Literature is one of Russia’s greatest exports. For centuries Russian authors have contemplated, opined and discussed the state of Russian society and culture. Despite the best efforts of propaganda and censorship, literature still gives us fascinating insight into Russia throughout history, and arguably, right through to the present day. To read Russian literature is not only to marvel at literary craft and storytelling, but to better understand the Russia that we see before us now. From Pushkin to Pasternak, Tolstoy to Turgenev, Gogol to Gorky, there are countless writers to explore. Russian authors may have arrived at the proverbial dinner table of civilised literature a little later than those of other European powers, but they have provided us with a veritable feast of works to consume.
There is so much to read. What with Pushkin’s poems, Chekhov’s plays, Tolstoy’s epics, you could quite easily lose yourself for months on end in the 19th Century alone. However, Russia’s turbulent past has been a positive influence on literature, and there is great variety to be found: political comment, satire, human suffering, love and heartbreak, social inequality, and a profound understanding of the Russian soul. Of course, each author contributes something different and the ever-changing backdrop of history, from tsarist imperialism to post-soviet capitalism, via the small matter of the Soviet Union, gives them a different stage on which to perform.
Perhaps Russian literature’s greatest achievement is its ability to be consistently relevant. To the present day, literature can be political analysis, protest, or simply a portrayal of society. Gogol exposed the flaws inherent in serfdom in Dead Souls, a few years before the emancipation reforms of 1861; Bulgakov fought against censorship and socialist realism to write Heart of a Dog, a satirical, humorous attack on Soviet attempts to transform its citizens into utopian, communist comrades; in 1992, Pelevin commented on the absurdity of Soviet heroism in Omon Ra. It is a tradition that continues with contemporary writers such as Prilepin and Sorokin.
Walking around Moscow, one can get a glimpse into the literary lifestyle of some of the greats. Many writers used to live around Novy Arbat Street, before the population in Moscow swelled. Fortunately, some residences have been preserved, nestled between the ugly Soviet apartment blocks that now dominate the skyline. Stroll around the leafy courtyard at Lermontov’s former residence and see the writing desk at which he wrote A Hero of Our Time. Admire the bizarre banisters and stained-glass windows where Gorky lived and wander through parts of the city that have inspired so much writing.
I won’t pretend that exploring these residences transports the visitor on a creative literary journey through Russian history. However, it is interesting to see where these great writers worked, the pastel coloured-walls, the extravagant writing desks, and the piano or harpsichord in an adjoining room. It is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.
While not claiming to be an expert, I can offer suggestions of what to read for anyone looking to expand their literary horizons: books that I have particularly enjoyed, some on more than one occasion. I would welcome any suggestions in return (my knowledge merely scratches the surface!), as well as your thoughts on what you have enjoyed or disliked when it comes to Russian literature.
Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A psychological thriller that takes you deep into the human mind.
Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
The devil and his entourage visit Moscow to wreak havoc. This is fast, playful, superbly written and my personal favourite.
Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
A tragic story of love and familial relationships. Its opening line is one of the most famous in literature: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Day of the Oprichnik - Vladimir Sorokin
A contemporary novel in which Russia is ruled by the fearsome police of Ivan the Terrible, exploring the theme of nationalism in a bizarre and, at times, grotesque way. (Note: if you choose to read this book on the back of my recommendation, please get in touch so I can give you a word of warning.)