Monday, February 15, 2010

Russian Fiction for Non-Native Readers

A reader e-mailed last week asking me to recommend contemporary novels for advanced intermediate students of Russian. I’m happy to – I’ve been meaning to write this post for more than a year! (If you don’t read Russian, don’t despair: the majority of the titles on the list below are available in translation.) First, a few reading suggestions that draw on my experience learning to read Russian fiction:

Start small, not with War and Peace or Crime and Punishment. I built my Russian reading stamina, speed, and fluency with short stories and novellas.

Look for familiar vocabulary. Search out books that fit your vocabulary strengths. For example, war novels may be difficult if you don’t know military terminology.

Use free resources. If you’re not sure what fits your reading level or interests, order books through interlibrary loan or look at texts online for a test read. Sites like Журнальный зал and the Moshkov library are great places to start. Many author sites are helpful, too. Update in 2021: This list from XIX век mentions films, books, and TV and radio shows. Everything helps!

Know why you’re reading. Are you reading for enjoyment or to parse sentences and study vocabulary? Or both? Any goal is fine but choose your books accordingly.

Don’t translate as you read! The less you translate in your head, the faster you’ll build your reading skills. Try to figure out unfamiliar words using context, roots, logic, and intuition before you reach for the dictionary. Reread passages as needed.

Read what interests you. Read genres that keep you turning pages in your native language: don’t feel guilty if you choose action or romance novels! I got back into reading Russian six years ago with detective novels, then I branched out.

Quit while you’re ahead. If you’re not enjoying a book, don’t finish it. Sometimes I pick up abandoned books months or years later and love them.

EZier Reader. From now on, I’ll mention the relative difficulty of books in my posts. I’ll mark the easier ones with an “EZier reader” tag.

Now, the list: Here are some stories and shorter novels that felt relatively easy to me when I read them – remember that individual vocabularies and tolerances differ greatly. I’ll keep commentary minimal to fit as many titles as possible. Please e-mail me or add a comment if you have questions. This is only a small list: other suggestions are welcome!

Some of my Russian reading firsts:

  • First short story: Nikolai Karamzin’s Бедная Лиза (Poor Liza)
  • First novella: Lev Tolstoy’s Отец Сергий (Father Sergius) (previous post)
  • First novel (I think): Julia Voznesenskaya’s Женский декамерон (The Women’s Decameron) – 10 women x 10 days = 100 stories. And very manageable reading.

Pre-1917 Classics:

Soviet-Era Fiction:

Contemporary Fiction:

  • Boris Akunin’s Любовница смерти and Любовник смерти (Lover of Death, in female and male versions) (previous post)
  • Vladimir Sorokin’s Лёд (Ice) (previous post) – not a favorite but it read quickly and fairly easily
  • Zakhar Prilepin’s Грех (Sin) (previous post) – Prilepin’s Санькя (San'kia) looks relatively simple in style and language, too.
  • Sergei Lukyanenko’s Ночной дозор (Night Watch) – vampires, conspiracy theory, etc.
  • Yevgeny Grishkovets’s Рубашка (The Shirt) or Спокойствие (“Serenity”) – feel-good and often lite but Grishkovets has a great understanding of psychology that makes it easy to identify with his stories. Unusually easy reading.
  • Andrei Gelasimov’s “Жанна” (“Joan”) (previous post) – Gelasimov’s longer work is generally more difficult.
  • Leonid Yuzefovich’s Гроза (“The Storm”) (previous post – scroll down)
  • Rasskazy short stories: Difficulty varies, but some of the pieces in the Rasskazy collection aren’t too hard to read. (posts about Rasskazy)
  • Photo: Karamzin monument in Simbirsk (Ulyanovsk), from user Mars02, via Wikipedia. (If I'd been feeling more ambitious today, I'd have searched out and scanned a photo of myself standing in front of this monument...)


  1. Dear Lizok,

    Thanks for this great post! I'm a MA student of Russian literature but I still find the Russian language quite hard.
    I'll follow your tips and let you know the results!


  2. Deise,

    I hope it helps -- please do let me know the results. What worked for me may not work for you!

    I was a very slow Russian reader when I started in my MA program, too. To make matters more interesting, I took eighteenth-century Russian literature in my first semester, and many of the readings were only available in the old orthography. I loved the course, though, and got used to all the difficult reading... I had no choice!

    Good luck!

  3. "Don’t translate as you read! The less you translate in your head, the faster you’ll build your reading skills."

    Yes, yes and yes! Translating as-you-go does seem like a logical thing to do but I found it actually hindered me. Mostly because languages have such different structures so when you translate to English you think with the English structure and it's harder to assimilate the Russian (or whatever language) naturally.

    It's the same with speaking a new language. When you start you think of the sentence you want in English, then translate it into the new language, which is hard as the sentence structure is different, so it trips you up.

    I would also add, don't read an English translation alongside the Russian text - you miss out on the flavour of the original that way.

    I like the books you chose! The first novel I read in Russian was Voinvich's Moscow 2042 and I kept going as it was funny, although I didn't understand every word at the time. Most of the language is fairly simple including the jokes.

  4. Cat, thank you for your suggestions -- I couldn't agree more with everything that you say! And your new photos are wonderful.

    Your suggestion of Moscow 2042 is great, and it reminded me that I read Voinovich's long story Хочу быть честным (I Want to be Honest) for fun years ago and thought it read easily. His Шапка (The Fur Hat) is also relatively easy, though Chonkin is more difficult.

    Moscow 2042 is on Voinovich's site: here

    Your mention of reading translations reminded me of books designed for students: I have some with stress marks and vocabulary translations. I read an annotated edition of Turgenev's Дворянское гнездо (Nest of Gentry) a few years ago because I had the book on hand but all the markings were a hindrance because I paid so much attention to stress shifts, thinking about patterns!

    I do think these books can have a place, particularly if analysis/parsing (or a vocabulary quiz) is a bigger goal than reading for enjoyment. Or if the reader is better at ignoring unneeded marks than I am! When I read these books in college courses, I usually read texts several times: first without looking at vocabulary notes, then looking, to see what I might have missed. That built confidence fast because some of these books mark lots of vocabulary, much of which was, even then, already familiar.

    Enjoy your reading, Cat!

  5. Lisa -- thanks so much for the outstanding list of titles, and the advice. It's all solid gold.

  6. You're very welcome, Rex! I'm glad it's helpful -- please feel free to add your own suggestions.

    Have fun reading!

  7. I just came across your site. Thank you for putting this to together. I've lived in Russia for many years, speak well, but struggled to know how to start enjoying the world of classic Russian literature. Thank you for your very helpful suggestions!

    1. I'm very glad this is helpful for you, Matthew. I hope you enjoy finding (and, of course, reading) some books that fit your interests!

  8. Thank you for posting! I'm preparing to apply to a graduate program in Russian and need to improve my reading. I will definitely check out these stories and books.