The following recommended books give an important insight into the great political and physical divide in Europe between the end of WWII and 1991 when the Cold War ended.
Known as ‘The Iron Curtain’, this divide was created to shelter the Soviet Union from Western influences, and to specifically separate them from NATO members. The Berlin Wall, dividing Germany into East and West, was included in this partition.
Those in eastern Europe, and much of central Europe positioned east of the metaphorical curtain, were effectively under Soviet rule, and developed their own economic and military alliances. Life was hard and emigrating to the west was extremely limited and made very difficult for ordinary folk.
To truly understand what life was like during the Cold War we look to novels set at the time, fiction and non-fiction, and the authors who lived it.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – John Le Carré
“Alec Leamas, a tired, worn out British spymaster, has retired. His boss, however, believes he has one last job in him and sends him to East Germany to spread false information about a powerful East German intelligence officer. Can Agent Leamas end his career of espionage and finally come in from the cold, or will the opportunity to take revenge on old enemies prove irresistible?”
Among The Russians – Colin Thubron
“A fresh perspective on the last tumultuous years of the Soviet Union and an exquisitely poetic travelogue. With a keen grasp of Russia’s history, a deep appreciation for its architecture and iconography, and an inexhaustible enthusiasm for its people and its culture, Colin Thubron is the perfect guide to a country most of us will never get to know firsthand. Here, we can walk down western Russia’s country roads, rest in its villages, and explore some of the most engaging cities in the world. Beautifully written and infinitely insightful, Among the Russians is vivid, compelling travel writing that will also appeal to readers of history and current events—and to anyone captivated by the shape and texture of one of the world’s most enigmatic cultures.”
Celestial Harmonies – Péter Esterházy
“The Esterházys, one of Europe’s most prominent aristocratic families, are closely linked to the rise and fall of the Hapsburg Empire. Princes, counts, commanders, diplomats, bishops, and patrons of the arts, revered, respected, and occasionally feared by their contemporaries, their story is as complex as the history of Hungary itself. Celestial Harmonies is the intricate chronicle of this remarkable family, a saga spanning seven centuries of epic conquest, tragedy, triumph, and near annihilation. Told by Péter Esterházy, a scion of this populous clan, Celestial Harmonies is dazzling in scope and profound in implication. It is fiction at its most awe-inspiring.”
The Last Hundred Days – Patrick McGuinness
“Once the gleaming ‘Paris of the East,’ Bucharest in 1989 is a world of corruption and paranoia, in thrall to the repressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. Old landmarks are falling to demolition crews, grocery shelves are empty, and informants are everywhere. Into this state of crisis, a young British man arrives to take a university post he never interviewed for. He is taken under the wing of Leo O’Heix, a colleague and master of the black market, and falls for the sleek Celia, daughter of a party apparatchik. Yet he soon learns that in this society, friendships are compromised, and loyalty is never absolute. And as the regime’s authority falters, he finds himself uncomfortably, then dangerously, close to the eye of the storm.”
House of Day, House of Night – Olga Tokarczuk
“Nowa Ruda is a small town in Silesia, an area that has been a part of Poland, Germany, and the former Czechoslovakia in the past. When the narrator moves into the area, she and discovers everyone-and everything-has its own story. With the help of Marta, her enigmatic neighbor, the narrator accumulates these stories, tracing the history of Nowa Ruda from the founding of the town to the lives of its saints, from the caller who wins the radio quiz every day to the tale of the man who causes international tension when he dies on the border, one leg on the Polish side, the other on the Czech side. Each of the stories represents a brick and they interlock to reveal the immense monument that is the town.”
Vilnius Poker – Ričardas Gavelis
“A dark, enigmatic, and visceral examination of the psychology of repression, Vilnius Poker dives into the minds of four narrators whose contradictory memories challenge the very idea of truth. In this masterpiece written “for the drawer,” Vilnius itself becomes a presence possessing a will, a consciousness and, worse, an intent. First published in 1989 when Lithuania was on the verge of breaking away from the Soviet Union, this book raised a firestorm for its brutality, frank sex, and its destruction of the myths of Lithuanian history.”
Field Work in Ukrainian Sex – Oksana Zabuzhko
“Called ‘the most influential Ukrainian book for the 15 years of independence’, Field Work in Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabuzhko is the tale of one woman’s personal revolt provoked by a top literary scandal of the decade. The author, a noted Ukrainian poet and novelist, explains: “When you turn 30, you inevitably start reconsidering what you have been taught in your formative years―that is, if you really seek for your own voice as a writer. In my case, my personal identity crisis had coincided with the one experienced by my country after the advent of independence. The result turned explosive: Field Work in Ukrainian Sex.””
Nostalgia – Mircea Cartarescu
“Readers opening the pages of Nostalgia should brace themselves for a verbal tidal wave of the imagination that will wash away previous ideas of what a novel is or ought to be. Although each of its five chapters is separate and stands alone, a thematic, even mesmeric harmony finds itself in children’s games, the music of the spheres, humankind’s primordial myth-making, the origins of the universe, and in the dilapidated tenement blocks of an apocalyptic Bucharest during the years of communist dictatorship.”