First Steps is a new segment that was inspired by the Literary Exploration Reading Challenge. Each week or two we look at what books from different themes, genres or maybe authors and suggest some that are worth trying. Not necessarily all easy to read books but the ones that are worth the time and effort. My goal is to have First Steps guide you to some great books in places you don’t normally venture to.
I’ve been reading this amazing book called A Constellation of Vital Phenomena which is set in Chechnya and it got me thinking about Russian literature. I love reading books set in Russia and written by Russians, I don’t know why there is something about the books that draws me to them. They are often epic, slightly odd and the prose and character development are well worth reading, don’t get me started on symbolism and motifs. But it’s sad to think a lot of people are scared of reading Russian literature and while there are so many I haven’t read yet, including War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Doctor Zhivago and anything by Anton Chekhov I thought I’d share five Russian novels I would recommend. I have left out Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart simply because they are Russian Americans and it’s hard to work out which country can truly claim them.
Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin
This weird and wonderful postmodern novel is quite frankly so bizarre you just have to check it out. I wanted to add something contemporary to this list and thought this was the perfect choice. Set in a futuristic Russia where the Russian Empire has been restored back to the draconian codes of Ivan the Terrible.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
If you are fans of the dystopian genre and you haven’t read We, you really need to get onto it. This book is often considered as the first truly dystopian novel and has inspired authors such as Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut. Zamyantin bases this future on his personal experiences during the two Russian revolutions (1905 and 1917) and the First World War.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Yet another weird and wonderful Russian novel, this time in the genre of Magical Realism. The whole book is based around a visit by the Devil to two passionately atheistic Russians. While this is an overly simplified synopsis it really is the basis of the entire book; if I really want to write a fully detailed overview of this book it would include a black cat, an assassin, a naked witch, Jesus and Pontius Pilate in one bizarre novel.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Don’t let the size of this book scare you, this isn’t necessarily a hard book, just long and like most Russian classics it is worth the effort. The story of love, infidelity as well as a battle of classes and the fading out of an old society to make room for modern one. If you are a patient reader and love a story with well written characters that is beautifully written then this book is worth reading, it simply is a masterpiece.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I love this book so much. Before there were psychological thrillers and books like the Dexter series, there was Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is a conflicted character; he is showing a lot of interest in the classes and thinks he is of a higher class than others believe. But when he commits murders, guilt, remorse or regret plague him. This is a novel that focuses on the inner turmoil as well as the impact on his intellect and emotions. Beyond perfect and the type of book that you just want to read over and over again.
I know a lot of people avoid the Russian books but I’m drawn to them, I would love to know what people think and if they do avoid them, why. If you have read some great Russian novels, let me know as well because there are so many out there, I would love to know which ones are well worth reading.