Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cold & Snow in Russian Fiction

Last night at a Christmas party, a friend looked out the window and said the accumulating snow made her think of Doctor Zhivago… that, of course, got my mind churning about other Russian books and stories in which cold and snow play important roles. Here are some personal favorites. Please add yours in a comment!

-“Плотники” (“Carpenters”), one of the first stories in Varlam Shalamov’s Колымские рассказы (Kolyma Tales) collection about prison camp in Kolyma, mentions that the camp had no thermometer. But prisoners could discern the temperature: frosty fog, for example, equaled minus 40, and anything below minus 60 meant spit would freeze in the air. I recently took the advice of Josefina at Transparent Language’s Russian Blog and started reading one Kolyma story each evening. These are beautifully written stories about a horrifying time. I recommend them very highly.

-Akakii Akakevich, from Gogol’s “Шинель” (“The Overcoat”) has all sorts of troubles related to dressing for cold weather. Gogol’s descriptions of St. Petersburg’s cutting cold induce shivers. (Previous post)

-I also love the scenes in Война и мир (War and Peace) about святки (sviatki), the time in January between Orthodox Christmas and Epiphany that often involved costumes and fortunetelling. (A brief description.) Tolstoy’s scenes include a troika ride on a cold winter night with a bright moon. It probably helps that I have fond memories of sviatki fortunetelling with a friend in northern Russia – she even showed me traditional techniques.

-One other: Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s Господа Головлёвы (The Golovyovs), in which relationships and weather are often very, very cold.

-Okay, one more: The descriptions of winter and living off the land in Petr Aleshkovskii’s (Peter Aleskhovsky) Жизнеописание хорька (Skunk: A Life) are beautiful. 

Your turn... I welcome comments from all climates! 

Photo: lusi via stock.xchng


  1. I just realized, when reading your post, that the only book by Dostoevsky, in which I can remember there being any snow, is "Notes from the House of the Dead". That's the only one... and that it was 'cold' in the beginning of "The Idiot" when Myshkin is returning to Petersburg. Other than that Dostoevsky's all about fall or summer, and either it's always too warm or too rainy... Oh wait! Now I remember! In "The Double" there's a actually quite a bit of snow :)

    Anyway, that's just my thoughts. Great subject by the way... And to think that in minus 60 one can actually survive, when it's minus 20 and hard to breathe already...

  2. Thank you for writing, Josefina!

    It's funny that you mention Dostoevsky: I didn't think of him at all when I put the list together. But now that you've reminded me, I do remember a distinct cold feeling running through House of the Dead. It's funny what stays in the head and what does not! I love the Christmas chapter in that book.

    We are having a big snow storm today, and it is fairly cold (around -10 or -15 C) so this topic is definitely on my mind.

    Stay warm in Ekaterinburg!

  3. The first part of A Hero of Our Time has some good snow and storm descriptions, from when the narrator is crossing the Caucasian mountain pass.

  4. Thanks, AR! That's a good one. For some reason I always think first of the fog... but Lermontov covered a lot of weather in Hero of Our Time!

  5. I can't think of anything to add at the moment -- but my husband just got me a copy of Kolyma Tales so I think I'll follow your suggestion of one story at a time.

  6. Thank you for your note, Melanie.

    The Shalamov book is an excellent gift, and I think Josefina's "one at a time" suggestion is perfect.


  7. Pushkin's Metel' [The Snow Storm], one the Tales of Belkin, comes strongly to mind. I am sure that there are many other fateful snow storms in Russian literature, but it is hard not to keep going back to Pasternak.

  8. Thank you, Kenneth, for adding "Метель" ("The Snowstorm")! The Belkin tales are wonderful reading.

    Another one I neglected in my post: Lev Tolstoy's "Master and Man."

  9. Snow plays an important part in Pushkin's Captain's Daughter and Gogol's Night Before Christmas as well as in Bulgakov's Notes From a Young Doctor.

  10. Thanks, Allen, for adding more... This was also a good reminder that I've been meaning to reread The Captain's Daughter!

  11. After reading your blog post I just stuck on Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. My first novel I had read when I was just starting reading as my new passion. This novel really change my mind. Now I love to read novels.