12 Essential Books About Russia

Sonya Korshenboym / © Culture Trip
Sonya Korshenboym / © Culture Trip
Photo of Anastasiia Ilina
8 June 2018

Russians are very proud of their literature. Books by Russian authors are prized possessions in most households. So, needing a book to read is never an issue here – the question is more about which book is best to start with. Here are 12 books that will give you a good foundation to learning about Russia and its history.

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

Considered one of the most important books written in the Russian language, Eugene Onegin is a story written in poems. The author himself has called this work, ‘a heroic act’. Although the love story plot is very simple, beneath the surface is a mirror-image of Russian society as it was in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The setting of the novel moves from the simple countryside to the posh capital of St Petersburg, creating an encyclopedic view of Russian life.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

This novel has been named the ‘first psychological novel in Russian history’, based on the character Grigory Pechorin, a young officer stationed in the Caucasus. The novel is divided into six parts arranged in non-chronological order. The character is first introduced through the memoirs of one of his friends and then through the journal of Pechorin himself. His character becomes a collective image of society at the time, including all its flaws.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

The inspiration for Dead Souls came to Gogol during a conversation with Alexander Pushkin. He shared a rumor that ever since the Moldovian city Bender joined Russia, there hadn’t been any registered deaths, except for those of soldiers. Investigation revealed that the names of the dead people in the city were being taken by refugees, who were hiding from the law.

Gogol transformed this story into a humorous novel about a middle-class man, Chichikov, who pretends to be a rich landowner to purchase the rights of dead peasants that he claims worked for him, giving him the right to claim their meager wealth. The novel ends mid-sentence as three volumes were originally scheduled to be written. However, Gogol burned the completed second draft shortly before his death.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace is perhaps one of the best-known pieces of Russian literature, but it is also one of the most challenging books to read. The four-volume novel paints a detailed picture of Russian society during the time of the war with Napoleon, from 1805 to 1812. More than 550 characters are introduced, both real and fictitious, each with his or her own destiny, thoughts and morals. Tolstoy truly created an intertwining story that represented the people of a country as it made history.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

The main character of this novel, Ilya Oblomov, lives alone with his servant in St Petersburg. His lifestyle is a satire of Russian nobility that inherit wealth, have little purpose and maintain an expensive lifestyle. Oblomov is visited by his childhood friend, Andrey Stolz, who is determined to instill the idea of productivity and health in Oblomov and bring his life purpose. Behind this humorous plot lies the more complicated story of the fall of the land ownership system that had been in place in Russia for years.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

The main theme of this novel is simply and aptly described in the title – it is a work about the relationship between two generations. The old, tradition-heavy class of landowners is facing a change as heirs are energized with new ideas that oppose the old regime. One character, young Bazarov, sees his purpose as ‘breaking the old’, and his actions become examples for many young people of the time.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Who is Happy in Russia by Nikolai Nekrasov

This epic four-part poem was Nekrasov’s response to the changes happening in Russia at the time – most notably, the reform that would free all serfs from their landowners. As the serf-owning segment of society was adjusting to the new lifestyle, so were the serfs. In the story, a group of troubled serfs gather together and begin travelling to find an answer to a question that is bothering them – who is happy in Russia? As they ask different members of society, it turns out that no one feels happy because everyone is seeking personal happiness, rather than considering the common good.

Courtesy of Delphi Classics

Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Demons was written in reaction to a growing radical movement in Russia that took place at the end of the nineteenth century. The plot of the book is based on the true murder of a young student, who was killed by fellow members of a revolutionary club. The novel is a representation of the growing discontent with the political system. It was also a medium for Dostoevsky to share his thoughts and predictions for the country’s future.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov

The plot of this novel is based on the daily life of the people of Cossacks, a self-governing Russian community (some of Cossacks’ citizens live near the river Don). During the Revolution and the Civil War, the Don region became a major stronghold for the White Army (monarchists, fighting to bring back the royal family); it also became the scene for many deadly battles. The novel was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature, making Mikhail Sholokhov the first writer of the era of social realism to be permitted by the Soviet Union to accept the prize.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov

One of Bulgakov’s most outspoken works, The Heart of a Dog took 50 years to be officially published as it was forbidden in the Soviet Union. The novel is based on an illegal operation conducted by a member of the dying bourgeois class, who wanted to turn a dog into a human. The story takes place after the Russian Revolution, as the educated class becomes more and more oppressed and the working class gains power.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

A novel that was forbidden for many years in the Soviet Union, Doctor Zhivago is arguably one of the best works depicting Russia at the start of the twentieth century. The plot follows the life of Yuri Zhivago from his childhood, through the years of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the Civil War. Zhivago is a generous man and is the ideal example of a good Russian Christian.

Some believe the life of Pasternak himself was the inspiration for the novel. Despite receiving high praise from critics and winning a Nobel Prize for Literature, Pasternak’s work was not recognised in the USSR, and he was forced to decline the prize. Doctor Zhivago was first published in Russia during the last years of the Soviet Union.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as a man who was part of the Soviet system, was a prominent critic of communism. The book ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ was the only work he was allowed to publish in the Soviet Union. The novel reveals the truth about Stalin’s camp and the GULAG system. The main character was inspired by Solzhenitsyn himself, who spent time in a labour camp. Solzhenitsyn was later awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature, but he chose not to receive it for fear of not being allowed back into the USSR.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

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