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Looking for a good book to read while you're traveling in Russia? Check out my list of books about Russia and by Russian authors.
The Brothers Karamazov
Considered one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written, Dostoevsky’s final novel has been cited as a favorite and/or influential work by such diverse historical figures as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and James Joyce, to name just a few. In addition to being an all-time classic, it’s also an insightful look at 19th-century Russia. Being the first in English, Constance Garnett’s translation is the most common, but the more recent one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky won several awards and praise from the New York Times and was lauded by the leading Dostoevsky expert as the most faithful to the original. Even if you never visit Russia, this novel should be at the top of your must-read list.
Crime and Punishment
Written after the author’s return from five years in Siberia, the novel explores themes of morality and redemption. Impoverished student Raskolnikov plans the perfect crime — not only for his belief that he won’t be caught but because he views the act as beneficial to humanity. Considered one of the great works of world literature, it has been adapted into film and television series in numerous countries.
A Gentleman in Moscow
This is one of those rare examples of a book that lives up to its hype (as evidenced by the 10k+ reviews it currently has on Amazon). After being put under house arrest in 1922, Count Alexander Rostov remains confined for decades to the luxurious Metropol hotel, from which he must witness his beloved country’s devolution while maintaining his civility and aristocratic dignity.
Regarded as the national epic of Finland and the Russian Republic of Karelia, the 19th-century work of epic poetry incorporates folklore and mythology from the region. The work is so significant in Finland that many companies, landmarks, and locations take their names from people or places in the Kalevala. Each year on February 28, the country celebrates both Finnish Culture Day and Kalevala Day, commemorating Lönnrot’s first version of the work.
The Master and Margarita
There are strange goings-on in 1930s Moscow with the arrival of a mysterious cast of characters, including the sassy, fast-talking black cat Behemoth. Bulgakov’s critique of the Stalinist regime mixes satire, the mystical, magical, and historical and was only published after his death in a censored version.
I read this book for a Russian literature class and it immediately became one of my all-time favorites. Clearly, I am not alone, because almost every Russian person I have ever met smiles when I mention how much I loved this book.(Recommended by Shannon McClatchey, photographer, world-wandering art fiend)
Russian Fairy Tales
Fans of John Wick know this as the book that first mentions the Slavic boogeyman Baba Yaga (and as the weapon with which Wick kills his enormous assailant). Russians know it as the definitive volume on Russian folk tales, as much a touchstone of childhood as are the collections of the Brothers Grimm to Western Europeans, and a huge influence on artists including Igor Stravinsky.
The Wizard of the Kremlin
A finalist for the Prix Goncourt, da Empoli’s novel (Le mage du Kremlin) is a cross between fiction and political analysis, with many real-life personages — including Vladimir Putin — making appearances. The line between truth and fiction is so blurred that some critics claimed that reading the book is akin to “sitting on a sofa next to Putin,” and booksellers showcased the novel in their current events sections, particularly due to the novel’s timely publication less than two months after the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war.
From A Year of Reading the World: “Set during the period of Soviet dekulakization and collectivization introduced when Stalin came to power in the mid-1920s, Zuleikha tells the story of the nation through the life of the title character. After witnessing the murder of her harsh husband by government forces charged with disenfranchising wealthy peasants (kulaks), Zuleikha is exiled along with thousands of others to a remote region of Siberia. There, the handful of them who survive the cruel journey must build a society from scratch, questioning and overturning many of the assumptions on which their former lives rested in the process… A triumph of a book.”(Recommended by Ann Morgan, author and TED speaker)
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