War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

It’s no surprise that Russian literature has frequently reflected themes of misery, suffering, sadness and torment because Russia, and its Soviet Union incarnation, has been racked by turmoil for generation after generation. Despite Czarist misrule, the Napoleonic War, the Crimean War, two World Wars, the Bolshevik Revolution, the brutal Civil War, the Stalinist repression and the poverty, Russia has produced some of the greatest writers to ever put pen to paper. Many of them suffered like the characters in their works.

Their understanding of pain and suffering goes way beyond the physical and many books show how families, lovers and entire cultures can fall apart when pressure is applied by external forces. Everyone needs to experience Russian literature at some time.  Can you call yourself well read without having completed books by Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn?

From Ivan Denisovich and Doctor Zhivago to Anna Karenina and Ivan Ilyich, journey through murder and betrayal, illness and mental anguish, Siberian labour camps and cities under siege. And each one of them is a remarkable book.

Russian Literature

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy

A brilliant novel, perhaps one of the best ever, but very depressing. The adulterous affair between Anna, wife of Aleksey Karenin, and Count Vronsky, a young bachelor, leads to tragedy on the tracks. A lesson in restrictive moral codes.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace
Leo Tolstoy

Where do we begin? Tolstoy conducted extensive research on the Napoleonic Wars and charts a period of huge turmoil. Five families undergo horror after horror – battle wounds, death in childbirth, illness, betrayal etc.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment
Fyodor Dostoevsky

An 1866 novel that questions the morals around killing and examines mental anguish. Impoverished Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov believes it is fine to murder a pawnbroker because the money lender is evil.

On the Eve by Ivan Turgenev

On the Eve
Ivan Turgenev

First published in 1859, On the Eve is an end-of-era tale describing the fading Russian nobility. Elena, a passionate young woman, abandons her family, home and country to follow a revolutionary to his native Bulgaria. The book signals the upheaval to come.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Alexander Solzhenitsyn

A graphic description of life in a Stalin-era labor camp in Siberia. Simple but relentless. One of the best books of the 20th century that stunned the literary world when it was published in 1962. A picture of dehumanization.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago
Boris Pasternak

Poet and doctor Yuri Zhivago is torn between two women during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the brutal civil war that follows. First published in 1957, the sensitive doctor is rarely in control of his own destiny.

And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov

And Quiet Flows the Don
Mikhail Sholokhov

This novel describes 10 tragic years in Cossack life in Russia’s Don region. It stretches across World War I, the Revolution and the Civil War, and questions the ruthless practices of the Communists used to repress the Cossacks.

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Gambler
Fyodor Dostoevsky

Depressing Russian literature isn’t always about war, politics and romance gone wrong, in this book Dostoevsky details how gambling can ruin your life. An intense portrayal of addiction although there is a messy love affair thrown in for good measure.

Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

Ivan Goncharov

The key character, Oblomov, a young nobleman, stays in his bed for the first segment of the book.  Oblomov is incapable of taking decisions of any significance and this is satire on the uselessness of the 19th century Russian nobility.

Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol

Taras Bulba
Nikolai Gogol

Not truly depressing but Cossack leader Bulba shoots his son Andriy for joining the Poles and then sees his second one, Ostap, executed by the Polish. Bulba’s end is not pretty. Hemingway called it one of the best novels of all time.

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
Nikolai Leskov

Adultery, a bored wife who turns to a marriage into murder, another murder (this time of a child), childbirth in prison, sexual favors and a very nasty ending. There’s a little Shakespeare and a bit of Madame Bovary here.

The Sebastopol Sketches by Leo Tolstoy

The Sebastopol Sketches
Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy, who was an officer in the Russian army, brought home the horrors of the Crimean War to the general public of Russia with this book about the famous siege and how it affected the ordinary soldiers.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy does death probably better than anyone else. Ivan Ilyich, a successful man, is faced with his own mortality in his last agonising moments where he has to confront his own mistakes. A novel about life, death and why we have to suffer.

The Golovlyov Family by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin

The Golovlyov Family
Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin

This one is very gloomy but without the dramatic battles and mayhem found in other Russian novels. This is a grim study of a spiritually bankrupt country split by greed and selfishness. A very bitter portrayal of Russia.

The Village by Ivan Bunin

The Village
Ivan Bunin

Bunin’s book, set in the Russian Revolution, is a bleak portrayal of rural life – full of stupidity, brutality and violence. Many characters are portrayed as almost sub-human. Bunin became one of many writers living in exile.

Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov

Kolyma Tales
Varlam Shalamov

This is a collection of brutal short stories about labor camp life in the Soviet Union. Shalamov spent many years in horrific conditions in mining camps and wrote from experience. One of the great short story collections of the 20th century.

The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov

The Foundation Pit
Andrei Platonov

A gloomy semi-satirical novel about a group of workers in the early days of the Soviet Union trying to dig a huge foundation pit for a giant house. The workers dig but fail to understand the meaning of their work. Grim existentialism.

Generations of Winter by Vassily Aksyonov

Generations of Winter
Vassily Aksyonov

Praised as the new Doctor Zhivago, this epic historical novel published in 1994 tells the story of the Gradov family struggling for survival under the Josef Stalin regime.

The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The House of the Dead
Fyodor Dostoevsky

Accused of political subversion, Dostoyevsky was sentenced to four years in a Siberian prison camp. Years later, he wrote this semi-autobiographical memoir of a man imprisoned for murdering his wife.

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

Life and Fate
Vasily Grossman

Based in a besieged Stalingrad, the most brutal of Russia’s World War II battles, a family is scattered across Europe amid almost unimaginable horrors. This is an epic novel that also offers hope along with the pain.

Five Books About Russian Literature

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