Must-Read Novels that Deal with Russian History

Russia has a rich and complex history that has been the subject of numerous literary works. From Napoleon’s invasion to the Russian Revolution and the Soviet era, there is no shortage of fascinating historical events and periods to explore. With that said, the following list will provide the reader with hours upon hours of excellent reading material that deals with real-life historical events. In addition, recommended translations and links to them will be provided after each title.

1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

“War and Peace” is a monumental novel that portrays Russian society during the Napoleonic Wars in vivid detail. Tolstoy’s intricate exploration of history and humanity provides readers with a thorough understanding of the time’s social, political, and cultural dynamics. “War and Peace” creates an unparalleled view of the impact of war on individuals and society as a whole, thanks to complex characters and masterful storytelling. “War and Peace” offers a unique perspective on Russian history from the Napoleonic era to the early nineteenth century, and it remains one of the most important pieces of Russian literature.

Links to Recommended Translations:

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Louise and Aylmer Maude

Anthony Briggs

2. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

“Doctor Zhivago” is a literary masterpiece that offers a deep and poignant examination of Russian history during the turbulent early twentieth century. Pasternak deftly weaves together a rich tapestry of historical events and societal changes through the story of the titular character, a physician and poet caught in the crosshairs of war, revolution, and political upheaval. His lyrical prose and intimate characterizations provide a distinct and nuanced perspective on the human impact of these larger forces, making “Doctor Zhivago” a must-read for anyone interested in the interplay of individual experience and historical context.

Links to Recommended Translations:

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

3. The Captain’s Daughter by Alexander Pushkin

The classic historical novel “Captain’s Daughter” captures the drama and intrigue of the Russian rebellion against Catherine the Great. The plot follows young officer Pyotr Grinyov as he navigates the perilous political landscape of the time, encountering rebels, traitors, and a captivating woman named Masha. “Captain’s Daughter” is a riveting historical novel that delves into the complexities of Russian society during a time of political upheaval. Pushkin’s mastery of character development and storytelling ensures that this classic work is as engaging and thought-provoking today as it was when first published.

Links to Recommended Translations:

Robert Chandler & Elizabeth Chandler

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

4. The Red Wheel Series (Nodes 1-3) by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The Red Wheel is a series of historical novels by Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The series is set during the Russian Revolution and the early years of the Soviet Union, and it explores the events leading up to the revolution, the revolution itself, and its aftermath.

The series is divided into four volumes, each focusing on a different period in Russian history. The first volume, “August 1914,” explores the events leading up to World War I and the early days of the war. The second volume, “November 1916,” takes place during the last days of Tsar Nicholas II’s reign and the lead-up to the February Revolution of 1917.

The third volume, March 1917, covers the February Revolution and the subsequent establishment of the Provisional Government. The fourth and final volume, April 1917, describes the Bolshevik coup and the beginning of the Russian Civil War.

Throughout the series, Solzhenitsyn examines the role of the individual in history, and he presents a critical portrayal of both the Tsarist and Communist regimes. The series is highly regarded for its historical accuracy and its vivid portrayal of the tumultuous events of the period.

Links to Recommended Translations:

Node 1: August 1914, H.T. Willetts

Node 2: November 1916, H.T. Willetts
Node 3: March 1917, Book 1, Marian Schwartz

Node 3: March 1917, Book 2, Marian Schwartz

Node 3: March 1917, Book 3, Marian Schwartz

5. Stalingrad + Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman

Published in 1952, “Stalingrad” is a novel by Vassily Grossman that follows the lives of Soviet soldiers and civilians during the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II. The novel depicts the horrors of war and the brutal conditions that both soldiers and civilians faced during the siege. It also portrays the resilience and determination of the Soviet people in their fight against Nazi Germany.

“Life and Fate” is a novel by Vassily Grossman that was completed in 1960 but was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988, due to government censorship. The novel follows the lives of various characters, including soldiers, scientists, and intellectuals, during the Battle of Stalingrad and the Holocaust. It explores themes such as freedom, morality, and the individual’s role in society. The novel has been compared to Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” for its sweeping narrative and depiction of a pivotal moment in Russian history. It is considered to be Grossman’s masterpiece and one of the greatest works of 20th-century Russian literature.

Links to Recommended Translations:

Stalingrad, Robert Chandler & Elizabeth Chandler
Life and Fate, Robert Chandler

6. The Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin

“The Turkish Gambit” is a gripping historical mystery set during the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War. Akunin expertly weaves elements of history, politics, and espionage to create a gripping and suspenseful story. The plot follows the exploits of detective Erast Fandorin, who is assigned to a Russian military mission in Turkey. As he navigates the dangerous political landscape of the war-torn region, Fandorin becomes entangled in a complex web of intrigue. Akunin’s vivid descriptions of the period and attention to historical detail transport readers to the novel’s setting, making “Turkish Gambit” not only an enjoyable read but also a fascinating historical resource.

Links to Recommended Translations:

Andrew Bromfield

7. The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

“The White Guard” is a novel about the chaos of the Civil War, where the family home with a tiled stove is the only refuge. Bulgakov creates a story of eternal conflicts – old and new, honor and cowardice – based on his experiences in Kiev. The novel takes place between December 1918 and February 1919 – Russian officers attempt to defend the city’s peace from Germans, Bolsheviks, and Petlyura, but are humiliatingly defeated before they can act. Bulgakov writes a novel about the ongoing war without a winner, the collapse of the old world and the emergence of the new, and the miraculously preserved in the chaos of history house-privacy with “cream curtains” and “lamp under a lampshade.”

Links to Recommended Translations:

Roger Cockrell

8. The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar Yuri Tynyanov

“Death of Vazir-Mukhtar” introduces the reader to early nineteenth-century Russia, following the life and tragic death of Alexander Griboyedov, a gifted diplomat and playwright who served as a Russian ambassador in Persia. The narrative weaves a rich tapestry of political intrigue, love, and betrayal, as well as themes of cultural exchange, identity, and the interplay of individual agency and the historical and societal forces that shape it. Tynyanov’s prose is both intricate and engaging, depicting a time of both progress and stagnation, as well as a profound reflection on the human experience in the midst of great change.

Links to Recommended Translations:

Anna Kurkina Rush & Christopher Rush

9. All Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov

“And Quiet Flows the Don” is a monumental novel that provides a panoramic view of Cossack life in the early twentieth century. The novel depicts the conflict between the Don Cossacks and the Bolsheviks against the backdrop of World War I and the Russian Revolution, highlighting the devastating impact of war on ordinary people. Sholokhov captures the complex social and political forces at work during this turbulent period in Russian history through vivid characters and intricate storytelling. The novel’s exploration of themes such as loyalty, betrayal, and the search for identity elevates it to the status of a timeless masterpiece that continues to captivate readers today.

Links to Recommended Translations:

Stephen Gerry

10. The Gulag Archipelago Trilogy by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The nonfiction work, yes the blog title said novels, but nonetheless,”The Gulag Archipelago” provides a historical account of the Soviet prison system and labor camps during the Stalinist era. Solzhenitsyn draws on his own experiences as a former political prisoner to provide a chilling and detailed account of the Soviet penal system’s brutalities, as well as its broader political and social implications. The themes of totalitarianism, censorship, and the struggle for human dignity in the face of oppression are explored in the book. It is a monumental and significant work that illuminates Soviet history and its impact on individuals and society.

Links to Recommended Translations:

Thomas P. Whitney

Thomas P. Whitney
Harry Willetts