With Christmas and New Year just around the corner, we prepared a curated selection of reads on Russian history and culture. These recommendations come straight from guest speakers of our Second Saturday lecture series, who are experts in various fields of Russian culture and history. We asked them to share their own recent publications or recommend noteworthy books by other authors.

From the world of photography, music, and painting to the twists and turns of international relations, there’s something of interest for everyone on your holiday gift list. So, whether you’re on the lookout for a meaningful gift or looking for a good holiday read yourself, our list offers great options to choose from.

From Realism to the Silver Age: New Studies in Russian Artistic Culture, edited by Rosalind P. Blakesley and Margaret Samu (Cornell University Press, 2014)

Recommended by Dr. Margaret Samu

This volume of thirteen essays presents rigorous new research by western and Russian scholars on Russian art of the 19th and early-20th centuries. As Dr. Samu said, “it combines the best features of a solid art history volume and a coffee table book. It’s a collection of essays on a wide range of interesting topics (art training, icons, realism, collecting, etc.) and has beautiful color illustrations.”

Watch: Margaret Samu’s lecture “A Russian Masterpiece in Paris: Karl Briullov’s Last Day of Pompeii at the 1834 Salon.”

Europe, Byzantium, and the “Intellectual Silence” of Rus’ Culture, Donald Ostrowski (ARC Humanities, 2018) 

Recommended by Dr. Russell E. Martin

A short but fundamental study of how early Russian culture was not as silent intellectually as has often been portrayed in historical literature. Ostrowski suggests that Western analytical scholars miss the point, not because of an inability to comprehend cultural ideas which seem abstract and ineffable, but because the agenda is different. For the Eastern Church, faith was superior to reason, and Eastern Church thinkers did not see any worth in disputation.

Watch: Russell E. Martin’s lecture “Royal Weddings in Russia: Pageant and Piety at the Court of Russia’s Rulers” (check his book The Tsar’s Happy Occasion on the same topic) 

Nicholas Roerich: The Artist Who Would Be King, John McCannon (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2022)

Recommended by Dr. Pamela Jordan

Among the most influential artists of fin-de-siècle Russia, Nicholas Roerich (1874–1947) designed sets and costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, co-created The Rite of Spring with Igor Stravinsky, and painted iconic scenes of pagan and prehistoric Russia. Exiled from his homeland after the rise of communism in 1917, Roerich pursued new careers in Europe, Asia, and the United States as a peace activist, a new-age mystic, and an explorer. As related in this engaging narrative, Roerich’s story reads like an epic work of fiction and is all the more remarkable for being true.

Watch: Pamela Jordan’s lecture “Stalin’s Singing Spy.”

The Catacazy Affair and the Uneasy Path of Russian-American Relations, Lee A. Farrow (Bloomsbury Press,  2021)

Recommended by Lee A. Farrow

Constantin Catacazy whipped up a scandal in Washington after his appointment there as Russian Ambassador in 1869, ignoring diplomatic protocol and defying social mores. President Grant and his Cabinet requested that he be recalled. This request, however, overlapped with the visit of the tsar’s son to the USA. Catacazy was allowed to travel with the tsar’s son, but only as a persona non grata. Lee A. Farrow explores this affair as one of the earliest significant complications in the relationship between Russia and the USA.

Watch: Lee A. Farrow’s lecture “Grand Duke Alexis in America.”

Architecture at the End of the Earth: Photographing the Russian North, William Craft Brumfield (Duke University Press, 2015)

A rich presentation of some 200 color photographs taken by William Brumfield, contemporary American architectural historian and photographer, during decades of field research in the vast area surrounding the White Sea. Brumfield’s accompanying text explains the historical context of this comprehensive survey. Brumfield is challenged by the immense difficulty of accessing the Russian North, and recounts traversing sketchy roads, crossing silt-clogged rivers on barges and ferries, being delayed by severe snowstorms, and seeing the region from the air aboard the small planes. 

Watch: Dr. Brumfield’s lecture “Journeys Through the Russian Empire: Photography and the Art of Survival.” 

Hunting Nature: Ivan Turgenev and the Organic World, Thomas P. Hodge (Cornell University Press, 2020)

Recommended by Dr. Thomas P. Hodge

in his book, Thomas P. Hodge explores Ivan Turgenev’s relationship to nature through his conception, description, and practice of hunting—a big passion of his life. Informed by an ecocritical perspective, Hodge takes an approach that is equal parts interpretive and documentarian, grounding his observations thoroughly in Russian cultural and linguistic context and a wide range of literature sources.

Watch: Dr. Hodge’s lecture “Ivan Turgenev: Russian Turmoil, Russian Nature.”

Performing Tsarist Russia in New York: Music, Émigrés, and the American Imagination, Natalie K. Zelensky (Indiana University Press, 2019)

Recommended by Natalie K. Zelensky

The book offers a rare look at the musical life of Russia Abroad as it unfolded in New York City. Natalie K. Zelensky examines the popular music culture of the post-Bolshevik Russian emigration and the impact made by this group on American culture and politics. Zelensky demonstrates the central role played by music in shaping and maintaining the Russian émigré diaspora over multiple generations. The book is also available in Russian.

Foundations of Russian Culture, Alexander Schmemann (Holy Trinity Publications, 2023)

A bonus recommendation from the Russian History Museum

This fundamental work was recently published by Holy Trinity Publications in Jordanville, NY. In his book, Schmemann explores the complex history of Russia and analyzes often contradictory tendencies within its culture. He clarifies the meaning of “foundations” and reveals Russia’s struggles to synthesize its distinctive elements while navigating its historical ties with the “West” and the “East.”