I’m not sure when my affinity for Russian literature initially took hold. The first Russian author I read was Nikolai Gogol. I picked up a short story collection of his, Diary of a Madman and Other Stories in a book store in the mall. It wasn’t an official volume, but rather a collection of his short stories put together by some publisher. And to be completely honest, I knew nothing about Gogol or his work at the time. I bought the book based solely on the title.
Needless to say, I loved his stories. “The Nose” is one of my favorites, a surreal tale of a mid-level administrator’s nose detaching itself from his face and beginning a life of its own. The Nose then begins to rise in the civil service and eventually outranks its previous owner. On the surface the story is absurd and surreal, but beneath the surface it was a scathing commentary on social rank and bureaucracy.
Gogol’s great – albeit unfinished – novel, Dead Souls, is also wonderful. He had imagined it as a Russian retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but instead focusing on satirizing Russia’s social system at the time, and again pointing out the ridiculous bureaucracy of the government. Sadly, Gogol was declining mentally at the time and in a manic fit he burned most of the manuscript in his fireplace. What we’re left with is the first third of the story, which will forever end mid-sentence.
I later discovered Leo Tolstoy and spent an entire summer reading War and Peace. An amazing volume, but a reader needs the stamina of an Olympic athlete to make it all the way through. Having a character sheet to keep track of everyone is also helpful.
Besides Gogol, I also developed an affinity for Fyodor Dostoevsky. In my humble opinion, Crime and Punishment is one of the greatest novels ever written. It’s one of those stories that I find myself returning to every few years for a re-read. The theme of dealing with the repercussions of our actions struck a chord with me. It felt like an accompaniment to my interest in Buddhist philosophy and the western definition of karma (we get what’s coming to us).
Of course, I can’t omit one of the greatest short story writers of any nationality – Anton Chekhov. The man was a master of short form writing and reading his work is like a master class in fiction. No, I don’t have a favorite short story of his. They are all incredible. If you want to learn how to tell an amazing story, read Chekhov.
Besides these heavy-hitters, I’ve also enjoyed The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. This novel was written during Stalin’s regime and, sadly, the author never saw it published. Nearly thirty years after his death, a censored version was published in 1967. In 1973, an uncensored version was published, but it wasn’t until 1989 that the canonical edition was published, based on all available manuscripts that still existed.
The story is, well, definitely different from most mainstream Russian literature of the time and is reminiscent of Gogol’s work. The story takes place in two settings – Moscow in the 1930s as Satan and several of his entourage arrive for a bit of fun, and Jerusalem during the trial of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a dark satire that weaves together a mix of commentary on society, religion, corruption, and government bureaucracy. Are you sensing a theme with these Russian writers?
One final Russian author I want to mention is Isaac Babel. His short story collection, Red Calvary, is a brilliant collection of stories that all take place during the Polish-Soviet War (1919 – 1921) and are based on a diary Babel maintained while working as a journalist during the conflict. I’d almost liken these stories to creative non-fiction since many come from actual events and situations he witnessed. It’s a powerful read, much like All Quiet on the Western Front. Stark, brutal, but also well-written and thought-provoking.
I realize that Russian literature isn’t for everyone. It’s often bleak, dreary, and bitter. Their country has gone through a lot of changes over the past couple of centuries, both politically and socially, but those dark times have influenced and inspired a stable of amazing writers and a library of stories that could only be told by people who have lived through them.
If you haven’t yet, please check out some of these writers and their stories. Many of the older authors – Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky – can be found on Project Gutenberg since they are in public domain.
I think there’s a lot to be learned from reading stories from other cultures, especially ones we aren’t familiar with. Not only does it expose us to new ideas and storytelling styles, but it also gives us a glimpse into those cultures. Art can help us to understand each other, why we are the way we are, and maybe help us to be more empathetic to what others have gone through.