The 19th century is traditionally referred to as the “Golden Era” of Russian literature. It started with great poets like Vasily Zhukovsky and Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin, in particular is hailed as the founder of modern Russian literature. Though more famous as a poet, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is regarded as the first truly great Russian novel. Published in 1842, Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is regarded as the first truly modern Russian novel. It was followed by Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, which was the first Russian work to gain prominence in the Western world. The second half of the 19th century saw the emergence of two towering figures in not only the Russian literary world but world literature. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky produced novels which are regarded among the finest novels in the history of literature. The best known Russian novels of the 20th century include Doctor Zhivago and The Master and Margarita. Here are the 10 most famous novels in Russian literature.
Yevgeny Zamyatin is known for using his literature to both satirize and criticize the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union in the 20th century. His most famous novel, We, became the first work banned by the Soviet censorship board in 1921. Zamyatin arranged for We to be smuggled to the West for publication and the novel was first published as an English translation in 1924 in New York. Dystopia, an antonym of utopia, is used to refer to an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice. We is a dystopian novel set in the future which describes a world of harmony and conformity within a united totalitarian state. It is considered to have exerted a huge influence on the emergence of the genre of dystopia. Moreover, several renowned authors, including George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, were influenced by the novel.
#9 Dead Souls
Nikolai Gogol is regarded as the first great Russian novelist. Considered the masterpiece of Gogol, Dead Souls follows the story of Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, a middle-aged gentleman who has been dismissed as a civil servant. Gogol saw the novel as an “epic poem in prose” and within the book characterized it as a “novel in verse”. 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. There have been several adaptations of the novel. Mikhail Bulgakov adapted the novel for the stage for a production at the Moscow Art Theater. In 1984, it was adapted as a television miniseries Dead Souls by Mikhail Schweitzer. Dead Souls is regarded as one of the finest works of satire in world literature and as a prime example of 19th-century Russian literature.
#8 Eugene Onegin
Alexander Pushkin is widely regarded as the founder of modern Russian literature. Though more famous as a poet, he wrote several great novels the most famous of which is Eugene Onegin. The novel was published in serial form between 1825 and 1832 before being published as a complete edition in 1833. Eugene Onegin is a novel in verse made up of 389 fourteen-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter. The titular leading character of the novel became a common character type in 19th century Russian literature. Known as the superfluous man, he is a disillusioned aristocrat who is drawn into tragic situations through his inability or unwillingness to take positive action to prevent them. Eugene Onegin is regarded as the first truly great Russian novel. Subsequently. it has been a source of countless themes and images in Russian fiction.
#7 The Brothers Karamazov
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. One of his four great novels, The Brothers Karamazov, was also his final novel which he wrote in nearly two years. Moreover, many critics also consider it to be his greatest work. The Brothers Karamazov focuses on the favorite theological and philosophical themes of Dostoevsky: the origin of evil, the nature of freedom and the craving for faith. Set in a modernizing Russia, the novel revolves around the subject of patricide. The Brothers Karamazov is a hugely influential work. Sigmund Freud called it “the most magnificent novel ever written” while Franz Kafka felt indebted to it for its influence on his own work. The Brothers Karamazov is regarded as one of the supreme achievements in world literature.
#6 The Master and Margarita
Mikhail Bulgakov was a leading 20th century Russian writer whose works often criticized Soviet culture and conventions. Due to this several of his works were banned by the Russian government. His masterpiece The Master and Margarita was published in 1966, 26 years after his death. The novel juxtaposes two planes of action: one set in Moscow in the 1930s and the other in Jerusalem at the time of Christ. The three central character of the story are the devil; the “Master”, a repressed novelist; and Margarita, who loves the Master despite being married. The Master and Margarita is considered a 20th-century masterpiece as well as the foremost of Soviet satires. It has been a prominent part of popular culture with numerous adaptations in movies, animated films, television, theater, radio, opera and other types of music.
#5 Doctor Zhivago
Though primarily famous as a poet in Russia, Boris Pasternak became renowned in the west due to 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 due to pressure in the Soviet Union. Doctor Zhivago was made into a film by David Lean in 1965. The film went on to win five Academy Awards including for best adapted screenplay. Though the novel was initially banned, Doctor Zhivago has been part of the Russian school curriculum since 2003, where it is read in 11th grade.
#4 Fathers and Sons
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. Fathers and Sons, his most famous and enduring novel, was published in 1862. Also translated as Fathers and Children, the novel primarily focuses on the relationship between the older generation and the youth. It presents the inevitable conflict between generations and between the values of traditionalists and intellectuals. The novel was controversial for its time as its protagonist, Yevgeny Bazarov, is a nihilist who rejects all religious and moral principles. In fact the word nihilism became popular after the publication of the novel. Along with Dead Souls, Fathers and Sons is regarded as the first truly modern Russian novel. It was also the first Russian work to gain prominence in the Western world.
#3 Crime and Punishment
The literature of Dostoevsky explores human psychology in the troubled political, social and spiritual atmospheres of 19th century Russia. Crime and Punishment focuses on the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of its protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov is poor and his poverty leads him to plan the murder of an unscrupulous pawnbroker for her money. First published in the literary journal The Russian Messenger, Crime and Punishment was the first great novel of the mature period of Dostoevsky. With time, it has been recognized as one of the supreme achievements of world literature. Among other things, the narrative’s feverish compelling tone contributes to its status as a masterpiece. Crime and Punishment is the most famous novel of perhaps the greatest Russian novelist after Leo Tolstoy.
#2 Anna Karenina
A master of realistic fiction, Leo Tolstoy is regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time. Anna Karenina was initially published in installments between 1875 and 1877 in the periodical The Russian Messenger. It was first published in book form in 1878. The plot of the novel centers on an extramarital affair between Anna and Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky which forces them to flee from Saint Petersburg to Italy. The first sentence of the novel is perhaps Tolstoy’s most famous line: “All happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” A complex novel in eight parts, Anna Karenina is considered one of the pinnacles of world literature with many considering it to be the greatest novel ever written. It has been adapted into various media including theater, opera, film, television, ballet, figure skating and radio drama.
#1 War and Peace
War and Peace is a historical novel that chronicles Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. As Napoleon’s army invades, Tolstoy brilliantly follows characters from diverse backgrounds; peasants and nobility, civilians and soldiers; as they struggle with the problems unique to their era and culture. The three most prominent characters of the novel are Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearns for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves his family behind to fight in the war; and Natasha Rostov, the daughter of a nobleman who intrigues both men. Among other things, War and Peace is renowned for its mastery of realistic detail and variety of psychological analysis. Tolstoy never classified the novel and called it “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle”. War and Peace is regarded as one of the finest literary achievements in the history of world literature. It is the most famous novel of the most famous Russian novelist.