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11 Best Books on the Soviet Union

These books on the Soviet Union are the ones you should read if you want to learn more about the former country.

The Soviet Union was one of the most important and influential countries until its demise in 1991. These Soviet Union books will give you an insight into the formation, history and conditions of the country.

Books such as The Communist Manifesto reference the ideology of the regime, while Chernobyl and A Mountain of Crumbs what life was really like behind the propaganda of the iron curtain.

The rise and fall of the USSR represents an important part of international history and despite its demise, still influences the world today. If you’re curious about the history country, these books about the Soviet Union will you better understand it.

Keep scrolling to discover the great books you can read!

Books on the Soviet Union

books about the soviet union
Some of the books about the Soviet Union I’ve read

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
  • Solzhenitsyn, Alexander (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 208 Pages – 08/04/2009 (Publication Date) – Penguin Publishing Group (Publisher)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is one of the most famous books about the Soviet Union and details a day of a man holed up in a gulag.

The book is a fictional account of the Gulag. Still, it comes from the personal experience of the author, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, who spent eight years in a Gulag for criticising Stalin.

It’s a short read but it packs a powerful punch as we see the mundanity and depravity of life in the Gulag. You get a sense of how inhuman the Gulags were and the void that the inmates lived in.

I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in one sitting and came away with a greater understanding of the inhumane nature of the brutal system that Stalin built up during his reign. Combine this with Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago for the full picture of life in the Gulag.

Why you should read it: The Gulags were infamous prisons used by Stalin to quash even the slightest hint of dissent against his rule. You can’t understand his reign as Soviet leader without learning about the Gulag.

Chernobyl

Chernobyl
  • A compelling history of the 1986 disaster and its aftermath
  • A moment by moment account of the heroes, perpetrators and victims of a tragedy
  • 1st full account of a gripping, unforgettable cold war story
  • Plokhy, Serhii (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

The Chernobyl disaster is often referred to as the event that marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. Serhii Plokhy’s Chernobyl is a brilliant account of what happened and why.

The book starts by piecing together why the disaster occurred, the various flaws in the construction of the reactor and the way the plant was run.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the book is what the workers tasked with dealing with the damaged reactor went through. They were thrown to the wolves and condemned to death in an attempt to cover up what had happened.

I recommend watching the first episode of Adam Curtis’ documentary Russia 1985–1999: TraumaZone, to get an understanding of the conditions they were sent into. The footage is insane and left me open-mouthed!

The parts on the attempted political coverup and the subsequent acknowledgement of what happened are remarkable too. As a history graduate, this was fascinating to read and is without a doubt, one of the most fascinating Soviet Union books you can read.

Why you should read it: The Chernobyl disaster was a seminal event in the history of the Soviet Union and marked the beginning of the end for the regime. This book explains how and why the disaster resulted in the collapse of Soviet Russia.

Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991

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Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History
  • Figes, Orlando (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 336 Pages – 04/07/2015 (Publication Date) – Picador (Publisher)

If you’re looking for a book on the Soviet Union that offers an overview of the rise, solidification and fall of the regime, Orlando Figes’ Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991 is the one to read.

The book starts in 1891, which is two decades before the establishment of the Soviet Union, but this allows the book to show how the conditions developed for the Bolsheviks to take power.

The period running up to 1917 was traumatic and Figes does a great job of explaining why this resulted in the overthrow of the autocratic Tsar and the rise of the Bolsheviks.

The rest of Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991 makes for fascinating reading and takes you through the various stages of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. I’m not sure there’s a better book out there if you’re looking for an easy-to-follow introduction to the Soviet Union.

Why you should read it: This book is perfect for people who want to learn more about the Soviet Union through the years but don’t want to specialise in one particular area.

Boys in Zinc

Boys In Zinc
  • ALEXIEVICH, SVETLANA (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • PENGUIN POPULAR CLASSICS (Publisher)

Boys in Zinc is a social history of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which failed.

It’s written by Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 for her work which was described as “a monument to courage and suffering in our time”.

This book pulls no punches and details multiple responses from soldiers, nurses and mothers affected by the war. While the Chernobyl disaster is often seen as the beginning of the end, it could be argued the Soviet-Afghan war was the true start of the rot.

The title is a reference to the zinc coffins soldiers came back in. The constant stream of coffins resulted in more discontent among the population, which Alexievich documents superbly. Boys in Zinc is an excellent insight into what people felt about a failing regime.

Why you should read it: The Soviet-Afghan war is arguably the starting point of the hollowing out of the Soviet regime. The stories documented by Alexievich highlight how much discontent there was with the regime and why it ultimately failed.

The Communist Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto (Penguin Classics) by Marx, Karl, Engels, Friedrich (2002) Paperback
  • Marx (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 01/01/2002 (Publication Date) – Penguin Clasics, Paperback(2002) (Publisher)

The Communist Manifesto is the book that inspired the formation of the Soviet Union, so it’s only fitting it’s included on this list.

The book is infamous, but it’s not that long and is well under 100 pages. Another fact that might surprise some people is that it was written in 1848, making it nearly 200 years old.

When I read it, I felt like the age of the book was obvious. While there were some interesting points, it did feel dated, and you could sense that this was a political pamphlet written in response to conditions in the revolutionary atmosphere of 1848.

In some ways, it’s remarkable that The Communist Manifesto came to inspire a regime that lasted over 70 years. That the ideas endured long enough after Marx’s death to motivate Lenin and Stalin is remarkable given the Soviet Union wasn’t formed until 1917!

Why you should read it: This is the book that inspired the Soviet Union and lent its name to the ideology of Communism. You can’t understand either without reading it.

A Mountain of Crumbs

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A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir
  • Gorokhova, Elena (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 344 Pages – 02/08/2011 (Publication Date) – Simon & Schuster (Publisher)

A Mountain of Crumbs is a memoir by Elena Gorokhova about her life in St Petersburg, then known as Leningrad before her family emigrated to America in the 1970s.

The title refers to the mountain of crumbs her mother would make from black bread and sugar cubes in an attempt to stop her children from complaining about being hungry.

The book is a fascinating account of life in the Soviet Union and what it was like growing up in a regime that proclaimed itself to be the model society for the future.

Some of the best Soviet Union books, are the ones that show you what life was like from a first-hand perspective. A Mountain of Crumbs is a great example and shows how absurd the proclamations of the ruling elite were.

Why you should read it: A fascinating insight into how the propaganda and slogans of the Soviet Union amounted to little more in human terms than bleakness.

Stalingrad

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Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943
  • Beevor, Antony (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 493 Pages – 05/01/1999 (Publication Date) – Penguin Books (Publisher)

The battle of Stalingrad was one of the most important in the Second World War. Victory for the Nazis would have been a crushing blow to the Soviets and could have resulted in the fall of the regime.

Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad tells the story of this battle in intimate detail and is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the Soviet Union.

The battle is synonymous with the Soviet resistance that eventually defeated the Nazis after Operation Barbarossa in July 1941. The Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is known in Russia, still holds prominence today, and without success at Stalingrad, the fate of the war may have turned out differently.

Stalingrad is an enjoyable read if you’re a history geek like me and one of the best books on European history. The battle was the bloodiest in the Second World War and lasted for five months.

Beevor’s book is the best to learn more about this savage battle and the importance it had on the Soviet Union, the war and the wider world.

Why you should read it: The definitive account of the battle for Stalingrad that could have resulted in the end of the Soviet Union, and a different outcome in the Second World War had the Nazis won.

Gulag: A History

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Gulag: A History
  • Applebaum, Anne (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 736 Pages – 04/09/2004 (Publication Date) – Anchor Books (Publisher)

The Gulag Archipelago is often the go-to book on the history of the Soviet prison camps, but as I already have a book by Solzhenitsyn on this list, I thought I’d opt for a different one.

Gulag: A History is written by the American historian Anne Applebaum, who I think is one of the best political writers around, her book Twilight of Democracy is a good read on the aftermath of the post-truth political world, especially in Eastern Europe.

it’s a big book at over 600 pages, but it’s packed full of detail and is a fascinating account of the prison camps established by Lenin and their rise to notoriety under Stalin.

The book is a mix of first-hand accounts of life in the Gulag and the history behind the rise and demise of the prison camps. Gulag: A History is an imperious book and one that will show you the grim details behind the workings of the Soviet machine.

Why you should read it: A devastating account of the Soviet prison camp system that was notorious for its brutality and inhumanity.

A Gentleman in Moscow

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A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel
  • Towles, Amor (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 496 Pages – 03/26/2019 (Publication Date) – Penguin Books (Publisher)

A Gentleman in Moscow is a novel about the early days of the Soviet Union and presents an intriguing look at what the rise of the Bolsheviks meant for the aristocratic elite.

The novel follows the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a member of that elite who is arrested after the revolution in 1917 following his return from Paris.

Rather than being transported to a Gulag or a conventional prison, Rostov is holed up in the Hotel Metropol under house arrest for life.

Without revealing too much more about the plot of A Gentleman in Moscow, we follow Rostov as he adjusts to his newfound circumstances and the various people he meets during his confinement in the hotel.

It’s one of the best Soviet Union novels and gives you an idea of what life was like for some of the aristocrats from the Tsarist who were spared the same fate as the Tsar and his family.

Why you should read it: A novel about a lesser-explored side of what life was like for the displaced former elite under the Soviet Union.

Child 44

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Child 44 (The Child 44 Trilogy, 1)
  • Smith, Tom Rob (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 480 Pages – 12/13/2011 (Publication Date) – Grand Central Publishing (Publisher)

Child 44 is one of the best novels about the Soviet Union and highlights the paranoia that existed during Stalin’s rule.

The plot follows MGB agent Leo Demidov as he investigates a series of child murders. The crimes of Andrei Chikatilo, who killed 52 children, serve as the real-life inspiration for the novel.

Child 44 is a thriller and moves at a fast pace with a gripping plot. The book looks at several aspects of the Soviet Union, that were disillusioning for citizens, such as the murders in a state where ‘there is no crime.’

A film version was made in 2015, but I feel the book is much better, as the film doesn’t do justice to how the plot unfolds in the book. If you do want to watch it, read the book first.

Why you should read it: Child 44 is an account of what life was like for many people in a state that was supposed to be a utopia. The reality, as depicted in this novel, was very different.

Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union

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Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union
  • Audible Audiobook
  • Vladislav M. Zubok (Author) – David de Vries (Narrator)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 11/30/2021 (Publication Date) – Tantor Audio (Publisher)

Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union documents one of the most important and consequential events in modern history, the fall of the Soviet Union.

At the start of the 1980s, the idea that the Soviet Union would collapse was far-fetched. Yet, ten years later the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the country with a four million-strong army had ceased to exist.

The outward show of strength convinced many the regime was more secure than it was. Instead, the state was hollowed out and Gorbachev’s ill-fated reforms had the opposite effect, accelerating the collapse.

It’s hard to understate how seismic an event this was and Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union does a fantastic job of explaining how it happened.

Why you should read it: This is the definitive book on one of the most important events in recent history, the effects of which are still being felt today.

Looking For More Books?

Books on Utopia – The Soviet Union was envisaged as a Utopian society but never lived up to the ideals espoused in Communist ideology. Discover some more books that touch on a utopian theme.

Best Books by George Orwell – Orwell was a critic of the USSR, with Animal Farm the most famous example of this. Discover more of his books and writings on politics and much more!

Best German History Books – German and Russian history has intertwined over the years and this set of books will help you understand more about Germany’s past.