Reading List

We have received a number of requests for reading recommendations from those who are planning to go on an expedition or are just interested about learning more! Here are a few that we suggest.


The Icon and the Axe : an interpretive history of Russian culture
James H. Billington.
Vintage, 1970. 880 p. ISBN-13: 978-0394708461

Billington paints The Big Picture, treating the “whole sweep of Russian cultural and intellectual history from Kievan times to the post-Khruschev era.” That’s a lot, but if you want an expert, accessible guide to the non-possessors, spirit wrestlers, cursed questions, peasant insurrectionaries, false Dimitris, dead souls, mighty handful, damp mother earth and a host of other fundamental Russian characters, this is it.

A Frozen Hell : the Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940
William R. Trotter.
Algonquin Books, 1991.  ISBN-13: 978-1565122499

Headed for the Russian North?  The Winter War will come up in nearly every interview.  The first and last chapters of this book provide a balanced account of the war’s background, causes, and outcomes. The intervening chapters provide a detailed battle-by-battle military history.

Russian Folk Belief
Linda J. Ivanits.
M.E. Sharpe, 1989.  257p.  ISBN 0-87332-422-6

An introduction to many of the mythological personages who still populate Russian villages.

The Russian’s World  3rd ed.
Genevra Gerhart.
Slavica Publishers, 2001. 420 p. ISBN 978-0893572938

A no-nonsense, very accurate guide to Russian daily life:  gestures,  party etiquette, grocery shopping, how to make the bed,  attitudes towards work and money,  standard school curriculum,   holidays,  children’s games, queuing skills,  hygienic standards — and that’s just a start!   Especially useful to those who read some Russian, but perfectly accessible to those who know none.  Earlier editions likewise very useful.

The Storks’ Nest  [Life and Love in the Russian Countryside]
Laura Lynne Williams.
Fulcrum, 2008.  324 p.  ISBN-13: 978-1555916299

Environmentalist and rodeo rider Laura Williams followed her heart to a Russian nature preserve near the Russia – Ukraine border, where she took on the job of environmental educator. This charming memoir weaves together her work life (riding down poachers, re-introducing over-hunted bison, educating school children, raising a moose) with daily life among the 17  human neighbors in her village.  From them she learns local plant lore, a charm against wolves, and horrendous stories of suffering through floods, collectivization and Nazi occupation.  All in all an excellent combination of nature writing, contemporary village life and true romance.


An Anthology of Russian Folktales
Edited and translated by Jack V. Haney.
M.E. Sharpe,  2009.  ISBN   9780765623058

Fun to read and a good guide to classic themes in Russian folk tales.

Matryona’s House / Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Anthologized in “We Never Make Mistakes”
Translated by Paul Blackstock.
Norton, 2003.  ISBN-13: 978-0393314748  Also found in several other collections.

This 40-page novella by the famous Russian author sometimes appears under the title Matryona’s Place. The year is 1953, and an ex-convict has landed a teaching job in an out-of-the-way Russian village. He rents space in the home of the elderly widow Matryona Vasilyevna and gains an extraordinary view into the Soviet-era village life which most of our informants grew up with and still remember vividly.  Well worth looking for.

Russka:  the novel of Russia
Edward Rutherfurd.
Ballantine Books, 2005.  945 p. (paperback).  ISBN13   978-034547935

Closer to History Lite than great literature, this is along the lines of James Michener’s epic novels (Hawaii,  Centennial, The Source, etc.)  Centered on two Russian villages, Russka weaves historical events and people into the story of generations of two fictional families from 180 CE down to 1937.  It is unfortunate that only the last 50 pages overlap with the lives of people you are likely to meet on an expedition.  It does, however, provide a colorful picture of major events in earlier Russian history.

Farewell to Matyora
Valentine Rasputin.
Translated by Antonina Bouis. Northwestern University Press, 1995.  ISBN-13: 978-0810113299

Matyora is a fictional Siberian village which must be evacuated and cleared before it is submerged by a new hydroelectric project. The action takes place in the late 1950s or early 1960s, but the residents of Matyora have deep roots, going back 300 years. Forced to abandon their traditional way of life for the shallow conveniences of a modern town, the younger generation adapts easily, but the older villagers find it devastating to break their spiritual ties with the ancestors in the cemetery, with the spirit of the countryside, and with the land itself.

See Also