10 Russian Novels That Will Save You from Depression
The conventional wisdom that Russian classic literature is a collective anthem of misery, social drama, and unfair trials—many of which an ordinary person would find impossible to overcome—has a reasonable basis. Sitting in a comfortable chair anywhere in the First World, it can be difficult to empathize with the murderer of a 42-year-old woman for the sake of money, or to put yourself in the shoes of a Gulag prisoner.
However, by comparing their fates with those of Russian fictions’ protagonists, readers may come to the realization that distress is a universal experience of the human condition. This is particularly true during these difficult times of global pandemic. Russian literature can serve as a cultural antidote against the widespread feelings of gloom and panic. Take my word for it: Literature has helped Russians overcome all the hardships of their incredibly tragic history.
To cut a long story short, here is a list of the best Russian novels which will not just enrich your inner world, but also help stave off your melancholy:
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
Monday Begins on Saturday by the Strugatsky brothers
Sakhalin Island by Anton Chekhov
Mumu by Ivan Turgenev
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
The Suitcase by Sergey Dovlatov
01. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
It’s difficult to quantify just how much Dostoevsky influenced the literary world with his incredible talent. The author’s sharp and uncompromising depictions of the social reality of his time display a genuine concern for injustice and its consequences. His novel Crime and Punishment makes the perfect example. It is based on a terrible, yet not uncommon story of a murder: the one of Alyona Ivanovna (a pawnbroker) by Rodion Raskolnikov (a student) in order to get the money he needs to save his relatives.
This criminal plot is just an excuse for a broader discussion about the social circumstances that can push an “ordinary” person to commit a serious crime. Dostoevsky brilliantly adds a psychological arc to this social analysis; first illustrating how the idea of the felony originates in the mind of the protagonist, then materializing into the completion of the violent act, and finally evolving into a deep remorse.
This book formed not only a literary tradition of deep inner reflection, but also determined the direction of social philosophical thinking for generations to come.
02. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy is an author who hardly needs an introduction. One has only to be reminded that his works are on the shelves of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Mahatma Gandhi considered himself his student, characterizing Tolstoy as “the most honest man of his time.” Let’s get to know one of his main novels, and perhaps his most famous one.
War and Peace is more than a book. It’s an anthology of Russian life, embracing, without exaggeration, all of its manifestations—both for individuals and the collective community. The narrative is built in such a brilliant way that readers feel like they themselves are witnessing the unique historical events and experiencing daily life of the time (19th century): the Russian Empire, Napoleonic wars, high society of St. Petersburg, serfdom (slavery), beautiful galas, peasants and nobility, love, conspiracies, dueling, friendship and betrayal.
My favorite novel.
03. Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov
Varlam Shalamov is probably one of the most outspoken authors of the Russian literary tradition. He spent more than 18 years in Soviet camps as a victim of Stalin’s Great Terror. Understandably, this dreadful experience predetermined the content of his works.
In this collection of short stories, Kolyma Tales, Shalamov brilliantly blends the use of fact and fiction, describing with incredible accuracy the inner turmoils of a person who falls into the grinder of repression. The author’s ambition was, in his own words, “to raise and solve important moral issues of the time, issues that simply cannot be raised in different circumstances. It’s the question of human struggle with the state machine, the truth of this struggle, and how this struggle shows both within oneself and with the outer world.” This goal is undoubtedly met, with a narrative language whose accessibility helped it touch the heart of generations of readers.
Immerse yourself in this unique work, and let it change you from within.
04. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov, in a certain sense, is the last of the Mohicans. He was born in the Russian Empire to a noble family that owned capital and lands. From early childhood, Vladimir spoke three languages: Russian, English and French. After the revolution, the Nabokovs literally lost everything and were forced to flee, first to Germany, and then, after the Nazis came to power, to France. The Jewish origin of Vladimir’s wife compelled him and his family to flee once again, this time to the United States, where the author wrote his main works.
The number of unbelievable and tragic events in Nabokov’s life predetermined the depth of his work. His high education and encyclopedic knowledge (he was also an entomologist and composer of chess problems) gave the diamond of his talent a uniquely faceted brilliance. Nabokov was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature by another laureate, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but the Nobel Committee rejected him “because of the immorality of Lolita’s novel.” Lolita is the shocking story of a condemned passion between a 12-year-old girl and a middle-age literature professor, told through the perspective of the latter. At first, the logic and reasoning demonstrated to support the relationship is meant to discomfort readers, but the genius unraveling of the plot quickly draws them back in.
If you read and liked Fowles and his immortal Collector, then consider picking up this book next.
05. Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
Mikhail Bulgakov is an incredibly brave author. The peak of his career coincided with one of the most difficult periods in Russian history: the transition from an absolute monarchy to communism, from one political regime to another. When the sharp sickle of the Soviet flag first divided the Empire, it pushed all of its jurisdictions through the mincer of a dreadful civil war and turned the state into a platform for one of the most cruel experiments on humans in history.
In this fundamental opus, Bulgakov tells the amazing story of the transformation of a dog into a human and back again. This science fiction tale serves as a metaphor for the fate of the last serfs, who after the Great Revolution rose to power, and then returned to being discriminated against. The lightness and irony of the narrative contrasts with the incredible depth and courage of the ideas proposed. Needless to say, once completed in 1926, the manuscript was confiscated from the author much like other pieces of political satire. Readers had to wait 61 years to discover the brilliance of the book.
This satirical tale is a portrait of an era. An absolute must.
06. Monday Begins on Saturday by the Strugatsky brothers
The authors of this beautiful novel are the Strugatsky brothers—the legendary Soviet science fiction writers. The peak of their career came in the period of the Khrushchev “thaw”, the post-Stalin era of optimistic faith in a happy future, as well as widespread technical and social progress. However, their stories can hardly be considered ideologically sovietic. In their dystopian novels, the authors ask fundamental questions that are still relevant for humanity, utilizing the resources offered by the genre to freely speak their mind.
The novel Monday Begins on Saturday is a unique book that combines the aesthetics of Soviet science with a touch of Harry Potter-like magic. The protagonist of the story gets a job at a Soviet research institute that studies magic. The events that happen to him dive head-on into the wonderful world of Russian fairy tales, magic and Soviet bureaucracy at the same time.
Let the incredible humor and amazing plot of this book immerse you in a world of socialist absurdity.
07. Sakhalin Island by Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov is one of mankind’s most famous playwrights, a short-story master and the founder of his own literary tradition. His works have been translated into more than one hundred languages, adapted into dozens of films and thousands of performances in theaters all over the world.
As an example of his work, I want to offer you what might be considered his most unusual one. This is not a play, not a story, nor a novel. This is the author's travel notes on the most remote corner of Russia: the penal colony of Sakhalin. Back in the day, this huge island was a place of exile for thousands of Russians. Chekhov, in his incredibly visual language, describes the utterly frightening, and at the same time fascinating reality surrounding him. The best attempt to qualify this piece would be “artistic anthropology”, but that classification falls well short of capturing all the nuances and surprises found within.
It is simply impossible to break away from reading. Opening this book is like taking a time machine back to the late 19th century and traveling to one of the most historically unique parts of our world.
08. Mumu by Ivan Turgenev
Ivan Turgenev is a very special Russian writer. His professional journey was unique, arriving to literature through science, in which he also excelled. He was educated in both Germany and Russia, before becoming a corresponding member of the Imperial Academy and receiving an honorary doctorate by the University of Oxford. Turgenev wore many hats. He was a poet, a playwright, a prose writer, a translator and a researcher all at the same time. The breadth of his creative interests, as well as the depth of his talent, allowed him to achieve recognition during his life both in Russia and far beyond its borders. He was widely recognized as a public figure of his time, and some even believe he influenced the decision to abolish serfdom in the Russian Empire.
Among his many wonderful works, I would like to dwell on Mumu. The book was published contrary to the position of state censorship. Note that the censor, who either didn’t read or understand it, received a severe reprimand. It’s a touching love story of a deaf and dumb peasant under the dreadful circumstances of formalized slavery. The story forces the reader to sympathize with the personal plight of the main character while simultaneously considering the nature of social inequality.
Although the plot itself took place almost 150 years ago, the feelings depicted haven’t lost their timeliness.
09. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
Nikolai Gogol is a mystical, magical, and one of the most eloquent Russian writers. The beauty of his voice hypnotizes. Served by the most amazing sense of melody and rhythm in Russian literature, his stories combine a magnificent ethnography of the Russian province, subtle humor, and a sharp criticism of the social conditions of the time. If Gogol's work could be compared to that of a painter, then Marc Chagall would definitely be the one that comes to mind.
One of Gogol’s main novels, Dead Souls, is a unique book in every way you look at it. The mystical title foreshadows the mysterious events surrounding the novel, as the author died after writing the second volume, which disappeared without a trace. Fortunately, the first volume can be read as a finished work. The plot of the book is exciting. The protagonist is a cunning swindler who comes to a provincial town to buy serfs from local landlords. But not just any ordinary serfs—ones who are still listed alive on papers but have long since died. Buying up these "dead souls", the fraudster wants to use “them” as collateral in order to get a loan from the bank.
Social relations, corruption, power, love, and more; every ingredient to concoct a great saga.
10. The Suitcase by Sergey Dovlatov
It was not by chance that I left this writer for dessert. Sergey Dovlatov is one of my favorite authors. He serves a unique cocktail of fine humor, a beautiful and yet accessible language, and a healthy dose of cynicism developed from the numerous hardships he had to deal with in his life. He worked as a journalist in the Baltic States, served as a prison guard in Soviet Russia, and then, in a cruel case of irony, was himself imprisoned for his work before ultimately being expelled from the country. This explains why some of his stories were published directly in The New Yorker.
Among the many works of this genius, I would like to advise you to read a novel from his expatriate period: The Suitcase. Dovlatov introduces the reader, like no one before him, to the inner world of a Russian dissident emigrant and his wistful nostalgia. The plot of the story is very simple: The hero takes a small suitcase with him to emigrate from the Soviet Union. A year after moving, he stumbles upon it for the first time, opens it and plunges into the abyss of memories from his past life.
The book will be interesting not only to emigrants like me, but also to those who want to understand what is happening in the minds of people who leave everything behind for the sake of a new life.
Mark Novikov, Ph.D., Product & Content Localization Writer at Wix
Born in the rough Russian outback, I studied in Moscow, lived in New York, before settling in Israel. I’m a big fan of classical ballet, mayo salads, and underground rap.