Russian literature includes some of the best novels ever written, as well as some of the finest short stories.
The 19th century was a 'golden age' for Russian literature, with the publication of War and Peace (1867) and Anna Karenina (1878), both books by Leo Tolstoy the closest one can possibly get (in our view) to the Platonic ideal of what a novel can be. Less concerned with the aristocracy and more invested in the lower echelons of society was the other great Russian novelist of the 19th century, Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose life was in itself worthy of a novel. Books by Dostoevsky are among our most recommended books on Five Books.
The other 19th-century Russian literature that has been frequently recommended on our site are books by Anton Chekhov. He wrote mostly plays and short stories, though the memoir of his travel to see the Tsarist penal system in action, Sakhalin Island, is also well worth reading. Another unmissable Russian short story writer is Isaac Babel, born right at the end of the 19th century and executed by the NKVD in 194o. (Note: while we're on the subject of Russian short stories, a 2021 book by novelist George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life is a phenomenal introduction to what's so special about them).
In the 20th century, the Nobel Prize for Literature came into being and several Russian authors have been celebrated, including Boris Pasternak, author of the epic Dr. Zhivago, the poet Joseph Brodsky, author of a wonderful collection of essays, Less Than One, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who chronicled life in the gulags. Mikhail Sholokhov, author of the epic Quiet Flows the Don, won the prize in 1965 (though a biography of Sholokhov, Stalin's Scribe, tries to untangle his now mixed reputation. It was one of our best Russia Books of 2020). Most recently, the Belarussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, best known for her reportage on the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. The Nobel was awarded "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time."
Other Russian writers of note or who feature prominently in our expert book recommendations are Mikhail Bulgakov, Vladimir Nabokov and Vasily Grossman. Grossman was a reporter embedded with Soviet troops during World War II, and witnessed both the horrors of the war in the East and the uncovering of the Nazi death camps. In true Russian form, he turned his experiences into epic novels, including Life and Fate and a prequel, Stalingrad, only recently translated into English.
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.
His father had clawed his way up into the minor aristocracy, but Fyodor Dostoevsky chose to live the life of an impecunious author. He was sentenced to death, but his execution was stayed and he spent years in a Siberian labour camp instead. His books are about human compassion, but he was a difficult man who had trouble with his own personal relationships. Alex Christofi, author of a brilliant new biography of Dostoevsky, one of Russia’s greatest novelists, recommends five books to learn more about the man and his work—including the novel of which Tolstoy said he ‘didn’t know a better book in all our literature’.
The Soviet writer bore witness to the horrors of Russia’s World War Two and the Shoah — and deserves a place in literary history, says scholar Maxim D Shrayer. He recommends the best books by and about Vasily Grossman.
In Russia, it’s often fallen to writers to challenge conventions and speak the truth, says the translator and biographer Rosamund Bartlett. She makes a personal selection of some of the most exhilarating Russian short fiction.
Bilingual author and translator with his pick of the five must-reads by – and about – Nabokov. Says a revisionist biography of the writer is due, which comes to terms with the Jewish influence on his work
Russian literature specialist Michael Nicholson, Emeritus Fellow at University College, Oxford, talks us through the best books to learn more about the great Soviet dissident and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.