When navigating the world of literature, it’s nearly impossible to escape the Russians. Their contributions are so great and their influences are so wide that to ignore them is almost akin to ignoring literature in its entirety.
As bookworms, that simply must not do.
I understand why someone would hesitate to read Russian literature. It’s complex, difficult to read, and oftentimes depressing. Just give it a try, though, and expose yourself to the intricacies of the human experience with some of the most famous Russian writers in history.
Vladimir Nabokov was an aesthete. He loved language – the sound of it, its power to form imagery – and he did everything he could in his work to pay tribute to it. His novels and stories were never political despite the realities of his life. He spent a good chunk of it escaping the Nazis with his Jewish wife, the editor and translator Vera Nabokov. Despite that, Nabokov remains to be one of the most famous literary giants today because of the sheer beauty of his work.
If you’re going to start reading Nabokov, Lolita would be the perfect book to pick up. It’s about a middle-aged professor named Humbert Humbert who falls in love with a 12-year-old girl named Dolores Haze. If you want to dig deeper, go pick up the short and eccentric novel Transparent Things. It tells the story of American editor Hugh Person and his four trips to a small Swiss village. This late-career novel shows that even at the age of 73, Nabokov was able to create literary magic.
Originally, Anton Chekhov was supposed to dedicate his life to being a physician. When he tried his hand in writing fiction, not only did he learn that he was passionate for it, but he was quite talented in it too. While keeping his job as a physician, he continued to write and eventually revolutionized the short story form.
For an introduction to Chekhov’s writing, it would be best to start with his masterful short story “The Woman with the Dog.” It is about the romantic affair between Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna Von Diderits. It starts in medias res and it’s ending is open for interpretation, which is essentially the format that modern-day literary short stories follow.
Fyodor Dostoyevskyi faced a barrage of challenges. His father was murdered before he could even buy himself a drink, and when he grew up to be an engineer he developed a gambling problem. When he became friends with radical thinkers, he was mistakenly sent to the firing squad. Their execution was cancelled at the last minute, and he was sent to Serbia instead.
Perhaps it was simply coincidence, but to Dostoyevsky, who was orthodox Christian, that was probably divine intervention. He spent his second chance at life penning some of the best works of literature this world has ever seen.
One of them is Crime and Punishment. That title may seem intimidating to those who normally avoid classic literature, but don’t be fooled. Simply put, the novel is about Rodion Raskolnikov’s great guilt after murdering his landlady. The novel promises a more complex plot to what that summary implies, but what it also holds is a psychological thriller than can still excite and leave a mark on modern readers today.
Leo Tolstoy was one of the most influential writers and biggest bookworms in history. He was such a bookworm that he saw the novel as a powerful force. It wasn’t just something you read to pass the time on a lazy Sunday afternoon; to him, novels (good novels at least) had the potential to change us, to humanize us, to make the world a better place. Looking at the story of his life, it’s no wonder why he took on these views. He filled his youth with gambling and drinking, and he only sobered up when he decided to write one of the most important works in literature.
His most accessible novel is Anna Karenina. It is about the titular aristocrat who decides to leave a passionless marriage in exchange for love. This is a must-read not only if you’re looking to explore Russian literature; this is a must-read if you want to fully understand the power of literature as a whole.
Nikolai Gogol was hailed by some of his peers (including ones on this list) as the greatest writer Russia has ever produced. What’s funny is he wasn’t even Russian – he was Ukranian. But the question of his nationality hardly matters now with the gargantuan contributions that he has given to literature. Perhaps a perfect entry point into Gogol’s body of work is his novel Dead Souls which is heralded by many to be the first great Russian novel.
This dark comedy is about a con man named Chichikov who, for one reason or another, offers to buy the title of serfs (the titular dead souls) in a small town. What follows is a strange yet memorable tale that cemented Gogol his undisputable place in literature.
If this list hasn’t convinced you to pick up a Russian novel yet, I’ll leave you with a quote from Dead Souls that shows just how much Russian authors valued and displayed the power of literature: “A word aptly uttered or written cannot be cut away by an axe.”