The Greatest Works of Russian Literature Everyone Should Read

The writer Leo Tolstoy at his desk
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There are certain books that are always on lists of “books you must read” and the like, and these books are generally two things: old and complex. After all, this week’s hot new bestseller is often an easy read for the simple reason that it’s part of the current zeitgeist — you don’t have to work very hard to get the references and understand the relationships more or less intuitively. Even the most ambitious books on the store shelves right now are easy enough to "get" because there are familiar aspects to the style and ideas, the sort of subtle stuff that marks something as fresh and current.

The books on “must read” lists tend to not only be deep, complex works of literature, they also trend towards older works that have survived the test of time for the obvious reason that they’re better than 99% of the books published. But some of those books are also not simply complex and difficult, they’re also very, very long. Let’s be frank: When you start describing books as complex, difficult, and long, you’re probably referring to Russian Literature.

We live in a world where "War and Peace" is often used as generic shorthand for an extremely long novel, after all — you don’t need to have actually read the book to get the reference. And yet, you should read the book. Russian literature has long been one of the richest and most interesting branches of the literary tree, and has been supplying the world with incredible, fantastic novels for two centuries now — and continues to do so. Because while this list of “must read” Russian literature includes plenty of the classics from the 19th century, there are also examples from the 20th and 21st century — and they’re all books that you really, really should read.

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"The Brothers Karamazov," by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The argument over which novel is Dostoevsky’s greatest can stretch out to insane lengths, but "The Brothers Karamazov" is always in the running. Is it complicated? Yes, there are a lot of threads and subtle connections in this sprawling tale of murder and lust, but ... it’s a tale of murder and lust. It’s a lot of fun, which often gets forgotten when people discuss the amazing way Dostoevsky combines philosophical themes with some of the best-drawn characters ever put to the page.

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"Day of the Oprichnik," by Vladimir Sorokin

Day Of The Oprichnik, by Vladimir Sorokin

Something often misunderstood by Western readers is how the past informs Russia’s present; it’s a nation that can trace many of its current attitudes, problems, and culture back centuries to the time of the Tsars and the serfs. Sorokin’s novel follows a government official through a day of standard terror and despair in a future where the Russian Empire has been restored, a concept that resonates powerfully with modern-day Russians.

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"Crime and Punishment," Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime & Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dostoevsky’s other incredible classic is a deep-dive study of Russian society that remains surprisingly timely and eternally genius. Dostoevsky set out to explore what he saw as the inherent brutality of Russia, telling the story of a man who commits murder simply because he believes it to be his destiny — then slowly goes mad from guilt. More than a century later, it’s still a powerful reading experience.

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"The Dream Life of Sukhanov," by Olga Grushin

The Dream Life of Sukhanov, by Olga Grushin

Grushin’s novel doesn’t get the same attention as, say, "1984," but it’s just as horrifying in the way it outlines what it’s like to live in a dystopian dictatorship. Sukhanov, once a rising artist, gives up his ambitions in order to toe the Communist Party line and survive. In 1985, an old man who has achieved survival via invisibility and strict adherence to the rules, his life is an empty shell devoid of meaning — a ghostly existence where he cannot recall anyone’s name because it simply doesn’t matter.

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"Anna Karenina," by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

From its evergreen opening line about happy and unhappy families, Tolstoy’s novel about the romantic and political entanglements of three couples remains remarkably fresh and modern. Partly, this is due to the universal themes of social change and how people react to changing expectations — something that will always be meaningful to people of any era. And partly it’s due to the fundamental focus the novel has on matters of the heart. Whichever aspect attracts you, this dense but beautiful novel is well worth exploring.

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"The Time: Night," by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya

The Time: Night, by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya

This intense and powerful story is presented as a diary or journal found after the death of Anna Andrianovna, detailing her increasingly grim and desperate struggle to hold her family together and support them despite their incompetence, ignorance, and lack of ambition. This is a story of modern Russia that starts off depressing and gets worse from there, but along the way illuminates some fundamental truths about family and self-sacrifice.

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"War and Peace," by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

You can’t really discuss Russian literature without mentioning Tolstoy’s masterpiece. Modern readers often forget (or never knew) that this novel was an explosive event in literature, an experimental work that shattered many previous rules concerning what was or wasn’t a novel, what was or wasn’t allowed. You might think this story set during and after the Napoleonic War — a war that saw Moscow come this close to being seized by the French dictator — is an example of stodgy old literature, but you couldn’t be more wrong. It remains a bracingly inventive book that has influenced almost every major novel written since.

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"The Slynx," by Tatyana Tolstaya

The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya

If you think that Russian literature is all 19th-century ballrooms and old-fashioned speech patterns, you’re not looking close enough. Tolstaya’s epic work of science fiction is set in the future after “The Blast” destroyed nearly everything — and turned a small number of survivors into immortals who are the only ones who remember the world before. It’s a fascinating and powerful work of ideas that illuminates not just how Russians see the future — but how they see the present.

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"The Death of Ivan Ilyich," by Leo Tolstoy

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy

There’s something primal and universal in this story of a successful and respected government official who begins to experience an inexplicable pain and slowly realizes he is dying. Tolstoy’s unflinching eye follows Ivan Ilyich through his journey from mild irritation to concern to denial, and finally acceptance, all without ever understanding why it is happening to him. It’s the sort of story that stays with you forever.

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"Dead Souls," by Nikolai Gogol

Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol

If you’re looking to understand Russian culture in any sense, you can start here. Gogol’s story concerns an official in the late-Tsarist era tasked with traveling from estate to estate investigating dead serfs (the souls of the title) who are still listed on the paperwork. Concerned with what Gogol saw as the terminal decline of Russian life at the time (just a few decades before the revolution that destroyed the status quo), there’s a lot of ink-black humor and a revelatory look at what life was like in Russia before the modern age.

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The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

Consider this: Bulgakov knew he could be arrested and executed for writing this book, and yet he wrote it anyway. He burned the original in terror and despair, then re-created it. When it was finally published, it was so censored and edited it barely resembled the actual work. And yet, despite the fearful and claustrophobic circumstances of its creation, "The Master and Margarita" is a darkly comical work of genius, the sort of book where Satan is a main character but all you remember is the talking cat.

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"Fathers and Sons," by Ivan Turgenev

Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev

Like many works of Russian literature, Turgenev’s novel is concerned with the changing times in Russia, and the widening generational divide between, yes, fathers and sons. It’s also the book that brought the concept of nihilism to the forefront, as it traces the younger characters’ journey from a knee jerk rejection of traditional morals and religious concepts to a more mature consideration of their possible value.

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"Eugene Onegin," by Aleksandr Pushkin

Eugene Onegin, by Aleksandr Pushkin

Really a poem, but a remarkably complex and lengthy poem, "Eugene Onegin" offers a bleak view of how society produces monsters by rewarding cruelty and selfishness. While the complicated rhyme scheme (and the fact that it’s a poem at all) might be initially off-putting, Pushkin masterfully pulls it off. If you give the story half a chance, you quickly forget about the formal oddities and get sucked into the story of a bored aristocrat in the early 19th century whose self-absorption causes him to lose out on the love of his life.

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"And Quiet Flows the Don," by Michail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov

And Quiet Flows the Don, by Michail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov

Russia, as with most empires, was a country composed of many different ethnic and racial groups, but most famous Russian literature comes from a more homogeneous demographic. That alone makes this novel, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1965, a must-read; telling the story of Cossacks called up to fight in World War I and later the revolution, it offers an outsiders perspective on both that is thrilling and educational.

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"Oblomov," Ivan Goncharov

Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov

A searing indictment of the aristocracy of 19th century Russia, the title character is so lazy he barely makes it out of bed before you’re well into the book. Hilarious and filled with smart observations, the most striking aspect of Oblomov the character turns out to be his complete lack of character arc — Oblomov wants to do nothing and considers doing nothing to be a triumph of self-actualization. You won’t read another novel like this one.

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"Lolita," by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

Everyone is familiar with the basic plot of this book, still often considered pornographic or at least morally bankrupt today. What’s fascinating about this story of a pedophile and the insane lengths he goes to in order to possess a young girl he nick-names Lolita is how it offers insight into how Russians saw the rest of the world, especially America, while also being a brilliant novel whose uncomfortable subject matter resonates and disturbs precisely because it’s easy to imagine it actually happening.

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"Uncle Vanya," by Anton Chekov

Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekov

A play and not a novel, and yet reading Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" is almost as good as watching it performed. The story of an elderly man and his young, alluring second wife visiting the country farm that supports them (with the secret intention of selling it and turning the titular brother-in-law who runs the estate out) is, at first blush, ordinary and even soap opera-ish. The examination of personalities and vanities leads to a failed murder attempt, and a sad, contemplative ending that explains why this play continues to be staged, adapted and referenced today.

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"Mother," by Maxim Gorky

Mother, by Maxim Gorky

Hindsight is 20/20, as the saying goes. In 1905 there was an uprising and attempted revolution in Russia that didn’t quite succeed, though it did force the Tsar to compromise on several issues and thus set the stage for the weakened empire’s fall. Gorky explores those fragile years before the end of the monarchy from the point of view of those who supported the revolution, not knowing where it would lead them — because none of us, in the moment, can know where our actions lead.

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"Doctor Zhivago," by Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak

Sometimes considered an outlier, Pasternak’s novel is two things at once: a mesmerizing love story set against a truly epic historical background and a perceptive and well-observed look at the Russian Revolution from a remove. The clear-eyed, objective way Pasternak depicts the various forces that were unleashed in Russia in 1917 was so disturbing to the authorities of the time that novel had to be smuggled out of the U.S.S.R. in order to be published, and remains today both a beautifully-crafted story and a fascinating look at a world being changed right before people’s eyes.

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Somers, Jeffrey. "The Greatest Works of Russian Literature Everyone Should Read." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, Somers, Jeffrey. (2021, February 17). The Greatest Works of Russian Literature Everyone Should Read. Retrieved from Somers, Jeffrey. "The Greatest Works of Russian Literature Everyone Should Read." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).