Autocrat of all the Russian histories — If I had my way (eight mansions worldwide, moving whenever the weather gets unpleasant, well stocked libraries for each one, etc.), there’d have to be a huge history section in said library and there would also have to be a large subsection on Russian history. The fascination is actually a bit familial — my parents had a couple of Russian history books around from their college days, and I suspect my dad had his partially because of his line of work (ie, commanding a submarine to keep a watch on the Soviet navy). A bit of ‘know your enemy,’ perhaps, but not just that — both my parents and my parental grandparents, who also had a number of such books themselves and who visited Russia during the height of the Cold War, were always at firm pains to make sure I learned to distinguish the people from the government, a valuable object lesson I hope I still keep in mind to the present regarding just about anywhere in the world.

So along with pursuing an intermittent but hopefully more informed than some awareness of Russian literature and poetry, I’ve read many books over time on Russia past and present, some well-known popular works (Robert Massie’s studies of Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great, Hedrick Smith’s The New Russians), a few more specifically academic ones, and a wide variety of books that aren’t famous but aren’t unknown. Last week I spoke briefly about Stalin and His Hangmen, right now I’m working on W. Bruce Lincoln’s study of Nicholas I, who ruled Russia from 1825 to 1855 from a distinctly preserve-the-existing-order take on things, to put it mildly. But he’s also the most modern czar that I know little about, in comparison to those who followed before and after (though I really need to get around to that Catherine the Great biography I have).

But this is more an appreciation of Lincoln himself, who in ways was actually one of the first authors to specifically get me interested in finding out more about the country. In the eighties, he wrote a book called In War’s Dark Shadow, a study of the years before World War I, but steering away from the understandable-enough overfocusing on Nicholas and Alexandra in favor of a general societal survey. It’s been many years since I read it — I might take the plunge again after I complete the Nicholas I biography — but for me, when I read it in senior year of high school or so, I found it a fine balance of the anecdotal and the wider scope, placing a country and a time in a fashion that helped inform both the books I read later, fiction or not, and the occasional movies I saw set in the time period. Perhaps most recently would have been the stuffy-as-hell eighties film version of Anna Karenina with Christopher Reeve and Paul Scofield — wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone, but seeing the uniforms and fashions and appearances when I stumbled across the broadcast immediately made me guess it was late nineteenth-century Russia, and so it proved.

Lincoln did another book on the Russian World War I and Revolution-era times, got through it but it was pretty overwhelming in terms of size. His style in the Nicholas I bio, his first major book, is informative but sometimes repetitive and is best absorbed in bursts. But I’ll always think of him to one extent or another when it comes to reading up on a country that has always fascinated me and to which I’ll yet visit, one day.