Russian Literature Beyond the Classics

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Russian Literature Beyond the Classics

Perhaps you’re already familiar with (and maybe you've been put off by) Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and the other great 19th-century Russians. Or you want to find out what Russian writers have been writing during the past fifty years. Or maybe you simply want to read something different. This list contains a sample of works by Russian writers from recent decades; in them they examine the weight of history, the boundaries of the soul, and the oft-hidden dimensions of the world with the irony and depth of vision that we have come to associate with Russia's greatest writers.

Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War by Svetlana Alexievich 
Svetlana Alexievich is a master of oral history, compiling eyewitness accounts of events to convey a very personal sense of national historic experience. Her books have covered the Chernobyl disaster, Soviet women during the Second World War, everyday life in the USSR… and, in Zinky Boys, the Soviet Union’s 1979-1989 war in Afghanistan. (The title refers to the zinc coffins in which the casualties of that war were shipped back home for burial.) Alexievich allows the direct and indirect participants of war to speak for themselves – soldiers, war widows, and civilian witnesses. There is no place here for politicians and official explanations: this book is made up of the voices of those who are usually voiceless. A harrowing read. (Note: Svetlana Alexievich is from Belarus, but her works focus on various events in Soviet and Russian history in which the speakers are primarily Russian; therefore she is included in this list of Russian writers.) 

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky 
Film buffs will know Roadside Picnic as the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky's Soviet-era cinematic masterpiece Stalker, with its ominous and quasi-mystical overtones. However, the novel is more personal, told documentary-style from the perspectives of several of those people who investigate, profit from, and suffer due to an alien visit. But unlike the typical alien-human story, in Roadside Picnic the aliens avoid contact with humans, depart after their brief visit, and remain a great mystery. It is, as one character remarks, as if the aliens briefly alighted on Earth for -- you guessed it -- a roadside picnic, left some bits of debris, and continued on their way, indifferent to or wholly unaware of human life on Earth. The bits of technology they have left strewn about and the effect of their presence on the visited areas draw foolhardy guides and treasure seekers, willing to risk injury and death to explore the areas and retrieve the mysterious items.

Madness Treads Lightly by Polina Dashkova
Dashkova is the “Russian crime queen,” a massively successful author of crime novels. At present, Madness Treads Lightly is the only one that has been translated, and it's a gem, a distinctly Russian murder mystery, with its socialist-era apartment blocks, gray skies and biting cold, multiple names for each character (given name, nickname, and patronymic), vodka, tea... and murder. In this case, Lena Polyanskaya -- a journalist and mother of a two-year old -- investigates a suspicious double suicide of family friends. She soon discovers that the deaths are connected to other deaths that occurred in Siberia over fourteen years previously, under the Communist regime. Despite the dangers to her family of her continuing search, Lena keeps digging...

Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev
"I stand at the boundary of Europe..." Thus begins this novel of boundaries and borders -- of language, geography, and memory. The story of the gulag, the Soviet prison camp system, has been told many times, starting with Alexander Solzhenitsyn; in Oblivion the legacy as it is experienced in the present-day is examined. A young man travels to the vast wastelands of Russia's north and the sites of the former gulag to uncover the truth about a shadowy neighbor who saved his life and whom he knows only as Grandfather II. Through rich and evocative prose, the narrator meditates on what he has lived through and on what he finds during his journey: a world relegated to oblivion, where it is easier to ignore both the victims and the executioners than to come to terms with a terrible past. 

Aetherial Worlds: Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya
What does it mean to transcend reality, to escape the ordinary? Is such a thing possible, or does the world hold us too firmly in its grip to make such a release a real possibility? In Tolstaya's collection, characters deal with the essence of human duality: the yearnings of the imagination and the weight of existence. Dreams, fantasies, love, and glimpses of another world contrast with the necessary elements of the everyday. Told from multiple perspectives in widely varying styles, these stories seem to echo an up-to-date Chekhov, with a wonderful humor and lyricism that makes them feel simultaneously rooted in Russia and universally relevant.

Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov
For Shalamov, the gulag was truly a world, a many-sided stage that yielded a wide variety of stories about human designs, labors, and, of course, deaths. These sketches capture the keen observations of a journalist, and they include descriptions of fellow prisoners' lives as well as the quiet and crushing inhumanity of this harshest manifestation of the Communist regime. But there are also reflections on the power of the imagination and the ultimate questions of human morality: does one continue to be human in such a place? Does one even exist where one is no more than a number? For Shalamov the answer is an unequivocal "Yes."