I recently explored Russia, Belarus and the Baltic States and here are some of the resources I used to find out more about Russia.
Sir Winston Churchill once famously coined the description “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” in relation to Russia’s behaviour in 1939. Others have said “Russia cannot be understood” and “Russia is impenetrable”. This mystery has always been a fascination and the chance to explore modern day Russia and the now independent countries that were once part of the Soviet Union should not be turned down. In order to better understand these countries you need to have some knowledge of their past. These are some of the most accessible resources I found:
I have written previously that Insight Guides are my first go-to source of information about any country. These guides are usually written by local authors who can provide fact-checked and up-to-date information. They always have great sections on history, politics, food, festivals etc as appropriate to the country, and cover each region and major centre in a lot more detail with maps, photos and descriptions of main features and activities whether natural or man-made. They also finish with a great section on Travel Tips covering everything from transport, accommodation and eating out through to etiquette, electrical systems, and language pronunciation.
Insight Guides have recently got even better: with the purchase of a guide book you now get a free e-book version and access to the Walking Eye App to give you lots more information about your chosen destination with frequently updated listings of restaurants, bars and hotels etc.
For a very readable account of the history of Russia over the past few centuries, you can’t go past Simon Sebag Montefiore. His books are extremely in depth, incredibly well researched and very accessible – my only ‘complaint’ is that they are very long and it is a bit soul-destroying when you’ve been reading the Kindle version for weeks and you’ve still only reached 10% of the book! But they are very good and it is well worth persevering with the read. He has covered a lot of Russian history: The Romanovs covers the lives of 20 tsars and tsarinas from 1613-1918; Catherine the Great & Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair gives more 18th century detail; Young Stalin covers the period of Stalin’s life leading up to the 1917 Revolution; and Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar details “Stalin and his entourage during the terrifying decades of his supreme power” and “transforms our understanding of Stalin as Soviet dictator, Marxist leader, and Russian tsar.”
Simon Sebag Montefiore has also written fictional accounts (based on historical records) that give a different, more personal perspective of Russian history. Sashenka is a very gripping and readable story of a young woman living through the revolution (starting in 1916) and then into the Hitler and Stalin years.
One Night in Winter is another fictional account based on a true, harrowing, love story set in Stalin’s time (1945) where children are arrested and forced to testify against their friends and their parents.
For a much more light-hearted read try the novel A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I read this one after I had visited Moscow and found it just delightful. It starts in 1922 when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, an aristocrat, is sentenced to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol (where he is already living) for the crime of writing a poem. Although his life narrows to the confines of the hotel, the novel beautifully describes the history and current events through his interactions with other guests and friends. Having visited many of the places he describes, the story just brought it all to life for me – I was hooked from start to finish.
And of course there is Tolstoy’s classic War & Peace set during 19th century Russia. I decided that the BBC’s dramatisation of it would be much more accessible. This was also good to watch after visiting Russia as it is wonderful to recognize the sumptuous interiors of palaces you’ve visited and realize that these aren’t just movie sets.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
Note: After people telling me they had booked an Intrepid Tour on my recommendation, I now have affiliate links with the Intrepid Travel group of companies and may receive a commission if you book a tour online within a couple of months after clicking through to these sites. So if you are enjoying my tips and stories and finding them useful in choosing your own travel, please click on these links and help me to bring you more ☺.