A simple selection of the ten best Russian novels would be problematic as it would be dominated by the books of two writers – Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy – so to avoid that we have selected only one book by any one writer. Even so, the choices are obvious and most of the books on this list would appear on a list of the best novels written by all novelists at any time.
Perhaps the long winter nights that have led to those long, complex, Russian novels but that is a frivolous comment: it is more likely that so much of modern Russian history is bound up in social and political instability, which inspired them to ask profound questions about the society in which they lived. There was also a rich Russian literary tradition – a source for their writing.
The best Russian fiction explores the emotions, the minds, and the actions of the characters that appear in the novels. Ever-questioning, ever probing the social, religious, moral, political, and ethical fabric of Russia with storytelling that takes the form of detailed debate about those matters.
Most of the books on this list of best Russian novels are from the nineteenth-century canon – the great age of the Russian novel, but we have also included some of the best Russian novels from the twentieth and twenty-first century.
Eugene Onegin, 1832, by Alexander Pushkin
Eugene Onegin is, strictly speaking, a poem, but is usually described as “A Novel in Verse.”
Whichever, it’s a very important Russian work of fiction. The eponymous protagonist,the legendary Eugene Onegin, has entered Russian culture so deeply that he has become a model for Russian heroes. It is a long, complex novel with a stark view of a society that foments the creation of monsters by rewarding bad agents and their corrupt and cruel actions. The tone of the narration is deceptive – light in touch, it nevertheless presents the cruelty of social norms, into which the young Onegin is drawn, where he becomes increasingly unable to relate to the feelings of other people.
Dead Souls, 1842, by Nikolai Gogol
Dead Souls is one of the few great nineteenth-century Russian novels that does not deal with the turbulence of Russian politics. It is set in Imperial Russia and involves a government official who exploits the weaknesses of a crumbling imperial bureaucracy and building a personal fortune by corruptly buying up the entitlements of dead serfs on the estates of landowners. It’s something of a picaresque novel in that the protagonist, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, travels about, having adventures, encountering various people along the way who, collectively, make up a tapestry of the Russian landowning gentry.
Fathers and Sons, 1862, by Ivan Turgenov
Fathers and Sons is one of the most highly regarded Russian novels both by readers and by critics. Like the other novels of its generation, it is set against the unstable, swiftly changing times in Russia. It’s regarded as the best fictional account of intergenerational relations. It tells the story of two young men, Arkady, who returns home from college to a world that has not changed the slightest bit in all the political and social turmoil of the Russian revolution, bringing his friend, Bazarov. The novel works through their friendship and their relationship with their fathers. The novel was a best seller all around Europe.
Crime and Punishment, 1866, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Crime and Punishment is a huge novel, exploring the theme of alienation. The protagonist, Raskolnikov, is isolated from the rest of humanity because of his pride – his belief that he is superior to everyone else, making it impossible for him to relate to other people. He views other people as pawns in his game of life, to be used to achieve his ends. The whole novel is the working out of that –what happens when, believing that he has the right even to kill someone, he does so just to demonstrate to himself that he can do whatever he likes. The story that unfolds is the drama of his philosophy colliding with the real world as it is rather than what his delusions have led him to believe it is.
War and Peace, 1869, by Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace is a huge novel that is in some respects an historical novel, which it seems to be, but it transcends all genres. It’s a family saga, a war novel, a romantic novel – it is all of those. It is also notable for its length. Tolstoy himself declined to describe it as a novel – it was, he said, a fictional account of a detailed history of that epoch in Russia. Indeed, Tolstoy alternates fictional narrative with sections of historical and philosophical narrative. There are more than five hundred characters in the novel, of which two hundred are actual historical figures. The main fictional characters are among the best-known in all European literature.
Doctor Zhivago, 1957, by Boris Pasternak
Doctor Zhivago is a novel with an eponymous protagonist, Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet It is set over some thirty years, between the Russian Revolution (1905) and World War II. It is a love story set in a turbulent time. It addresses themes of loneliness, uncertainty regarding the state of things, disillusionment with the revolutionary spirit that had sent Russia far over the top, and disappointment both in love and politics. It’s a tearjerker; from the first time we see Zhivago, weeping beside his mother’s grave, to his lonely death, the only happiness we see in him is only an illusion.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1962, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an autobiographical novel set in around 1950 in a USSR labour camp, detailing a single day of inmate, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov’s imprisonment. On his return to Russia after having been a prisoner of war in Germany he is accused of being a spy for the West. He is innocent but sentenced to ten years hard labour. What follows is a detailed account of an horrendous experience in which, on the day depicted, he is ill but, arriving at the infirmary too late to be exempted, he has to report for work. The rest of his day is almost unimaginable. This short novel earned a Nobel Prize in Literature for Solzhenitsyn.
Roadside Picnic, 1972, by Arkady and Boris Sugatsky
Roadside Picnic is a novel unusually written by two writers, the Sugatsky brothers. It was a best seller and still ranks among the most popular and widely translated Russian novels. It could be seen as a science fiction novel as it s setting and premise are typical of science fiction. It is set in Harmont, a town in one of several locations that have recently experienced an extraterrestrial Visitation, which reveal strange and scary phenomena that the locals don’t understand. The practice of scavenging in those zones to steal alien artifacts, has developed. The scavengers are known as stalkers. The protagonist is a stalker and the novel follows his extraordinary experience during the course of eight years.
Lolita, 1955, by Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita is not only written in English but has become an American classic. It is included here because Nabokov was a Russian and wrote several novels in Russian before emigrating to the United States. It was also one of the most controversial novels because of its bold exploration of pedophilia. The protagonist is a middle-aged literature professor who is so obsessed with a twelve-year-old girl that he marries her mother in order to become her stepfather, then kidnaps her and abuses her sexually. On the surface, Lolita can be seen as an erotic novel but it is deeply literary because of the irony and intellectual teasing. The American literary scholar and Nabokov expert, Samuel Schuman, wrote: “Lolita is characterized by irony and sarcasm; it is not an erotic novel.”
Time of Women (Vremia Zhenshchin), 2009, by Elena Chizhova
Time of Women is set in 1960s Leningrad. The five female protagonists take turns in narrating the story, five female protagonists take turns narrating the story. Factory worker Antonina is abandoned by her lover, and left with a mute child. Three old women take them in and when Antonina gets ill with cancer they plot to marry her off to a man she doesn’t love so that he will adopt the child. The novel explores the effects of the Soviet legacy on ordinary Russians, particularly the women. It illuminates the hardships of Soviet life, exposing the daily privations, the desperate lack of housing, and a shortage of basic things, like flour, rice, and vegetables available only in limited quantities leading to long waits in long queues, and more ominously, the violent side of Soviet rule.