6 Great Books Set in Russia That We Love

6 Great Books Set in Russia That We Love

Tuesday, 24 March, 2020

It’s no surprise that the largest country in the world is rich with stories begging to be told. Who can resist stories of idealistic rabble-rousers, fairytale-like heroes and villains, or the machinations of spies?!

Sure, this Slavic country is known for its czar-and-dictator strife. But don’t count out the comfort food and vodka-fueled everyman (and woman), forging their way in this vast land of frozen tundra, deep forests, and sparkling, gritty cities.

Here are six books set in Russia that took us there on the page: a threaded short story collection that spans history, two tales of WWII (during the Siege of Leningrad and in a posh hotel in Moscow), a modern coming-of-age story, and a retelling of the legend of Koschei the Deathless, Russia’s answer to Western fairy-tale villains.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Russia: Revolution, Hope, and Vodka.

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City of Thieves - David Benioff

City of Thieves
> David Benioff

This sweet and suspenseful novel is almost a buddy comedy — except the action takes place during the 872-day siege of Leningrad in 1941. Our intrepid heroes form an unlikely friendship, develop dangerous enemies, argue about life, and get lost in the snow — all while in search of a perfect dozen eggs.

In real life, on September 8, 1941, the German army surrounded Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and cut it off from the rest of Russia. This story picks up a year later, as the city’s resident waste away from nightly bombings and dwindling food supply.

Amid this horror, fate seems to have taken a particular dislike to 17-year-old Lev Beniov. For one thing, he’s Jewish and, times being what they were, that was not a good thing to be. And for another, he’s hungry — starving, in fact. When an unusual event tempts Lev and his childhood friends into looting a corpse — a crime against the State even in wartime — he’s chucked into a jail cell with Kolya, a handsome soldier, just 20 years old and accused of desertion.

The next morning, a Soviet colonel makes the boys an offer they literally cannot refuse: find a dozen eggs. Lev and Kolya, forced into an uneasy partnership, resign themselves to their fate: eggs or death, with the latter the most likely outcome. They scour the city, and then — driven by desperation — sneak through the blockade to continue their quest behind enemy lines. {more}

You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold. When we slept, if we slept, we dreamed of the feasts we had carelessly eaten seven months earlier — all that buttered bread, the potato dumplings, the sausages — eaten with disregard, swallowing without tasting, leaving great crumbs on our plates, scraps of fat. In June of 1941, before the Germans came, we thought we were poor. But June seemed like paradise by winter. — David Benioff

Deathless - Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless
> Catherynne M. Valente

European fairy tales are populated by wicked witches and evil giants. But Russian folklore has Koschei the Deathless, an immortal man — as elegant as he is evil — who woos and destroys young women.

This imaginative retelling of the legend sets the tale against the dramatic events of the 20th-century: the Russian Revolution, Stalinism, the siege of Leningrad, and the rise of modern Communism.

But that authentic history is sprinkled liberally with magic dust.

As we grow to care about our heroine Marya, we also meet bewitched birds that turn into men, house gnomes known as domovoy, a guardian of the forest named Leshi, the beautiful fairy Vila, and Baba Yaga herself. Desperate for a life filled with romance, Marya trades the reality she knows for the promise of Koschei’s kiss, and she pays a very high price.

The whimsy and poetry of Valente’s prose can make your heart soar — just before it breaks that same heart into bits with dark turns of the tale. As Baba Yaga reminds us, ‘Tscha! Life is like that.’

We loved this book on audio. Voice actor Kim de Blecourt brings the characters to life and the Russian names roll off her tongue like tart-sweet lemon drops. {more}

Just you wait. Papa Koschei is coming, coming, coming, over the hills on his red horse and he’s got bells on his boots and a ring in his pocket and he knows your name, Marya Morevna. — Catherynne M. Valente

A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow
> Amor Towles

We should not like Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov — recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, and Master of the Hunt. He’s rich, prone to quoting literature, and fussy about wine. But the Count will quickly become someone you wish you could know in real life.

But in 1922 Russia, the Count is wildly unpopular with the Communists. He’s a relic of the past, but for political reasons, he can’t be eliminated. So they hide him away in the Metropol Hotel. Sentenced to house arrest in the epitome of luxury, he watches as his world suddenly shrinks to the confines of a small room and then slowly, surprisingly, expands. The hotel becomes a peculiar community of those who can leave, and he, who may not.

The Count eventually forges friendships with the other misfits — a preternaturally self-possessed 9-year-old girl, a taciturn chef, an elegant maître d’ — and all of them are affected in unexpected ways.

The hotel is luxurious, a character in itself, and the plot churns on small moments with devastating impact as the characters do all their living — and in some cases, dying — within the orbit of the Metropol. It’s funny and sweet and devastating, and you will never forget these people and their commitment to life. {more}

For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim. — Amor Towles

Lights All Night Long - Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lights All Night Long
> Lydia Fitzpatrick

A coming-of-age character study and a legit murder mystery, this novel is as entertaining as it is emotionally charged. It will leave you feeling bruised and a bit breathless.

Our hero is 15-year-old Ilya, a gifted student whose aptitude for the English language is about to change his life. His perpetual companion is his brother Vladimir, a few years older and a troubled young man whose love for his brother is as damaging as it is pure.

The brothers divide their time between going online at the Internet Kebab and watching bootleg VHS tapes of American films. Their (fictional) hometown of Berlozhniki in northwestern Russia would be unremarkable were it not for two factors: the shocking, brutal murders of three young women and the oil refinery that dominates the landscape and the lives of the townspeople.

When Ilya is chosen for an exchange program in Louisiana, it seems that the boys’ American dream will come true. But then Vladimir confesses to the girls’ murders and is thrown in jail. Convinced of his brother’s innocence, Ilya commits himself to finding the real murderer. {more}

Ilya had never had faith in anything except that knowledge could be gained. Numbers in a column added up to something. If you stared at a word, if you sounded out the letters and visualized its meaning, it could be learned. And there was Vladimir. Vladimir, who could not be counted on for anything, who was untrustworthy in a million little ways, but who had still managed to inspire Ilya’s faith. — Lydia Fitzpatrick

The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories - Anthony Marra

The Tsar of Love and Techno
> Anthony Marra

This collection of interconnected short stories features remarkable characters, examines big life stuff (family, sacrifice, war, and art), and hinges on a carefully-curated mixtape that travels through time.

The first story is set in Leningrad in 1937. In an unfinished train tunnel, a lone censor removes images of traitors from photographs. The collection ends with a Russian floating in a space capsule — date unknown. As he drifts past Pluto, he listens to a vintage cassette tape.

In between these two tales, we’re taken on a journey through 75 years of Russian history alongside the ordinary, extraordinary people who populate the Russian city of Kirovsk: a prima ballerina, former gulag prisoners, Miss Siberia and Russia’s 14th wealthiest man, contract soldiers, a techno music fanatic, a museum curator.

Charming, biting, humorous, and poignant, these stories are a unique way to understand the broad strokes of Russian history — the early Soviet Union, pre- and post-Communism, Glasnost — through the very human experiences of day-to-day life. {more}

For my first year, I combed the shelves of libraries with the most recently expanded edition of Summary List of Books Excluded from Libraries and the Book Trade Network, searching for images of newly disgraced officials. This should be a librarian’s job, of course, but you can’t trust people who read that much. — Anthony Marra

The Bear and the Nightingale - Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale
> Katherine Arden

The opening of this novel is very promising for those of us who love fairy tales and folklore: an old woman sits in a kitchen in the wildwoods of Russia, telling children the story of Morozko, the Winter King.

The first section of the book reads like a (delightful, easier to manage) Russian novel. Much is happening, and characters are introduced at a rapid pace — and in the middle of it all is a woman who might be a witch. She is definitely royalty, and her husband is the lord of an immense forest, which brings us to another primary character in this adventure: the woods.

This fairy-tale forest is vast and dark and deep. It gives and takes away. People get lost there and are never seen again.

And at the edge of the forest, a daughter is born to the maybe-witch. Her name is Vasya, and as she takes her first breaths, her mother, the maybe-witch, dies. As Vasya grows, she realizes she can see things that other people can’t. Odd things happen to her. She befriends a possibly untrustworthy tree nymph. She meets the river king.

The second half of the book takes a dark turn toward horror. There are ghosts and vampires and unhappy spirits in the night. And the forest. Always the forest, which is growing increasingly hostile and threatens to wipe out all the eye can see.

Ultimately hopeful and endlessly engaging — and a great read for a cold night — this is a story that recognizes we can find a bright warm light when circumstances seem to be at their darkest. {more}

There was a time, not long ago

When flowers grew all year

When days were long

And nights star-strewn

And men lived free from fear — Katherine Arden

Top image courtesy of Random Institute/Unsplash.

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