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10 Books to Introduce You to Russian Literature

Picture of Marta Wiejak
Updated: 10 January 2018
The fame of Russian literature spreads far and wide. While some enjoy heavy classics such as War and Peace, others might be looking for a more accessible gateway into the Russian literature. If you belong to the latter category, check out our round-up of the best introductory books to Russian literature.

White Nights by Fyodor Dostoevsky

If you’re looking for a bitesize classic, this is the book to turn to. Written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, one of Russian literature’s giants, White Nights tell the story of two sleepless people who meet at the same spot every night. It is a story of alienation and unreciprocated love set in the streets of 19th century St. Petersburg.

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The first edition of White Nights | © WikiCommons

Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov

Heart of a Dog is another shortcut to classic Russian literature. Mikhail Bulgakov‘s work tells the story of a famous and widely envied scientist who conducts a successful experiment: he transplants the testicles and the pituitary gland of a dead man to a dog. The experiment spins entirely out of control, providing a fascinating story and a powerful social commentary. This is Bulgakov at his best in a nutshell.

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The first English edition of The Heart of a Dog | © WikiCommons

Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin

Day of the Oprichnik is a masterpiece of late-Soviet fiction and a fascinating book to read. It’s set in Moscow of 2028 and follows a story of a Tsar’s advisor in a futuristic, but brutal and, in many ways, primitive court of the future. Day of the Oprichnik is a study of a society on the verge of collapse and, sadly, it’s not losing its appeal in the post-Soviet world.

Short Stories by Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai Gogol is, next to Anton Chekhov, the king of the short story in Russian literature. Gogol was writing short, satirical pieces which were, nonetheless, pinpointing perfectly a particular human vice or a social problem. Gogol’s stories are short, crisp, but they’re incessantly fun to read and – sadly – they didn’t lose any of their relevance.

We by Evgeny Zamyatin

Written in 1921, We is one of the first dystopian novels ever written and is recognised as one of the inspirations behind George Orwell’s 1984. Evgeny Zamyatin’s work is a story of the United State where he-numbers and she-numbers, deprived of all freedoms, follow day plans created to them for a minute. As becomes clear, love and rebellion come into play, causing a fair deal of disturbance in the United State. We was only published in Russia in the 1980s. It is a very important book, but it is also a fascinating read.

Moscow to the End of the Line by Venedikt Erofeev

If you wish to see what life in the late Soviet Union must have been like, Moscow to the End of the Line is the resource to turn to. It’s a grotesque story of a foreman of a cable-laying crew who had just been fired from his job because of the abuse of alcohol by his entire team. He spends the rest of his money on more alcohol, gets on the train and discusses the life in the Soviet Union with his fellow passengers.

Short Stories by Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov is one of the most important writers of Russian literature. He was also one of the most prolific – his short stories constitute one of the most important elements of his bibliography. Chekhov’s stories are subtle, intricate and truly beautiful on a linguistic level. They are also a wonderful depiction of 19th-century Russia.

Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898
Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898 | Courtesy of the State Tretyakov Gallery

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin

Boris Akunin is a contemporary Russian author who writes excellent crime stories set in 19th-century Moscow. The stories follow the investigations of Erast Fandorin, a young and somewhat naive police conscript who goes on to become a somewhat cynical yet recognised detective. The Winter Queen is the first of the Fandorin series. The intrigue is excellent and the novel extremely well-researched, giving readers an insight both modern Russian literature, and the Moscow of the not-so-remote past.

The Winter Queen I Courtesy of Random House
The Winter Queen I Courtesy of Random House | © Random House

Sonechka: A Novella and Stories by Lyudmila Ulitskaya

This set of stories by Ulitskaya explores the growth and development of a girl with a passion for books. One day she meets a man who unexpectedly proposes to her. She accepts his proposal, and they move around Russia together. Sonechka is a story of warmth, love, and kindness, as well as being about literature and its purpose in life, delivered by one of Russia’s most important contemporary writers. It is a story that adds to the understanding of the famous Russian soul.

Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

Dmitry Glukhovsky is one Russia’s best-recognised contemporary science-fiction writers. Metro 2033, his most famous novel, is set in a post-apocalyptic Moscow. Life on the surface of the Earth became entirely extinct, and spending any amount of time outside poses a deadly threat – the few survivors now live under the surface, in the vast network of metro lines. Artem, the main character of the novel, embarks on a long and laborious journey from station to station, facing many of the metro’s monsters. Metro 2033 gave rise to a worldwide community of readers and writers, constantly expanding the universe created by Glukhovsky.

https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A4%D0%B0%D0%B9%D0%BB:%D0%94._%D0%90._%D0%93%D0%BB%D1%83%D1%85%D0%BE%D0%B2%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B8%D0%B9_%D0%BD%D0%B0_%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%B7%D0%B5%D0%BD%D1%82%D0%B0%D1%86%D0%B8%D0%B8_%D0%BA%D0%BD%D0%B8%D0%B3%D0%B8_%27%27%D0%9C%D0%B5%D1%82%D1%80%D0%BE_2035%27%27_%D0%B2_%D0%9A%D1%80%D0%B0%D1%81%D0%BD%D0%BE%D1%8F%D1%80%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B5.jpg
Dmitri Glukhovski | Tempus / WikiCommons