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The Best Russian Novels

recommended by Orlando Figes

The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes

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They're among the finest novels ever written, often vast in their scope and ambitious in their subject matter. Some are long, others can be read in an afternoon. They're also one of the best ways of understanding Russian history. Historian Orlando Figes, author of The Story of Russia, recommends his favourite Russian novels, from the 19th century to today.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes

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I’m going to leave aside anyone who doesn’t like Russian novels. For the rest of us, why are Russian novels so all-encompassing and unforgettable? Why do they speak to us across another language and, often, more than a century-and-a-half?

Russian novels, in the classic form we imagine them—these big works by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy—are huge, sprawling things. You often have to give them a couple of 100 pages before they get going so they’re not for the faint-hearted. But I think they grab people’s attention and suck them in because they’re more than anything the Jane Austens of this world can do, really. They’re claiming to be much more than a story. Often, they don’t really have much of a story. They have a sprawling canvas that engages with Russian reality, which is part of their remit. It’s a level of social engagement and political engagement that you don’t often get from the Western European novel, certainly not until later in the 19th century.

I guess they’re also different because they engage with great metaphysical, existential, and philosophical ideas. Take Crime and Punishment. At one level, it’s a crime novel, but it’s also engaging with existential questions. Why does Raskolnikov decide to kill this woman? It’s because he can, it’s an expression of his will and so it becomes a sort of Nietzschean discussion of the individual will. What limits a person’s sense of what they can do? What are the limits on the subjective power of a person?

I think that’s probably why the Russian tradition of novel writing is so universally embraced and so timeless. These novels are so much more than just novels because they challenge us to think about the big questions of life.

They do often include Jane Austen-style romantic stories in them as well, don’t they?

Sure. You can read War and Peace for the romance. But it’s a big sprawling thing. It doesn’t really have a middle, a beginning, and an end. It has a sort of epiphany, but it’s not got the same arc as an English novel. Tolstoy famously said of War and Peace that it wasn’t even a novel. In a sense, it’s a total history of that epoch in Russia in a fictional form.

Let’s turn to the five Russian novels you’re recommending today. How did you set about choosing them? I notice Dostoevsky didn’t make the list.

They’re all novels I’ve returned to, that I have inhabited thought-wise when I’ve been writing about Russian history. I’m a strong believer, and I’ve always recommended to students—when people ask me what they should read to understand Russia—‘Read novels because they get you into the space and the time and give you a sense of the culture in a way that other books can’t.’ All of these have been books that I’ve inhabited in that way and have helped me imagine the time and place.

On the Tolstoy versus Dostoevsky divide, I’m on the Tolstoy side. Ultimately, fascinating though Dostoevsky is, I find the Tolstoian sensibility more to my liking. He’s just such a great writer that even though he clutters up War and Peace—particularly the third volume with philosophy of history—it’s still got the best writing that has ever been achieved. Perhaps Flaubert came close to it or surpassed it even in some ways, but who else but Tolstoy could describe what it’s like being on a hunt from the perspective of a dog? That literary capacity to reflect reality, to make you feel you’re there, is just astonishing. So Tolstoy picks himself for me. He was my first love in Russian literature. For my 14th birthday, I was given a collection of the World Classics versions, the Louise and Aylmer Maude translations of Tolstoy’s works. I remember going up to the High Hill bookshop in Hampstead to order them. War and Peace was the first one I read.

Let’s focus on War and Peace (1867), which is the first of the Russian novels you’ve chosen. It’s about the Napoleonic Wars, but it was written about half a century later. Why, as well as being a great novel, is it important to read it in terms of Russian history?

War and Peace was first drafted in the late 1850s and early 1860s. It was going to be a novel about the Decembrists, who had tried to raise an army against the autocracy in 1825. Tolstoy took inspiration from the liberal spirit of 1856, when Alexander II came to the throne and began introducing reforms. The Decembrists, who had been exiled after the uprising of 1825, began to come back and Tolstoy was particularly interested in the history of his own family. He was a distant relative of one of the most famous Decembrists, Sergey Volkonsky, whom he met in Moscow after his return. They wanted to impose a constitution on the monarchy, and they wanted to liberate the serfs. That was very much Tolstoy’s instinct too, politically.

So he found inspiration in the Decembrists but wanting to write a novel about them, he realized that their worldview was formed in 1812, when they had been young officers. They had rubbed shoulders with ordinary serf soldiers, seen their democratic spirit and gone a bit democratic themselves. They started smoking Russian makhorka, rough tobacco, out of pipes rather than the cigarettes they might have smoked otherwise. They wore their hair long and grew beards and identified with the democratic spirit of the peasants. In many ways, that was the beginning of the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia’s romance of the peasant, as humble and somehow morally higher than the nobility.

As the sons of the serf owners, the landowners (as Tolstoy himself was) felt they owed a debt to these people. With the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, they felt they should dedicate themselves to the true emancipation of the serfs, by helping them to become literate. Tolstoy set up schools for his serfs. They didn’t quite understand what he was doing and were a bit mistrustful of his generosity, but he wanted to bring them up to the level of the intelligentsia through education, welfare reforms and all the rest of it. He wanted to make a nation with the serfs.

“These novels…challenge us to think about the big questions of life”

Tolstoy grew up in a family where Russian was the language of the serfs and the nannies who were employed to look after the children, but the parents, the aristocracy, spoke almost exclusively in French. Of course, they could speak and write in Russian, but French was the preferred language of society. So you get this duality. The world of society, where everything is comme il faut, seemed artificial and distant to people like Tolstoy. They wanted to put into literature the language of ordinary Russians. That was the romantic nationalism in Russian literature from the age of Pushkin.

War and Peace is about that period of 1812 as a watershed in Russia’s cultural history when the intelligentsia and the aristocracy discovered the Russian people, their own Russianness. There’s the famous scene in War and Peace with Natasha’s dance, which I took for the beginning of my book on Russia’s cultural history. There’s some sort of sensibility of Russianness that the aristocracy shared with the peasants that they wanted to explore, and that exploration is part of Tolstoy’s novel.

It’s very interesting what happens with the novel linguistically. There’s been a study of the French words in the novel, because there are a large number, and they feature particularly in the early phases of the novel. Towards the end, the novel becomes more Russian in its literary and vernacular style, in its lexicon and syntax. In a sense, the Russian language is the true character of the novel. The growing Russianness of the language is the epiphany, that moment of self-discovery, that the Russian aristocracy goes through at that time.

That gives you a sense of the sprawling nature of the novel. You can read it for its war scenes, you can read it for its love scenes, but then there’s this whole infrastructure of the novel which is about Russia’s identity, who these people should be. So it’s endlessly fascinating as a novel and despite its length, it’s a novel that like many people I’ve returned to several times. I’ve read it four times, I think, but each time you read it, other things about it come out.

I think of it as being about Napoleon. I’m still not sure how he gets from the Decembrists to the French invasion of Russia.

The early drafts are various stories about a landowner trying to liberate his serfs and he’s a Decembrist or in that circle. But then Tolstoy decides that to understand the moment of the Decembrists, he has to start in 1812 because that’s when they discovered their worldview. It’s only then that he begins to do his research on the Napoleonic Wars and read diaries written at the time by people like Glinka and recasts the novel. The early drafts of the novel weren’t massively long or anything, they were just sketches of what would become a novel about the Decemberists, which then became the novel War and Peace.

Is there a particular translation you like?

For nostalgic reasons, I am attached to the Maudes’ translation. I’ve still got the volume from my 14th birthday. It’s very easy to read, almost like reading George Eliot. It’s a very smooth read in the style of the 19th-century English novel.

The more recent Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, which I reviewed in the New York Review of Books, focused on some of the linguistic issues. It is the way translations have gone in the last 20 years, towards a more authentic translation, a closer reflection of the inconsistencies of the original. Tolstoy is a very repetitive writer; he doesn’t mind repeating words several times in a sentence. That gets lost in the Maudes’ translation but it’s there in all its messiness in Pevear and Volokhonsky. It doesn’t make for the most pleasurable read, but you feel you’re getting more out of the book than you would if you read something that was a little bit smoother. So I think both have their virtues.

Let’s go on to the next Russian novel you’ve chosen which is Fathers and Sons (1862) by Ivan Turgenev. Tell me why this is worth reading and why you chose it. We should probably mention that it’s short.

It is. You can read it in a long afternoon. It’s sublime in its literary style, even in translation. There’s a clarity and vivacity of characterization which makes the characters very memorable. It’s also a very contemporary book. The culture wars we’re having today were described by Turgenev in Fathers and Sons.

It’s a book about a couple of students. Bazarov is the enigmatic character at the center of the book, who is brought back by his friend, Arkady, to his father’s estate after graduating from university. Bazarov is this natural scientist-type who doesn’t really believe in anything that doesn’t further the interests of the ordinary people. The dedication to the newly emancipated serfs is very much part of the landscape of this book.

This book is the origin of the nihilist in its modern form: the ideological position that you reject all received ideas and philosophical assumptions. All that matters is the material world and improving the welfare of the ordinary people. So science is good; literature is a waste of time, I guess. Turgenev invents the nihilist in Bazarov. Arkady, his friend, is less dogmatic in his nihilism.

Arkady and Bazarov are men of the 1860s, trenchant socialist materialists and they clash with the father and uncle who are men of the 1840s. The father’s generation are like Turgenev, liberals who might have philanthropic intentions, but don’t go out and join the revolution, whereas Bazarov’s generation would. There’s a political/cultural clash going on and I was taken aback by how much they were like arguments that I have with my own daughters.

What I love about this novel is how ambivalent Turgenev’s own position is. He got attacked from all sides for this book. The lefties of the 1860s thought that he was slandering the Bazarovs of their world. The liberals of the 1860s thought that he was writing a dangerous revolutionary tract and painting the younger generation much too sympathetically. That’s part of the remit of realist writing—of which this is such a great example—that the writer himself is invisible. You’re trying to get reality itself onto a page. I don’t think that there is an authorial voice or position in the book and I think that’s part of its masterly achievement. You can see all points of view and where they’re coming from. That is one of the things I most admire about Turgenev, that ability to empathize and communicate worldviews in a very short book. Unlike Tolstoy, he doesn’t need a thousand pages to get it all out there. He can do it in a few sentences, and that’s just a wonderful achievement.

In terms of Russian history, the emancipation of the serfs had just taken place. There isn’t a generational gap about that in the book, is there?

No, there isn’t. By 1862, when this book comes out and the emancipation has taken place, certainly among all the liberal elements of the gentry—which are considerable—it’s been accepted for some time that there’s no moral defence of serfdom anymore. The problem then is, ‘What will be the place of this new citizenry, the newly emancipated serfs in this Russian society?’ That was the great challenge of the 1860s. That was why populism emerged so powerfully in that decade because it was a commitment to try and integrate the peasant into the world of the intelligentsia and the aristocracy as a nation, albeit at the level of literature and schooling. This book was really the first to respond to that challenge, but there were other books that came out at the time—like Chernyshevsky for example—with a much more radical vision of the new world they were to build.

The other thing about Turgenev and this book is that it was the first novel to put Russian literature on the map. There had been translations of Gogol and Pushkin and, for me, Turgenev’s masterpiece is Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, which came out 10 years before and was badly translated into French. But Fathers and Sons really hit the big time. In Germany Turgenev suddenly became the most-read author. It established what a Russian novel was and held that position for 20 years until suddenly, in the mid-1880s, people discovered Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and the big sprawling novel became what Russian novels were meant to be like.

Let’s talk about The White Guard (1925) by Mikhail Bulgakov now and why you chose it as one of your five Russian novels.

I was saying before how I find reading novels an aid to the imagination of a time and place. The White Guard does that for Kyiv in 1918. I started as a historian of the Revolution and civil war, and this is one of the first novels that I read with my historian’s hat on. I just love the way it recreates this world of Kyiv where there’s chaos, essentially. There are various contenders for power: the Germans have set up a puppet government, Petlyura and his nationalists are trying to topple it; the Bolsheviks are attacking Kyiv from the east. In the middle of all of this turmoil, there’s a family, the Turbins, who have fled south, as so many did after the October Revolution. They’re trying to eke out an existence in Kyiv, to make sense of what’s happening and where they should put their efforts—whether they should join the White Guards who are assembling in the South, in the Don and Kuban, at that time. It’s a novel that perfectly evokes a short period of time, only a few weeks, in 1918.

What I love about it is it does in a novel what you would want to do in a history book but can’t because you have to write history. It’s released from all the anchors of history writing, footnotes and archives and all the rest of it. In brilliant prose, it manages to conjure up that atmosphere better than anything you could do as a historian.

He uses symbols wonderfully as a way of compressing the meaning and resonance of his writing. In A People’s Tragedy, I quote the final paragraph of the book where he describes this menacing railway engine, which is clearly a metaphor for the Red Army which is about to march in. It is brilliant.

So that’s the reason I chose it. I’ve read it again since the war in Ukraine began because I put it down as one of my suggested reads for a piece I did for the Observer. It’s not a very politically correct choice now because although Bulgakov was born in Kyiv, he doesn’t actually have much truck with the Ukrainian nationalists and is pretty rude about them. He is one of those Ukrainian writers—like Gogol—who wrote in Russian and always saw Russia as a home for himself as a Ukrainian and Russian as the literary language, the big civilization.

On my edition, it says the book is “drawing closely on Bulgakov’s personal experiences of the horrors of civil war as a young doctor.” I wonder to what extent it’s autobiographical.

I don’t know because I’m not a Bulgakov expert, but a lot of it is from direct impressions and experience. He saw what was happening in the chaos of 1918. It’s a visceral book and very visual. It’s got little details that just take you there immediately. I don’t know what it would be like for someone who doesn’t know the history but to me, it feels like you’re watching something happen before your eyes.

Let’s move on to The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a reference to Dante’s first circle of hell. This book is set in a special prison during the Stalinist era and it’s worth highlighting that there is an uncensored edition, published in 2009. Tell me why you chose it. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Stalin in the last year or two because I am slowly moving to writing a book about Stalin. I hesitate to call it a biography of Stalin because I don’t think that’s possible, but about his tyranny and how it worked. So I’ve read a lot of books and novels about the Stalin era and I think this book gets to the heart of the phenomenon better than any other I’ve read.

Stalin himself only appears in four chapters, about a quarter of the way in. Then he disappears and doesn’t appear again. That in itself is quite masterful. Although you know that everything that happens in the book stems from Stalin, he isn’t mentioned. It’s how I would conceive of Stalin as a political personage. The tyranny rests on his not being present, on people responding, under duress, to pressures of various sorts, taking actions and fulfilling decisions to keep a system going. They’re tied together by these invisible threads that do lead to Stalin but no one’s aware of that in a direct sense.

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The First Circle, as you say, is a reference to Dante, but there’s also a sense in which you will never get to Stalin because when you get into the first circle, there’s another circle and another. What this book helped me to do is think of Stalin as a cross between Big Brother and the Wizard of Oz. His presence is everywhere, but he’s nowhere and doesn’t really show himself very much. And, actually, in those four chapters, the real Stalin is this rather pathetic, elderly man with yellow teeth who doesn’t wash. He’s just insignificant, somehow. He doesn’t command respect or authority from his persona. He commands authority because of the system he’s at the center of.

There’s a bit in the book I just thought was amazing and so true for what we’re experiencing now with Trumpism etc. It’s at the beginning of the chapter, “The Emperor of the Earth” which is one of the chapters told through Stalin’s own consciousness. He writes, “Stalin had a passing acquaintance with an uncomplicated version of world history, and he knew that given time people will forgive all bad things, indeed forget them, or remember them as good. Whole nations behaved like Queen Anne in Shakespeare’s Richard III: Their wrath was short-lived, their will infirm, their memory weak, and they would always be glad to give themselves to the victor.” It says it all.

The Gulag is a very microcosmic, intensive form of Stalinism and other writers—like Shalamov for example—have described the Gulag in a way that is unforgettable. But as a broad canvas, albeit set in a very privileged part of the Gulag, of how this Nineteen Eighty-Four world works, The First Circle does more than any other book to get us there.

It is quite funny at times, as well.

It is funny and the ending is brilliant. There is an authorial voice here, for sure. It’s slightly didactic, but then Solzhenitsyn is slightly didactic. He has a philosophy, but I don’t mind that. I don’t share it, but it’s fine.

What’s his philosophy?

He is basically a Slavophile, Christian, Russian nationalist. In The First Circle it’s not as pronounced as it becomes in his later years, but you can see that he feels that the only antidote to Sovietism or Stalinism is something spiritual or based on Christian principles. I don’t mind that because you need something to contrast with Stalinism. If you don’t have a world philosophy and try to get to the essence of Stalinism—which is what I think this book is trying to do—then it becomes too fluid. Think of the other big books on the Stalin period, like Grossman’s Life and Fate, for example. That has a much more explicit moral infrastructure. I find it off-putting and I’m not a big fan of that book, but you have to have a clear set of principles against which to tease out the meanings you as a writer are concerned about with this phenomenon.

Let’s talk about the last Russian novel you’ve chosen, which is a contemporary one. This is Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin. This was published in 2006, but it’s set in 2028.

The Oprichniki were the henchmen of Ivan the Terrible. So it’s a 16th-century Russian theme transposed into the future. It’s a dystopian novel—following in that Russian tradition of dystopian writing of Zamyatin etc.—and is quite clearly a political satire of the Putin regime. It’s funny, it’s iconoclastic and it’s terrifying because although it was written in 2006, it seems to me that it’s describing what Russia is now becoming. I’m haunted by this book.

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In the book, Russia is a closed system. There’s a great wall which separates Russia from the rest of the world. Although the Oprichniki are Russian, it’s clear that they are serving some distant sovereign in China and that Russia exists as a vassal state of the Chinese. The purpose of Russia is to pipe oil and gas to China and everything it consumes is imported from China. Russia is effectively a Siberian wasteland with a big pipe running through it.

It’s astonishing that Sorokin should have written this in 2006. At the time, you could see there was a problem over Russia’s oil and natural resources dependency, but nothing to make you think that Russia would end up, increasingly, looking like something out of this book. I find it quite frightening as a vision of where Russia is going.

It’s very violent, isn’t it?

It is violent. It’s got gang rape, it’s got murder. The Oprichniks live in luxury: they drive around in their ‘Mercedovs’ and everyone has a Jacuzzi. It’s this blingy Moscow world. But they’re carrying out all sorts of atrocities for some unknown entity, His Majesty. A bit like Stalin in The First Circle, the power is distant. This book is just one day in the life of an Oprichnik, like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Everything is compressed into a blitz of orgiastic depravity, murder, sodomy, the whole lot. It’s all in there.

You probably need to understand some of the history of Ivan the Terrible and the Oprichniki to get what this novel is about. For example, the significance of the head of a dog on the front and a broom on the back of their Mercedovs.

At some point later in his reign Ivan the Terrible retreated and surrounded himself with this new caste of people, the Oprichniki. They were given substantial land but were isolated from the rest of the landowning classes and the boyars. They were there as a security force, a bit like Stalin’s NKVD, for which the Oprichniki were always seen as the historic parallel. Eisenstein’s film about Ivan the Terrible makes those references fairly explicit. The Oprichniki rode around on horses with the broom as an emblem of sweeping out the enemies of the people. So there are a lot of references in the book to the discourse of ‘enemies of the people,’ ‘parasites’ etc.

So it’s a very powerful, futuristic dystopian novel, but with all these references to Russian history, going back to Ivan the Terrible and probably before. It’s a depressing read because it makes you think nothing in Russia ever changes. It’s all just this recycling of different modes of repression, of extraction of the country’s wealth, of enslaving the population, of structuring power through these lawless servitors.

I’ve just read your book, The Story of Russia, which ends on a more optimistic note, or at least points out that it didn’t all have to lead to Putin reinventing the Russian autocratic tradition. You write that “It did not have to end that way. There were chapters in its history when Russia might have taken a more democratic path.” Tell me why you wrote the book.

I wanted to do a relatively short, accessible and enjoyable volume of history from the earliest times, and I thought it was important to do it in a way that exposed the driving ideas and ideologies of Russian history. Because certainly after 2014, it struck me increasingly that the way the Russians understood their history was very different from the way we would understand their history, especially those bits of history that connect with ours, like the Cold War. That disconnect needs to be understood because if we’re going to deal with the Russians now, we need to understand where they’re coming from.

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I wanted to say something about Russian historiography and the myths that they have woven around their own story. There are some recurring themes. There’s the Tsar or ruler as a sacred figure, a god on Earth whose authority is sacralized and who is a national savior. That’s the story of Alexander Nevsky, of Alexander I, of Stalin in World War II. These are stories of the sacred, godlike leader who saves the country from hostile forces abroad. It’s only when you begin to look at it from that point of view that you can understand the strength of autocratic modes of thought, and why propaganda of an authoritarian, nationalist, anti-Western persuasion can make sense or get a grip on the national consciousness.

That’s all about the narratives of history. It’s historical. It’s not about a mindset, or psyche, or DNA, or any of the rather cliched stereotypes people use to try and explain why the Russians are like the Russians. You have to unpack it historically which does, as you say, involve looking at those moments when it could have gone another way. Why it is that certain ideas recur and get mobilized in certain situations to reinforce an autocratic state system? And why it is that those same ideas can become subversive and revolutionary? So that was the idea for the book, though I didn’t think it was going to be quite so timely.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

August 31, 2022

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Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes is an award-winning author and historian, who has held teaching posts at Birkbeck College, University of London and Trinity College, University of Cambridge. Figes is the bestselling author of nine books on Russian and European history, including Natasha’s Dance and A People’s Tragedy, and his books have been translated into over 30 languages. He lives between Italy and the UK.

Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes is an award-winning author and historian, who has held teaching posts at Birkbeck College, University of London and Trinity College, University of Cambridge. Figes is the bestselling author of nine books on Russian and European history, including Natasha’s Dance and A People’s Tragedy, and his books have been translated into over 30 languages. He lives between Italy and the UK.