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A Primer to Russian (and Ukrainian) Literature

December 16, 2018 Leave a comment

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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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Little Russia

Over the past month or so, I’ve been gorging myself on nineteenth and twentieth century ‘Russian’ literature – the inverted commas are because many of these authors are Ukrainian. I first encountered the term ‘Little Russia’ in the work of Nikolai Gogol, an amazing and amusing writer who needs little introduction. Gogol was born in a village in central Ukraine in 1809, but made his name in St Petersburg. I’ve read his short stories – the less famous Ukrainian Tales and more famous Petersburg Tales – as well as his novel Dead Souls, surmising that Gogol considered the ‘Little Russia’ of that time (present day Ukraine) to be part of the wider Russian Empire of the Tsars.

Nikolai Gogol

I’m a fan of Gogol, but my favourite ‘Russian’ of all was born about eighty years later, in 1891. I first read Mikhail Bulgakov’s superlative The Master and Margarita in 2014, and thereafter practically all of his work (novels, stories, plays, letters and a couple of biographies). Born in Kiev, Bulgakov’s novel The White Guard powerfully illustrates the tug of war between Germany and Russia during the First World War, with Kiev as ground zero. Ironically, the play Bulgakov wrote based on this (“The Day of the Turbins”) proved immensely popular with Russian theatre-goers, famously including Stalin himself, in the early Soviet period. Bulgakov never returned to Kiev and died in 1940, a year before the Germans invaded again.

Mikhail Bulgakov

Another great ‘Russian’ writer, possibly the most important of them all, is Vasily Grossman. Born in the town of Berdichev in Central Ukraine in 1905, and of Jewish ancestry, Grossman made a name for himself during the Second World War as a journalist with the Red Army. Present at Stalingrad, Kursk and the ruins of Treblinka, Grossman’s war correspondence is of immense historical as well as literary significance. His great novel, Life and Fate, was ‘arrested’ by the Soviet authorities in 1961 and only published long after his death, and his other late novel Everything Flows casts its gaze over another holocaust, the Soviet-engineered ‘Holodomor’ or Great Famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s. This topic is also covered extremely movingly in Andrey Platonov’s play “Fourteen Little Red Huts”.

Vasily Grossman

Soviet repression and the Holodomor seems to offer some explanation as to why the Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis to a greater extent than other occupied peoples post-1941, a topic which is discussed extensively in the biography of Grossman I’m currently reading, The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman. This was a point of contention for the Soviet authorities, seeking to downplay both the Jewish Holocaust and the Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis, which led to hundreds of thousands of Jews being murdered in the Ukraine alone, including Grossman’s mother. Fast forward to the present day and the Ukraine is subject to yet another tug of war, this time between Russia and the West. It’s a topic discussed in the works of ‘Ukrainian’ writer Andrey Kurkov, born in St Petersburg in 1961 but a longtime resident of Kiev and a Ukrainian citizen. I’d read Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin previously but not his account of the recent ructions in this region, Ukraine Diaries, which covers a period of unrest in 2013-14 and Russia’s subsequent annexation of the Crimea region.

Andrey Kurkov

Here in Australia, far from the region in question, our media offers a very simplistic analysis of the struggle (basically, pro-Westerners = good, Putin = bad), but I’m left wondering: is there such a thing as an independent Ukraine, and will there be one in the future? Am I interested in Russian literature, or Ukrainian? I’m aware that the phrase ‘Little Russia’ is considered an outmoded and even pejorative term nowadays, but it does offer outsiders a historical context. Will the Ukraine eventually fragment into a pro-Russian east and pro-Western West, with Kiev as the geopolitical point of fracture, as Kurkov seems to prophesy? Bulgakov depicted Kiev in 1918 being constantly captured and re-captured by opposing forces. A hundred years later, how much has changed?