Home > Book Reviews, Russia > A Primer to Russian (and Ukrainian) Literature

A Primer to Russian (and Ukrainian) Literature

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If you ask someone to name a work of Russian literature they will probably give you War and Peace, and if you ask for a second the answer will likely be Crime and Punishment, but there’s more to Russian Literature than the works of the giants of the nineteenth century in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. This year I read more than 40 books by Russian and Ukrainian writers (the latter of which are often labelled as Russian anyway), discovering a number of well-known writers and a few who are somewhat more obscure.  What follows is a brief primer to these authors and some of their most accessible works in English translation. My focus here is on shorter works and those that are in print. I’m aware of the paucity of women writers on this list, so I’m eager for recommendations.

country

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) is one of the greatest Russian authors of the twentieth century and he is best known for his opus The Master and Margarita. My favourite work of his, however, is the delightful A Country Doctor’s Notebook (also translated as A Young Doctor’s Notebook). This is a series of semi-autobiographical stories based on Bulgakov’s experiences in the medical profession in Russian backwaters around the time of the Revolution. The book is also the subject of an equally wonderful BBC mini-series starring Daniel Radcliffe. Another accessible work is the novella Heart of a Dog.

petersburg

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) is best remembered for his satirical novel Dead Souls and his story ‘The Overcoat’, the latter of which is included here in Petersburg Tales. I loved not only ‘The Overcoat’ but ‘Nevsky Prospekt’ and the hilarious ‘The Nose’. I would definitely start here with Gogol, before moving onto Dead Souls and his most famous play, The Government Inspector.

armenia

Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) is the author of the essential Life and Fate, a hefty tome that deserves close attention, but the first book I read of his happened to be his last, and probably his shortest, An Armenian Sketchbook. Penned as a result of the author’s travels to Armenia shortly before his death in 1964, this is a delightful meditation on life by one of the twentieth century’s most important writers.

soul

Andrei Platonov (1899-1951) may be my favourite Russian writer of them all. Suppressed by the authorities and mostly obscure during his life and long after his death, Platonov is the author of The Foundation PitHappy Moscow and a number of beautifully sad and elegiac stories. My absolute favourite of them is ‘Among Animals and Plants’, which you can read for free here at The New Yorker, and the best collection of his shorter work can be found in Soul and Other Stories.

 

chandler

Robert Chandler is one of the main English translators of Platonov’s work and he’s also the editor of this truly essential collection from Penguin Classics. Here you’ll find not only the established greats of Russian literature and some of their most famous works (Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades’, for example) but also a smattering of equally delightful pieces by much less well known authors like Mikhail Zoshchenko, Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal and Sergei Dovlatov. (Note: this is $11 currently on Book Depository, so get in quick!)

I could go on, but this is supposed to be a primer and thus I suppose five books is enough. Some honourable mentions to finish though:

Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov

Recently released by New York Review of Books Classics, this is an amazing work of literature – 600+ pages of stories from the gulags of deepest Siberia.

The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlatov

This is an endearing and amusing collection from the ‘Russian Kurt Vonnegut’. There’s also a Netflix film about the author (titled, predictably, Dovlatov).

The Beauties by Anton Chekkov

Pushkin Press produce some beautiful books and this is certainly one of the finest.

Moscow and Voronezh Notebooks by Osip Mandelstam

I haven’t read much Russian poetry as yet, but Mandelstam is very impressive.

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

If you’ve ever played the first person shooter game STALKER, you were playing an adaptation of Roadside Picnic. 

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