Historical fiction covers a variety of subjects, not just the wives of Henry VIII. So much historical fiction is set in western Europe or the United States, but there are many wonderful novels that illuminate the pasts of other regions and peoples. Here are five of our favorite novels set in Russia’s past.
City of Thieves
In the midst of the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad, the young Russian Jew Lev Beniov is jailed for the crime of stealing a knife from a dead German. His cellmate is a deserter from the Russian Army, the anti-Semitic Kolya Vlasov. Both men are sentenced to execution, but are offered a stay if they can complete one not-so-simple task; they must find a dozen eggs so that the daughter of a powerful Soviet colonel can have a cake at her wedding. With his story of the young men’s quest, Benioff creates almost a fairy tale in the midst of a war, there is a lightness and humor even despite the horrors of the siege.
The Winter Palace
Barbara is the daughter of a Polish bookbinder living in Russia, who has enjoyed the patronage of Empress Elizabeth. When her parents die, there is nothing for her to do but throw herself on the mercy of the court, where she is assigned the role of a maid in Elizabeth’s wardrobe. When a new young princess arrives in Russia as a possible bride for Elizabeth’s heir, Barbara is assigned to her, to act as Elizabeth’s spy. The more time Barbara spends with Princess Sophie, who will take the name Catherine after her Orthodox conversion, the more her loyalty begins to shift to this young woman who will one day rule Russia.
The Winter Palace is the first book in a planned series on Catherine the Great’s rule. For more on Catherine the Great, try Robert K. Massie’s biography Catherine the Great.
Originally a peasant, Rasputin is perhaps one of the most famous people in Russian history. Kathryn Harrison’s lyrical Enchantments follows not Rasputin himself, but his young daughters. After the brutal murder of their father, Masha and her younger sister are placed in the care of the Tsar, who is busy with problems of his own. In an attempt to protect Tsarevich Alexei, a hemophiliac, Masha is assigned as his companion. After all, her father allegedly kept him well, so perhaps Masha has similar powers. Masha may not be able to keep Alexei from bleeding, but she does have the gift of keeping his spirits up with the nearly magical stories she tells of her father, Alexei’s family, and the Russia Alexei will never truly know.
The Mirrored World
In The Mirrored World, Debra Dean recounts a fictionalized version of the story of one of Russia’s most beloved saints, St. Xenia. Narrated from the point of view of Xenia’s cousin, the reader follows Xenia from her youth in a family of Russian minor nobility. Never one to adhere to convention for its own sake, Xenia falls deeply in love with and marries a soldier and singer in the Empress’s choir. Xenia’s life seems to be perfect — between her husband and her daughter she is a happy woman. Unfortunately, she is also prone to prophetic dreams, and one of her very worst dreams comes true, leaving her almost completely without reason. Half-crazed, Xenia disappears from all who love her, only to reappear years later as a soothsayer and healer.
Debra Dean has also written a book about Russia during World War II called The Madonnas of Leningrad.
The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar
After Tsar Nicholas was deposed, he and his family were moved to the “House of Special Purpose,” where they would eventually be executed in the cellar. They were able to take only five servants with them, people who would become very close to the family. Leonka was just a young boy when he was chosen as one of the servants to accompany the Romanovs, frequently used by the royal family to deliver notes to someone they hoped could save them. These notes form the basis of Robert Alexander’s The Kitchen Boy, detailing the last days the Romanovs had on earth.