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.

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

  1. Hey thanks for this list. I have just developed an interest in Russian literature and realised how far off I was in the literary dominion. I have just got myself War and Peace, Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov. Hope to devour all the books on this list.

  2. Luchik says:

    I can’t believe “What is to be done?’ is recommended here. It is the most boring book in the world! When we studied it at school, we usually went to bed with this book: even if you did not want to sleep, the boredom projected from this book would put you to sleep!

    • Dwight Ropp says:

      That is odd; while I agree with you that The Master and Margarita should be on the list, I do not see it there. Perhaps this list was modified since you first saw it. But then, who would take it off the list? Too wacky to contemplate.

      • Dwight Ropp says:

        Oh, sorry, egg on my face. My cell-phone (supposedly a “smart-phone”) did not show the part of the page where you click on to get to the second page with novels 11-20. I only saw 1-10. Never mind my above reply.

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  4. Anna says:

    A book about the complex relationship between man and the ghost world. A book that is designed to turn the reader’s view of the other world.

  5. Dwight Ropp says:

    I agree that seeing “What Is To Be Done” on the list is a head-scratcher. Its esteem seems to arise more out of “the responses it created than as a novel in its own right,” as one reviewer puts it. While on the one hand, it was loved by those of the socialist mindset like Vladimir Lenin, it was roundly criticized by giants among novelists, Dostoyevski, Tolstoy and Nabokov. Rather, I believe that scholars today would be much more inclined to replace that title and likely even Gorky’s “Mother” on the list with “Petersburg” by Bely and “The Master and Margarita” by Bulgakov, or maybe with “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Solzhenitsyn or “We” by Zamyatin.

  6. Elena Correa says:

    Many years ago I read a marvelous collection of Russian short stories that took place in tsarist Russia, before the 1917 Revolution. I remember especially one of them dealing about an encounter between an exquisite married lady and the narrator, in a room. It was winter and it was beautiful, the description of her dress, the weather, the romantic story. It was not Chejov, I lost the book in Cuba, I don’t remember the author, I read it in Spanish, but it is the same for me in English. I’m doing my research, but if any of you have any idea about it, please write to me, thank you.

    • Dwight Ropp says:

      That sounds very interesting, Elena. The story itself does not ring a bell for me, but I will list a few of the most prominent Russian short story writers that I am aware of, and maybe the author’s name will be familiar to you. Or you can research them on the net. Try these:
      – Ivan Bunin
      – Isaac Babel
      – Yuri Kazakov
      – Nikolai Leskov
      – Alexander Serafimovich
      – Viktor Yerofeyev

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