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A Russian Literature Reading List – Where to Start

Russian Literature reading list helps you to discover the beauty and wealth of Russian literature beyond Master and Margarita


Some time ago on Reddit someone asked where they could start with Fyodor Dostoevsky, or Russian Literature in general. Good advice was given even before I joined, and obviously I added my two pence. I thought I’d share my recommendations with you, in case you also want to start on your Russian Literature reading list. I’m sure you know it anyway, but recommendations are based on my personal reading experience.

I’m in the process of making ready a project dedicated to Russian children’s books, tales, poetry, illustrations. What I’m finishing is just a preliminary stage, and ahead lies a wonderful opportunity for everyone to get a glimpse of Soviet/Russian childhood through the words and images. But for now let’s see what can be there on the Russian Literature reading list.

So, first come the advice for those who are interested in Fyodor Dostoevsky:

“my suggestion re: Dostoyevsky would be to try his shorter stories first: Nevsky Prospect, Belye Nochi, Netochka Nezvanova. From there I’d go to The Idiot, this is the work that is most often cited, studied and mentioned by Western writers.

Crime and Punishment is on Russian school curriculum, but it might require a bit of acquaintance with Russian philosophy of the time. Dostoyevsky was a spokesperson for “pochvennichestvo”, a current in philosophical thought after 1860 that invested Russian people with a messianic role in saving the mankind from the rotten bourgeois morals, and instructed intelligentsia to embrace the masses through religion and ethics. I’m not discarding C&P, just saying that it contains some very specific ideas.

Also, Dostoyevsky had a soft spot for gambling, and he actually earned some of his money through that. He narrated his entire experience in a novel The Gambler.

One last thing about Dostoyevsky: he’s mostly read as a very serious writer, very concerned with the harsh reality of life. But I tend to agree with those critics who say he’s often very ironic, and that even very serious things could be written with tongue in cheek”.

Speaking of the latter passage, about Dostoevsky’s humour: I recently read a collection of his unfinished work, all short stories. One of them tells a very peculiar story of a Russian civil servant who got swallowed by a crocodile.

And now,

Russian Literature reading list:

  • Alexander Pushkin, The Little Tragedies (Mozart and Salieri and Boris Godunov)
  • Mikhail Saltykov-Schedrin, The History of a Town (a bitterly satyrical take on Russian history)
  • Leonid Andreev, Judas of Iskariot (the story was written long before The Last Temptation of Christ or Jesus Christ Superstar, but has certain similarities)
  • Maxim Gorky, The Life of Klim Samgin (the story of Russian intelligentsia from the end of 19th c. through the first two Revolutions)
  • Nikolai Gogol, The Government Inspector (a play about the pervasive corruption, deceit, and bureaucracy)
  • Alexander Griboyedov, Woe from Wit (a play in verses; good if you can read Le Misanthrope by Moliere before this one, then you can compare)
  • Anton Chekhov, short stories and plays (Seagull is best-known, so try Ivanov, Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard)
  • Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov (a novel about a mid-19th c. Russian landowner)
  • Ivan Bunin, The Cursed Days (a diary of the build-up to the October Revolution and a few years after, until Bunin’s emigration)
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, Ivan Vassilievich Changes the Occupation (a play, it was turned into a brilliant film)
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, The Days of the Turbines (a play, adapted to screen)
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, The Flight (a play, adapted to screen, starring Mikhail Ulyanov and Alexei Batalov)
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, The Heart of a Dog (a short novel, adapted to screen)
  • Isaac Babel, Konarmia (a short novel about a Jewish journalist (Babel) accompanying and narrating the accomplishments of the Red Army in Poland and Ukraine during the Civil War of 1918-1922)
  • Vladimir Mayakovsky, My Discovery of America (notes on the voyage to America, 1925-1926)
  • Andrei Platonov, Chevengur (I don’t know if it’s translated; if you manage to find it, it’s a kind of continuation of WE by Zamyatin, in the sense that Chevengur is a dream communist place where things sadly don’t go as “communist” as they should; quite a surrealist story)
  • Mikhail Sholokhov, The Fate of a Man (a WW2 story, adapted to screen, directed by and starring Sergei Bondarchuk)
  • Mikhail Sholokhov, Quiet Flows the Don (the life of cossacks from approx. 1912 through the Civil War; adapted to screen 4 times!)
  • Boris Vassilyev, Tomorrow Was the War (WW2, adapted to screen)
  • Boris Vassilyev, The Dawn Is Silent Here (WW2, adapted to screen)
  • Alexander Kuprin, The Garnet Bracelet (a short story about fated love for)
  • Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (a mid-19th c. intelligentsia torn between love and reason)
  • Leo Tolstoy, Kreutzer Sonata (a short novel studies the position of a man and a woman in the society; a Russian Symbolist poet Konstatin Balmont was unhappily married when he read this Tolstoy’s novel, and it impacted him so that he tried to commit suicide; he survived and went on to become a really great lyrical poet).

As I said on Reddit, I have hard time enjoying contemporary Russian Literature, however, Andrei Bitov, Anatoly Rybakov, Grigory Gorin, Joseph Brodsky, Andrei Voznesensky are a must.

Author: Julia Shuvalova

Julia Shuvalova is the author of Los Cuadernos de Julia blog. She is an author of several books, a translator, and a Foreign Languages tutor. She lives and works in Moscow, Russia.

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