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It is hard to disagree with Solzhenitsyn that Russian literature is the country’s second government. Russian books, whether it’s about Tolstoy’s love-stricken aristocrats or Pushkin’s tragic addicts, are a trip through time and into the Russian soul.
This list consists of books that touch on classic Russian titles, contemporary and non-fiction books about Russia, books on Russian and Soviet history as well as some of the most famous Russian short stories.
Love, War, God, Justice, Pain, Family, Good & Evil… pretty much everything philosophical you can think of will be discussed. With a dose of Cold War espionage of course.
So, buckle up with your trusty Kindle or colourful bookmarks ’cause it’s going to be a very existential ride!
Classic Russian Literature
1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)
For our debutant, you might have thought I would bow to the grandeur of War and Peace or the Pushkin sophistication of Eugene Onegin. Nope.
One of my favorite books about Russia, Crime and Punishment made me ache to the point of self-doubt at Raskolnikov’s feverish paranoia. I wanted to hug and console Sonya; a sanctified prostitute who works solely to support her family (and perhaps reflects how Russian religious collectivism is used to absolve one of their sins?).
This novel of human psychology follows the ex-law student Raskolnikov and his social entourage after he commits two egregious crimes. With Raskolnikov sweeping the streets of St Petersburg, in an effort to either escape his guilt or fall deeper into his delirium, you will meet Razumikhin, Raskolnikov’s friend and happier alter-ego. You will learn about Dunya, Raskolnikov’s sister, chased by the profiteering Luzhin. The Marmeladovs will show you what real family drama looks like. Porfiry Petrovich will be your 19th century Russian Poirot.
The underlying question of it all: will Raskolnikov meet his punishment?
Intrigued to discover St Peterburg through the eyes of Russian nihilism? Ready to understand why turmoil has been irreversibly linked to the Russian soul? Then, there are few Russian books that can rival the complexity of Crime and Punishment.
2. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966)
Pontius Pilatus, the devil, and a chess-master cat enter a bar in Moscow… where did they all meet? Well, at Bulgakov’s Master and Margharita, of course!
Woland (Satan) with his supernatural bandits dance the tango of destruction with the flawed humans that they encounter in Moscow. The result will sometimes make you choke with laughter and other times will make your skin crawl.
Beheadings; sending people off to a nuthouse in Yalta; mystical seances at the Variety theatre leaving people naked in the street; just a few of the events that describe part of the havoc that Woland unleashes. The eternal battle between evil and good, fairness and injustice, greed and heroism are interweaved in the lives of the Master, Margharita, traumatized poets, morally dubious theatre directors, and maids-turned-witches.
As the Russian cousin of Goethe’s Faust, “The Master and Margarita” will show you how fear paralyzed the minds of the Soviet people and how atheistic propaganda was injected through society’s veins. But, you will also take a philosophical deep dive into morality, leaving you entertained and intellectually bedazzled.
3. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (1862)
Let me just say that I came across this diamond by doing an essay on Hemingway’s own version of “Fathers and Sons”. It’s a short story undoubtedly inspired by Turgenev’s works, so do check that out if you are a Hemingway fan!
Now, to our Russian book… “Fathers and Sons” centers around the evolving relationships between the main characters, the young Bazarov and Anatoly, their families and social surroundings. In fact, Bazarov is a staunch nihilist, deeply influencing his friend Anatoly. Not to mention that he heavily troubles the traditionalist noblemen that encircle them.
Take note that the novel was published in 1862, a time where Russian serfs and democrat revolutionaries were defying the status quo in light of the sweeping social and political changes in the West.
Yes, the journey of the maverick Bazarov might be Turgenev’s literary commentary on the political situation of Russia at the time. But, the novel also touches on the timeless generational gap that often exists between parents and children, with miscommunication and shifting values driving a wedge between the old and the young for centuries.
4. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (1833)
Falling outside the realm of standard Russian books, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin has sculpted many of the Russian literary archetypes.
Onegin, the St. Petersburg dandy who is raised in social conformity and superficiality. Lensky, the daydreamer whose time in the clouds might be his downfall. Tatyana, the intelligent and passionate heroine falling madly in love only to become humiliated by her object of admiration.
Pushkin’s beloved stanzas orbit around a variety of themes. The exploration of meaningful love, fate, and the relationship between art and life stand out by the end of the poem. The clash of reality and art and the eventual loneliness and fate that Onegin must face, condemn in a very Russian way the effect that arrogance and egoism have on the individual and society as a whole.
5. War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1867)
The Book of Russian books. I think I can skip lengthy introductions for this one.
As you may know, this work that has been considered unclassified in genre, follows the lives of five aristocratic families. It is the era of the Napoleonic wars and a period of a shift of foreign influence in Russian society. Several of the characters will either experience or feel the impact of the French invasion, some will even meet Napoleon.
However, it is the society that is formed, the values that are reflected, and the philosophical questions that are posed that have hailed this book as the panorama of Russian aristocratic life under Tzarist rule.
There is love, questions on morality in an immoral society, meanderings on the existence of God. There are bloody battles, scenes of humility, and heart-breaking, bed-ridden goodbyes. It is a masterpiece of unique Tolstoy-esque existentialism and realism that has made it the crown jewel of Russian books.
6. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842)
Gogol’s “Dead Souls” follows the main character, Chichikov, as he travels from estate to estate, seeking to buy from landowners their ‘dead souls’.
Well, as it happens, landowners pay taxes based on the ‘souls’, or the number of serfs they own. However, the serf-ledger is not always up-to-date, so the owners often have to pay a tax for people that have turned to dust.
So, what business does the middle-class nomad Chichikov have buying ‘dead souls’? Is it moral to relieve peculiar landowners of their tax burden? Or, are Chichikov’s schemes of profit and the landowners’ avarice the pinnacle of immorality?
As always, it’s up to you, the reader to decide. But, before you do, imagine yourself in Chichikov’s shoes; dangling between the absurdity of fine society, the ridiculousness of the landowners, his list of dead people, each painting a worthy story of their own.
Macabre Russian humor, time-traveling back to the age of serfdom, get-rich-quick plans colliding with ethics. All the ingredients of classic Russian books, that will help you understand why Gogol’s “Dead Souls” seems so relevant even today.
7. Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1871)
If I could add to this list everything Dostoyevsky, I would. If you find yourself being existentially struck by some of the Russian classics, do not skip the novels “The Idiot”, “Notes from Underground”, “The Gambler”, “Brothers Karamazov” and “The Grand Inquisitor”.
For our article though, Dostoyevsky’s “Demons” shall take the spot.
A tide of alluring ideas has swept Russian society amidst the 19th century, particularly the youth. Alongside romantic trifles and aristocratic whims, a revolution is boiling. Pyotr Verkhovensky is the nihilist ideologue stroking the fire, Nikolai Stavrogin the tormented sadist thriving in his own shame.
A psychological drama, the book explores the destruction that can be brought by ideologies, the “demons” able to fuel horrific acts.
Non-fiction books about Russia
8. The Return of the Russian Leviathan by Sergei Medvedev (2019)
One of the best Russian books to offer you a sharp analysis of the current political reality in Russia. Professor Medvedev traces the renewed rise of Russian authoritarianism with the undying picture of “Great Russia” as a background. A picture to which the country’s Tsar-like leaders seem too fondly attached.
Familiar with the biblical sea monster Leviathan? Then you have already got the gist of this book.
The might of a country meddling in the Syrian war, annexing Crimea, and stirring further conflict in Ukraine is contrasted by its internal silent chaos. Apartheid roads between the rich and the poor, lethal highways, the recarving of history, scandals of a kleptocracy; only just a few of the elements that the professor will evoke with his Russian dark humor to express the loss of hope for a free post-Soviet era.
9. Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience by Alexander Etkind (2011)
Subconsciously, we have maybe associated the word “colonization” with Western European countries, and a particularly English elephant in the room.
In that case, prepare to immerse yourself in a world of Russian serfdom going back to the times of the beginnings of the fur trade, the rise and fall of Tsars, the blending of history, social commentary, and the lessons of landmark Russian literature.
Starting by referring to Gogol’s story of a traveling human nose, Alexander Etkind will explore the unique process of Russia’s colonization of its own people. You will witness the transformation of the relationship between the colonized the colonizers, Russia’s collision with the unfamiliar Orient.
A dense and deeply informative book, the combination of historical rigorousness and analysis of the cultural fabric of Russia throughout time will definitely make this a worthy read.
10. Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe by Rory MacLean (2020)
Travel journal meets politics, meets Russia, meets (meta-) history.
Rory MacLean’s “Pravda Ha Ha” is an all-encompassing update to the author’s 1989 travels to the East of Europe. A time when the fall of communism gave rise to a new way of coping with past (Soviet) demons.
The book is a connecting dot between the optimism of a post-Soviet future and the despair of a deeply divisive present. Annexations of neighboring lands in the name of national sovereignty; the closing down of Orthodox monasteries turned labor camps; the establishment of anti-Europe, anti-immigration propaganda hubs; rural poverty vs urban debauched riches.
In the end, this is a book that will not limit its insight on the degression of Russian politics. It will accompany you through rich social commentary on the rebirth of nationalism in Europe. From the author meeting angry Hungarian shopkeepers to cyber hackers, Gorbachev, and British isolationism, this is a historical roller-coaster that you feel compelled to hop on to.
Contemporary Russian books
11. The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin (2014)
Two people pour their souls and their thoughts into passionate love letters.
Sasha while talking to her lover reminisces of her childhood in Soviet Russia, the whirlwind of her affairs, the death striking her family, her loneliness. Her correspondent, Volodya, describes his journey to the army; from the scribbles of an office clerk to the odor of death surrounding him in an anti-monarchist revolution in China.
The twist? Their separation does not extend only through space. You will soon realize that Volodya is fighting off the Boxer Revolution of 1900 in China, while Sasha is much closer to our own time.
We are never sure whether their letters reach their destination. “Time will be back in joint when we meet again and I put my head on your knees”, Volodya dreams.
Can the ritual of writing beat death, time itself? How can flies in amber and Prester John be connected? Find out with this multi-sensory experience of the book, jumping from birth to death and everything in between.
12. Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman (1980)
Are you both a history buff and a literature geek? Then you have found your Russian-book-soulmate.
The creator of this masterpiece, Vasily Grossman was a Jewish chemist who became a writer and war correspondent covering the battle of Stalingrad and the horrors of concentration camps, notably Treblinka. Life teachings and literary prose shape the characters at the front lines of the Stalingrad seize, at German and Soviet detention centers, at the ‘enemy’ lines and at home.
In Grossman’s dark alleyway that is “Life and Fate”, where the Holocaust, pointless mass death, and numbing propaganda lurks, moments of humanity spark with light. A woman comforting a scared child in a gas chamber; a German and Russian soldier holding hands during a bombing.
This book is not for the light-hearted, but it is a school of learning, empathy and humanity.
13. The Big Green Tent by Lyudmila Ulitskaya (2010)
Another ‘epic’ novel in our list of Russian books, the “Big Green Tent” follows the lives of three childhood friends, Ilya, Sanya, and Mikha.
You travel back to a society transitioning to a post-Stalinist era, with the samizdat (smuggling of currency and foreign goods) still strongly persecuted. Ilya’s heart speaks to the cinema, his story orbiting around the samizdat, dragging his friends with him. You will also discover the musical world of Sanya and will be inspired by MIkha’s passion for teaching, especially disabled children.
This is a story of friendship between outcasts fighting to survive in a country that is still haunted by a Stalinist world. A coming-of-age tale of brave loyalty, discovery, and selfless sacrifice. In short, this is a read that will entrust to you the stories of three tragic but utterly unique people.
14. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre (2018)
If there is one Russian book in our list that you can engorge in one sitting, this is it.
Oleg Gordievsky, a seemingly perfect product of KGB-ism and Sovietism, lies in the center of the book. Designed to be the perfect Russian spy weapon, he secretly defects and joins the MI6 in 1973, becoming the Russian Aldrich Ames.
The true story of Mr. Gordievsky and his eventual rescue mission is recounted with infectious enthusiasm by Ben Macintyre, a true connoisseur of espionage and spy storytelling.
The Cold War space race, the US-UK intelligence rivalry, and the occasional appearance of Mrs. Thatcher create the perfect backdrop for Mr. Gordievsky’s story to unravel and keep you on your toes.
Russian Short Stories
15. Ward No. 6 by Anton Chekhov (1892)
As the name suggests, this Russian short story, by the beloved Chekhov, takes place in a mental asylum.
As an intellectually hungry doctor searches for meaning, he engages in philosophical discussions with patients on the concept of suffering and injustice. But, people talk, and the doctor soon seems to blend more and more with the patients rather than the sane.
Will he himself end up in the mental ward? Will social isolation and his quest for the meaning of suffering be his downfall?
A short story of existential crisis, suffering, neglect, and a dysfunctional society, who often lets the insane roam about and the healthy locked behind dilapidated walls.
16. The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin (1834)
Hermann searches furiously for the secret to win every time in a game of faro (17th-century French gambling game). When he learns that the Countess possesses the secret, he threatens the woman at gunpoint to reveal the trick.
A series of events ensues, involving ghosts, dead bodies opening their eyes at funerals, and a blinking queen of spades.
This is the classic Russian tale of avarice and gambling addiction, with a pinch of supernatural that is reminiscent of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita.
Or is it all in Hermann’s mind? Pushkin will definitely not give you the answer.
17. The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol (1842)
Akaky Akakievich is the everyday man, a government employee who enjoys copying documents. He has a worn-out overcoat, which his tailor insists to have replaced.
Akaky proceeds to cut his expenses to conjure up 80 rubles, and he triumphantly does. Unfortunately, his coat gets stolen and so he turns to the police and an “important personage” to help him. Things might not turn out so well for poor Akaky Akakievich after all.
As Dostoyevsky once said, “We all come out of Gogol’s overcoat”.
The story is a miniature of Russian, and not only, life, full of strife and sacrifice only to achieve short-lived success. You travel through life-sucking red tape, wax-faced employees, and a man’s sudden emotional awakening through the possession of a material good.
It is tragically funny and it is Russian, it is all you expect from Gogol.
Russian Revolution & Soviet Union Books
18. The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1973)
“The Gulag Archipelago” is one of the landmark non-fiction Russian books on the horrors of Soviet labor camps where millions of Russians perished.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn considered this book his greatest work yet. In fact, this is the book that caused him to lose his Soviet citizenship and emigrate to West Germany. But this is also the masterpiece behind his 1970 Nobel prize.
Here’s the thing about humans; we cannot avert our gaze from catastrophe and pain. And this book is perhaps human suffering packed in a leafy box of paper and ink.
The story starts in 1918. In the aftermath of the October Revolution, Lenin orders the opening of the first gulags. And so the gulag system begins, accompanied by show trials, uncalled arrests, personality cults, and disappearances.
The recounting of the horror revolves around the year 1968, but Solzhenitsyn’s message is immortal; never underestimate the lengths a power-hungry leadership will go to when dissidents are involved.
19. Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)
“Animal Farm” might not be a ‘book about Russia’ in the traditional sense. It is a story of animals, repressed beings who free themselves from the tyranny of Mr. Jones with the leadership of two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball. But, as history goes, one leader must shine.
Even though you have heard this story before, you wonder. You see the back-breaking work of Boxer, the extremely strong but extremely gullible horse. Hens have their precious eggs stolen and the cows’ milk vanishes while the sheep transform their motto from “four legs good, two legs bad” to “four legs good, two legs better” as the pigs start to walk on their hind legs. You wonder, will the tyranny never end?
This book might not mention anything remotely related to Russia even once. However, it is a canvas picturing the birth of a revolution, the creation of a dictatorship, the disillusionment and eventual sedation of society. It is the perfect allegory for the Soviet Union.
As the saying goes “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.
20. Bloodlands by Timothy D. Snyder (2010)
14 million people died between 1933 and 1945, across central and northeastern Europe, from the Baltic States, Ukraine, Belarus, to northeastern Romania and western Russia. The book discusses where the atrocities of the Nazi and Soviet regimes aligned, in both purpose and nature.
The Soviet Famines; the Great Purge; Poland’s occupation and the Katyn massacre; the German Hunger Plan; the Holocaust; the Belarus Nazi occupation, and the Warsaw uprising are revisited, showing in each case a different side of the same coin that is totalitarianism.
21. A History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky (1930)
If you truly want to dive into the nitty and gritty of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky’s three-volume life achievement is hard to avoid. Written while he was in exile in Turkey, Trotsky’s work has been one of the most comprehensive and analytical accounts of one of the most crucial events in history.
While one could criticize points of bias towards his adversaries, Trotsky attempts to explain in detail the socio-political events that led to the overthrow of the Tzar, the July demonstrations in Petrograd, and the eventual October Revolution and seize of power. Any Russian Revolution history nerd can regard the books as anything but monumental.