Six Books to Read About Russia
- Student Tips
Happy Russian Language Day! The UN chose today to celebrate the language of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky because it's the birthday of Aleksandr Pushkin, arguably Russia's greatest poet and the father of Russian literature. If you've already emersed yourself in Pushkin, celebrate Russian Language Day with a dive into some other Russian greats. Bonus points if you read them in Russian!
1. Classic: War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
Feel yourself struggling to find stable ground in this topsy-turvy world, enmeshed in war and social upheaval? Feeling a bit angsty? Join Tolstoy’s cast of characters as they, too, try to find footing in an uncertain world.
If you love history and want a sense of why and how Russia is the way it is, you’ll appreciate this tome, which tells the story of the war of 1812—and why it happened the way it did.
Questioning your destiny? War and Peace also functions well as a self-help guide. From the ballroom to the battlefield and the places in-between, put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You might learn something.
2. Historical: The Dream Life of Sukhanov, Olga Grushin
Grushin’s 2006 debut charts the rise and fall of a successful, young Muscovite in 1985, during the age of Gorbachev. She explores a Russia teetering between the worlds of totalitarianism and socialism, state control and free speech, and materialism. She questions the role of memory and history in this compelling un-put-down-able story of one man’s vision—and his reality in 1985 Russia.
3. Dystopia: The Slynx, Tatyana Tolstaya
Into dystopia? Travel with Benedikt, the hero of a tale told two hundred years after the end of civilization. Benedikt, a transcriber of old books who presents the contents as the words spoken by the world’s new leader -- questions his world for the first time, and dares to think for himself.
With a tone of tragic comedy, The Slynx offers a satirical look at a future that nobody wants -- but is possible to dream.
4. Short Stories: Sonechka: A Novella and Stories, Lyudmila Ulitskaya
If short stories are more your style, check out Ulitskaya’s Sonechka. In a series of brilliantly drawn vignettes, Ulitskaya tells the story of Sonechka, a Russian booklover. Through various characters, we learn about Sonechka and the unpredictability of life for women in Russia. Through poverty, betrayal, marriage, and the tumultuousness of mother-daughter relationships, the novella reveals the truth of women’s lives -- and how to live through unendurable heartache.
5. Thriller: The State Counsellor, Boris Akunin
This list wouldn’t be complete without an Akunin thriller. Sixth in the Erast Fandorin historical detective series, The State Counsellor sees protagonist detective Erast Fandorin, a Sherlock-ian James Bond of 1880s Moscow under wrongful arrest for the murder of General Krapov—the officer whom he’s supposedly protecting.
The thriller unravels to reveal a who, what, where, when, why and how so intriguing and captivating that we guarantee you won’t be able to put it down. Bombs and bankers, robbers and bodies -- it’s all there and it’s Akunin at his best.
6. Satire: Envy, Yuri Olesha
Two sides of one coin can look quite different. A biting, ruthless examination of Socialist ideals in 1927, Envy shows off Olesha’s visionary streak. The protagonist, Andrei, is a model Soviet citizen. Nikolai is the consummate loser. They are both exactly the same, says Olesha.
Read it. Then read it again.
Find something to whet your literary palate? Good. Pick one up at a bookstore, order it online, or read it on your e-reader.
Happy Russian Language Day!
Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.