Routledge, December 2020)
As shopping has been transformed from a chore into a major source of hedonistic pleasure, a specifically Russian consumer culture has begun to emerge that is unlike any other. This book examines the many different facets of consumption in today’s Russia, including retailing, advertising and social networking. Throughout, emphasis is placed on the inherently visual – not to say spectacular – nature both of consumption generally, and of Russian consumer culture in particular.
Particular attention is paid to the ways in which brands, both Russian and foreign, construct categories of identity in order to claim legitimacy for themselves. What emerges is a fascinating picture of how consumer culture is being reinvented in Russia today, in a society which has one, nostalgic eye turned towards the past, and the other, utopian eye, set firmly on the future.
Nonfiction – Current Affairs
Political Ideologies in Contemporary Russia by Elena Chebankova (McGill-Queen’s University Press, November 2020)
Contrary to the view that a bleak discursive uniformity reigns in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Political Ideologies in Contemporary Russia shows that the country is engaging in serious theoretical debates across a wide spectrum of modern ideologies including liberalism, nationalism, feminism, and multiculturalism. Elena Chebankova argues that the nation is fragmented and the state seeks to balance the various ideological movements to ensure that none dominates. She shows that each of the main ideological trends is far from uniform, but the major opposition is between liberalism and traditionalism. The pluralistic picture she describes contests many current portrayals of Russia as an authoritarian or even totalitarian state.
The Red Mirror: Putin’s Leadership and Russia’s Insecure Identity by Gulnaz Sharafutdinova (Oxford U Press, October 2020)
Solves the puzzle of Russian politics by studying the Soviet experience alongside the nation’s political transition in the 1990s and Putin’s leadership
Draws upon the author’s experience as a Russian immigrant and academic in the US to characterize Russia with empathy and neutrality
Uses a social psychological approach to make sense of authoritarian legitimation
Migration and Hybrid Political Regimes: Navigating the Legal Landscape in Russia by Rustamjon Urinboyev (University of California Press, December 2020)
While migration has become an all-important topic of discussion around the globe, mainstream literature on migrants’ legal adaptation and integration has focused on case studies of immigrant communities in Western-style democracies. We know relatively little about how migrants adapt to a new legal environment in the ever-growing hybrid political regimes that are neither clearly democratic nor conventionally authoritarian. This book takes up the case of Russia—an archetypal hybrid political regime and the third largest recipients of migrants worldwide—and investigates how Central Asian migrant workers produce new forms of informal governance and legal order. Migrants use the opportunities provided by a weak rule-of-law and a corrupt political system to navigate the repressive legal landscape and to negotiate—using informal channels—access to employment and other opportunities that are hard to obtain through the official legal framework of their host country. This lively ethnography presents new theoretical perspectives for studying immigrant legal incorporation in similar political contexts.
Featured image by Anthony via Pexels.