20 Great Russian Novels You Should Read Right Now

Russia’s output of great literature over two centuries is nothing short of miraculous. Having endured tyranny under their czarist regime, as well as great suffering during two world wars and under Josef Stalin, it seems unlikely that they would have time for sure monumental, soul-searching novels. But don’t be fooled; the Russian literary tradition rivals most if not all countries, and its consistent ambition to define (and even redefine) social conditions has kept even it’s oldest works relevant in the public sphere. Here are twenty of the greatest novels in Mother Russia’s storied history.
Previously to Lermontov’s groundbreaking novel, Russian literature had been populated by short prose works and dominated by the poetry of Evgeni Pushkin. But once Lermontov introduced his character Pechorin, he would go on to set a benchmark for the complexity of characters in Russian fiction. A flawed, non-Romantic figure who must live up to ideals he can’t uphold, Lermontov proclaimed the end of the Romantic era and ushered the great era of realist fiction.
Gogol’s novel about a man who tries to trick landowners into buying their dead serfs (“dead souls”), who are technically still alive until the next Russian census, is a satirical picaresque similar in style to Cervantes but which stands alone for its odd and grotesque caricatures of Russian provincial life. Although Gogol was a self-professed conservative, the younger generations used it to argue against the ills of 19th century Russian society.
Goncharov tied together the social and personal issues of the day with this novel about a member of the gentry grown who is caught between the “idyllic” life of pre-emancipation serfdom and the “new”, more liberated Russia. Combining the romance of Pushkin and the rising school of realism, Oblomov is one of the best records of Russia’s great societal transition.
Fathers and Sons did what many other Russian novels did: pit the younger generation against the old. When Bazarov, a strict nihilist, challenges the well-established mores of Provincial life, he lures the naive towards his radical ideas. But when his beliefs get challenged by the unexpected appearance of passionate love and spirituality, he suffers a crisis that will force him to rethink his entire worldview.
Written while the author was in prison for subversive activities, What is to be Done? became a favorite among the rising left for the next half-century. The novel tells the story of Vera Pavlovna, a woman who looks to be free and emancipate herself from the conservative oppression of the czarist regime. Lenin professed that it was his favorite novel, and he saw its positive-minded protagonists as models for the revolutionaries that would eventually take over the country several decades down the road.
The first of Dostoevsky’s major novels, this presumably simple tale about a murder and its aftermath has remained one of the great preservers of 19th century urban life in Russia, describing everything from poverty, religion, family and of course, evil. When Raskolnikov, a former student enamored by Napoleonic ideals of superiority, decides to commit a murder against a old pawnbroker, it provokes one of the greatest personal transformations ever portrayed in literature.
The Great White Whale of Russian literature, War and Peace is a 1,300 page work that includes hundreds of subplots and characters all intertwining during the failed Napoleonic invasions of 1812. It has been criticized for its narrative looseness, but the transition from innocence to experience of its 5 main characters beautifully details the personal and historical happenings of early 19th century Russia.
Before Oprah Winfrey praised Tolstoy’s great work about adultery and family life in Russia’s aristocratic circles, Karenina was already one of the most important novels in the European canon. Written on a much smaller and personal scope than War and PeaceKarenina has been touted as Russia’s great realist novel, and along with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and George Eliot’s Middlemarch, it has become an exemplary text of the genre.
It is difficult to exclude many of Dostoevsky’s works, but Karamazov has not only retained its status as one of the seminal works in Russian Literature, but it has also gone on to become one of the most celebrated novels of all time. Part murder-mystery, part exploration of faith, the novel describes the murder of a father at the hand of one of four brothers, and like many other works by this great, troubled visionary, questions in great detail the existence and purpose of God.
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One of the first major works of socialist literature, Gorky’s Mother exposed the absurdities of the czarist regime in Russian Provincial life in the late 19th century. Based on the life of his grandmother, this deeply intimate portrayal of a typical Russian life gradually undergoing an ideological metamorphosis would, in a little over a decade, help influence the Bolshevik revolution and change Russia forever.

35 thoughts on “20 Great Russian Novels You Should Read Right Now

  1. wcs53 says:

    Nice list. Two of my favourite Russian books are on this list – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Crime and Punishment. Although I haven’t read too many of the books on this list, there are other books by many of these authors that I have read. So, I’m going to have to add a few of these to my ever growing TBR list!

  2. Thanks for this great list and another source of inspiration for my reading! Very pleased to say that I have already read three on this list, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. While it’s not on here I have been slowly working my way through Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, another great book.

    • qwiklit says:

      I believe Pushkin only had one novel. I didn’t consider Eugene Onegin as a Russian ‘novelist’ because his novel didn’t belong the actual novel-centric tradition in the country. Novels in Russia have historically been political protests or acts of subversion, and their approach to the serf/master plebian/czarist nihilist/orthodox relationships was hugely relevant to the national dialogue. Eugene Onegin belonged at the end of a previous era, where the Romantic view of Russian society dissipated with radical liberalizing views.

  3. hlmorris85 says:

    Another great list! Dostoevsky is one of my favorite writers of all time, and I know quite a few of these other works, but there are plenty more I can’t wait to check out.

  4. hollace says:

    i love Summer and Russian writers….as upside down as that is.. thanks for the list.. I’m goinf to find them all…hope one day to see Russia .

  5. Terra says:

    About Aleksandr Pushkin…He wrote amazing Belkin Tales. This is a series of 5 short stories. Lev Tolstoy said about Pushkin – I dont like Pushkin-poet, but i like very much Pushkin-writer.

  6. Thomas says:

    If you have an appreciation of Salvador Dali or Spike
    Milligan and any interest in the Political Machine, then Bulgakov is a must.

  7. Ruth says:

    very interesting list. I have read quite a few of them (though not in english – much better I have read them in my mother tongue). Lermontov’s Hero of our days is a fav. I’m much surprized at the mention of this book as most of the people who are ardent russian fans missed it. well, other than that, i’ve read both the entries for tolstoy, gorky’s mother, crime and punishment, Turgenev’s fathers and sons.

    • Mahesh says:

      Ruth.. Hero of our time is my first Russian book and was amazing… It motivated me to read the rest..have you Try gogol you’d love’em

  8. Mahesh says:

    I have read many of them. Best one is dead souls. It made my university life memorable…… I hope to taste dr. Shivago next

    • vijay says:

      hello , i m also indian, i read a book named “kunwari raat ka jaagran” its russian revolutionary time novel, can you provide me the details of that book such english name and have two parts of it ,

      Reply on this email vijayyiwu@hotmail.com,

      thanks
      vijay

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  12. shiban krishen koul says:

    Read a few books by Russian authors viz sholokov,tolostoy d.evesky gorky & found them captivating but yeh dil mange DEAD SOULS this time by N gogol.

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  14. John Jensen says:

    Such exquisite culture in such a savage land. This part of Russia is unforgettably portrayed with rage and olympian humour by Solsjenitsyn in the Gulag-masterpeice

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  16. vijay says:

    hello , i m also indian, i read a book named “kunwari raat ka jaagran” its russian revolutionary time novel, can you provide me the details of that book such english name and have two parts of it ,

    Reply on this email vijayyiwu@hotmail.com,

    thanks
    vijay

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