Historical Musings #72: From the TBR…Russia and Ukraine

Welcome to another of my not-quite-monthly posts on all things historical fiction!

This month I’ve decided to share with you some of the historical fiction waiting on my TBR. With everything going on in the world and with other projects taking place in the book blogging community such as Brona’s Understanding Ukraine, I thought I would focus on books set in Russia or Ukraine. There are a lot that I’ve already read (mainly Russia rather than Ukraine) and you can find reviews elsewhere on my blog using the Russia tag (there are some classics/contemporary novels amongst those too); I’ve just finished The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn, about a female Soviet sniper, so my review of that one should be coming soon as well.

The titles below are all books that I haven’t read yet. Maybe you can help me decide which I should try to read as soon as possible and which, if any, I could remove from my TBR.

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The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

Russia, 1854. As the Crimean War grinds on, Rosa Barr – young, headstrong and beautiful – travels to the battlefields, determined to join Florence Nightingale and save as many of the wounded as she can.

For Mariella, Rosa’s cousin, the war is contained within the pages of her scrapbook, her sewing circle, and the letters she receives from Henry, her fiancé, a celebrated surgeon who has also volunteered to work within the shadow of the guns. But when Henry falls ill, and Rosa’s communications cease, Mariella finds herself drawn inexorably towards the war.

Following the trail of her elusive and captivating cousin, Mariella’s epic journey takes her from the domestic restraint of Victorian England to the ravaged landscape of the Crimea. As she ventures deeper into the dark heart of the conflict, Mariella discovers her own strengths and passions through Rosa’s tough lessons of concealment, faithfulness and love.

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The Siege by Helen Dunmore

Leningrad, September 1941.

German tanks surround the city, imprisoning those who live there. The besieged people of Leningrad face shells, starvation, and the Russian winter. Interweaving two love affairs in two generations, THE SIEGE draws us deep into the Levin’s family struggle to stay alive during this terrible winter. It is a story about war and the wounds it inflicts on people’s lives. It is also a lyrical and deeply moving celebration of love, life and survival.

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Sashenska by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Winter, 1916. In St Petersburg, snow is falling in a country on the brink of revolution.

Beautiful and headstrong, Sashenka Zeitlin is just sixteen. As her mother parties with Rasputin and her dissolute friends, Sashenka slips into the frozen night to play her role in a dangerous game of conspiracy and seduction.

Twenty years on, Sashenka has a powerful husband and two children. Around her people are disappearing but her own family is safe. Yet she is about to embark on a forbidden love affair which will have devastating consequences.

Sashenka’s story lies hidden for half a century, until a young historian goes deep into Stalin’s private archives and uncovers a heart-breaking story of passion and betrayal, savage cruelty and unexpected heroism – and one woman forced to make an unbearable choice…

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The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne

Russia, 1915: Sixteen year old farmer’s son Georgy Jachmenev steps in front of an assassin’s bullet intended for a senior member of the Russian Imperial Family and is instantly proclaimed a hero. Rewarded with the position of bodyguard to Alexei Romanov, the only son of Tsar Nicholas II, the course of his life is changed for ever.

Privy to the secrets of Nicholas and Alexandra, the machinations of Rasputin and the events which will lead to the final collapse of the autocracy, Georgy is both a witness and participant in a drama that will echo down the century.

Sixty-five years later, visiting his wife Zoya as she lies in a London hospital, memories of the life they have lived together flood his mind. And with them, the consequences of the brutal fate of the Romanovs which has hung like a shroud over every aspect of their marriage…

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To Kill a Tsar by Andrew Williams

St Petersburg, 1879. A shot rings out in Palace Square. Cossack guards tackle the would-be assassin to the ground. In the mêlée no one notices a striking dark haired young woman in a heavy coat slip away from the scene.

Russia is alive with revolutionaries. While Tsar Alexander II remains a virtual prisoner in his own palaces, his ruthless secret police will stop at nothing to unmask those who plot his assassination and the overthrow of the Imperial regime. For Dr Frederick Hadfield, whose medical practice is dependent on the Anglo-Russian gentry, these are dangerous times. Drawn into a desperate cat-and-mouse game of undercover assignations, plot and counter-plot, he risks all in a perilous double life.

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The Romanov Empress by CW Gortner

Barely nineteen, Minnie knows that her station in life as a Danish princess is to leave her family and enter into a royal marriage — as her older sister Alix has done, moving to England to wed Queen Victoria’s eldest son. The winds of fortune bring Minnie to Russia, where she marries the Romanov heir, Alexander, and once he ascends the throne, becomes empress. When resistance to his reign strikes at the heart of her family and the tsar sets out to crush all who oppose him, Minnie — now called Maria — must tread a perilous path of compromise in a country she has come to love.

Her husband’s death leaves their son Nicholas as the inexperienced ruler of a deeply divided and crumbling empire. Determined to guide him to reforms that will bring Russia into the modern age, Maria faces implacable opposition from Nicholas’s strong-willed wife, Alexandra, whose fervor has led her into a disturbing relationship with a mystic named Rasputin. As the unstoppable wave of revolution rises anew to engulf Russia, Maria will face her most dangerous challenge and her greatest heartache.

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The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson

When twenty-two-year-old Gerty Freely travels to Russia to work as a governess in early 1914, she has no idea of the vast political upheavals ahead, nor how completely her fate will be shaped by them.

In 1917, revolution sweeps away the Moscow Gerty knew. The middle classes – and their governesses – are fleeing the country, but she stays, throwing herself into an experiment in communal living led by charismatic inventor Nikita Slavkin, inspired by his belief in a future free of bourgeois clutter and alight with creativity. Yet the chaos and violence of the outside world cannot be withstood forever. Slavkin’s sudden disappearance inspires the Soviet cult of the Vanishing Futurist, the scientist who sacrificed himself for the Communist ideal. Gerty, alone and vulnerable, must now discover where that ideal will ultimately lead.

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* To Kill A Tsar and The Vanishing Futurist are both books I need to read for my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project (I’m particularly interested in The Vanishing Futurist after reading Cyber Kitten’s recent review).
* I have had an unread copy of The Rose of Sebastopol for more than ten years, so I should really read it soon!
* Sashenka was added to my TBR after reading Montefiore’s One Night in Winter, then I saw some negative reviews that put me off reading it.
* I started reading The Siege years ago, but didn’t get very far because I kept thinking of The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons which I’d just read and which is also about the Siege of Leningrad.
* I love John Boyne’s books, so I definitely still want to read The House of Special Purpose – and I haven’t read very much fiction about the Romanovs so the CW Gortner book should be interesting.

Have you read any of these? Which other historical fiction novels set in Russia or Ukraine have you read?

25 thoughts on “Historical Musings #72: From the TBR…Russia and Ukraine

  1. setinthepast says:

    I’ve read most of those! The Kirov trilogy books by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles are wonderful. There are sequels to The Bronze Horseman, but they aren’t as good. Simon Sebag-Montefiore is a brilliant historian but not a brilliant novelist. Ellen Alpsten’s two books arw very good but not 100% accurate, and Carolly Erickson’s books are also good. Still never read War and Peace!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I read the first sequel, Tatiana and Alexander, and quite enjoyed it, but lost interest halfway through The Summer Garden. I’ll have to look for the Cynthia Harrod-Eagles and Carolly Erickson books. Thanks!

  2. Lark says:

    I’ve only read The Siege, which I really liked. But then I find that whole siege of Leningrad fascinating. Both the Gortner novel and The Vanishing Futurist sound very interesting and good, too. 🙂

  3. Carmen says:

    I also have Sashenka and The House of Special Purpose on my TBR. I have read The Romanov Empress and can wholeheartedly recommend it. Sashenka is not among my priorities just because it’s a big commitment, but I’ve read great recommendations about it; just letting you know that One Night in Winter and Red Sky (or something like it) are sequels to Sashenka.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I’ve read both One Night in Winter and Red Sky at Noon, while Sashenka is still on the TBR! I don’t think it will matter, though, as the books just seem to be loosely connected. I’m glad you can recommend The Romanov Empress – I’ve enjoyed other CW Gortner books, so I’m sure I’ll like that one too.

  4. Carmen says:

    Sorry, me again. I can also recommend The Kitchen Boy and Rasputin’s Daughter, both by Robert Alexander; the first one is what happened at the ‘House of Special Purpose’, seen through the eyes of a kitchen boy. The latter is about Rasputin and his relationship with all the Romanovs, seen through the eyes of Maria, Rasputin’s daughter.

  5. whatmeread says:

    I haven’t read anything by Montefiore, although his name comes up frequently for books about Russian. The three I have read are The House of Special Purpose, To Kill a Tsar, and The Vanishing Futurist. I thought To Kill a Tsar was pretty bad because it was framed around a wholly unconvincing love story. I also had some problems with The House of Special Purpose. The Vanishing Futurist was unusual but interesting.

    • Helen says:

      To Kill a Tsar doesn’t really appeal to me, but I will still try it eventually. I’m glad you thought The Vanishing Futurist was interesting!

  6. Brona's Books says:

    I agree with Kay, The Vanishing Futurist was unusual but interesting – I learnt a lot about the avant-garde movement in Russia. I’m keen to try a Montefiore one day as well.

  7. hopewellslibraryoflife says:

    I read Rose of Sebasoapol and reviewed it on my old blog (my comments on Goodreads made me laugh tonight). I did not know about Gortner’s book or the Andrew Williams book.While it is nonfiction, I highly recommend Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra–still the best, most readable account of them.

    • Helen says:

      I’ll have to read the Robert Massie book! I don’t know all that much about Nicholas and Alexandra so I’m sure I would find it interesting.

      • Carmen says:

        Robert Massie has two monographs on Nicholas II, one Nicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. He also wrote biographies on Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. Simon Montefiore also wrote a monograph on the whole Romanov dynasty, starting in the 1600s. My father, who loves nonfiction, read it and recommended it.

  8. Margaret says:

    I enjoyed The Rose of Sebastopol and can recommend it. I have Sashenka on my TBR shelves but don’t know the other books. I also have The Water Horse by julia Gregson, historical fiction based on the true story of a young Welsh woman, Jane Evans, a Welsh woman who in 1853 ran off with Welsh cattle drovers and volunteered as a nurse with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea but haven’t read it.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed The Rose of Sebastopol – it has been on my shelf for such a long time and I’m determined to read it soon. The Water Horse sounds interesting. I’ve read a different book by Julia Gregson but haven’t heard of that one.

  9. Cyberkitten says:

    I’ve only read ‘The Vanishing Futurist’ from that list (thanks for the mention!) but I do have ‘The Rose of Sebastopol’ and ‘Sashenska’. I did read ‘Defectors’ by Joseph Kanon recently which is based in 1961 Moscow and is very good. Other Russia based books I can recommend are:

    A Vengeful Longing by R N Morris (1860’s St Petersburg)
    A Gentle Axe by R N Morris (1860’s St Petersburg)
    The Street Philosopher by Matthew Plampin (1850’s Crimea & Manchester)
    The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin (1870’s Moscow)

    I do have a *few* more on my TBR List – as always!

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you liked The Romanov Empress! I will try to read that one soon. I have read The Winter Palace (and its sequel, Empress of the Night), but I haven’t read Enchantments – thanks!

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