What to Read When You’re in Russia


Russia is a great place to read. There are hours on the train to St. Petersburg (where, once, a middle-aged bunkmate in a dirty undershirt informed me that he had played Eugene Onegin on the stage); days on the trans-Siberian railroad; lonely afternoons in cafes; mornings at the swimming pool cafeteria after the intense heat and cold of the banya, when I was too exhausted to go out into the city so I instead I waited, drank black tea, ate soup, and read constructivist fairy tales.

And then of course there are the books. Literature has traditionally played an important role under repressive authoritarian systems. Will this abate in the age of Twitter? For now, set against the bright shopping lights of New Arbat, Moscow’s big, gray, Soviet-era Dom Knigi (“House of the Book”) retains a special reverence for the written word. Up a set of worn stone steps, the second floor’s English-language literature section is weighted heavily and unabashedly towards the classics—both Russian and international. Browsing the shelves is like looking through a syllabus for a life. It offers a retreat into the golden age of world literature.

There are myriad other books to read when you go to Russia—The Gulag Archipelago, Hope Against Hope, Lenin’s Tomb, to name just a few—that may or may not be in stock at the House of the Book. Still, you will always find something good to read. Every time I’m in Moscow, heading towards Dom Knigi’s drab cube, I feel a lightness in my heart—and when I’ve walked out, it’s with a very heavy bag of books. Below are just a few of my favorites.


Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
This book, in addition to being really beautiful, literally makes your skin crawl. The first time I read it, before I had been to Russia, the descriptions of St. Petersburg induced such a strong craving for black bread and pickles that I went to Safeway and bought some. Like War and Peace, this is a great book—one you can sink your teeth into, then read over and over again.


Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Be sure not to get the newest translation (by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). Once you’ve ordered a beat-up older translation, dig in for a trip that spans decades and nearly the length of Russia for a look at how politics and fate shape destinies.


Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
This dark, funny book is about a brilliant Soviet scientist who discovers how to transplant a street dog’s heart into the body of a man. Unfortunately, he soon discovers this was not such a great idea, as the former street dog rises through the ranks of Soviet society and denounces the scientist to the secret police. If you’re not in the mood to take on (the also wonderful) The Master and Margarita, try this slighter tome.


The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov
This short book is also dark but hilarious, a treatise on the follies of ambition, bureaucracy, and blind faith in progress that ends up with nearly everyone involved being eaten by giant snakes—only an unexpected cold snap prevents Moscow from suffering the same fate.


Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov
Oblomov is an aristocrat who prefers to stay in bed, something I’d guess many writers can relate to. He would make decisions if he could work up the energy to do so, but he can’t, so he loses the woman he loves (among other things) out of sheer laziness. Despite the fact that I am not a nineteenth-century Russian estate owner, I found this book eminently relatable (in fact, I am writing this entire list in bed).


The Overcoat and Other Stories by Nikolai Gogol
Gogol makes you feel like you are inhabiting the world he describes. The desperate striving of a poor clerk for a new overcoat somehow feels totally contemporary, and the other stories in this collection do, too.


At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie
I devoured every Miss Marple and Inspector Poirot story available at Dom Knigi, but this was a favorite. Maybe it’s the description of the scones and seed cakes served in the hotel lobby? Or Miss Marple’s unfailing derring-do? The nearly all-female cast? I wouldn’t have come across these detective stories on my own, but once I found them at Dom Knigi, it was better than binging a Netflix series. (Side note: I discovered some of my favorite Agatha Christie stories in Odessa, where an English language bookstore sold bootleg copies printed in St. Petersburg. They were sometimes clearly not written by Agatha Christie at all, but they followed the formula, were seemingly inexhaustible, and only cost about two dollars each!)


Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome
I had never heard of turn-of-the-last-century British humorist Jerome K. Jerome, but he is all over Russia. And, he is hilarious. If you ever find yourself thinking our era is unique, or that we are funnier than our forbearers, read this account of a bicycle trip through Germany. (Three Men in a Boat is pretty funny, too.)


Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
These beautiful short stories from 1920s Moscow include a man whose tiny room in a communal apartment grows so big, thanks to a mystical ointment, that he gets lost in it, alongside other surreal, and yet so-real, tales.


There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
These are creepy and cool contemporary fairy tales that really stay with you.


The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin
I love all of the Fandorin books, contemporary tales that revolve around a stylized nineteenth-century Moscow detective who, I firmly believe, understands women better than just about any other literary hero out there. These books are fun, and it’s clear Akunin loves literature. Start with the first one—The Winter Queen—and go from there.


War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Rereading this book as an adult, I couldn’t get over how much fun it was—every character, no matter how minor, lives securely in a universe of his or her own. This book is a joy to read.


And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Sally’s debut novel, Moscow at Midnight, available now from Contraband! (Keep an eye out for a Rumpus exclusive excerpt from the book next Thursday, 7/19!) – Ed.

Moscow at Midnight by Sally McGrane
Downsized by the CIA, Max Rushmore is hired by a private contractor—operating on a tightened budget in a world of ratcheting tensions—to return to Moscow and investigate the death of a beautiful nuclear waste disposal expert. But Max, whose non-transferable skills include never having met a Russian he couldn’t drink under the table, soon uncovers all sorts of inconsistencies: could it be that she is not dead at all? So begins a game of cat-and-mouse that takes the agent across Russia as he follows his only clue: a rare Siberian diamond.

Sally McGrane was born in Berkeley, CA, and lives in Berlin. She writes about culture, business, science, art and technology in Russia, Ukraine, and Western Europe for the New York Times and the New Yorker. Moscow at Midnight is her first novel. More from this author →