Making a list of the ten best Russian classics is nearly impossible. To those born to the western world, classic Russian literature feels distant, almost indecipherable, and so intriguing that we read it with trepidation and exhilaration at the same instant. Classic Russian writers knew how to create and delve into the human psyche to find some of the deepest, most endearing, and terrifically repugnant characters ever written. Those classic Russians used the backdrop of the real world as a comparison and contrast mechanism to reveal the joy, humor, and horror of the inner human being. Reading them gives people insights into themselves, even as far removed in time as the modern world is from the environs classic Russian writers portrayed. For avid readers, a single reading of these tales is never enough.
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1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
In this easy-to-read translation of Tolstoy’s classic Russian novel, the interrelationship between characters builds to an erratic climax against the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Tolstoy establishes the use of characters that change due to significant forces that surround them, but, ironically, are incapable of accomplishing their central goals. The novel is brilliantly constructed and is one of the most beloved Russian classics available on the reading market. Tolstoy’s influence springs from War and Peace to affect literature around the world from its time of publication to today.
2. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky explores the depredations of the human mind. His principal character, Rodion Raskolnikov, believes himself above all other humans that occupy St. Petersburg—the Russian capital. His nihilistic tendencies drive him to plan and prepare the murder of a pawnbroker to which he is indebted. After the act, Raskolnikov is riddled with guilt, though he does not recognize it. Through his exploration of nihilism, Dostoyevsky uncovers the value of human interdependence.
3. Requiem and Poem Without a Hero by Anna Akhmatova
Though these two Russian poems, translated into English for the first time by D. M. Thomas, do not hail back to the 19th Century, they do adhere to the characteristics of classic Russian literature. Born from the harsh reality of Stalin’s reign, the poems explore the bleakness of Russian life without the interconnection of family or culture. Both Requiem and Poem Without a Hero delve deep into the human psyche to reveal the broken, yet resilient, spirit of the common Russian.
4. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Translators Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonsky captured the panoramic display of love, sacrifice, and persistence so brilliantly portrayed in the original Russian of Pasternak. The easy-to-read volume takes you through the budding of passion laid stark against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Lara represents the pain and chaos of those times while Zhivago experiences the vast chasm between love and cruelty discovered in the war of ideas that blossomed during the Russian Revolution. In the end, Pasternak shows the impossibility of breaching that divide as forces overwhelm every aspect of humanity.
5. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
The sparkling translation by Constance Garnett into English leaves the reader gasping at the revelation of the forces floating through Russia in the decades before the Revolution that eventually toppled the ruling aristocracy. Written in 1862, this novel demonstrates the conflict between one generation and another and its effect on a family, a community, and a culture. The story portrays a family in flux as the son returns from graduating college to announce his intention to dissolve the existing social structure resident in the microcosm of the families land holdings.
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6. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
There are few examples of books like Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Written as a novel in verse format the book takes a character, Eugene, from the plush environment of St. Petersburg where he was a “dandy” perusing parties and luncheons, along with the innocent daughters of many of the aristocracy, to a country estate. The internal culture class experienced by Eugene is mirrored through his interactions with local ladies whom he rebuffs yet craves as a possible cure for his boredom in life.
7. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Dostoyevsky puts his finger on the turning point from the Russian Golden Age to the tragedy that was to come in the Russian Revolution in this novel. Through this easy-to-read translation by Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonsky, the inventive language used by Dostoyevsky to demonstrate the state of affairs in Russia during the early and mid-19th Century glows as an example of how word usage portrays the essential divisions between those who have and have not. The surface murder mystery and courtroom drama delve deep into the force that will eventually topple the existing social structure.
8. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy considered Anna Karenina to be his first true novel since War and Peace went far beyond the limitations of the novel form. Once into the novel, readers come to a point where their investment into the characters turns the book into a real “page-burner.” With two major themes—the fragile nature of marriage and the moral necessity of questioning social order—introduced at the beginning of the novel and expanded throughout by the discovery process each character experiences, it is no wonder that William Faulkner called Anna Karenina “the greatest novel ever written.”
9. Forty Stories by Anton Chekov
Where Edgar Allen Poe is considered the father of the short story, Anton Chekov is considered the form’s developer. Chekov took the art form from a writer/reader relationship scenario to the accomplishment of revelation. In this single volume of short stories, you discover the humor, horror, and acceptance of life through highly different characterizations and situations. Though Chekov is for his stage plays, he was an accomplished writer of novels and short stories as well.
10. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
No list of the ten best Russian classics is complete without this hilarious, evocative, and insightful revelation written by Bulgakov during the high point of Stalin’s reign. In this novel, Bulgakov utilizes religious tenets, social acceptance, and repetitive citizen disorders to point out the inconsistencies of a social structure that denies the value of human existence. The book roams through Moscow and Jerusalem through the auspices of the Devil, pointing out similarities resident in top-down structuralism.
Books by Russian authors always seem to include some aspect of the mysteries of life. Reading from this list of the ten best Russian classics will bring you laughter, tears, and a startling realization of the conflict between the life and soul of humanity.
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By BCR Staff