The roots of Russian literature can be traced to the Middle Ages. During this period, works were composed in Old East Slavic or Old Russian. Russian literature was at its peak in the 19th century. During this period, some of the indisputable masterworks of world literature were produced in Russia. Alexander Pushkin is widely regarded as the founder of modern Russian literature. Though he is most famous for his poetry, he also wrote several novels including Eugene Onegin. Nikolai Gogol is regarded as the first great Russian novelist. Then came Ivan Turgenev, who mastered both short stories and novels. The second half of the 19th century saw two towering figures of Russian literature: Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. Regarded among the greatest novelists of all time, the two became internationally renowned and took Russian literature to new heights. The best known Russian novelists of the 20th century include Boris Pasternak, Vladimir Nabokov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Here are the 10 most famous Russian novelists and their best known works.
#10 Boris Pasternak
Lifespan: February 10, 1890 – May 30, 1960
Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was born in an artistic Jewish household in Moscow. His father was an art professor and a well-known artist while his mother was a concert pianist. As his father was a portraitist, several leading personalities were frequent guests at his home including novelist Leo Tolstoy, poet Rainer Maria Rilke and composer Sergey Rachmaninoff. After initially planning to be a musician, Pasternak decided that his true calling was literature. With the publication of his collection of poetry, My Sister Life, he gained a place as a leading poet among his Russian contemporaries. Though Pasternak was primarily famous as a poet in Russia, in the west he gained fame with his novel Doctor Zhivago. The novel was refused publication in Russia due to its rejection of socialist realism. The manuscript was then smuggled to Milan and published in 1957. Doctor Zhivago became an instant sensation throughout the non-Communist world. However, though it was an international best seller, it was circulated only in secrecy and translation in his own land. It also helped Pasternak get the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, an award he refused it due to pressure in the Soviet Union. His descendants accepted the prize in 1988 and since 2003, Doctor Zhivago has been part of the main Russian school curriculum.
- Doctor Zhivago (1957)
#9 Mikhail Bulgakov
Lifespan: May 15, 1891 – March 10, 1940
Son of a priest, Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov graduated from the Medical Department of Kiev University in 1916. However, after a brief period, he gave up his career in medicine to pursue writing. A combination of realism and humor, the literary works of Bulgakov became popular. However, the authorities found them unacceptable due to their criticism of Soviet culture and conventions. Bulgakov had to face this issue for much of his life and several of his works were banned by the Russian government. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was an admirer of Bulgakov and he went on to say that a writer of his quality was above “party words” like “left” and “right”. It was Stalin’s favor that protected Bulgakov from arrests and execution. Nonetheless, he could not get much of his writing published. The Master and Margarita, published posthumously, is the most famous novel of Bulgakov and it is regarded as one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. Bulgakov continues to enjoy popularity and his work is praised for its humor and penetrating satire.
- The Master and Margarita (1966)
- Heart of a Dog (1968)
- The White Guard (1925)
#8 Alexander Pushkin
Lifespan: June 6, 1799 – February 10, 1837
Born in Russian nobility, Pushkin published his first poem when he was 15 and by the time he graduated his talent was already widely recognized within the Russian literary scene. Due to his controversial works like the poem “Ode to Liberty”, he was exiled by Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Upon meeting with Tsar Nicholas I, Pushkin was able to obtain his release from exile but he was kept under surveillance and the tsar retained strict control of everything Pushkin published. Pushkin married Natalia Goncharova, one of the most talked-about beauties of Moscow. Rumors of an affair between his wife and French military officer Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès led to a duel between the two in which Pushkin was fatally wounded at the age of just 37. Alexander Pushkin is widely regarded as the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. As a novelist, he wrote several great works the most famous of which is his novel in verse, Eugene Onegin.
- Eugene Onegin (1833)
- The Captain’s Daughter (1436)
- Dubrovsky (1841)
#7 Ivan Turgenev
Lifespan: November 9, 1818 – September 3, 1883
Born in Russian nobility, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev became fluent in French, German and English at a young age. After studying at the University of Moscow and the University of Saint Petersburg, he studied at the University of Berlin from 1838 to 1841. Impressed with German society, he believed that Russia would improve if it incorporated ideas from the Age of Enlightenment. As an author, Turgenev first came to prominence with his collection of short stories titled A Sportsman’s Sketches. Fathers and Sons, his most famous and enduring novel, was published in 1862. Focusing on the relationship between the older generation and the youth, it went on to become one of the most acclaimed Russian novels of the 19th century. Ivan Turgenev was the first Russian writer to be widely celebrated in the West and as such he played a key role in popularizing Russian literature outside his nation. However, he was hated by the radicals as well as by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky for his dedicated Westernism. The work of Turgenev is distinguished from his more famous contemporaries by its sophisticated lack of hyperbole and its balance.
- Fathers and Sons (1862)
- Rudin (1856)
- On the Eve (1860)
#6 Nikolai Gogol
Lifespan: April 1, 1809 – March 4, 1852
A member of the petty gentry, Nikolai Gogol spent the first nineteen years of his life in Ukraine, which was then part of the Russian Empire. At the age of 22, his collection of short stories, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, was published. His writing captivated the Russian literary world with is genuine folk flavor and liveliness along with his sense of the macabre. Though not his first, the story collection was his breakthrough work. It was an immediate success making Gogol famous overnight. The most famous work of Gogol, Dead Souls, was published in 1842. The novel is widely regarded as an exemplar of 19th century Russian literature. Although Gogol intended it to be part of a trilogy, he suffered creative decline in his later years and couldn’t finish its second part to his satisfaction. Gogol had a unique style of writing which has been compared to the “ostranenie” technique, which makes people view common things in a strange and unfamiliar way to know them deeply. Nikolai Gogol had a huge influence on Russian and world literature, which has been acknowledged by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka, among others.
- Dead Souls (1842)
- Taras Bulba (1835)
#5 Maxim Gorky
Lifespan: March 28, 1868 – June 18, 1936
Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, primarily known as Maxim Gorky, lost his father at the age of five. His mother remarried and he was raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather treated him harshly and send him out to earn a living at the age of 8. Maximovich was frequently beaten by his employers and was often hungry and ill clothed. The bitterness of these early experiences later led him to choose the word gorky (“bitter”) as his pseudonym. Maximovich traveled on foot across the Russian Empire for five years, which led him to experience the life in Russia firsthand. These experiences would later be reflected in his writings. The first published work of Gorky, Essays and Stories (1898), enjoyed a sensational success. The following year his novel Foma Gordeyev established him as a major novelist. The most famous novel of Gorky was Mother (1906), regarded in the Soviet Union as a classic of “socialist realism.” Maxim Gorky was also a political activist who opposed the Tsarist regime and took part in revolutionary activities for a time. As a writer, Gorky was a five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Many regard him as the greatest Russian writer of the 20th century.
- Mother (1906)
- Foma Gordeyev (1899)
- The Life of a Useless Man (1908)
#4 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Lifespan: December 11, 1918 – August 3, 2008
Born into a family of Cossack intellectuals, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn lost his father before he was born and was thus primarily raised by his mother and his aunt. Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics and physics at Rostov State University. At the same time, he took correspondence courses in literature at Moscow State University. He fought during the Second World War but during his service he began doubting the moral foundations of the Soviet regime. In a letter to a friend, he criticized the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. This led to his being arrested in 1945 and he had to spent eight years in prisons and labor camps. Solzhenitsyn became an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and Communism. This led to his losing his Soviet citizenship in 1974. He moved with his family to the United States in 1976, where he continued to write. Shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, his citizenship was restored. He returned to Russia in 1994 and stayed there till his death in 2008. The most famous work of Solzhenitsyn is The Gulag Archipelago, which “amounted to a head-on challenge to the Soviet state”. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 and he remains one of the best known Russian novelists.
- One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
- Cancer Ward (1968)
- In the First Circle (1968)
#3 Vladimir Nabokov
Lifespan: April 22, 1899 – July 2, 1977
Also known by the pen name Vladimir Sirin, Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born in a wealthy family in Russian nobility. After the Russian Revolution, his family was forced to flee from Saint Petersburg. While in England, Nabokov enrolled in Trinity College of the University of Cambridge. His family moved to Berlin in 1920 and he joined them two years later after completing his studies at Cambridge. In Berlin, Nabokov became a somewhat recognized writer. However, he had to support himself by teaching languages and giving tennis and boxing lessons. In May 1940, the Nabokovs fled the advancing German troops and settled in Manhattan, United States. Vladimir wrote Lolita while traveling in the western United States. Lolita quickly attained a classic status and was adapted into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1962. After the great financial success of Lolita, Nabokov returned to Europe and devoted himself to writing. It is to be noted that before Lolita, no book he wrote in Russian or English produced more than a few hundred dollars. Apart from Lolita, his 1962 novel Pale Fire is regarded as one of the best works of the 20th century. Both these novels rank in the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list with Lolita occupying the 4th and Pale Fire the 53rd spot.
- Lolita (1955)
- Pale Fire (1962)
- Pnin (1957)
#2 Fyodor Dostoevsky
Lifespan: November 11, 1821 – February 9, 1881
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was part of a noble family of Russian Orthodox Christians. As a young child, he was exposed to heroic sagas, fairy tales and legends by his nanny. As he grew up, his parents exposed him to a wide range of literature. Dostoevsky himself reports that his imagination was brought alive by nightly readings by his parents. After graduating from the Academy of Military Engineering in St. Petersburg, Dostoevsky took a job as a lieutenant engineer. However, he was unsuited for this occupation and soon took up writing. As soon as his first novel Poor Folk was published in 1846, Dostoevsky was hailed as the great new talent of Russian literature by the most influential critic of his day, Vissarion Belinsky. Dostoevsky went on to write 12 novels, 4 novellas, 16 short stories and numerous other works. His literature explores human psychology in the troubled political, social and spiritual atmospheres of 19th century Russia. Fyodor Dostoevsky is regarded by critics as one of the finest novelists who ever lived. Moreover, he is considered as one of the greatest psychologists in the history of literature. Literary modernism, existentialism and various schools of psychology, theology and literary criticism have been profoundly shaped by his ideas.
- Crime and Punishment (1866)
- The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
- Demons (1872)
#1 Leo Tolstoy
Lifespan: September 9, 1828 – November 20, 1910
Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born in a prominent family of old Russian nobility. His first novel, Childhood, was published in 1852. After serving in the army during the Crimean War, Tolstoy converted from a privileged society author to a non-violent and spiritual anarchist. The most famous works of Tolstoy are his novels War and Peace (1867) and Anna Karenina (1877), which are commonly regarded as among the finest novels ever written. His fiction includes dozens of short stories and several novellas including The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), regarded as one of the best examples of a novella. Apart from his work as a writer, Tolstoy also achieved fame as a moral and religious teacher. His ideas on nonviolent resistance had a profound impact on such pivotal 20th-century figures as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. A master of realistic fiction, Leo Tolstoy is regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time. He received nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year from 1902 to 1906. That he never won is a major controversy. Leo Tolstoy is undoubtedly the most famous Russian novelist.
- War and Peace (1867)
- Anna Karenina (1877)
- The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886)