Searching for the ultimate ‘must read’ list…

As the trip draws closer, I have been trying to gather a good collection of ‘must read’ books to read before I go (or for on the train). As an avid, (read: nerdy), English history buff, and having at least a basic political and historical knowledge of many of our continental destinations, I’ve decided  to focus on China, Mongolia and Russia (at least to start with).

Opinions on the best type of books to read before you go vary… but I like to pick at a bit of everything; locally written, social-political, travelogues and some fiction.

Having googled other travellers’ ‘must read’ lists, browsed through Amazon, and trusting a bit to luck, I have downloaded a small handful of books to get me started before I go. In order to get me into regular blogging habits (and hopefully to help future Trans-Siberian adventurers decide on their ‘must reads’) I will be posting a little review of each book as I go.

The first of my Russian ‘must reads’ are below.

The Winter Palace Eva Stachniak

Historical fiction is a quagmire of sorts for me. I love ‘good’ historical fiction (Hilary Mantel, Sharon Penman) but am often disappointed by many of the popular novels in this genre that stray too far into insipid, same-y characters acting out a chick lit style drama based very loosely on historical events.

I started Eva Stachniak’s The Winter Palace nervous that this may also fall into the ‘too much bodice-ripping not enough story’ category and was pleasantly surprised to find it was a great read. Told from the point of view of Varvara, a tongue or court spy, The Winter Palace follows the journey of the woman who would become Catherine the Great. Arriving at Empress Elizabeth’s court as a young girl intended to marry Elizabeth’s heir, the Grand Duke Peter, Catherine endures years of humiliation in an unhappy marriage and a tenuous position at court.  A spy for Elizabeth and later Catherine, Varvara observes Catherine’s transformation to a woman capable of staging a coup and forcing the abdication (and possibly the murder) of her husband in order to secure the throne for herself.

I followed this with the non-fiction account of Catherine’s life (discussed above) and was surprised at the historical accuracy and detail regarding the personal relationships, motivations and events at the Russian court. This was an interesting book and certainly one of the better historical fictions I have read. I would certainly look for the expected sequel which will follow Catherine’s time in power.

 Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman Robert K. Massie

Catherine the Great is one of the most ‘readable’ historical biographies I have come across. Massie’s writing style is engaging and lively, and he has the benefit of a wealth of primary and contemporary secondary sources available that detail the small and large events of Catherine’s life as well as her personal thoughts on these (including Catherine’s own memoirs).

A great introduction to 18th century Russia and one of its most influential rulers, Catherine the Great details the life of Catherine from her beginnings as a minor German princess Sophia, through her marriage to Peter and difficult life at the Russian court under Empress Elizabeth, and to her transformation to Empress of Russia for over 30 years.

Having no substantial knowledge of Russian history prior to 20th Century, this book was a great introduction to pre- ‘modern history’ Russia. Massie skilfully situates Russia’s political journey within the broader political climate such as the Enlightenment and European/American struggles with serfdom, slavery and class division.

If you were pressed for time I would certainly recommend this over a fiction option as it is just as entertaining and easy to read.

“A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache.” Catherine the Great

Next for reading and review… Off the Rails Tim Cope & Chris Hatherly (Mongolia)

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