Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (Oxford, $11). In my novel, teenagers in a Moscow reading club play out the duel scene from Pushkin's novel in a game that goes horribly wrong. But Pushkin's masterpiece is really about an adulterous love that cannot be. When Onegin meets his beloved at the end, she says she loves him too but can't be unfaithful to her husband: In my novel, which is really about love, an adulterous wife sends her lover that passage to say goodbye.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (Dover, $3.50). It is hard to write about love in a formal and hierarchical world without thinking of this novel, one of the best ever written on the subject. Everyone in Stalinist Moscow, like everyone in Wharton's Old New York, had a place and a rank, and adhered to a very strict code of conduct. One of my characters calls her world "Edith Wharton with the death penalty."
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (NYRB Classics, $25). Grossman's 1959 epic was hugely inspiring as I wrote my novel based on a true 1943 incident. Life and Fate captures both the tragedy of the Nazi Holocaust and the brutal meat grinder of the Soviet military and police state. It is a portrait of love and life in a diabolical era.
In the First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Harper Perennial, $19). The author's best novel, set in a prison for scientists who face death if they refuse to work for the Soviet cause, happens to contain one of the finest portraits of Stalin in all literature.
Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel (Norton, $15). This masterpiece tells the story of a bespectacled Jewish journalist who joins the Bolshevik Cossacks as they ride into Poland in 1920, raping, murdering, and pillaging. The book is about war, but it's also about sensuality and Jewishness.
The House on the Embankment by Yuri Trifonov (Northwestern, $19). One of the best novels about the Stalinist terror, The House on the Embankment describes a family's growing fear as neighbors are arrested during the night and taken away to be shot.
— Simon Sebag Montefiore is the award-winning author of Jerusalem: The Biography and Young Stalin. His latest novel, One Night in Winter, tracks a murder probe that focuses on a circle of elite students in 1940s Moscow.