Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Pushkin, Gogol: Russian literature certainly isn’t lacking in big-hitters. But behind this pantheon lies a multitude of incredible books, many of which, thanks to censorship or the tricky matter of translation, have been kept from us until now. Whatever the reason they slipped the net, here are 10 little known treats especially worth checking out.
Boris and Arkady Strugatsky – The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn
The Strugatsky Brothers were sci-fi superstars. They insisted there were no hidden meanings behind their tales of other worlds and alien encounters, but they wrote at a time when allegory was suspected as a matter of course, and experienced constant pressure from censors to change and water down their work. Their response to this was The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, an off-beat murder mystery that deliberately tinkers with all sorts of genres, a novel that’s far too madcap and illogical to read anything into. All the same, it’s fun to try.
You’ll like this if you like… Margaret Atwood, Iain M Banks
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya – There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby
Forget wolves, witches, and giants: the fairy tales that have really resonated with us over the years have done so because of subject matter a little closer to home; grotesque authority figures, terrible hardship, and the strength of human relationships. In this sense, it’s hard to think of a better birthplace for a writer of modern fairy tales than twentieth century Russia. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is precisely that, and as you’ll no doubt have judged from the title, her stories are deliciously poisonous, wickedly comic, and totally engrossing.
You’ll like this if you like… Angela Carter, Roald Dahl
Gaito Gazdanov – The Buddha’s Return
Like too many of his compatriots, Gaito Gazdanov never lived to see his writing published in his home country. Gazdanov’s books were only available following the collapse of the Soviet Union, by which time he’d been dead for decades. The Buddha’s Return might be his best: a gripping, hallucinatory whodunit set on the streets of Paris. The novel you’d get were you to mix Crime and Punishment with classic noir, and season with the slightest dash of mescaline.
You’ll like this if you like… Fyodor Dostoevsky, Georges Simenon
Venedikt Erofeev – Moscow to the End of the Line
Fear and Loathing on the Moscow Metro. We’ve all been there: the last train home, marooned in a carriage with a sozzled passenger happy to chat loudly in the general direction of anyone foolish enough to make eye contact. To read Moscow to the End of the Line is to spend 200 pages inside such a person’s head, in this case a recently fired Moscow cable fitter. All the same, the journey flies by, as the narrator embarks on an increasingly inebriated monologue on politics, art, love, and the universe as a whole.
You’ll like this if you like… Hunter S. Thompson, Irvine Welsh, Will Self
P.D. Ouspensky – Strange Life of Ivan Osokin
Esoteric philosopher P.D. Ouspensky was plagued throughout his life by feelings of intense déjà vu. He channelled this into his only novel, the story of a young man given the chance to relive 12 years of his life. The hero’s horrific realisation that he’s doomed to make the same mistakes over again is an expression of the concept of eternal recurrence, and as such the novel forms the point in the Venn diagram where the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, True Detective, and Groundhog Day all overlap each other. Utterly unique.
You’ll like this if you like… Haruki Murakami, Mikhail Bulgakov
Vladimir Voinovich – The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin
Sometimes the best way to expose the absurdity of an authority is to follow the orders it gives as closely as possible, and this is precisely what Ivan Chonkin, a private in the Red Army, and the Soviet equivalent of The Good Solider Svejk, does. It’s arguable that the consequences detailed in this book and its two increasingly ridiculous sequels, rival Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs as the funniest writing in the Russian language.
You’ll like this if you like… Woody Allen, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Sharpe, Jaroslav Hasek
Sigizmund Krzhizanovsky – Autobiography of a Corpse
Krzhizanovsky was a deeply idiosyncratic satirist, and a man who wrote things absolutely nobody else could have. The type of human the word ineffable was coined for. His incredibly imaginative (and frequently morbid) work shines a light on the human condition. I’m pretty happy to put this out there: for me, his short story In The Pupil is the best I’ve read in any language.
You’ll like this if you like… Jorge Luis Borges, Edgar Allan Poe, David Foster Wallace
Yuri Olesha – Envy
Envy is the sort of subtly anarchic comedy Gogol might have written had he found himself alive in 1920s Russia. Olesha’s novel captures the bizarre nature of a society that pays lip service to communism and compassion, but in which everyone is quite blatantly out for themselves.
You’ll like this if you like… Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol
Yury Dombrovsky – The Faculty of Useless Knowledge
The Faculty of Useless Knowledge is a gripping story of the pitfalls of everyday life in the Soviet Union, an unsettling account of how every gesture became politicised, however innocuous it may seem. How simply doing ones job (in this case, archaeology) can draw trouble. A great point of entry for anyone wanting to feel the atmosphere of the period, Dombrovsky leads us through a kafkaesque world of surveillance and interrogations that veers drastically between the terrifying and the ridiculous.
You’ll like this if you like… Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Hans Fallada
Georgi Vladimov - Faithful Ruslan
Throughout the Soviet period novelists frequently ‘wrote for the drawer.’ Fearing that their work would be dismantled by censors, or earn them a prison sentence, they carried on writing the stories they wanted to, but kept them hidden in desk drawers, or just circulated them among trustworthy friends. Over the past 20 years a steady trickle of truly great previously unpublished novels have appeared, and Faithful Ruslan is one of the very best. It is told from the perspective of Ruslan, a guard dog abandoned at a deserted Siberian prison camp, and incredibly enough the seed of its plot lies in real events. Which makes the ending even more heartbreaking.
You’ll like this if you like… George Orwell, Arthur Koestler