Sunday, November 9, 2008

Top 10 Fiction Hits of Russian Literature: My Slightly Biased Russian Lit Reading List

Phew, now that I’ve almost recovered from the two-year election and a three-week cold/flu, I can get back to thinking and writing about Russian books.

I’m writing today to keep my promise from last month: post a list of top hits from Russian literature. Today’s entry covers prerevolutionary fiction; I’ll decide on post-revolutionary books soon. Just, please, don’t ask me about my criteria because I’m not exactly sure what they are. I’ve tried to find a balance between personal favorites and popular books I’ve never been wild about (see below: Dostoevsky and Tolstoy). Still, these are the books and stories I’d want to teach in a survey course for fast-reading students.

Nikolai Karamzin: “Бедная Лиза” (“Poor Liza”), a sentimental “teary drama” about a country girl led astray by a city boy. First universally recognized piece of Russian lit.

Aleksandr Pushkin: “Повести Белкина” (“The Belkin Tales”), a collection of short stories ostensibly written by a writer named Belkin. An early use of a rather modern authorship device, wonderful stories. Also: “Пиковая дама” (“The Queen of Spades”) is another favorite, whence the classic phrase “тройка, семёрка и туз” (“three, seven, and ace”).

Mikhail Lermontov: Герой нашего времени (A Hero of Our Time), connected short stories about an anti-hero named Pechorin. The phrase “hero of our time” is used frequently in our 21st century.

Nikolai Gogol’: “Шинель” (“The Overcoat”), a short story favorite. Another: I also love “Нос” (“The Nose”), in which a man loses his nose and later finds it, human-size and dressed up, walking about town.

Fedor Dostoevsky: Though it’s not a favorite of mine, Преступление и наказание (Crime and Punishment) is, I think, “the” choice of Dostoevsky’s long novels because its themes of redemption are so broadly known. My personal favorites: I have a preference for Dostoevsky’s novellas, such as Записки из подполья (Notes for Underground) and Двойник (The Double)… and both continue to resonate in Russian lit and culture.

Lev Tolstoy: Анна Каренина (Anna Karenina) is probably a bigger hit than my favorite, Война и мир (War and Peace), if only because AK is significantly shorter. I’ll admit that character development is probably more complex in AK, but I think Tolstoy leans too heavily on Levin in the book. I prefer W&P because I’m unrepentant about recommending books that combine fun reading with serious ideas; I also admire Tolstoy’s ability to echo content with form. Others: I’ve enjoyed the novellas Казаки (The Cossacks) and Смерть Ивана Ильича (The Death of Ivan Ilich).

Ivan Turgenev: Отцы и дети (Fathers and Sons) is a wonderful novel that I didn’t appreciate enough when I read it in college. Other good ones: Дворянское гнездо (Nest of the Gentry) and Рудин (Rudin), both of which involve superfluous men.

Anton Chekhov: It’s been so long since I’ve read much Chekov that it’s tough for me to choose, particularly because it seems no two people recommend the same Chekhov story… but two of my favorites when I took a Chekhov course were “Дама с собачкой” (“The Lady with the Little Dog”) and Палата №. 6 (Ward No .6). And, well, I always thought “Крыжовник” (“Gooseberries”) was pretty good, too. I'll stop there, lest I keep adding! I recently bought a book with those and other stories, including Дуэль (The Duel) and Степь (The Steppe), both of which will be new for me.

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. The last pick is the always hardest… Aleksandr Kuprin’s music-related “Гранатовый браслет” (“Garnet Bracelet”), a bigger hit than my preferred Яма (The Pit)? Ivan Goncharov’s slacker Обломов (Oblomov)? Perhaps some symbolism, such Fedor Sologub’s little-known Мелкий бес (Petty Demon) or maybe Andrei Beliy’s Петербург (Petersburg), with its wonderful geometry? Thinking more, though, I’ve decided on Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s Господа Головлёвы (The Golovyovs), a horribly painful book about family that I couldn’t put down.

How would you change the list?

And, just for fun, a few syllabi from Russian lit courses:




Also for fun: Here’s what you get if you search Russian classics fiction on Amazon: Russian Classics Fiction search

Photo credit: nkzs through stock.xchng


  1. How would I change the list? Only by adding to it.

    Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol, definitely.

    Tolstoy's lacerating Hadji Murad.

    A top Chekhov play, like Uncle Vanya.

    Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri

    Petersburg, definitely. Ward No. 6, definitely. And you've given me some books to add to my list. Thanks for your list.

  2. Thank you, AR, for the additions! It was very difficult to hold to only 10 writers.

    I felt a guilty twinge about not mentioning "Hadji Murad."

    I'm not big on plays so am glad you mentioned two... Gogol's "Government Inspector" is one of the most popular in Russia, at least in terms of commonly used phrases. I was sometimes even (jokingly!) known as "government inspector" (ревизор) when I lived and worked in Moscow -- I traveled a lot to visit projects my organization funded.

    Anyway, thank you and happy reading!


  3. I'm so pleased to find your blog! I love Russian literature, having read so much on my own as well as in college. I also joined the Russian Reading Challenge, which ends all too soon, but it is very nice to find you.

  4. Thank you for your kind note, Bellezza! I'm glad you find the blog, too, and hope you enjoy your Russian reading.


  5. I noticed that with the exception of Chekhov, all of your authors belong to the 19th century. The 20th century Russian Lit. is little known in the West, yet, arguably, it is no less interesting: it can offer such remarkable works as Bely's Petersburg, Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading, Platonov's The Foundation Pit, Aksyonov's The Burn and, I would dare add to this list, Sorokin's Blue Salo. These are just a few works that come to mind that I would nominate. Cheers!

  6. Dmitri,

    Thank you for your comment. You are correct! I listed some post-1917 books in another entry... it even includes a couple of the books you mentioned. One of these days, I need to read The Burn...

    Post-1917 Fiction List

    Happy reading!

  7. Fedor Dostoevsky IS A EVERGREEN writer when i read his book crime and punishment i have give him a name of THE HEART OF RUSSAIAN LITERATURE.


  8. I very much agree with the bias of this list except for Karamzin and Shchedrin, both of whom I haven't encountered yet. I practically grew up to love the same Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Tolstoy titles. My only addition should be Turgenev's Virgin Soil which I loved most among his novels. Happy New Year!

  9. Thank you for your comment, karlomongaya! It's funny you mention Turgenev's Virgin Soil: I've never read it but almost picked it up a few weeks ago. It's one I've been saving for when I need something I'm (almost) certain I'll enjoy.

    As for Karamzin and Saltykov-Shchedrin, I'd definitely recommend giving them a try, particularly S-Shch's Golovyov Family, which is just incredible. Rarely has a book made me feel so claustrophobic. (In this case, that's a good thing!)

  10. This list has been so helpful for me in my current Russian reading project! I've just finished (and loved) The Golovlyov Family. Do you have any thoughts on Kuprin or Andreyev? They're next on my list...

    1. I'm so glad to hear the list has been helpful for you! And yes, The Golovlyov Family is a great book: I don't think I've ever felt so trapped while reading!

      As for Kuprin and Andreyev. I'm horribly underread in both of them. I do highly recommend Kuprin's The Pit, though I'm not familiar with its translations; I've read a few of Kuprin's stories, but they didn't impress me nearly as much. I'm even less informed on Andreyev, having read only a short story or two and the novella Sashka Zhegulev, which I barely remember. (Yikes!)

      Enjoy your project and please do let me know what you choose from these two writers!

  11. Having just finished a big batch of Chekhov, I feel like I'm venturing back into the unknown. There is a Melville House publication of 'The Duel' which is where I'll start with Kuprin and I'm pretty excited after taking a sneak preview of Andreyev with 'The Serpent's Story'

    1. That's great, enjoy those! (Especially The Duel, since I saw the translator last week!) I really should read more writers from that (approximately, anyway!) era...