Eight Books to Understand Russia Today
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Earlier this year I traveled to Russia to give a speech at the Moscow International Book Fair on the topic of US and Russian literary relations. It was my first visit to Russia. Like many readers, I had my “Russian” phase, when I read many of the stories by the masters that have become popular in the West: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev.
You’ll find in visiting Moscow that these great writers are very present, even today. They are memorialized in statues and art, their homes have been made into museums, and there are numerous metro stations named for them — don’t miss, for example, the Dostoyevskaya station, which opened in 2010 and features an oversized portrait of the author and several moody murals depicting scenes from his novels, including Raskolnikov murdering a woman with an ax.
So, when it comes to understanding Russia today, where do you start? With the classics, of course.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Like me, you might as well admit that you never did read War and Peace, and if you are like me, pick up one of the recent, award-winning translations by the husband-and-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It was their translation which served as the basis for the BBC's 2016 adaptation of War and Peace that caused a stir in Russia due to the sexing up of the story. Few Russians gave it much heed, even if the actor Paul Dano impressed with his depiction of Pierre. If you don’t have the motivation for the novel, you can likely stream the mini-series on the plane over.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
The book which brought the devil to Moscow and signaled freedom for Russian writers when it was finally published in 1966, The Master and Margarita celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, in a newly, updated translation from Pevear and Volokhonsky, that was drawn from the unabridged text. And when visiting Moscow get off at the subway stop Mayakovskaya, the station named for the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, and walk to Bolshaya Sadovaya, 10, which will bring you to Bulgakov’s home, now a museum. His home was referred to in the novel as “the odd flat.”
For further insight into the classics, I can’t recommend a book more highly than Elif Batuman’s irreverent collection of essays about her experience studying for a graduate degree gone wild in a variety of settings, ranging from Stanford University to St. Petersburg to Tolstoy’s ancestral estate. It is by turns hilarious, outrageous, absurd and poignant — just like the best Russian literature — even when she’s writing about authors who aren’t always, well, technically Russian.
The Icon and the Axe by James H. Billington
Speaking of graduate school, anyone who has taken a course in Russian studies is likely to have run across Billington’s exhaustive cultural history. The book, which is surprisingly enjoyable and much admired in Russia, uses the two symbols to represent the ruling dichotomies of Russian history and delves deep into Russia’s engagement with deep spiritual and intellectual questions, getting to the “interior” of the Russian character, all the while connecting historical Russia with the present.
And now to the present day…
Where Bears Roam the Streets by Jeff Parker
This 2015 memoir by American writer Jeff Parker, recounts his many years of friendship with Igor, an out-of-work barista who tries to navigate the aftermath of the 2009 financial crisis in Russia. Jeff and Igor roam the streets of St. Petersburg and travel to the countryside, going as far as Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake, for adventures. Igor plays paintball, struggles with his girlfriend who “f*cks his brain,” and teaches Jeff all-important life lessons, such as how to properly enjoy a banya, how to enjoy chicken hearts, and the importance of “emotional transference" to a good novel.
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev
Personally, I gravitate immediately to nonfiction, the proverbial “first draft of history,” and Pomerantsev gives a somewhat darker vision of life under Putin’s Russia, one that offers a glimpse at the cliché go-go underbelly of the country, by recounting stories of a trio of characters: a gangster, a model and a lawyer, and reporting on daily life as if it were being lived by characters in a reality TV show scripted by “The President” himself.
Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin
Vodolazkin worked in the department of Old Russian Literature at Pushkin House and this novel brought him both Russia's National Big Book Prize and, eventually, worldwide fame last year after it was translated into English. It tells of the adventures of a mystic, faith-healing monk wandering through plague stricken 15th-century Europe dispensing cures to the accursed. (The colorful, iconic onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square are named after a medieval monk). It is, a perfect fictional companion to Billington’s book cited above, and one that confirms modern Russia’s obsession with and continuing connection to its own past.
Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky
Glukhovsky is among Russia’s bestselling authors and this dystopian thriller is the first in a series of novels depicting life in a futuristic Moscow, where, following a nuclear war, residents are forced underground and into the metro to survive — think of it as Russia’s answer to The Hunger Games or Divergent. Two sequels, Metro 2034 and Metro 2035 have followed, and 80 works of authorized works of fan fiction set in his world have been published in a variety of countries around the world. If that isn’t enough, you can play Metro 2033 and Metro 2034 as video games.
Try one, or all of the above…and keep watch for the reality and fantasy behind the headlines.