Where to Start with Russian Literature?

Approaching something as complicated and vast as the Golden Age of Russian Literature might seem overwhelmingly difficult and even intimidating. It is the 19th century’s Russia. There are tsars, censors, duels, exiles, snow, ball dances, splendid dresses and luxurious palaces, lavish banquets, Orthodox churches, believers and non-believers, sceptic philosophers, and radical thinkers, soldiers, the war with Napoleon, countless bureaucrats and their infinite corruption, happy marriages, failed marriages, romantic encounters, jealousy, and some more duels, and some more snow… And so it goes for a whole century of great literature, from one book to another. So where to start and how to proceed so that not to lose oneself in the endless Siberian forest? Here is a short guide to the most prominent works from the Golden Age of Russian Literature.

  1. Eugene Onegin (1825-1832) by Alexander Pushkin

Eugene Onegin is a novel in verse, written by Alexander Pushkin and familiar to many thanks to its musical adaptation. Russians learn it in schools and pretty much by heart: it is widely believed that Onegin is a masterpiece due to its poetic qualities, as well as the virtuosity of the language. There is some philosophy, too, and quite a plot: a young and popular dandy Eugene Onegin is bored with balls and parties, and escapes to the country with his close friend Vladimir Lensky. They visit Lensky’s fiancée Olga Larina, and her sister Tatyana. Tatyana – an exceedingly modern and sensible young woman – seriously falls for Onegin and bravely chooses to confess her feelings, the first woman in Russian literature to ever do so. Onegin, however, is not impressed, and rudely refuses her. Instead, he goes on to have a bitter argument with Lensky, flirts with his fiancée out of revenge, and ends up killing his friend at a stupid duel. Some years later Onegin meets Tatyana again and realizes his mistake – but it’s all over for them, as Tatyana is married.

  1. The Captain’s Daughter (1836) by Alexander Pushkin

The Captain’s Daughter is one of the most famous novels of Alexander Pushkin, written in 1836. Although, being a historical novel, it is set even earlier and tells a story of young and innocent love that happened in Siberia during the Pugachev’s Rebellion in 1773–1774. An army officer Pyotr Andreyich Grinyov, just 17 years old, is sent into military service in an Orenburg fort, far away from Moscow. On his way there, he meets a mysterious stranger and is kind to him without asking his name. When in Orenburg, good-hearted Grinyov quickly becomes close to the fort’s captain, his wife, and daughter, Masha Mironova. Young love grows strong in snowy isolation of the little town, but there are obstacles: a jealous rival, a duel, a full-scale military rebellion by the fake emperor Pugachev, numerous executions, exiles… Mysterious man saves Grinyov’s life and helps him to free Masha from a forced marriage, but will they be happy? To find an answer, Masha Mironova must travel alone through the half of the continent straight to Saint Petersburg and tell her story to the empress herself.

  1. Dubrovsky (1841) by Alexander Pushkin

Just as The Captain’s Daughter, Pushkin’s Dubrovsky is a very Russian story: it has a lot of snow, big love, corrupted bureaucrats, greedy aristocrats, a promise, a mistake, even a bear. The main character becomes a Russian Robin Hood – which, alas, won’t end well for those he loves. In a way, it’s striking how Dubrovsky resembles a fairy tale – until it doesn’t. The story wasn’t finished as Pushkin died himself but actually it deserves all of the attention just as it is.

  1. The Overcoat(1842) by Nikolai Gogol

Vladimir Nabokov once said that the Overcoat was “The greatest Russian short story ever written”, and it might as well be true. At least, it is safe to say that this story speaks to every Russian: written by Nikolai Gogol in 1842, The Overcoat describes a life of a government clerk with his meagre salary and ordinary days. But he is a human being, too, and even his life has its joy: a new luxury overcoat that becomes an obsession, pride, and meaning. When robbed of it, the protagonist of the story seeks defence from the government – only to find cold-hearted bureaucracy which eventually kills him with its indifference. His restless soul goes on wandering Saint Petersburg, frightening those who hurt him. If we were to think about it, it’s terrifying how Gogol’s story is modern and relevant today – and it was written some 160 years ago!

  1. The Viy (1835) by Nikolai Gogol

The Viy is a short story, too, but this time Gogol went for a mystical thriller. Uniquely original, The Viy describes a horror encounter between a student Khoma Brut and a witch. Khoma successfully kills the witch but, seduced by a promised reward, must hold vigil for her – that is, stay with her body for three full nights in a lonely church. He manages two nights, even two and a half… and this is when the Viy comes in.

  1. Dead Souls (1842) by Nikolai Gogol

Gogol’s satirical and sociopolitical novel Dead Souls is for those who managed to appreciate The Overcoat. It is a story of the Russian serfdom, greed, corruption, and moral and spiritual vulgarity of some landowners and officials in the country. There is no romance and no snow, but otherwise, quite a lot of Russia, told in a clever and sometimes funny Gogol’s way.

7-8. A Nest of the Gentry (1859) and On the Eve (1860) by Ivan Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev’s literary legacy is all about love. What’s very Russian though, is that this love is deep, serious, endless, and inescapable as fate. This Russian sort of love happens to Turgenev’s characters as a blessing from above but also as a once-in-a-lifetime emotional convulsion, and who knows whether you will survive this kind of disaster. For most of his life living in a difficult relationship himself, basically, being tortured by the woman he loved, Turgenev knew the heart pain all too well. Perhaps therefore the love in his novels is quite often profoundly unhappy, painfully touching, unforgettable. This is the plot of the A Nest of the Gentry, as well as On the Eve and many others. Of course, there are beautiful women, unhappy circumstances, failed marriages, secret marriages, opera houses, religious convents, jealousy, flirting, adultery, confessions, nuns, money, tragedies, and endless heartbreak. Yet, Turgenev’s novels are not your ordinary romans in soft pink cover, but high-quality literary masterpieces that stay with readers – and some of them might even stay forever.

  1. Oblomov(1859) by Ivan Goncharov

They sometimes say that Ilya Ilyich Oblomov – the protagonist of the Goncharov’s novel – is the most realistic Russian in the entire Russian literature. Some say it’s a satire on Russian noblemen, others – that it’s a precise portrait. One way or another, the novel tells a story of Oblomov’s life or, rather, his inability to live his life. Oblomov is chronically lazy and conducts his daily business on a sofa – that is, procrastinates all day. Yet, he has a very kind soul and his friends attempt to help him. He even meets the love of his life – but foolishly keeps delaying the wedding because of his apathy and inability to make decisions. Strangely enough, despite this all, by the end of the book, one understands and feels compassion for the poor guy. Alas, of course, it doesn’t end well for Oblomov.

  1. Crime and Punishment(1866) by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment is yet another novel that Russian children learn in schools, thoroughly memorizing who killed whom, why, and what followed. Yet, children can, perhaps, access only a tiny little bit of the novel. As with any other of Dostoevsky’s works, behind simple facts – an impoverished ex-student Rodion Raskolnikov sees no way in life and, finding his family in financial distress, decides to kill a rich pawn-broker. The old woman is dead, money is taken, the killer escaped, but punishment is inevitable – lies a whole system of moral believes and philosophical considerations. Meanwhile, Dostoevsky’s world is something entirely different from this of Pushkin or Turgenev: there is poverty, young prostitutes, gloomy courtyards, dark stairs, even darker thoughts, and dangerous questions. And many-many pages until slight hope for redemption.

  1. The Brothers Karamazov(1880) by Fyodor Dostoevsky

They often say that Russians didn’t have philosophers in the 19th century because all of them were writers. Indeed, one of the most prominent features of the Golden Age of Russian Literature is that its strongest works actually combine both literature and philosophy in one. And nowhere is it more evident than in the case of The Brothers Karamazov. Again, there is a plot – a father, three adult sons, another one illegitimate, women, rivalry, bitter disagreements, broken engagements, the church. Then the father is killed, and one of the sons is a killer – and behind it lays a serious and blatant challenge to the entire Christianity. The concept of free will and morality as such is questioned. And the questions are – once again – dark and powerful, of a sort that nobody wants or can answer. Dostoevsky can be recommended only to the most advanced readers – philosophers themselves. But you are warned.

  1. War and Peace(1869) and Anna Karenina(1878) by Leo Tolstoy

Most likely, both War and Peace and Anna Karenina do not require an introduction. For one or another reason, these two novels became a symbolical face of Russian literature and they are indeed, fascinating. It is a high-quality portrait of the Russian 19th century – ball dances, engagements, marriages, elopement, and the war with Napoleon, and the devastation of the burned Moscow… Heavily wounded in the fight with Napoleon, Andrei Bolkonsky is, arguably, the most romantically appealing male character of the entire Russian literature. You can’t but cry on pages where he dies. Tolstoy’s patriarchal morality though makes everything a little more complicated. When devastated and ostracised Anna Karenina makes her final step under the moving train, there is little compassion between the lines – quite on the contrary, they say, it was meant to be a lesson to those who dare to leave their husbands. For whatever reasons, declared the morality.

  1. The Seagull(1896), Uncle Vanya (1898), Three Sisters (1900), and The Cherry Orchard (1903) by Anton Chekhov

The four most prominent Chekhov’s plays are concluding the Golden Age of Russian Literature. Both in a symbolic way, as Chekhov is the last writer who belongs to the 19th century, and in a direct way, as the plays themselves content-wise close the century. The old world is dying in them, and the characters feel it. There is sadness between the lines and yet – clarity, and light. Chekhov’s characters do not know what’s coming so they might still hope for a new Russia in a new century – perhaps fairer, perhaps, even kinder for every one of its souls. Let’s leave them in the blessed eternity of 1903, for every single year of the next 117 was an entirely different story.