20 Great Russian Novels You Should Read Right Now

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.

84 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

    • I know two stories with similar setting. The one you are talking about is titled “Sunstroke” (Solnychnii Udar) by Ivan Bunin. The two characters met on a ship and then went into a hotel room. Then what you described follows. The next day the lady leaves and the narrator is left back alone. A very deep story. Nicely told. Once you read it, you can never forget the emotions you felt while reading it. By the way, your mentioning Chekov is amusing, because Bunin is often compared with Chekhov. In fact, it is said that their styles are so similar that any book written by one could as well have been written by the other.

      Another similar (long) story is, of course, “Lady with the Dog” (Dama s Sobachkoy) by Anton Chekov. It describes the affair between the narrator and a married young lady. The events took place over a course of several days and at several locations.

  7. Brian Hanney says:

    I love Vladimir Schukschin’s short stories and think he should be much better known. The protaganists tend to be characters who are a bit eccentric and not quite at ease in the rural society in which they live and which the author knew so well. Many of them remind me of some of the older people I knew growing up in rural Ireland. I think the author was passed over by Western critics in the last century because he was never a dissident. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate him.

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