Best Non-Fiction of 2011: a Central and Eastern European roundup

A selection of non-fiction about Central and Eastern Europe noted by critics in the year’s “Best of” lists

The best Central and Eastern European non-fiction books of 2011 differ significantly from the fiction in that with only a couple of exceptions they are written about the region in English rather than being from the region itself. (There might be more than two exceptions but I haven’t made an exhaustive search of all the best books of the year lists, which would take more or less a whole year to do).

The translated titles are both Polish travel books mentioned by Boyd Tonkin in The Independent’s best travel books of the year. White Fever is Jacek Hugo-Bader’s story of a road trip across Siberia, while Andrzej Stasiuk’s On the Road to Babadag is a poetic account of a journey off the beaten path in countries like Romania and Slovakia.

The combination of obscurity and parts of Eastern Europe plays a role in the widely celebrated (The Guardian and Financial Times-listed) Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms, which looks at formerly major but now largely forgotten kingdoms such as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and puts their disappearances in the context of the eventual collapses of today’s empires and nation states.

A couple of other Financial Times’ selections that happen to refer to an empire that no longer exists are Anna Reid’s Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege 1941-1944 and Being Soviet: Identity, Rumour and Everyday Life under Stalin 1939-1953 by Timothy Johnston. Reid’s book in particular made its way onto a number of “Best of” lists.

Canadian writer David Bezmozgis, whose novel “The Free World” was also a major presence of “Best of” lists in 2011, chose Joshua Rubenstein’s biography of Leon Trotsky among the year’s best. I haven’t read it yet but loved his 1996 biography, Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg.

In keeping with the Russian domination of the top CEE non-fiction of 2011, Robert Massie’s biography of Catherine the Great was another favorite, gaining plaudits from Tina Brown among many other critics.

Best of all though is the inclusion of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, released in the UK in 2011 and listed by Roddy Doyle in The Guardian and Jane Shilling in The New Statesman among other places.

And finally, it’s not exactly a “Best of 2011” list, but following the death of Václav Havel, David Remnick wrote a Havel-inspired reading list at The New Yorker which is worth reading (the article and the books). My personal favorite on his list fits very well with all the Russian titles listed here: the widow of poet Osip Mandelstam, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s two-volume memoirs Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned which, as Remnick writes, “describe the daily existence of the mind and body and soul under totalitarianism better than any other prose imaginable.”

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