Hot off the Shelf – Russian Literature from Past to Present

Russia has a formidable reputation for its literary output. Names such as Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Alexander Pushkin are famous all over the world and their works are considered to be all-time classics. Unsurprisingly, Russians have traditionally been keen readers, leading outsiders to dub the country “a reading nation.” Today, the most popular books in Russia are detective stories, romances, and fantasy novels, and sales of children’s books are on the rise. It is clear that Russia has a rich literary history – here’s a look at writers from past to present.

The Golden Age of Russian Literature

The “Golden Era” refers to literature written in the 19th century. This is a period when both prose and poetry flourished in Russia. Novels such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace by Tolstoy and Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky are some of the most famous works written during the period. A new generation of poets also blossomed, and the period is often referred to as the “Age of Pushkin” after Alexander Pushkin, who is widely considered to be the finest Russian poet. Mikhail Lermontov, Yevgeny Baratynsky and Fyodor Tyutchev were also prominent poets of the Golden Era.

20th Century Writers

The beginning of the 20th century is called the “Silver Age” and famous figures include poets Maxim Gorky, Anna Akhmatova, and Boris Pasternak – author of the well-known Doctor Zhivago. During the latter half of the 20th century, poetry became a mass cultural phenomenon in Russia, with poets such as Bella Akhmadulina and Robert Rozhdestvensky reading their poems aloud in stadiums and attracting huge crowds. For modern Western readers, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita are familiar names, and have helped to renew Western interest in Russian literature.

What’s hot off the shelf today?

Despite the downturn in reading habits over the last 20 years, reading is still a popular pastime in Russia and there are numerous high-profile book prizes and awards which recognize contemporary writers. On the shortlist for this year’s “The Big Book” prize (the most influential award in mainstream prose) are some of Russia’s most highly-regarded novelists, including Zakhar Prilepin, Svetlana Aleksiyevich, and Vladimir Sharov. A common thread running through the book nominations is that they are all long, complex, and raise questions about the fundamental issues of life. Because of this, it has been suggested that literature is seeing a return of the traditional Russian novel.

Despite the declining number of Russian readers, it appears that modern Russian literature is gaining greater exposure in the West. For instance, the Moscow-based Read Russia project, founded in 2012, is a new initiative aiming to celebrate Russian literature and to bring new authors to a wider international audience. A big part of this lies in supporting English-language translation and the publication of Russian works abroad. It is possible that a renewed enthusiasm for Russian literature from foreign readers will reignite interest in authors’ native country.