The other day I came across this post from 2014 by Off The Shelf called “Ten Russian Novels to Read Before You Die”. My first thought was “Reading ten Russian novels will take you sixty years” as Russian literature is not known for its brevity, so yes, you’ll be dead by the time you finish. I minored in Literature/Creative Writing as an undergraduate student and one of my professors opined that you could throw away the first hundred pages of a Russian novel and still be able to follow the story. There is some truth to that, I suppose. I have a BA and an MA in History along with an MS in Criminal Justice, but if I had to get a PhD in something, it would not be history. There are quite a few reasons why that is that need not detain us here. I would, however, love to get a PhD in Russian literature. It will never happen, for a myriad of other reasons, but it is nice to dream about.
If you study Russian history, language, and culture, you often come across references to the “Russian soul” as an expression of Russian identity. The great works of Russian literature all tend to touch on various aspects of this soul. This might come across more in the original language than in the English translations. The Russian language is more nuanced and has more depth than English, making translation tricky. I spent years studying the Russian language and can read it fluently and speak it with some degree of usefulness. I’ve read the works I’ll discuss below in both Russian and English. Sometimes I think when it comes to foreign works of literature, it is best to go to the original language if you can.
I’m not going to give you a list of ten Russian books to read before you die. I’m simply going to tell you about my favorite three and why they are my favorites. You won’t find Pushkin on the list, nor Dostoevsky. Obviously, I’ve read them along with others such as Chekov, Bulgakov, and Grossman. I’m not saying the works below are the greatest works in the pantheon of Russian lit, merely that they are my favorites. What I like or dislike doesn’t always follow the path of critical acclaim or financial success. For example, I thought The Da Vinci Code was the most godawful book I’d ever read, yet look at how many copies it sold. Payback by the German author Gert Ledig is, in my opinion, one of the finest and most haunting novel written about World War Two and it is long out of print. So feel free to take anything and everything I say with a massive grain of salt. Hemingway I ain’t.
I will say that Mikhail Sholokhov’s masterpiece Тихий Дон (Quiet Flows the Don) and its sequal The Don Flows Home to the Sea make up the finest novel ever written in Russian or any other language, in my opinion. I have said this before and I will proclaim it until I read something better, which I doubt will ever happen. Consider this passage which opens the section which deals with the outbreak of World War One:
“The dry growth of the steppe was afire, and a sickly-smelling haze hung over the Donside slopes. At night, the clouds deepened over the Don, ominous peels of thunder were to be heard; but no rain came to refresh this parched earth, although the lightning tore the sky into jagged, lived fragments. Night after night, an owl screeched from the belfry. The cries surged terrifyingly over the village, and the owl flew from the belfry to the cemetery and groaned over the brown and grass grown mounds of the graves.”
At it’s most basic level, this is a simple story. A man loves two women and loses them both amidst the turmoil of war and revolution. But it is more, so much more than that. Тихий Дон is a sweeping epic of Cossack life following the fortunes of the Don Cossacks from the eve of World War One through the war, the Russian Revolution, and the Civil War which follows. It’s a tragedy which plays out on a giant canvas. Some scenes will leave you breathless, such as when Grishka saves the life of his lover Aksinia’s husband. To me, the most haunting scenes involve the old men in the Cossack villages. Their world is crumbling all around them and they cannot understand why. They try to cling to the old ways as their lives spin out of control.
If you only read one Russian novel, or one foreign novel, (or hell, one novel period), read this one. Just make sure you read both Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea as they are really one story. Now, not only do the Russians write epic novels, they also film massive historical epics. Quiet Flows the Don has been put on a film a few times, including during the Soviet era, but I never much cared for those versions. In 2015, however, they released a 14 part adaptation of the book. You can watch it free here on YouTube, but it isn’t subtitled. If you’ve read the novels, you can still follow the story as it is faithful to the books, and even if you haven’t read the story, the themes are universal and you can still follow the basic plot. Trust me, you won’t be sorry to spend time watching it. If you want a little preview though, here is a music video of a song that appears in the series, Чёрный ворон – друг ты мой залётный (Black Raven: You Are My Friend). You can listen to the song and enjoy the breathtaking landscape and scenes from the series. Seriously, at the very least, give the song a listen and it’ll probably make you want to watch the show. I’ve watched it five times at last count. It’s the only movie or television series I’ve ever scene that has made me cry, more than once during the show, and every time I watch it. (And it takes a lot to move me after all I saw during my career in public safety.)
(Note there are two more books in the Don series; Virgin Soil Upturned and Harvest on the Don, but they are not as good as the first two)
The Napoleonic Wars played out on a massive stage in Europe. When the Emperor invaded Russia, little did he know that not only would he suffer a major defeat, but his invasion would also give rise to one of the true classics in literature, Война и мир (War and Peace). Tolstoy was a master at his craft. In true Russian fashion, War and Peace takes a little while to build up steam. I know many people who have tried to read it but go so bogged down with the names and glacial slowness of the story for the first hundred pages or so that they gave up. I told them they’d be sorry for putting the book aside, but I don’t know if they are or not. This is one of those books that if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded.
It is true that all the names and familial ties can be difficult to keep track of whilst you work your way through the book. It might not hurt to print out a handy character tree. Wikipedia has a list of characters and also provides a family tree of sorts which illustrates the various entangling relationships. Tolstoy served in the Russian Army during the Crimean War, and I think his own exposure to the hardships soldiers faced in the 19th Century helped him create such vivid images of Napoleonic warfare. Much of the book takes place away from the battlefield, but his battlefield scenes are some of the best ever written. Like Quiet Flows the Don, this novel has been adapted many times. The Russians had the best adaptation of it filmed in the 1960s. However, in 2016 the BBC released a marvelous version of their own which you can find on Amazon. It’s well worth watching.
Incidentally, Tolstoy had a distant relative named Aleksey Tolstoy who wrote during the Soviet era. His trilogy The Road to Calvary set in St. Petersburg during the Revolution has been made into a series and, to our good fortune, is available on Netflix! With subtitles if you don’t speak Russian. I’m working my way through it now and it is very good.
Any discussion of Russian literature has to involve Boris Pasternak and his magnum opus, Doctor Zhivago. Like many, I dare say most, of you, my first exposure to it was through the great film from 1965. I watched it with my great-grandmother for the first time when I was around 8 years old (circa 1986) and was immediately captivated by the story. As I would later find out, the movie isn’t entirely faithful to the book, but it is still a cinematic masterpiece of its own. I read the novel for the first time in high school. A few years ago, I read it in the original language. The story of how Pasternak came to write it and how it was published is an epic tale in its own right!
One thing that I’ve found so interesting about this book is that Pasternak manages to make Zhivago a such a sympathetic character. Let’s be honest, he’s screwing around on his wife! Yet the reader still feels for him. I freely admit to having a bit of a literary crush on Larissa. I guess that’s what you call it when you wish you could run off with a character in a book. (If you call it something else, let me know!) In a previous post I compared Doctor Zhivago with Gone With the Wind as they are similar. In Pasternak’s book, a man loves two women and loses them both as war and revolution sweep away the old world and usher in a new one. In Mitchell’s book, a women is in love with two men and loses them both as civil war sweeps away the old world and ushers in a new one. (You know, I can sum up these classics in one sentence, but I can’t seem to write a one sentence description of my own book. Amusing, that.)
To keep on the movie theme, the Russians made a twelve part adaptation of Doctor Zhivago that is a lot more faithful to the actual story than the 1965 film was. It’s available on Amazon here and comes with English subtitles. I’ve watched it a couple of times and it is good. Not Тихий Дон good, but still worthwhile.
So there you have it, Dear Readers. My favorite works of Russian literature. Thank you to all who read through to the end. I know this was a somewhat verbose piece of writing. And speaking of writing, one thing I have had to learn is to stop mentally comparing my own work to these classics. While working on my draft of So Others May Live, I’d get frustrated and almost give up because I’ll never be as good as Sholokov. I’ll never write anything on the scale of Quiet Flows the Don. Or War and Peace. Or Doctor Zhivago. And do you know what? That’s perfectly okay. There’s a reason why out of the bazillion books published in history, only a relatively small number are considered classics. I had to accept the fact that I needed to tell my story my own way, not Sholokov’s way. Which, come to think of it, is probably a good thing for my editor as I’m sure 324 pages of my writing, as rough as it can be, is easier to sort through than 1200 pages of my writing. I wouldn’t even read 1200 pages of my own writing!
Until next time, comrades. Happy Reading.