It's been 100 years since Russia’s February and October Revolutions. To mark their centenary, Vintage Classics has published new 2017 paperback editions of six of the greatest works of Russian literature, from War and Peace to Life and Fate. The covers have been beautifully designed by Suzanne Dean using textile patterns from the collection of Susan Meller, who founded The Design Library in New York.
What better moment, then, to read the work of these giants of Western fiction? The Vintage team book club will be reading them throughout the year, and has put together a guide to help you get started, too.
War and Peace
Which Russian classic to read first? Start with the Daddy, the Don, the heavyweight that looms over all Russian literature – War and Peace. And don’t be daunted by its size - it’s incredibly readable, even page-turning.
So no more excuses: if you doubt your attention will hold, treat it like a series of short stories about the same varied cast of characters. If you’re worried you’ll get mixed up with the long Russian names, photocopy the list of principal characters that appears at the start of the new Vintage edition and use it as a bookmark. If you’re bored or bewildered by the ups and downs of the Russian military campaign, don’t panic, be mesmerised by the magnetic General Kutusov, and a few pages later you’ll be back in the domestic sphere of the Rostovs or enmeshed in the romantic entanglements of Pierre or Andrei.
War and Peace is rich, wise, constantly surprising, heart-breaking and hugely rewarding. When you reach the end, you’ll be amazed by how much you'll want to begin all over again.
Anna Karenina is not just about Anna Karenina. Her story – romantic, desperate, tragic – is twinned with the seemingly more prosaic life story of Konstantin Levin. Like Pierre in War and Peace, Levin is an awkward, lovable character, born into comfort but nonetheless uncomfortable, searching for a meaningful way to live his life.
In contrast to the many difficult or failed marriages depicted in the novel, Levin marries the woman he loves, and their union is a happy one. But, this being Tolstoy, there is no ‘happily ever after’ – even contentment isn’t a straightforward state of mind. The difficulty of living day to day, even if your days aren’t wracked by guilt, depression or unrequited love, is powerfully, thrillingly evoked.
Crime and Punishment
As War is to Peace, so Crime is to Punishment. Or so learns Rodion Raskolnikov, the impoverished student of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great existential thriller.
After bludgeoning to death the elderly neighbourhood money-lender and her half-sister with an axe and fleeing the scene of the botched crime undetected, salvation offers itself in an encounter with the prostitute Sonya - but not soon enough, as the detective Porfiry arrives on the scene, intent on pinning the grizzly murders on Raskolnikov.
The novel was written after Dostoevsky’s own ten-year exile in Siberia, and the isolation of that period certainly shines through in his writing. Violent, trembling and claustrophobic, Crime and Punishment is suffused with the sense of how it feels to live in the shadows of morality, all the while holding on to an enduring belief in humanity.
Doctor Zhivago was almost never published. Censored by the USSR, the manuscript was smuggled into Italy, where it was published by Feltrinelli in 1957. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year.
If you think you know the plot from the film, think again. Lara and Yuri Zhivago's is one of the greatest love stories ever written, but Doctor Zhivago is about more than this relationship. As vast as the country at its heart, Pasternak’s portrayal of what it means to put your nation before yourself, and before others, serves as the strongest of reminders that personal liberty is not to be taken lightly.
The Master and Margarita
When Satan arrives in 1930s Moscow, he brings with him a league of misfits that includes his mistress, the witch Hella, and a black cat with an unwholesome taste for vodka. Hellbent on terrorising the elite of the city, they announce their visit in theatrical outbursts of song, sudden deaths and expanding dimensions.
Intersected with the story of Pontius Pilate, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is striking not only for its imaginative scope, but also its disavowal of Realism, overthrown in favour of a carnivalesque satire intended to gouge away the respectable, atheistic façade of Russian society.
This book was a long time in the making; after several maddening false starts, Bulgakov finally finished writing the novel in 1940, 12 years after he began it. But it was very much worth it - since its first publication in 1967 The Master and Margarita has gained a huge cult following, and been hailed as a classic of Russian and twentieth century literature.
Life and Fate
Vasily Grossman’s epic, the sequel to his book For a Just Cause, takes us to Russia’s more recent history - the 1940s, when Stalingrad is under siege from the Nazis and ethnic cleansing is rife.
Viktor Shtrum, the brilliant nuclear physicist at the heart of the novel, is based on Grossman himself; one of the most moving passages of the novel is that in which Shtrum learns from a letter that his mother has been killed in the Holocaust in Ukraine, just as Grossman learned of his own mother's death.
Perhaps the least known of the novels in the collection, Life and Fate is a sweeping portrait of a family navigating the political and social turmoil of twentieth century Russia.