Histories of Russia tend to be either murky or politicized, depending on prevailing worldviews at publication time. The Icon and the Axe by Library of Congress director James Billington is a broad and readable history. For a peek into czarist life that reads like historical fiction, try Robert Massie's lively Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra. The most renowned reference on the Stalin era is Robert Conquest's Great Terror, and his very anti-Soviet Reflections on a Ravaged Century is based on decades of meticulous research for his numerous books. For a view from the other side, try Karl Marx's Das Kapital, which still provides food for thought even for the most die-hard capitalist. John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World is an intricate report on the 1917 revolution by an American radical journalist, who is the only foreigner buried along the Kremlin wall. For a chilling account of the nearly 3-year siege of Leningrad by Hitler's army, and the broader context of the young nation it wounded, Harrison Salisbury's The 900 Days is a must. Moscow: An Architectural History by Kathleen Berton gives insight into why St. Basil's Cathedral looks nothing like its contemporaries. Tamara Talbot Rice's Concise History of Russian Art is rather superficial but serves as a good introduction, covering early Kievan Rus up through the Soviet era. Osip Mandelstam's Noise of Time portrays life in St. Petersburg in the early 20th century, before the author's persecution and death in 1938.
Post-Soviet books about Russia tend to focus on the negative, painting a bleak or sinister picture of its economic, political, and environmental prospects. David Remnick is one of the more optimistic observers in Resurrection and its predecessor, Lenin's Tomb, about the fall of the USSR. Prostitution, narcotics, organized crime, and corrupt judges are laid bare in The Exile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi.
Journalist Anna Politkovskaya's books are a fierce look at Putin's Russia, and took on extra force after she was killed in unclear circumstances. They tell only part of modern Russia's story, however, and shouldn't scare you away from visiting this vast and complex place.
The long airline flight may be the perfect time to discover -- or rediscover -- Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Russia's world-famous authors plumb their nation's violent side and its ponderous one, bringing Russia alive through the icy battlefields of War and Peace and the foggy St. Petersburg canals of Crime and Punishment. Alexander Pushkin holds a dearer place in Russians' hearts, with his lyrical poems infused with love and dissent. The stories of Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol are satires of the Russian sort, often more tragic than comical, and their descriptions of aristocratic feasts are as delectable and voluminous as the meals they depict.
For a taste of 21st-century Russia, turn to Viktor Pelevin, an irreverent author of novels such as Generation P and Buddha's Little Finger with a cynical yet giddy view of the future and the past. Boris Akunin has garnered a mass following among Russians with his series of well-crafted, often amusing detective novels set at various times in Russian history, starting with Azazel.
The Russian Silver Screen
An excellent way to prepare for your Russia trip would be to watch at least one movie from the Soviet era and one movie made since then. There are few better ways to glimpse how the country has changed over the past generation. Soviet filmmakers were heavily censored but free of commercial constrictions; post-Soviet filmmakers face the opposite problem, desperate for money but free to produce movies as political, tasteless, or shallow as the viewers will bear. The selection of Russian movies available abroad is limited, and those that are available are often too dense or tragic for Western audiences, but a few suggestions are listed below.
Russian film in the 20th century mirrored Russian politics more closely than any other medium. Vladimir Lenin quickly recognized the new "moving picture" as an excellent propaganda tool. But early filmmakers were crippled by the devastation to the country's basic infrastructure (including reliable electricity) wrought by World War I and the ensuing revolution and civil war, and by the loss of top performers and writers who fled abroad to escape the Communist regime. Eventually, a new artistic community emerged eager to define Soviet film as something more experimental than the commercial products coming out of capitalist America. Sergei Eisenstein was the most well-known of this group, and his Battleship Potemkin, released in 1925, became an international classic. Short propaganda films known as agitki were carried to towns and villages from Siberia to central Asia to advertise the wonders of modern technology -- and by extension, of Soviet rule. Communist Party leaders became increasingly restrictive, however, and the 1930s and 1940s saw few artistic breakthroughs. The thaw under Khrushchev led to some internationally acclaimed films, but was followed by 2 more decades of stagnation under Brezhnev, an era dominated by bland dramas and goofy comedies. Gorbachev's glasnost produced some of the best Russian films to date, though most are pretty grim, reflecting the uncertain state of the USSR and the whole Communist experiment.
Russian film today is on the upswing, and movie selections look more and more like those in stable European countries: sci-fi blockbusters packed with special effects, psychological crime dramas, romantic teen comedies, and esoteric art films honored at international festivals. Russian animation -- for both children and adults -- has long been a strong genre that tends to be edgier than western animation, so if you have a chance to see some Russian animated shorts at a film festival near you, seize it.
A few favorite Soviet films:
The Cranes Fly (Letyat Zhuravli), 1957: Tale of a musician who goes to war, and the romantic turmoil he leaves behind.
Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o Soldate), 1959: Tender and heartbreaking account of a soldier on leave in the few days before he's killed in World War II.
Solaris, 1972: Psychological science fiction journey by Andrei Tarkovsky; remade by Hollywood in 2003.
Seventeen Instants of Spring (Semnadstat Mgnovenii Vesny), 1973: Tale of a Soviet spy in wartime Germany carefully balancing his dual identity; Stirlitz became a hero and antihero for Soviet jokes for decades.
Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears (Moskva Slezam ne Verit), 1979: Bittersweet tale of three young women from small towns who arrive in Moscow to pursue their dreams.
Nostalgia, 1984: Soviet-Italian chronicle of a couple's relationship, one of the most accessible films of Andrei Tarkovsky.
Repentance (Pokoyaniye), 1987: Surreal and tragicomic saga of Stalinist repression in his homeland of Georgia, suppressed by censors for years.
Little Vera (Verochka), 1988: Account of a young woman's coming of age amid the social drift, shortages, and alcoholism in provincial Gorbachev-era Russia.
And post-Soviet Russian films:
Burnt by the Sun (Utomlyonnoye Solntsem), 1994: Oscar-winning account of a sun-kissed summer and the cold-blooded, Stalin-era secret police.
Prisoner of the Caucasus (Kavkazky Plennik), 1996: Moving, nuanced portrait of Russians and Chechens during the first Chechnya War.
East-West (Vostok-Zapad), 1999: Russian-French film about a Russian-French couple whose marriage and lives fall apart after they're lured back to Stalin's repressive Soviet Union.
The Wedding (Svadba), 2000: Painfully authentic drama about small-town romance and limited opportunity.
Nightwatch (Nochnoi Dozor), 2003: Big-budget thriller featuring vampires, darkness, and strong special effects.