The list of 10 best Russian Books from the editors of nyc-books com.
The Cherry Orchard
Written in 1903, Chekhov’s last play did not really belong to the 20th century in the literary sense, but as the last creation of the Golden Age of Russian literature, it was a dismal augury for the century that had just begun. Like most of things written by Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard is heartwarming, touching and amusing at some points, but in the end the reader (and the viewer) is left to be existentially saddened and devastated. Brodsky said in his Nobel Lecture that in a real tragedy it is not the hero who perishes; it is the chorus. The Cherry Orchard demonstrates how even the scene itself may perish in the end, betokening dramatic change not only for the characters’ lives, but for history as well.
The Twelve Chairs
This book’s lead character, Ostap Bender, a witty, smooth and charming con man, ‘the great combinator’ in an old wool scarf and patent leather shoes with no socks under them, was beloved of generations of Soviet people. Tens of his sayings became popular catch phrases still actively used today. The novel overall is truly funny and vivid, full of adventures, comedy, and beautifully grotesque characters.
In this collection of short stories (that the author himself thought to be his best creation), Bunin undertakes a comprehensive exploration of love—as comprehensive as an exploration of such an elusive subject can be. The obscure and erotic imagery of the short stories appeals to contradictions between different things that we are accustomed to call love and different aspects of it: physical and spiritual, sensory and mystic, transitory and eternal.
In spite of the novel’s American setting and characters, in having Lolita translated into Russian, Nabokov made it part of Russian literature and one of the best Russian works of the century. The paradox is not merely due to Nabokov’s Russian origin; it’s much about his unique style and locution, both in the English original version and in the Russian translation. A master of words and plots, Nabokov manages to explore profound passions of human nature. Touching upon tabooed topics of sexuality, he creates a masterpiece that thrills readers even today.
Boris Pasternak’s most famous novel shook up the Soviet Union and played a tragic role in the author’s life. An effort to explore the revolution and historic processes in Russia in the first third of the century without praising the Bolsheviks, the novel came to be widely seen as anti-Soviet. It was not published in Russia until the 1980s, while being popular in the West and reportedly even being spread by the CIA as anti-communist propaganda. Persecuted by the Communist Party and fellow writers, Pasternak was forced to reject the Nobel Prize and grew severely ill. Thank to samizdat, however, the novel and its characters have been loved by the Soviet people for decades.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Today, when the miseries, disasters and terrors of the 20th century are documented and spoken of, it is hard to imagine how hard and important it was to speak of them for the first time, when they were still suppressed, banned from discussion, widely unknown while the wounds they chronicled still bled. Solzhenitsyn with great mastery raised the subject of Stalinist repressions, becoming a key figure for Russian literature and the history of the century. Anna Akhmatova once said that this novel should be read and memorized by every person in the USSR.
The Master and Margarita
The devil is an attractive character for a novel. Whatever this character says and does seems to acquire a tint of charm, of playfulness, of mystery. Bulgakov gives it all to readers in his most famous novel. The Master and Margarita is spectacular, funny, thrilling, and provocative—all at once, just the way one of the best of the 20th century’s novels is supposed to be.
Russian cult sci-fi authors created many worlds that Soviet people liked to explore and post-Soviet people still enjoy. The frequent neologisms coined by the Strugatskys constitute a language that fans still converse in; the concepts introduced in their novels are referred to in communications between dramatically different Russian speakers. Roadside Picnic is probably the most influential of their works: It even inspired a popular shooter game released 30 years after the book’s publication.
Moscow to the End of the Line
Yerofeyev’s magnum opus is amazingly unlike anything else in Russian literature of the period. Described as a postmodernist poem, this story about a homeless alcoholic traveling by a train to the woman he loves becomes a story of a journey to any destination: fate, a bright tomorrow, a gloomy tomorrow, death, meaning of life, oneself—underline as applicable. Beautifully written, full of allusions to classic literature, Soviet history, everyday life and the Bible, this short book has been regarded by readers as a true treasure.
The 1990s were a turbulent time for Russia. The confusion and disorder after the collapse of the USSR also brought with it new horizons, multiple possibilities—and temptations. Victor Pelevin’s novel is a postmodernist blast for readers crawling to the end of the century. Employing mythological allegories and dealing with the topics of the advertising age, consumerism, drugs and self-identification in the new world, this book obtained a cult following and made its author a major figure in modern Russian literature.
by Sergei Viatchanin