With the corrupt Trump administration’s ties to Russia all over the news, I’d like to offer a different Russia-related topic this week: Russian literature.
Which includes an amazing array of dark/compelling/unforgettable fiction, particularly in the 19th century. Even Trump would be impressed reading Crime and Punishment — as long as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel was shortened to a one-paragraph memo.
Crime and Punishment is my favorite Russian novel, and one of my favorites from any country. Riveting, feverish, psychological (it was said to have influenced Sigmund Freud). The high points of The Brothers Karamazov may be even better, but there are some slog-through pages and chapters that the never-a-dull-moment Crime and Punishment doesn’t suffer from. Dostoyevsky reportedly planned to make The Brothers Karamazov the first of a trilogy, but death intervened.
There are several other Dostoyevsky works well worth discussing, so please have at it in the comments section! But now I’ll turn to Leo Tolstoy, whose War and Peace and Anna Karenina are as famous as novels can be. I was impressed with those two classics (though I’m more a fan of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov) as well as with several of Tolstoy’s magnificent short stories, some almost novella length. “The Kreutzer Sonata,” “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” “Master and Man” — wow!
Speaking of short stories, you can’t go wrong with Tolstoy’s pal Anton Chekhov. A pioneering writer of tales that are more character-oriented and human-emotion-focused than plot-oriented, plus Chekhov of course was also a master playwright.
Earlier-in-the-19th-century Russian authors can also knock your socks off (though I wouldn’t advise that during a Moscow or St. Petersburg winter). Alexander Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter novel is among that writer’s great reads, as is Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls novel and his “The Overcoat” short story. Dostoyevsky contemporary Ivan Turgenev also wrote some really good novels, including Fathers and Sons.
Moving near/into the 20th century (experienced by the 1910-deceased Tolstoy for a decade), we have socialist-realist writers such as Maxim Gorky and Nikolai Ostrovsky. The latter’s How the Steel Was Tempered (a novel I purchased during a 1980s trip to Russia) is quite gripping for a while before getting a bit tedious.
Then there was Boris Pasternak, whose Doctor Zhivago novel drew the ire of Soviet officials despite it being somewhat nuanced about socialism; and the dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was adept at both fiction and nonfiction (and the subject of this “Mother Russia” song by Renaissance). I’m not fond of the way Solzhenitsyn’s politics turned very right-wing, but he did go through imprisonment hell.
Renaissance has a lead female singer and a female lyricist, but Russian literature (unlike fiction from a number of other nations) has been dominated by men. Unfortunately, lots of patriarchy, machismo, and sexism in that country — which might be one reason why Trump is so attracted to Putin and Russia’s oligarchs.
Russia’s history of authoritarianism and oppression certainly has had an effect on its writers, as has that country’s politics, poverty, income inequality, geographic size, high rate of alcoholism, aforementioned machismo, and huge war casualties — including the carnage resulting from Napoleon’s and Hitler’s invasions. But the most famous Russian writers would most likely be literary geniuses no matter where they had lived.
Obviously I’ve left some writers out, so please fill in some of those blanks in your comments. Who are your favorite Russian authors, either ones I mentioned or didn’t mention?
Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column — set in the year 4034 AD! — is here.