I am not sure if many people are aware but I am a big fan of Russian literature, not just books written by Russians but also books set in Russia. There is something about the backdrop and the way these books are written that I am drawn to. The culture is so different and with the instability of communist Russia used within a novel, it allows for the exploration of great stories and ideas. They are often epic novels that can sometimes be slightly odd but I found that Russian literature has great proses and character development that is just worth reading. This is before looking at the symbolism and motifs, but I won’t go into that. I have even considered learning to read Russian, just so I can read some of these books in their original language. I have noticed that people are often cautious of books set in Russia and view Russian literature as tomes that are difficult to read. So I thought I would talk about my favourite books set in Russia; not all are written by Russians but it is a good place to start.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
I have talked about this book before, and I am never going to stop being a book evangelist for this one. It was one of my favourite books of 2013 (I think The Machine by James Smythe narrowly beat it for the top spot) and it is set in war torn Chechnya as they try to break away from the Russians. Technically not set in Russia, since the collapse of the Soviet Union had already taken place, but the effects still remain prominent. This is a novel that follows three interconnected characters as they try to make sense of life and the changing world around. It is full of beauty that shines through from the back drop of this war torn country.
All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon
Marketing this novel as this year’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was all that it took to make me pick this one up. I am glad I did, it is already a favourite for the year. The novel is centred on the Chernobyl meltdown, an era in history I have never seen in fiction before (I am sure there are a few out there). This is another character driven novel that explores ideas of fear and disaster and yet again there is great beauty to be found. Imagine living in Soviet Union, where every part of your life is unstable; so much so that the suggestion of implementing safety measure would be conceived as doing a poor job…until disaster strikes.
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
Gary Shteyngart is fast becoming a favourite author of mine; ever since reading Super Sad True Love Story I have become a fan of his writing style and quirky humour. Little Failure is a memoir of his life growing up in Leningrad, USSR (now St. Petersburg, Russia) and the migration to the United States. As a young Russian boy living in the US during the Cold War era it was easier for him to pretend to be German to avoid the hatred people had to the Soviet Union. This was a fascinating memoir full of humour and self-deprecation and I enjoyed learning about the writer’s journey.
Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin
I often like to recommend this Russian novel just because it is so obscure and weird; people are more likely to have never read it. The birth of dystopian fiction is often accredited to the Russian novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (which is great too) but I thought a post-modern satire that will have you saying “What the…?” would make for a much more entertaining read. Set in a dystopian future where the Russian empire has reverted back to the draconian codes of Ivan the Terrible, this science fiction novel is not only bizarre but serves as a critique of the political situation in modern Russia.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I love this book so much, not just because it makes me look pretentious but I think it was surprisingly easy to read. Think of it like a psychological thriller; Crime and Punishment takes the now popular anti-hero and adds it into a classic novel. Before Dexter Morgan there was Crime and Punishment. The protagonist Raskolnikov is a conflicted character; he shows interest in social classes and believes he is of a higher class than everyone else. That was until commits murder; then he is plagued by guilt, remorse and regret. This is a novel that focuses on the inner turmoil as well as the impact on his intellect and emotions.