Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Among the many Russian literature classics, all worthwhile, Crime and Punishment stands out. This is true mostly because the reader can so easily relate to the insights into the Russian love affair with suffering and despair, but also because its protagonist is one that readers of any culture find hard to love, but too shocking to ignore. It chronicles the mental anguish of a young student who commits an unspeakable crime; how he attempts to justify his crime; and how, at last, he finds the way to end his suffering over it.
Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov
The author of this book spent 17 years in Stalin’s gulag camps, oft forgotten in the history of the Soviet Union. Estimates of how many died in the Kolyma camps range from 500,000 – 3,000,000. It’s almost a shame to call his work fiction, for everything is based on what he saw, experienced, and heard first-hand from others. This collection of short stories is a gut-wrenching, matter-of-fact account of the misery and suffering of these exiled prisoners. Yet, there are flashing moments of humanity that illustrate the warmth and depth of the Russian soul.
Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Considered an all-time must-read classic in Russia, this novel rarely makes it onto the reading list of foreigners – which is unfortunate! This strange and unique tale mixes religion and culture in a way that, yes, you will not be able to make heads or tails of on the first read – but try reading it a few times and discussing passages with your new Russian colleagues and acquaintances. You will see that it is an invaluable tool for conversation starters and deep discussions and insights into the Russian mind.
Russka: The Novel Of Russia by Edward Rutherfurd
Many have hailed this as Rutherfurd’s best work. It draws you in and opens Russia to you in an engaging way, as you start in prehistoric times to follow two families’ adventures, ups and downs in a number of chapters set over the centuries. Gaining insight into Russian history and the Russian mind-set is an unexpected perk.
In Russka, Rutherford brings history to life in a way his other books (Sarum and London) can’t rival. Besides telling a good story with engaging characters, Russka shows how major historical events affected the lives of individuals, and how human desires and frailties shaped history. Rutherford doesn’t write about “the Bolshevik Revolution” or “consumer good shortages during the Soviet era”, but you learn about them through his characters’ experiences.
The Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin
This book is arguably the most popular of the great “Erast Fandorin” series. If you read one of the 12 books published to date, this should be it. The series follows the adventures of a late 19th-century detective, and is the only example of the modern literature trend for detective novels in Russia that is (at least partially) available in English translation. In this particular episode, set during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877, Erast Fandorin must discover who is the Turkish spy among the midst of their battalions, all while repeatedly rescuing the beautiful (but engaged) Varvara Suvorova.
Alaska: A Novel by James A. Michener
Geographically, Alaska is separated from Russia merely by a dateline. In the winter you could (theoretically) walk across the iced-over Bering Strait. Historically, Alaska and Russia are equally close, if not closer. This is a favorite read, because the early chapters so capture the essence of the Russian Siberian experience: the trappers, orthodox priests and merchants who set out to conquer Alaska for Czar Peter I and his heirs. It vividly illustrates the harshness of climate, the dogged determination, the battle between nomadic shamanism and religious orthodoxy; all in the rugged and wild Aleutians – an extension of Siberia and the Russian Far East.
Abramovich: The Billionaire from Nowhere by Dominic Midgley and Chris Hutchins
What makes a Russian oligarch tick? This masterfully researched book catalogues Roman Abramovich’s rise from nowhere to the football-club-owning oligarch he is today. Tales of expensive hobbies are intermingled with those of his role in developing one of Russia’s poorest regions, Chukotka. It is tabloid journalism – but eminently readable. And it brings to life this fascinating man who is otherwise so austere, distant and tightly controlled.
Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power by Virginia Rounding
This well-researched book tells the story of one of the most remarkable women in history. A minor Prussian princess is betrothed to a nincompoop Russian Prince. When his mother dies and he assumes the throne, his wife engineers a coup d’état and in 1762 assumes the throne of Russia, which she rules for 34 years until her death. Her accomplishments during those years are spectacular: wars fought and won, Russia re-orientated from Asia to Europe, borders extended, and expansion of education and the arts. At the same time, her bedroom exploits with lovers/political advisors became legendary around Europe. The book provides a balanced look at Catherine, chronicling her strengths, as well as her weaknesses.
Peter the Great by Robert K. Massie
This is an elegantly-written work, which not only provides abundant and overflowing information about this great man, but brings him to life in his world of late 17th- and early 18th-century Russia. This is a storyteller’s book, not a dry history. Considering Peter the Great’s role in Russian history, and that he founded the city that has brought forth so many of Russia’s current political and business elite, it is good reading to inspire many a conversation.
Russia’s Empires. Their Rise and Fall: From Prehistory to Putin by Philip Longworth
This book puts Russia’s tumultuous history in perspective, and is refreshingly objective on the Putin era. You may not be given the key to the Russian soul, but you will have a better understanding of what drives this people as they strive to define their country’s role in the 21st Century. This history book stands out among the numerous such books on Russia, and is a must-read for its accessible style and lively turn of phrase.
Fodor’s Guide to Moscow
Lets you feel like a Muscovite, exploring corners of the city that you have never seen. Helps you wander off the beaten track, and find order within this disorganized and chaotic, edgy city. Particularly good information on the many churches that survived Soviet disdain for religion and remain in the center, having been restored from the orphanages, libraries, and museums they previously housed.
Lonely Planet Guide to Russia & Belarus
Concise history and lists of things to do and places to see. Invaluable for first-time and seasoned visitors to Moscow. Available by Chapter from the Lonely Planet site http://shop.lonelyplanet.com/
From Nyet to Da: Understanding the New Russia by Yale Richmond
An engaging book that answers the question – “why do Russian people act like/do/think that?” and explains common faux pas committed by foreigners unknowingly. Written primarily to help business people engage in successful negotiations in Russia, this book is a must-read for anyone planning to spend some time in the country. Interspersed with true and entertaining anecdotes about cultural misunderstandings, it is both enjoyable and eminently educational.
The Rough Guide Russian Dictionary and Phrase-Book
This is the most practical of the many Russian phrase-books you will come across. The first 50 pages gives you numbers, days of the week, time, etc., and a 20 minute course in Russian grammar, presented very simply. For instance, it presents a handful of common verbs and their conjugations. The rest of the book is split between an English-Russian dictionary (130 pages), a Russian-English dictionary (70 pages), and a 20-page menu reader. What makes the English-Russian dictionary pages unique, though, is that most every other page (at least) has dialogue boxes relating to the most useful word(s) on that particular page. For instance, when you thumb through the book for the word “live,” you get the word itself, but also the phrases “I live in…” and “Where do you live.”