Russian classics everyone should read
Text by Iqra Choudhry
Russia has a long and rich literary history and the country’s classic literature is no exception. Home to some acclaimed pieces of writing exploring social and political issues, these great classics provide a valuable insight into Russia’s unique history as a place where the West meets the East.
QRM picks some favourite reads that just cannot go amiss on your reading list:
Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Widely considered to be Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s finest novel, Crime and Punishment was a literary sensation when it was published in 1866. The story follows a young impoverished law student who is driven by poverty to commit a robbery, ends up committing a murder and is forced to live with the consequences of his actions. The novel has been seen as both exploring the depths to which poverty pushes innocent people, while moralising the dangers of radical ideologies from the West.
And Quiet Flows The Don
by Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov
And Quiet Flows The Don, made up of four volumes, was written over the course of fifteen years, and is considered to be one of the most significant works of literature in the 20th century. It follows the lives of Don Cossacks throughout the first half of the 20th century, up through the First World War and the Russian Revolution. In 1965, Sholokhov was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for And Quiet Flows The Don.
by Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy is widely considered to have been one of the greatest writers to have ever lived. Anna Karenina is one of his most famous works and tells the story of several couples navigating love, marriage, infidelity and religion in 19th century Russian society. The heroine of the book, Anna, is a complex and nuanced character, whose extramarital affair leads to her downfall. The book shocked audiences when it was published due to its frank discussion of infidelity, but was lauded by Tolstoy’s fellow writers across Europe.
by Boris Pasternak
An enduring classic, Doctor Zhivago is taught in Russian schools to this day. The book tells the story of the life and love of Yuri Zhivago across several decades, from 1902 to the Second World War. When it was published in 1956, it was banned by the government as it was considered to be too critical of Stalinism and the Soviet Union. Despite this, the book was widely read and would go on to win Boris Pasternak the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature.
A Hero Of Our Time
by Mikhail Lermontov
Since its publication in 1840, A Hero of Our Time has been widely read, adapted, and referenced in other literary works by writers across the world. Mikhail Lermontov’s novel follows an anti-hero, the self-destructive Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin and his womanising ways. The book has recently been adapted into a ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
by Nikolai Gogol
Inspired by works like The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy, Nikolai Gogol wrote his most famous novel, Dead Souls. The novel, first published in 1842, tells the story of the travels of Pavle Ivanovich Chichikov and the people he meets. It was published incomplete, ending in the middle of a sentence, after Gogol destroyed the second half shortly before his death. Despite this, it is considered to be an exemplary Russian novel.
by Ivan Goncharov
Published in 1859, Oblomov is a satirical novel which pokes fun at 19th century Russian nobility and their ultimate uselessness. The story follows Ilya Ilyich Oblomov, a character who spends most of his time lazing about and avoiding any real action. The novel was much discussed when it was released, and remains a classic to this day.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Focusing on the events of a single day in a Soviet gulag, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel has received universal praise for its brutal descriptions of the conditions in the forced labour camps. Solzhenitsyn drew inspiration from his own experiences of imprisonment. Shortly after the book was published, Solzhenitsyn was declared an enemy of the state and deported. However, the book was incredibly influential, and is considered to have undermined Stalin’s authority in Russia, paving the way for more radical literature.
The Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov
Written between 1928 and 1940, during the Stalin regime in Russia, The Master and Margarita was censored heavily when it was first published, for its thinly-veiled criticisms of the Soviet Union. It tells the surreal story of the devil’s visit to the atheist Soviet Union, and blends satire and social critique with religious imagery and themes. When it was published in full in 1973, it became clear that it was one of the best novels of the 20th century.
War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy’s most famous work is a masterpiece and a daunting read, spanning over a thousand pages in most editions. War and Peace explores exactly those two themes, looking at life in 19th century Russia during the Napoleonic Wars and in peacetime, through the lives of five families from a Russian aristocracy. With a cast of 580 characters, and large sections of philosophical discussion, War and Peace is a behemoth of world literature for a reason.
Illustrations: Khadia Ulumbekova