Monday, July 16, 2018

The Russian Revolution, as seen through 12 historical novels

This year (tomorrow, to be exact) marks a century since the execution of Russia's tsar, Nicholas II, and his family in 1918, following the Russian Revolution. Novels set during this tense, violent, chaotic period continue to fascinate for their depictions of a country's history, up-close and wrenchingly personal, during a time of great change. Following are a dozen works of historical fiction set during the period, both new/upcoming and older. Their viewpoints range from Romanov family members and aristocrats whose opulent world falls apart, to ordinary Russians empowered by revolutionary fervor, to men and women simply trying to survive the times as best they can.  Listed below the cover are the perspective each book conveys.

Leonka Sednyov was the kitchen boy who fled from the Romanov family's house of captivity in Ekaterinburg and was one of the last to see them alive; a multi-period mystery. Viking, 2003. [see on Goodreads]

Katya Vogt, a young woman from a Mennonite farming family on the Russian steppes, sees the social order in the country torn apart. Milkweed, 2004. [see on Goodreads]

St. Petersburg's chief police investigator looks into a couple's brutal murder in winter 1917, during the last days of imperial Russia and the immediate lead-up to the revolution. Doubleday, 2003. [see on Goodreads]

This upcoming novel centers on sisters Militza and Anastasia, both Princesses of Montenegro, who are fascinated by the occult and are responsible for bringing Rasputin into the imperial family's circle. Head of Zeus, Aug 2018; also to be published by HarperCollins in the US, Jan. 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Marina Makarova, daughter of a bourgeois St. Petersburg family, falls in love with a Bolshevik poet and observes (and takes part in) many other dramatic events of the time. Little, Brown, 2017. [see on Goodreads] [see my review]

Follett incorporates a variety of viewpoints in this blockbuster epic of WWI and the Russian Revolution: aristocrats, soldiers, ordinary workers, and many more. [see on Goodreads] [see my review]

Grand Duchess Olga, eldest daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra, falls in love with a soldier (a fictional episode) in the days preceding her family's downfall.  Out of print and first published in the 1970s, but worth seeking out. [see on Goodreads]

Maria Feodorovna, who became the mother of Nicholas II, narrates her tumultuous life story, from her youth as a Danish princess through her marriage to the imperial heir and the fall of the Romanov dynasty. Ballantine, July 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Gerty Freely, a young woman in Edwardian England, travels to Moscow to become a middle-class family's governess and gets caught up in the upheaval as the country descends into revolution.  Faber, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

Grand Duchess Anastasia and Anna Anderson, who claimed Anastasia's identity, are the two protagonists (or sole protagonist?) of this multi-stranded historical thriller with the themes of identity and hope. Doubleday, March 2018. [see on Goodreads]

In 1916, Sashenka Zeitlin, an impressionable teenager from a well-off Jewish family, leaves her parents' beliefs behind and joins the Bolshevik movement as a spy, a decision with severe repercussions decades later. Simon & Schuster, 2008. [see on Goodreads]

Mathilde Kschessinska, the petite star of the Russian Imperial Ballet who became mistress to the last tsar, Nicholas II, looks back on her life at age 99.  FSG, 2010. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]


  1. What a wonderful list! I will definitely be looking up a lot of these, as the Russian Revolution is something I've been interesting in learning more about, so what better way than starting with some great books? I really enjoyed The Romanov Empress and I Was Anastasia!

  2. Thanks, Jordan, and glad to see you're interested in the period also! I've always been fascinated by the Romanovs in particular.

  3. Liz V.10:45 AM

    Perhaps outside your timeframe, but I would add A Gentleman in Moscow.

  4. That's one I've been meaning to read. It's set a bit after the period I was looking at but is definitely related. Thanks!

  5. This is a great list! How useful to have them all in one place. And yes, A Gentleman in Moscow would be a great addition.

  6. I'm going to have to read that book, preferably before the movie comes out!

  7. Tamar Anolic7:51 AM

    Thanks for this list! I love Romanov history! I'll have to check out The Snow Mountain in particular, as I've been enjoying novels that focus on Nicholas and Alexandra's children and show what their personalities were like. I really enjoyed "The Passion of Marie Romanov" for that reason. Also, "The Tsar's Masquerade" shows Olga acting on her on pretty strongly (and this novel's premise was fascinating- Nicholas gets his daughters out of Russia before the Revolution). Of course, I had a really good time writing my own Romanov novel, Triumph of a Tsar, which was published earlier this year. It's alternate history: the Russian Revolution is averted and Alexei becomes Tsar. It was really satisfying to write a novel where the Imperial family lives, and Lenin and Stalin are killed off instead!

  8. Thanks for all of the recommendations, Tamar! Your novel has a compelling premise, too.

  9. Anonymous2:55 PM

    Two older titles - STRANGE ARE THE WAYS by Teresa Crane, and EMILY, PT. 3 of the "Kirov Saga", by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.

    Sarah OL

  10. Thanks! Coincidentally, Kate Quinn also mentioned the Kirov Saga on the HNS group today - I'd read other books by Harrod-Eagles, but not that series. The Teresa Crane book is new to me (off to check it out)...

  11. Anonymous6:20 PM

    Two by Robert Alexander - THE KITCHEN BOY and RASPUTIN'S DAUGHTER. Vanora Bennett's MIDNIGHT IN ST. PETERSBURG. THE JEWEL OF ST. PETERSBURG by Kate Furnivall. And, if you can find it, FROSSIA by E. M. Almedingen, who wrote many biographies of Russians and whose memoir TOMORROW WILL COME gives an intimate, harrowing portrait of St. Petersburg 1900-1922.

    Sarah OL

  12. I wonder if Robert Alexander will be writing any other historical novels. I think The Romanov Bride was my favorite of his three -- almost nobody else has written about Grand Duchess Elisabeth.

  13. In the past I read most of Catherine Gavin books. Another author I enjoyed reading was Antonia Ridge and I especially loved "Grandma Went to Russia". An interesting and informative blog, Sarah

    1. I haven't heard of that one by Antonia Ridge, though I have a copy of her novel about Katherine de Valois. Thanks!

  14. I read broadly on the early 20th century, particularly focusing on the Russian Revolution. But I wonder if novels confuse a tricky period of history, rather than clarifying it. I read all the reference books on the Anastasia pretenders, and found them confusing enough.

    Thanks for the link to the Lawhon novel in particular
    Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, in
    Art and Architecture, mainly

  15. A thoughtful comment - I think novels by necessity have to simplify the period to some degree, since their focus is narrow, and novelists always have to choose what to leave in versus take out. I'd be curious if you had any specific novel in mind.

    The Lawhon novel has an interesting structure that takes some getting used to.

    Thanks for commenting!

  16. Great suggestions. I'll have to look for some of these.

    Last year, I enjoyed three books (still out of print, I believe) by an older author -- Patricia Wright -- who wrote a family saga set in Russia that spans mid-1800s through post-WW2. The three linked books are: A Space of the Heart, Journey into Fire, and Heart of the Storm. I found them very much worth tracking down.

  17. Thanks - is she the same Patricia Wright who wrote I Am England? I'll have to check - I hadn't come across her Russia-set novels before.

  18. Yes, same author (though I haven’t read I am England). Scratch Heart of the Storm from the list, though. I was confusing my books. Heart of the Storm is WW2 in England. The other two I mentioned are the Russian books, Journey into Fire being the one that begins shorty before WW1 and ends in 1960s. The earlier book is set during the 1850s and is interesting as background. Another book I thought was a good page turner was Constance Heaven’s The Raging Fire. It’s another family saga that spans 1904-1918.

  19. Family sagas are my favorite. I just ordered a copy of Journey Into Fire on Paperbackswap - thanks for the heads up. It's been a long time since I've read any of Constance Heaven's novels. I grew up reading them, but The Raging Fire is new to me.