10 Wonderful Russian Novels You Probably Haven’t Read


As you’ve no doubt heard by now, the 2014 Winter Olympics start tomorrow in Sochi, Putin’s favorite vacation spot. So why not commemorate the event by doing something wholly un-sports-related and not the least bit outdoorsy, and pick up a Russian novel? If you somehow managed to get to the Olympics, you can commune with the locals — if not, you can get yourself in the Russian mood just in time to watch the ice skaters. Now, it’s a good bet that you already have a few Russian novels under your belt. After all, they have a reputation for being philosophical, multi-character tomes, the kind of things you want to hold a parade for yourself after finishing, and an entire squadron of them have been elevated to the kind of classics every American teenager is asked to read at some point or another. But there’s a lot more to Russian literature than Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (and Gogol and Bulgakov and Turgenev). After the jump, a selection of ten (of many) wonderful Russian novels that you probably haven’t read, but definitely should.

Day of the Oprichnik, Vladimir Sorokin

Sorokin is a very famous writer in Russia (he was awarded the People’s Booker Prize and the Andrei Bely Prize for outstanding contributions to Russian literature), but sorely under-appreciated here. Sorokin has been referred to as “the Tarantino of Russian literature” — if, that is, Tarantino set his stories in 2028 Moscow, where the tech has progressed but the tsars are back. Darkly funny, wickedly satirical, and featuring a KGB orgy scene. What else do you need to know?

The Dream Life of Sukhanov, Olga Grushin

Grushin’s extraordinary first novel examines the life of a surrealist artist turned apparatchik, whose own wife regards him as a tremendous sellout. But then, as it has to, history knocks, and Sukhanov’s carefully constructed life begins to come apart at the seams.

Envy, Yuri Olesha

In his best novel, all wry humor and narrowed eyes, Olesha presents two sides of the same coin: a self-satisfied sausage king and a drunken failure the former picks up in the street. Poetic and satiric and quite an achievement, it is a novel everyone should read.

Invitation to a Beheading, Vladimir Nabokov

Now here’s a writer you’ve surely heard of, but reading Lolita and possibly Pale Fire just doesn’t cut it, you know. Well, it’s a good start. But everyone should also read Invitation to a Beheading, one of Nabokov’s best novels written in Russian (his most famous ones, including those above, were written in English). It is a weird, stagey, absurdist set piece about a man imprisoned for “gnostical turpitude,” and it is the novel of his own that Nabokov thought most accomplished.

The Time: Night, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

The first of Petrushevskaya’s works to appear stateside, The Time: Night is a story of a family going to pieces, scribbled by a minor poet at the end of her wits, but told with Petrushevskaya’s trademark blend of dark humor and insight. Also highly recommended, two of her story collections: There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories and There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. How could you resist?

Petersburg, Andrei Bely

Why does no one ever talk about this book? Seriously. I read it in a Russian History class in college, and I swear I was the only person who read it, because when I told the professor how beautiful I thought it was, how unbelievable the language, his eyes filled with tears — I kid you not — and he hugged me in the hall. Official Sources consider it one of the most important Russian modernist works of the 20th century, nay, one of the most important works of the 20th century period, and yet… Anyway, this novel is perfection. Read it, and then talk about it, please.

Omon Ra, Victor Pelevin

Pelevin is a major force in contemporary Russian literature (and contemporary literature), described by Time as a “psychedelic Nabokov for the cyber-age.” This novel, possibly his best, is a nihilistic, one-way trip to the moon with the absurd Soviet space program.

The Secret History of Moscow, Ekaterina Sedia

A fantasy that imagines Moscow, in all its bustling blue-collar grime and glory, and a world just below Moscow, where magic reigns, and where you might meet myths or find what you’ve lost, or both.

The Foundation Pit, Andrey Platonov

A group of workers is asked to dig the foundation for an enormous palace for the country’s proletariat. They dig. They dig. And the pit they dig begins to seem like something much less palatial and much more sepulchral. Hallucinatory and terrifying and filled with incredible language, this is Platonov’s finest.

Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov

Goncharov’s second novel certainly isn’t unknown, but for some reason it has never climbed into the Big Important Russian Novel ranks, and it should. After all, who can help loving Oblomov, allergic to decisions, fatalistic, taking some 50-odd pages to get out of bed?