Russian literature is regarded as a dark trip that probes the depths of the human soul and mind. Russian literature is seen as deep and depressing because a common theme is that suffering is the road to redemption. Character names are formidable. With all that, these books are very rewarding to anyone who reads them.
The translator is almost as important as the author. Constance Garnett introduced English readers to Dostoyevsky, Chekov and Tolstoy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it’s still easy to find her translations. One complaint against her is that her books read the same, and she didn’t consider the writers personal style when translating. She translated with a Victorian sensibility, and missed subtle humor. The modern translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, are currently considered among the best, and worth reading.
In accordance with the writing style at the time, Russian writer’s novels are slower paced than modern novels. They contain a lot of characters with Russian names, but the reward is worth the effort.
Nikoli Gogol: 1809-1852
Gogol was the first novelist of the Russian classical era, and the first writer of modern Russian novels. His most well-known novel is Dead Souls about a man that buys rights to dead serfs who are still on the property ledgers. It is a satire about serfdom. Owning dead serfs will allow the buyer to be a respected landowner. Vladimir Nabakov felt the best translation was by Bernard Gilbert Guerney. Gogol also wrote short stories including Tarus Bulba.
Ivan Turgenev: 1818-1883
Turgenev was from Russian aristocracy. Turgenev knew Dostoyevsky and was arrested because he praised Gogol. He was in jail a short time and kept under surveillance for two years after his release. He lived outside Russia for several years. He died of cancer of the spinal cord in Russia.
Fathers and Sons is a novel of upper class rural life. It features generational conflict between a father and his son. It was the first Russian novel to be appreciated outside of Russia. Fathers and Sons is his most famous novel
Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 1821-1881
Dostoyevsky thought serfs murdered his father, and that influanced his writing the rest of his life. In his early 20s he was arrested as radical thought he was to be shot, reprieved at last minute and served 10 years in Siberia. During that time he developed epilepsy. Released, he wrote House of the Dead about his prison time. Dostoyevsky was a gambler and wrote fast to make money to pay off gambling debts. He was out of favor during the Soviet era because he was a Christian and wasn’t socialist. He used life experiences in his books. He used epilepsy in the Christ-figure Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, and the radical in The Possessed. Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov are perhaps is most well-known books.
Crime and Punishment is about an intellectual murderer who kills to steal money because he thinks he is more worthy than his victim. Then he starts to think about it. It is a well-known story that has been adapted into several movies.
The Brothers Karamazov is his last novel. It is about one of the four brothers murdering their father. It contains a well-known chapter entitled “The Grand Inquisitor” which features Christ with another name. It considers morality, free will, and God. The Brothers Karamazov was a movie with Yul Bryner and William Shatner.
The main character of The Idiot is Prince Myshkin. He is a naive young man who returns to Russia after being in a Swiss sanatorium. He is said to be an innocent Christ like human. He is trusting, which trips and betrays him in this tale of innocence lost.
Leo Tolstoy: 1829-1910
Tolstoy was born into Russian nobility. His father was a veteran in the war against Napoleon. He was an artilleryman in the Crimean War. He toured Europe and saw an execution in France which influenced him for the rest of his life. He had somewhat of a Victorian sensibility. For him, writing a moral enterprise.
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Anton Chekov: 1860-1904
Anton Chekov was a physician, but he didn’t profit from the profession as he treated patients for free. He was the last writer from Russia’s golden era before the Soviet revolution. The stories Chekov wrote were successful before his novels. His plays are still performed. His biggest talent was for the short stories and most readers consider them richer than his plays. He was one of the first to use stream of consciousness which follows the thought processes of the protagonist. He writes to the point without unnecessary words. He’s known as a master of the short story and several appear in anthologies. His stories reflect life.
War and Peace and Anna Karenina are considered his best novels. A third, Resurrection isn’t as well known, but holds up well with the others. He wrote short stories, political and religious works as well. His religious beliefs centered on the Sermon on the Mount and nonviolence.
War and Peace is about Napoleons Russian invasion. He has the ability to state difficult and deep philosophical thoughts simply, and covers a wide range of them in the novel. It has many characters, and introduces the major ones in the first chapter. This, and the length, makes it intimidating to Western readers. The well-developed characters become friends after a while. It is worthwhile and rewarding reading. Tolstoy authorized a translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude in 1902. The book was made into movies several times including a BBC production with Anthony Hopkins in 1973.
Anna Karenina has one of the greatest opening lines of any novel. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It is the story of illicit love and adultery that ends in tragedy. The story covers the layers of Russian nobility. It’s been made into movies several times.
Resurrection concerns a nobleman that impregnated a commoner. A few years later he is on a jury, and she is a defendant. He still has feelings for her and gives up everything to try to rescue her. It covers all facets of Russian life and touches on the hypocrisy and corruption of justice.
Doctor Zhivago covers the last days of czarist Russia and the first days of the revolution. At its base level the book is about the love affair between Yuri and Lara that begins with World War One and continues past the Soviet Revolution. He’s captured by the Reds, escapes and continues to find Lara. It is a story of love, war, infidelity and death. It was made into an award winning movie that is one of David Lean’s greatest movies.
Boris Pasternak: 1890-1960
Boris Pasternak is one of the modern Russian writers. His books weren’t embraced by the Soviets, which made him read in the Western countries. It was at the top of the bestseller list for 26 weeks. In any case, it is worth reading. Doctor Zhivago is his best known, and received the Nobel Prize for literature. He is best known in Russia for his poetry.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn: 1918-2008
Solzenitsyn won the Nobel Literature Prize in 1970. He was a Soviet critic who served in World War Two. He wrote letters to a friend that criticized Stalin and sentenced to eight years in a labor camps. After the prison term, he was exiled for life in Kazakhstan. His first book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was approved by Khrushchev. It was about a prisoner in a Soviet work camp. Other books include Cancer Ward, and The Gulag Archipelago. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago are his best known books.
There are many more good Russian writers and any grouping is subjective. These are well known, and easy to find. The best of their writings have transcended the title of regional to world literature. They have written enough books for a lifetime of fine reading and well worth the effort.