The best Russian literature books that I consider masterpieces

The Books I Picked & Why

War and Peace

By Leo Tolstoy, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky

Book cover of War and Peace

Why this book?

Even though War and Peace is considered a hard book to read, making the effort is one of the most gratifying experiences for any reader. War and Peace doesn’t just provide a broad panorama of Russian society against the backdrop of the 1812 Napoleonic army's invasion but also elaborates like no other in the spiritual dimension of the human being and in the importance of family happiness as the last bastion against a belligerent world. The novel begins at a glittering society party in St Petersburg in 1805, where conversations are dominated by the prospect of war. Terror swiftly engulfs the country as Napoleon's army marches on Russia, and the lives of three young people are changed forever. 

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The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

By Cathy Porter

Book cover of The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

Why this book?

After worshiping Leo Tolstoy and his writing for long decades, the much later discovery of Sophia’s diaries came to me as a huge revelation: I learnt that no writer or artist is an island, but always part of a human ecosystem that nurtures and feeds their art. In the case of Tolstoy, it was his family and most particularly his wife. In her personal writings we meet the woman behind the great writer, married to him for 48 years, and who bore him 13 children. She was pivotal to his work, encouraging and supporting his literary career. Through her pages, we find out about her love for Tolstoy and their tormented marriage, in which she often felt neglected and provoked. We see the hidden, dark side of the great man of letters, a vastly gifted but troubled individual, and we also learn about Sophia’s undying vital energy that allowed her to remain indomitable till the end.

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Eugene Onegin

By Alexander Pushkin

Book cover of Eugene Onegin

Why this book?

Set in 1820s Russia, Eugen Onegin is a novel written in verse, a story about love, loss, and repentance, where bored, superfluous Onegin lives to regret his rejection of the shy young dreamer Tatyana and to feel remorse for his fatal duel with his best friend Lensky. Eugene Onegin is the masterwork of Pushkin, whom Russians regard as the fountainhead of their literature, and is an amazingly engaging piece of writing, ironic and passionate, full of suspense, and rampant with political satire and philosophical digressions that make for the most beautiful read. Honestly, I never thought I would fall so hard for a novel written in another language and in verse.

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The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

By Anna Akhmatova, Judith Hemschemeyer

Book cover of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

Why this book?

I love Akhmatova for her talent and her immense courage. Considered to be the ‘Soul of the Silver Age,’ the greatest modernist Russian woman poet, Akhmatova was a brilliant master of conveying raw emotion in her portrayals of everyday situations. She began to write poetry at age eleven and was first published in her late teens. Her father considered this to be an unsuitable and even shameful occupation and forbade her to write using the family name so she chose the surname of her great-grandmother, Akhmatova. Her works range from short lyric love poetry to longer, more complex poems, such as Requiem, a tragic depiction of the Stalinist terror, and written as a testament to the hardship and suffering of the people during this time, particularly women whose husbands and sons were imprisoned and executed. 

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The Master and Margarita

By Mikhail Bulgakov, Christopher Conn Askew, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky

Book cover of The Master and Margarita

Why this book?

This is one of the most original books I remember reading in my life. It was written during the darkest days of Stalin’s reign and finally published in 1966 and 1967, when it quickly became a literary phenomenon, as it signaled artistic and spiritual freedom for Russians everywhere.

In this fantastical, funny, and devastating satire of Soviet life, Mikhail Bulgakov tells how one spring afternoon, the Devil, trailing fire and chaos in his wake, weaves himself out of the shadows and into Moscow. Although the novel is a bitter satire aimed at the Soviet repressive regime, it also explores the meaning of “good” and “evil,” and how they relate to everyday life, making a specific point about the fact that good and evil do not exist independently from one another, but that each requires the other.

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