Ask someone for names of five Russian novelists and you’ll get Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Bulgakov and Nabokov, but there are countless must-read Russian writers to discover that are available in English translation!
Below I present to you, O’ sapient reader, my selection of five authors—all very different, but equally thought-provoking and worthy of a place on your bookshelf.
Best Russian writers nobody reads
Moscow to the End of the Line (Москва – Петушки, Moskva – Petushki; aka Moscow Stations or Moscow Circles)
“Oh, that most helpless and shameful of times in the life of my people, the time from dawn until the liquor stores open up!”
Moscow – Petushki is one of those one-hit wonders passed around in samizdat, loved by many, loathed by most, and banned in Belarus for good measure. Erofeev’s only work is a short postmodernist prose poem that follows an alcoholic intellectual on a 125 km train trip to Petushki. In best traditions of Russian journeys by train, he quickly befriends his fellow passengers, gets drunk, and goes on to discuss love, history, literature, philosophy, politics and life in the Soviet Union. Warning: Don’t forget to have a shot or two before reading! After all, “it’s impossible to trust the opinion of a person who hasn’t yet been able to tie one on.”
“Any thought that occurs in the process of reading this book is subject to copyright. Unauthorized thinking of it is prohibited.””
Another postmodernist writer, this time from the post-Soviet era, Pelevin has long been considered one of the forefront modern writers at home. A 2009 survey even voted him as the most influential intellectual in Russia. Abroad, however, Pelevin remains largely unknown outside of faculties of Slavic literature. His works range from short stories to full novels, mixing deep esoteric philosophy with some comic relief and a good dose of contemporary popular culture. The author has never appeared in public, leading some to question his very existence, and all of his works prior to 2009 are available online for free, some even including audio versions—a great boon for those of you learning Russian.
What Is to Be Done? (Что делать?, Shto delat’?; aka What Shall We Do?)
“Tell everyone that the future will be radiant and beautiful. Love it, strive toward it, work for it, bring it nearer, transfer into the present as much as you can from it.”
Do you think it’s Marx’s Capital that pushed Lenin to overthrow an empire? No, it’s What Is to Be Done? that the Russian revolutionary re-read five times in one summer. Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel, smuggled out of the Peter and Paul fortress of St. Petersburg where he was imprisoned, tells a story of a privileged couple who decide to work for the revolution, and ruthlessly subordinate everything in their lives to the cause. The book is written in a style as ascetic as the life of the early Socialist underground, but with the approach can be a most enjoyable read. What even those who don’t see it as a chef-d’oeuvre of Russian literature can’t disagree with: cited by people from Lenin and Kropotkin to Strindberg and Rosa Luxemburg, rebutted by both Dostoevsky and Tolstoi, this book has been one of the most influential books in Russian history.
The Suitcase (Чемодан)
“I had three long conversations with Marusya over a cup of coffee. She told me her whole rather silly story. To some degree we became friends. I like people like that—doomed, dying, helpless, and brazen. I always say, if you’re in trouble, you’re not sinning.”
Dovlatov’s signature subtle, dark-edge humour was all but appreciated by the KGB, and in 1979 he migrated to the US, which marked a the start of his illustrious career as a writer and journalist at The New Yorker and a number of Russian-language publications. His perhaps best known book is The Suitcase, where he examines eight items he brought with him from the USSR as a means to make a wry commentary on the life in the Soviet Union. Other works paint an equally perceptive picture of the life of Soviet émigrés in America. Whether you start from one of Dovlatov’s short stories, or a longer novel, you’re in for a great laugh!
“…Those two, in paradise, were given a choice: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness. There was no third alternative…”
Zamyatin is another lesser known gem of Russian literature and a precursor and undeniable influence Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World & George Orwell’s 1984 later in the 20th century. Though an ardent Bolshevik, Zamyatin was highly critical of the policies pursued by the early Soviet government, and his 1921 sci-fi novel ‘We’ became the first novel to be banned in the Soviet Union. The book describes a dystopian future police state—The One State of the great Benefactor where individuals have been replaced with numbers and soul with math—and is a true masterpiece of wit and black humor that accurately predicted the horrors of Stalinism. Soon after, Zamyatin successfully requested for exile to emigrate to Paris, and is considered to be one of the first dissidents from the Union.