The Best Russian Literature Books You Can’t Miss

Writers use analogies to describe, explain, or beautify their writing. Sometimes, analogies are pretty natural, but sometimes, they are certainly exaggerated. What if there’s a natural analogy that makes you wonder about the ambition of both things? Russian literature books and geography are certainly the case when it comes to grand ambitions.

So what about a perfectly natural analogy? Classic Russian literature is just like Russian geography. The greatest Russian novels are sprawling canvases with deep historical, political, and social history. 

Famous Russian writers’ ambitions are hard to contain, so it’s quite natural that they extend to several hundred pages. Russia’s geography is no different, as it extends to several time zones and shares borders with multiple countries. 

Interestingly, we will not discuss Russia’s political ambitions, but we will definitely discuss the ambitions of famous Russian writers and their greatest Russian novels. By the end of the post, you will be surprised to see the natural analogy between Russian literature works and geography. Intriguing enough? Let’s get started!

Russian literature books

1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy - 4.2/5

There’s always a reference point whenever we talk about something. War and Peace was and will always be the reference point for Russian literature books. After all, War and Peace is a magnum opus of world literature, just like Othello, Ulysses, Don Quixote, and Les Misérables.

The novel tells the story of five aristocratic families and is set during the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath. Some characters are central to the novel. They include Pierre Bezukhov, an awkward but kind-hearted wealthy heir. Andrei Bolkonsky is a dissatisfied and ambitious prince. Natasha Rostova is a charming young girl. We see the personal lives of these characters during the Napoleonic Wars and their effects on their destinies and decisions.

We see Pierre struggling to find meaning in his privileged life, and he becomes Masonic. Similarly, Andrei is saddened by his wife’s death, disenchanted with society’s superficiality, and seeks redemption on the battlefield. Natasha, who is impulsive and romantic, faces severe trials that test her spirit and resilience, shaping her maturity and understanding of love.

When the French invaded Russia, society, politics, and everything else changed, leading to a nationalistic awakening. It is one of the greatest Russian novels, showing Russian society through battles, personal crises, and the intertwining of lives. 

The novel is also philosophical, especially at the end. Tolstoy questions the nature of free will and suggests that forces beyond individual control determine the course of life. Overall, it is one of the classic Russian literature masterpieces that is also huge on paper.

If you are wondering how many words are in War and Peace? Well, War and Peace word count is 587,287 words in English. There have been scores of adaptations of War and Peace into film and TV. However, the four-part War and Peace series by the Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk is one of the greatest adaptations. Similarly,  War and Peace by BBC, where Anthony Hopkins plays Pierre, is one of the best adaptations of classic Russian literature.

You should also check out Anna Karenina, also one of the best Russian novels by Leo Tolstoy.

Russian literature books

2. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky - 4.3/5

There’s always a debate about the greatest Russian novels, War and Peace and Crime and Punishment. Similarly, the debate also happens between War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The point is, whichever Russian literature books you like, Crime and Punishment is one of the greatest Russian novels.

The novel follows Raskolnikov, a desperate student living in St. Petersburg. He is troubled by his own thoughts, leading him to conclude that extraordinary people can commit an offense beyond moral boundaries to achieve greater purposes. Interestingly, his dire economic circumstances and his absurd belief lead him to murder an elderly pawnbroker woman. 

However, everything changes after the murder as guilt and paranoia take hold of him. His relationship with his family and friends, who are unaware of his actions, becomes more turbulent. 

His life takes another turn when he encounters Sonya, a compassionate prostitute whose father’s drinking has ruined her family. Despite all the turmoil, Sonya’s moral and emotional strength changes his nihilistic views, and he eventually confesses to the police.

One of the best novels about Russia where Fyodor Dostoevsky questions morality, free will, and redemption. As the novel was written after the Napoleonic Wars, it is not surprising that Raskolnikov finds parallels between his murdering instinct and that of Napolean. 

Fyodor Dostoevsky also wrote some other great Russian literature books. If you want to explore his work, you should check out The Brothers Karamazov, Notes From Underground, and White Nights.

Russian literature books

3. Anton Chekhov

Anton Checkov is one of world literature’s greatest playwrights and short story writers. Although Anton passed away at 44, he wrote one novel, fourteen plays, and hundreds of short stories. His plays are still read and performed in theatres throughout the world. 

We will discuss one of his plays and a short story collection, of course.


3a. Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov - 3.8/5

Uncle Vanya is one of Anton Chekhov’s best Russian plays. The play is set on a provincial estate managed by Ivan Vanya and his niece, Sonya. They both have dedicated their lives to supporting Sonya’s father, Professor Serebryakov, a pompous academic. 

Everything changes when the professor arrives with his beautiful wife, Yelena, which stirs deep emotions and dissatisfaction among its residents. Meanwhile, Sonya falls in love with a local doctor, Astrov, but he is lured into Yelena’s charm.

Tensions rise high when Serebryakov announces his plan to sell the estate, threatening Vanya and Sonya’s way of life. In desperation, Vanya attempts to shoot the professor but fails, deepening the sense of futility.


3b. Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov - 4.4/5

Anton Chekhov has written hundreds of short stories, and this collection showcases his mastery of the short story form. In these short stories, Chekhov delves into the complexities of everyday life and human emotions of 19th-century Russian society. 

This collection includes some of the best Russian short stories such as “The Lady with the Dog,” “A Boring Story,” “The Student,” and “The Huntsman,” among many other classic Russian literature stories.  

Chekhov is one of the modern short story writers who is credited with economy and restraint. What makes his stories great is melancholy mixed with light, ironic humor. Interestingly, his stories end with an unresolved question, reinforcing the unpredictability of life itself. 

I also recently covered Turkish movies, one of which is Winter Sleep, based on Checkov’s short story, ‘The Wife.’


4. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov - 4.3/5

The Master and Margarita is a remarkable work by one of the famous Russian writers, Mikhail Bulgakov. The novel blends fantasy, romance, and political satire and spans Moscow in the 1930s and ancient Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate. Based on similar themes, I recently also covered ‘A Hundred Years of Solitude.’

The novel begins mysteriously when the Devil arrives in Moscow as a charming figure named Woland. He also has some comparisons, including a talking black cat and a fanged hitman. His Woland’s presence unleashes chaos upon the city’s literary elite, exposing their greed and hypocrisy.

Central to the novel is a love tale of the Master, a tortured writer shunned by literary critics, and Margarita, his devoted lover who refuses to abandon him. Margarita’s love for Mater leads her to make a bargain with Woland. In a magical sequence, she becomes a witch over the rooftops of Moscow. She hosts a midnight ball to earn the Devil’s favor and the chance to reunite with the Master.

In hindsight, the novel explores themes of good and evil, freedom, and the power of the human spirit. Bulgakov wrote the novel during Stalin’s oppressive regime, and authorities didn’t allow its publication. His widow, Elena Bulgakova, published it after his death. The novel remains among the best Russian literature books for its perfect blend of surrealism and satire.

Russian literature books

5. And Quite Flows The Don by Mikhail Sholokhov - 4.2/5

And Quiet Flows The Don is one of the criminally overlooked novels about Russia. What’s more strange is that many people don’t know Mikhail Sholokhovn won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature. His work differs from that of other famous Russian writers in that he primarily wrote about the Don Cossacks’ lives and struggles, especially during the Russian Revolution. 

The novel revolves around the Melekhov family, particularly Grigory Melekhov. Grigory is a headstrong Cossack torn between family loyalty, his love affairs, and the shifting political times. As Grigory struggles with his desires and dealings with his family, the historical events around him significantly impact every aspect of life in the Don Cossack region.

The novel’s heart is Grigory’s love affair with Aksinia, the wife of a fellow Cossack, which affects his familial and social relations. In a larger context, we also experience the collapse of the Tsarist regime and the consequent rise of Bolshevik power.The novel was also adapted into the three-part film by Sergei Gerasimov in 1957. You can stream the movie on YouTube. It is one of the best Russian literature books, and you are in a love-hate relationship with the main character throughout.


6. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol - 4/5

Nikolai Gogol is one of the pioneers of classic Russian literature. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he paved the way for Russian literature and many other famous Russian writers, such as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. 

The novel I have selected is Nikolai Gogol’s satirical masterpiece. It is a sharp and witty critique of Russian society in the 19th century. The narrative follows Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, an opportunistic landowner with a mysterious plan. 

His plan involves traveling across the Russian countryside to purchase “dead souls” from other landowners. These “dead souls” are deceased peasants listed as alive on the census records, providing Chichikov with a loophole to exploit.

Through Chichikov’s journey, we see eccentric characters and landowners full of greed, corruption, and folly. It is, however, Gogol’s writing that gives these characters a unique voice by mixing realism with surrealistic elements for humorous effect.

Although Gogol lived a short life, his influence on world literature is profound. Many of his short stories, especially The Overcoat, are considered masterpieces. Many writers and readers still take inspiration from them. In fact, one of the best short story writers of our times teaches short story art by discussing The Overcoat and other classic Russian literature.


7. The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov - 4/5

Vladimir Nabokov is one of the best 20th-century writers of novels and short stories. He was born in Imperial Russia, later emigrated to Berlin, became an American-Russian, and died in Switzerland. Due to his different cultural experiences, his early and late works are starkly different. 

I will discuss one of his best Russian literature books, The Defense, which is quite underrated. 

The novel is about Luzhin, an incredibly gifted chess player. His gift is also problematic because his obsession with chess dominates his perception of reality. 

When Luzhin goes to a chess tournament in Italy, he becomes romantically involved with Marianne. This relationship introduces a different dimension to his life, challenging his previously narrow focus on chess. Despite Marianne’s efforts to help him live a balanced life, his obsession with chess continues to impact his mental health. 

As Luzhin’s mental state deteriorates, the pressure to succeed and the fear of losing drive him toward extremes. It is one of his best earlier Russian literature books in which he explores how obsession can affect human psychology.  

Lolita is another one of Nabokov’s best Russian novels. One cannot overlook how great a short story writer Nabokov was. The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov collection is one of his best Russian literature works. You can read ‘Cloud, Castle, Lake‘ from the collection, originally published in 1941.


8. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev - 4/5

Ivan Turgenev is one of the most famous Russian writers who introduced classic Russian literature to the West. One of the finest Russian realists, his first short story collection, ‘A Sportsman’s Sketches,’ is considered one of the best Russian literature books. 

Apart from being a short story writer, he was also a novelist, playwright, and translator. Today, I will talk about  Father and Sons, one of the greatest Russian novels.

The novel revolves around two characters: Arkady Kirsanov and his friend Bazarov. Arkady, who has just finished university, returns to his father’s modest estate with the radical thinker Bazarov in tow. Bazarov prides himself on his nihilist beliefs, which reject traditional Russian values. 

Bazarov’s views become a point of contention with Arkady’s father, Nikolai, and uncle, Pavel. The conflict between the fathers holding onto old beliefs and sons embracing a revolutionary worldview.

That is not all the story has to offer, as Bazarov becomes romantically involved with the widow Anna Odintsova. Meanwhile, Arkady falls for his neighbor Katya. These interactions change their perspectives.

The turning point occurs when Bazarov, while practicing medicine, accidentally becomes infected during an autopsy and dies. On his deathbed, Bazarov renounces his nihilist convictions, undercutting his role as the novel’s ideological champion.

If you haven’t read Ivan Turgenev before, this is one of the best Russian literature books you should read. As one of the best Russian novels, the novel is also an exemplary read if you ever want to learn about defeating a nihilist in life.

Russian literature books

Recap of The Best Russian Literature Books

It is clear from our discussion of Russian literature books that the narratives are grand and provide deep insights into the human condition. Although the characters and settings of these best Russian novels only talk about Russian society and culture. However, the themes of love, loss, redemption, and existential angst are universal.

In fact, only in the greatest Russian novels do we find such themes, which involve society deeply rather than philosophical musings. This is the very reason that Russian literature books remain popular and relevant to this day. 

Similarly, the greatest Russian novels ‘taught’ and inspired Western writers. Through these famous Russian writers, we dig deeper into the human condition, existential dilemmas, society, social commentary, culture, politics, etc. If you have any favorite Russian literature books, leave a comment!

Sign up for our newsletter

2 Responses

    1. Oh nice! I have it on my shelf, but still need to get started. Curious to hear your thoughts after finishing it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Cultural Reads

Would you like to receive a bi-weekly movie, music & book recommendation from all around the world?