Russian Literature: Introduction and Reading List

Author: Dmitry Paranyushkin (on 04 Feb 2015)

Russian literature is a great way to discover more about the Russian culture and learn about the Russian ways of thinking, feeling, fighting and loving. 

Leo Tolstoy

Reading a book by Leo Tolstoy will give you a good understanding of why Russians are so keen on global projects. Anna Karenina is a kind of combinatorial exercise where all possible human relations are shown and thoroughly analysed, and it will be a very interesting and relevant read even today.

Leo Tolstoy at Work

Tolstoy did not just give the world Anna Karenina and The War and Peace. He performed a complex and rich study of human psyche and relations, politics and society in a beautifully crafted literary form. The world knows only a few epic enterprises like this in literature and Tolstoy is perhaps the best known of the ones who’s actually tried and managed to talk to the universe about itself.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Another great writer is, of course, Fyodor Dostoevsky. His work is interesting because it offers a good idea about the conflict between the needs of an individual and society’s morals – an ongoing theme in the Russian culture and history. Dostoesvky is a known Russian existentialist and his view on the human psyche was so deep that there’s even a word derivative from his name – “Dostoyevschina”. To know what that really means, you need to read Dostoyevsky, suffice it is to say that his books rarely have happy endings... but they do have a lot of happy moments and perhaps those moments are the ones to live for.


Nikolai Gogol

The works of Nikolai Gogol were very inspiring for generations of Russian writers, particularly because of his style: his use of zooming in and zooming out, as well as contextual shifts, mixes very well with masterfully written narratives, which are often funny and almost always political. Nabokov considered him one of his teachers.

Nikolai Gogol

Russian Futurists: Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov

The poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky, Velimir Khlebnikov and other Russian futurists will give a good introduction to the new wave in Russian literature that occurred at the beginning of the 20th century. Their creative use of language and desire to search for new forms can still be very inspiring for many fields, beyond poetry and literature.


Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov's works are the finest achievements in terms of the literary language and the richness of narrative threads in his works are simply amazing. Nabokov’s writing is talking about a multitude of things at once, shifting between stories, scales, characters. His particular writing style is based on dynamic variability of scale: changing perspective from overview to the most microscopic detailed close-up and then coming back to the original trajectory keeping the echo of other scales and imaginary realms. Nabokov’s most famous work Lolita is a good introduction into his style, but its explicit content may sometimes obfuscate the form. Other recommended works include The Gift (or Дар) and Nabokov’s lectures on Russian literature.

Vladimir Nabokov in New York in 1963 - photo by William Claxton


Victor Pelevin

Among the most recent writers, Victor Pelevin will give a good feel of the 90s: a mix of capitalism, technology and ancient mythologies popping through the society cracks. He's a bit like Russian Castaneda and got a cult following during the 90s for his famous work "Chapaev and Emptiness", "Life of Insects" etc. A very nice short story to read is called "Yellow Arrow", which is a metaphor of life as a train: the passengers come out on the roof to look what's outside of them but can never really stop to train to get off and explore... Recently Pelevin's style got a bit more realistic, with clear parallels to the current political and social situation in Russia... rather grim, Houllebeq style novels but with some Russian mysticism and humor to them  – very interesting to read (and popular as well), but it started to feel like he's replicating some formula. Not a bad thing at all, if it works for him, but there's no more surprise in his books and probably his next best work will be out when he will himself not really know what he's going to write before he starts writing.

Victor Pelevin by Bomb Magazine at a Zen Monastery in Japan


Vladimir Sorokin

Vladimir Sorokin is perhaps the only well-known and respected contemporary Russian writer and his use of language is phenomenal. One of Sorokin’s books, “The Queue” is a recording of conversations that occurred at a queue in the end of the 80s, providing a very precise and somewhat ironic portrait of the Russian society during these times, with all their concerns and aspirations. His other book, “Sugar Kremlin” is a very vivid anti-utopian narrative that extrapolates the current political situation in Russia – prophetic work, in a sense... It heralds the coming of digitalized medieval technocracy. The novel takes place in the future, several years from now, in Moscow. There is a Tsar and his #oprichniki who wrath havoc in city flying around their armored Mercedeses and punishing those who defect from the general party line. Everyone who’s close to the Kremlin gets to decide for the rest. Those who do not decide get their favorite sweet Sugar Kremlin sucking on it eagerly and obsessively while the rich celebrate in opulence.

Vladimir Sorokin - photo by Dursthoff.De


Aleksey Ivanov

If you are really interested to learn about the current Russian history, Aleksey Ivanov’s work will be very stimulating. Among his best books are “Psoglavtsi”, “Zoloto Bunta” and “Bludo i Mudo”, as well as “Geograph Drank His Globe Away” (which came out as a movie also in 2013). Ivanov's books are very Russian though, you need to know the context quite well to really get them. But if you do, it's a very rewarding reading that becomes universal in its discourse about the roots and identify.


Shklovsky and Bakhtin

If you’re interested in Russian literary theory, it may be interesting to read  Victor Shklovsky (who was at the beginning of the Russian formalism and wrote a lot of interesting works about Russian artists and cinema-makers of the early Soviet times) and Mikhail Bakhtin (who in many ways anticipated many structuralist and post-structuralist concerns that later became popular in Western philosophy). 


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