This page will be updated throughout the semester with books and movies about Russia (or by Russians):
Orlando Figes is a prolific historical author, and this book (published in 2003) is widely considered to be one of the best comprehensive cultural histories of Russia available in English. It is a much easier read than “The Icon and the Axe” (see below), but still makes good use of a variety of historical sources. I happened to read it right before my first visit to St. Petersburg’s Russian [Art] Museum, and this really helped me appreciate the social, political, and cultural contexts for many of the works there. Highly, highly recommended. I guarantee it will improve any essay on Russian history or literature required of you.
This book is really difficult to get through, but if you are used to academic prose and are willing to invest some effort, I highly recommend it due to the ambitious range of topics covered. There is obviously no book that can capture the elusive “Russian soul,” but I did feel much more conversant in Russian history and cultural trends by the time I finished reading. As it was published in the 1970s, however, the book lacks any postsocialist perspective. You can find my full Amazon review of it here.
I have to be honest…this movie really bored me. It was widely acclaimed as the longest single take (about 2 hours) in the history of cinema. The premise is that a modern-day Russian man (along with an unexplained Italian) somehow end up back in time at St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace (now the State Hermitage Museum). This is basically just a contrivance that enables the viewer to travel through the labyrinth of rooms and encounter various historical figures and events from the imperial period. While it is atmospheric, and it was fun to make connections when I actually went to the Hermitage in person, the movie itself is very dull and meandering. The narrator spoke in a hushed monotone, in contrast to his gratingly flamboyant Italian sidekick. If you like art films or are interested in period costumes and settings though, this movie might be for you.
I appreciated this book more for its historical significance than for its actual literary quality. Pushkin is the semi-divine rock star of the Russian literary canon (half of St. Petersburg is named after him–statues, squares, streets, etc), so there was a lot of buildup. More than the characters or plot, “Onegin” accomplished two things: 1.) it created a new genre, the “novel in verse.” This achievement has to be respected, although much of the magic is lost in translation 2.) such an undertaking necessitated the creation of a whole new literary language. As late as the early 19th century, Russia’s written language was nothing like that of the spoken language (it was a mix of archaic Church Slavonic, bureaucratic jargon, and loan words from Western Europe), which presented a serious impediment to the development of a literary tradition. After Pushkin set the standard, Russian authors were able to further experiment with their language in written form. So without “Onegin,” there would be no Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Lermontov, etc. The story itself is not that bad either, but due to the difficulty of getting the full meaning out of translated poetry, I would recommend finding a good companion/analysis/guide.
I love this book. Looking back on my high school literature class, I wish we had been assigned “A Hero of Our Time” instead of “Crime and Punishment,” which turned most of us off to Russian literature due to its overwhelming complexity (and our ignorance of 19th century cultural, political, and literary themes). The psychoanalytic passages are surprisingly clear for the period, and are still relatable even for a 21st century audience. As a traveler to Georgia, his descriptions of nature in the Caucasus strongly resonated with me. Clearly influenced by “Onegin,” Lermontov (not constrained by the limitations of rhyming verse) delves deeper into the themes introduced by Pushkin–which I found more enjoyable. This page features an excellent analysis of the plot and themes.
This is a much easier read than any of the books above. It is written more in the style of a travelogue, by an Englishwoman who studied abroad in a provincial Russian town during the year that the Soviet Union collapsed. I enjoyed reading her perspectives on the massive social and political changes of the times, as these made it easier to understand how various “average” people were affected by the collapse. Her humor and insights are truly inspiring.
Anna Karenina is actually two stories: the doomed romance between Anna Karenina and the young cavalry officer Vronsky, and happy love story between the country gentleman Levin and a young city princess, Kitty. As if these two complicated relationships weren’t enough, Tolstoy uses his work to explore many facets of 19th century Russian life: agriculture, technology, the peasant idyll, the nascent communist movement, and aristocratic society. “Anna Karenina” is also noted for its use of the internal monologue (stream of consciousness), a device previously underutilized in novels, which enables the reader a better glimpse into the characters’ inner motives. Even so, I should say that I still found Anna’s character pretty opaque and had trouble understanding what drove her at times–but this may just be Tolstoy’s way of commenting on how uncontrolled passions lead to chaos. Some of my favorite passages were the ones written from the perspective of Anna’s first son, Serozhya. I was surprised by Tolstoy’s sensitivity in presenting how the behavior of adults is perceived by and affects their children, especially in an era where children’s thoughts were pretty much dismissed. Although Tolstoy ultimately falls on the side of the idyllic traditional family as the source of true happiness, the serious consideration with which he examines adultery and divorce indicate that he is not out to moralize and oversimplify–coughcoughLittleWomencoughcough. Anna ends up paying for the affair much more than playboy Vronsky does; she ultimately commits suicide after constant rejection from her peers, who view female infidelity as too much of a taboo. All I can say is, her fate could have been avoided if she’d had a Sassy Gay Friend.
Dr. Zhivago is a love story set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution and Civil War of 1917-1921, as well as the institution of the Soviet Union. The novel is, in essence, a criticism of the Soviet system, which destroyed both culture and humanism in its single-minded pursuit of an ideology that was progressively twisted by those in power. More grandly, it is the story of the inability of the individual to control even his own destiny among the strong currents of time, ideology, and power. Although I personally enjoyed the book for its atmosphere, there is a fairly uniform dislike for it in both the literary community and the general public. Most people find it long and stale, with relatively cardboard characters that are thrown together in odd and contrived places and situations simply to move the story along or make a particular point about politics or ideology. The famous Russian-born author and translator Nabokov even referred to it as “a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelieveable girls, romantic robbers and trite coincidences.” I find it a fascinating account of life in the Soviet Union and an honest portrayal of mostly apolitical citizens whose primary concern is simply to survive the buffeting winds of change and idealism. The writing is depressingly beautiful. While Pasternak is not as fluid and artistic in his writing as John Steinbeck, Doctor Zhivago flavors strongly to me of East of Eden–an epic tale of love set against the backdrop of forces (natural or political) that are beyond the characters’ control and which ultimately end up determining their lives. At the same time, Doctor Zhivago is periodically disjointed and contrived, characteristics which (I like to think) Pasternak himself attributed to the Soviet state that had swallowed his people and his culture. I recommend it if you enjoy historical novels and can put up with a plot that isn’t always fluid and fast-paced.
This one is a really mixed bag…the book is not only about Russian literature, but is semi-autobiographical in that the author spends a lot of time describing her experiences in Russia/Eastern Europe as a graduate student. It drags in parts, but was interesting for me as a grad-student-to-be, hearing about the politics of grant-writing and student travel, etc. This book is definitely not an “overview” of Russian literature–as a doctoral candidate, the author was required to zero in on very specific authors and works, and usually ones that aren’t mainstream, either. Much of the action (here I use the verb “action” loosely) doesn’t even take place in Russia, but in the U.S., Turkey, or Uzbekistan. My favorite scathing review of this book can be found here, on Amazon.
I also have mixed feelings about this book, considered by many to be one of the most controversial and well-written novels of all time. Written by a Russian who relocated to the U.S. after the rise of Soviet power, “Lolita” was first published in English and takes place in post-WWII America. Nabokov’s mastery of the English language and piercing insights into American society make his work that much more of an achievement. That said, the “Lolita” is still unconventional in almost every way, and cannot be appreciated or understood without an open mind. The story is told from the perspective of a middle-aged literature professor from France who has a thing for “nymphets” (i.e., preteen girls), and on moving to the U.S. succeeds in “procuring” one for himself. I was really drawn in by Nabokov’s writing style. Lolita (a typical midcentury American preteen) is actually quite boring as a character, and the plot meanders. But Nabokov certainly achieved his goal in allowing the reader inside the mind of a truly bizarre narrator.
Another tome, this book was valuable to me in that it provided a very detailed background for my study abroad experiences around St. Petersburg. You will hear many Russians say, “St. Petersburg is not Russia,” which initially confused me. After reading this book, I had a clearer idea of how they city’s cultural and historical trajectory differed from the rest of the country. I would recommend finding it at a library, however, because Amazon.com has it listed for over $100 a copy.
This dystopian novel could best be described as “Orwellian,” although it actually served as the original inspiration for Orwell’s work decades later. A witness to the seizure of power by the authoritarian Bolsheviks, Zamyatin was able to observe firsthand the consequences of the expansion of the State and the Party, and the corresponding erosion of the value of the individual. In 1921, “We” became the first book banned by the Soviet censorship board. All things considered, 1984 is a better read. “We” has a similar plot and also features clever and interesting sci-fi elements, but these are not as developed as in Orwell’s work. I read the introduction by the translator, which mentioned that “We” suffers from being an awkward text to translate, and this shows. There were several dialogues, interior monologues, and even whole scenes that were completely unclear to me in purpose. Still, if you like dystopian stories, “We” will have enough to hold your interest, and it is interesting to see the source from which Orwell drew his ideas.
Gorky is considered the father of socialist realism, the Soviet state’s architectural, artistic, and literary style of choice (essentially, realism insofar as it supports socialist beliefs and goals). “Mother” tells the story of an ignorant, much-abused peasant woman and her journey to enlightenment through her son, who becomes a leader in the socialist movement under oppressive Tsarist rule. The book is quaint with early communist-era idealism, when all workers were brothers fighting for truth against the man, and the only thing stronger than comradely love was love of the cause. The sheer sincerity (before the USSR’s failures jaded the world against socialism) is truly striking, because in the 21st century, I’ve only ever heard things like “comrade” and “liberating the peoples’ minds” used ironically. The story itself isn’t overwhelmingly exciting (periodic protests, arrests, smuggling, prison visits), but the perspective is what really makes it. The main action “hero” of the story is clearly the mother’s son, and yet the drama of the struggle is all the more vivid when seen from the eyes of female peasant who lived for years in oppression and who is initially suspicious of the movement. The sad part is, the book was written to show the workers’ struggle against the Tsarist government, but looking back on it today it could just as easily be the workers’ struggle against the Bolshevik regime.
I have to admit…I did not like this book as much as I thought I would. That said, there was a lot of buildup, and many elements in this book are still incredible: the way you slowly enter into the lives of the characters and experience their development, how Dostoevsky treats the dilemma of human thought and response to one’s surroundings, and how you could probably read this book multiple times and still find a new story-within-the story. Dostoevsky’s novels can be read as an open discourse between reason and belief in which the tension between the two is never quite resolved. In fact, the man’s whole life can be seen as a struggle to combine the teachings of the Gospels with the need for social justice on this earth, and he thought he found his answer in the “Russian soul.” To me, all of the above sounds fantastic, but I personally do not enjoy Dostoevsky’s writing style (something I thought might have changed since I read “Crime and Punishment” in high school). His scenes are very dialogue- and even monologue-heavy, and I often found myself getting lost mid-chapter—many of which simply read like philosophical essays, because I’m pretty sure even 19th century noblemen didn’t conduct real-life conversations like that. His characters tend to be a little too effusive for my liking, and many of his female characters, particularly the saccharine protagonists (Katerina Ivanova), can be absolute torture. Even so, “Brothers Karamazov” gets to the heart of major social and spiritual debates in 19th century Russia, and when Dostoevsky writes dramatic scenes, he writes tear-jerkers. Overall an undeniable classic.