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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.
1. Mikhail Lermontov – A hero of our Time (1840)
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.
2. Nikolay Gogol – Dead Souls (1842)
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.
3. Ivan Goncharov – Oblomov (1859)
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.
4. Ivan Turgenev – Fathers and Sons (1862)
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.
5. Nikolay Chernychevsky – What is to be Done? (1863)
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.
6. Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment (1867)
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.
8. Lev Tolstoy – Anna Karenina (1875-1877)
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.
9. Fyodor Dostoesvky – The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880)
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.
10. Maxim Gorky – Mother (1906)
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.


  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. 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!

    • 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.

      • 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. 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. 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. 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.

    • 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.

    • Greetings. I believe the author of the short story of which you’re thinking was Ivan Bunin. He was the first Russian writer to win a Nobel Prize.

  7. 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.

  8. Looking for some help, please. I have a set of books written in Russian by, I believe, MAPK TBEH. It’s a 12-book set, but I’m missing book #10 and would like to get it and complete the set. My son is learning some Russian and would like the books. Recommendations from anyone? Thank you.

  9. I can’t simply go without leaving a comment. This post is a great read.

    Donut Hole is a War story told by a Marine who had just survived 395 days in a war zone, but at the end of his 13 month tour, he would have to survive the 68 TET Offensive and the Donut Hole to come home alive.

    I hope you can take the time to read my book as well:Donut Hole

  10. While I wouldn’t have left out Master & Margherita or a half dozen other titles taste is individual. On the other hand there’s nothing about translations which is a huge topic when discussing Russian novels? Garnett vs Maude vs P-V, etc? You basically just mailed this in.

  11. Sorry, but no one will take this seriously until you have fixed a glaring mistake at the beginning: Alexander, not Evgeny Pushkin; “Eugene Onegin” is the name of Pushkin’s poem.

  12. I’ve read Nabokov complete, including short stories, collections of non-fiction works, his major two-volume biography, everything except the Eugene Onegin translation.

    It’s a nice gesture to throw The Gift onto this list but I think he really didn’t come into his own until writing in English: Pale Fire, Bend Sinister. Despite the sickening subject matter Lolita is incredibly written. I warn people off Ada but even that is intense (kind of like Buckaroo Banzai meets Anna Karenina). And yet despite the country of his birth, I’d claim these all as American or English novels, not Russian.

    In lieu of The Gift I’d suggest perhaps Stalingrad: A Novel. By Vasily Grossman.

  13. Interesting blog, it reminds me of Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment :”Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don’t you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary.”
    I tried to write a blog abot him, hope you also like it :

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