Bely’s Petersburg tells the story of a senator’s son looking to assassinate his father in the midst of the failed 1905 revolution, and its publication before and after the Bolshevik revolution became was of little surprise, as no other text could better account for the massive changes the country was undergoing. Both a contemporary account of a changing generation and a revisiting of Russian history and literature, the novel’s unique ‘ornamentalist’ style became the benchmark of Russian literature’s brief foray into literary modernism.
One of the first novels to be critical of the Bolshevik Revolution, We questioned the principles of socialism by setting the story in the distant future. Considered to be one of the first dystopian novels, its ridiculous depiction of a glass-encased city state told from the perspective of a mathematician with a number for a name would soon become an uncanny representation of a society gone mad. Banned in Russia until 1988, the novel had a profound impact on George Orwell, and would later become a major influence to his great work 1984.
Bunin’s critique of capitalist society may have been deemed ironic when he escaped Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, but his pessimistic view of technological advancement and American society became an instant hit among the angry youth in the country at the time. Set on a passenger ship heading from America to Europe, it follows the “inevitable-death” model of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Lev Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych to evoke what he saw was the spiritual void of capitalist society.
While War and Peace was influenced in part by the glories and ironies of war, Sholokhov decided to forgo any elevation of battle and depict in all of its brutality and sorrow the decline of the Cossack civilization in this four-novel series. The novel was at first controversial for its antagonizing of the Bolshevik invaders during the revolutionary war, but Sholokhov’s emphasis on Cossack life and cosmology is as humanizing as it is painfully elegiac.
Nabokov is more well-known for his English masterpieces Lolita and Pale Fire, but before his success in America, he endured brief success by writing in his native Russian as an emigré in Germany. The Gift is quite fitting, considering it was his final Russian novel–closely paralleling his home country’s literary history in the 19th century, the novel tells the story of a man leaving Russia behind, and it explores various literary styles and forms while also explaining, in semi-biographical form, his own departure.
Boris Pasternak’s sprawling epic tells the story of Yury Zhivago, an orphan turned doctor and poet during the first few decades of the 20th century. The novel is bleakly poetic but undeniably beautiful–using the turbulent events of the revolution as a backdrop, Pasternak demonstrates the protagonist’s transition from an admirer of Tolstoy to an opponent of Soviet communism. Written nearly a hundred years after the great period of large Russian novels, this work marked a resurgence of the genre, and even inspired one of the most celebrated movies of all time.
While many Russian novelists carefully approached anything closely related to subversion during the Soviet Regime, Solzhenitsyn’s honest and brutal portrayal of a “good day” at a labor camp in the Siberian GULAG is as hopeful as it is heartbreaking. The novel’s greatness can be found in its biting irony. Men from all over the Soviet Union and abroad come together and build their own successful society within the camp, and in doing so live “free” from the tyrannical policies of this failed state.
The Master and Margarita was like nothing written before it. Published posthumously more than two decades after the death of the author, this bizarre but fantastical twist of Goethe’s Faust tells the story of a figure named Woland–presumably the devil–who wreaks havoc on Soviet Moscow. Hilarious, fantastical and ridiculous, Bulgakov’s novel is still celebrated today in Russia, and is considered by some to be the founding text of magic realism.
As one of the first authors to emerge out of the 1986 liberalizing of Russia known as the Glasnost, Popov had free rein in criticizing the failures of the Soviet Experiment. Inspired by Gogol, Popov used this epistolary form to chronicle a generational line, as well as the end of an era. When Brezhnev died in 1982, the feeling that the USSR was perhaps coming to an end began to dawn on people, and Popov became (and remains today) one of the foremost critics of modern Russia.
One of the first celebrated novels to emerge out of the collapsing Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, Omon Ra tells the story of Omon Krivomazov, a former war-hero turned “cosmonaut” who believes he is undergoing training for a moon landing. Both a satire of conspiracy theory and the Soviet Union’s desperate push for modernity, the need for Omon to leave the earth to be free from the USSR is a funny but poignant commentary towards a utopian ideal that failed so many.