An Introduction to Russian Literature
People who haven’t read much Russian literature probably have at least one preconceived notion of the genre — that they can expect a long book. And that’s understandable, considering that the works most often referenced as masterpieces in the field are indeed intimidatingly long. Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina run more than 800 pages each, while War and Peace (also by Tolstoy) is well over 1,000 pages, with some editions reaching close to 1,500.
No matter how many trusted friends tell you that they’re worth reading, it’s tough to commit to such a long book as your introduction to Russian literature. But that’s okay. While those works are indeed giants in the canon, they aren’t the only options for contemporary readers, particularly those just starting to get their feet wet.
While perhaps lesser-known, these six novellas and short stories are an excellent introduction to Russian literature, touching on deep, universal questions while also delivering a mesmerizing story. After reading a couple of these works, you may well hanker to dive into the bigger tomes after all.
Based on Dostoyevsky’s own sprees in the casinos of Europe, this novella is told as a confession by a young man named Alexei who courts risk at roulette in order to feel alive and prove to himself that he is a man, not a machine. The novella’s second major storyline involves Alexei’s tempestuous affair with an alluring femme fatale named Polina who toys cruelly with his heart.
In Alexei’s mind, Polina is capable of raising him to the heavens or crushing him, much as the roulette wheel spins, only to deliver, in one irrevocable second, its terrifying verdict: Is he to leave anointed as a king or a pauper? The novella is an acute psychological study of the mind of a gambler, as well as a profound and extremely entertaining exploration of the connections between love, risk, and redemption.
This 128-page novella by Tolstoy was published in 1886, and it’s now considered one of his best works. The story is about a judge who spends his life pursuing personal and worldly ambition. Only when diagnosed with a terminal illness does Ivan Ilyich really start to live and reexamine how he has spent his life and treated others.
The story is both macabre and funny, and it expresses a profound faith in the human spirit.
This charming and poignant short story, published in 1848, was written by Dostoevsky early in his career. It’s about a man who is so embarrassed by his petty crime towards the person who has given him free room and board that he spends his last days trying to make amends for what he has done.
The story invites readers to think about the factors that compel people to commit crimes, and could well have carried the subtitle, “Why Good People Do Bad Things.”
Chekhov may be better known as a playwright, but he was also an accomplished writer of short stories. In Ward No. 6, published in 1892, he tells the tale of an odd friendship between a doctor and a patient, named Gromov, at an insane asylum called “Ward No. 6.” Bored by life in a small town and unable to find interesting acquaintances, the doctor decides that Gromov is the most fascinating person around, and he begins visiting him regularly.
By the end of the story, we find ourselves asking: “Who’s really insane—the doctor or the patient—and which one of them should be in the asylum?”
Writing in 1941, Vladimir Nabokov dubbed this the “greatest Russian short story ever written.” Originally published in 1842, this classic work tells the story of a poor Petersburg copy clerk named Akaky Akakievich who finally saves up enough to purchase the overcoat of his dreams, only to have it mercilessly snatched away by thieves the first day Akaky gets the coat.
The story describes the dehumanizing effects of poverty, bloodless bureaucracy, and people’s inhumanity toward one another, and is as relevant today as when it was written.
Solzhenitsyn is one of the 20th-century’s greatest Russian writers, and this 1959 novella tells the tale of Matryona, a kind-hearted and resilient old woman who has few material possessions, yet gives freely of her time and what few possessions she does have. Though others often take advantage of her, she refuses to be swayed by self-interest, and turns out to be the one force capable of holding together a morally disintegrating community.
This powerful tale, influenced by the intellectual tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, invites readers to think hard about what it means to live a good, moral life even in the midst of difficult circumstances.