Despite being written in the late 19th century, works of Russian realism which fixated on psychological analysis, introspection, dark side of human nature and timeless philosophical and existential questions today remain as relevant as ever, if not even more. During the ‘’Golden era of Russian literature’’, names such as Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov appeared seemingly out of thin air and took over the world of literature by storm. Globally recognized for their deep and complex portrayal of Russia, its culture, history and people, realists provided a unique and intricate insight into the East and its ‘’Russian soul’’(‘’Русская душа’’, term popularized by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy).
Nevertheless, topics such as role of an individual in a society and relationship between religion, people and ideologies were (are) global rather than exclusively Russian issues. Combination of these motifs which resonated with humans of all nationalities, races and religions with, until then, very mysterious cultural identity of Russia is what eventually pushed these masterpieces over the borders of Eastern Europe into the world, made them synonyms for intelligent literature and ensured immortality to their creators.
1. Crime and punishment, Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, 1855-1856.
(Преступление и наказание, Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский)
Despite being the most famous literary work whose main motif is murder, Crime and Punishment focuses quite lightly on the murder itself. Rather than offering gory depictions of homicide, Dostoevsky places all importance on the punishment of Rodion Raskolnikov, the murderer and former law student. Filled with haunting nightmares, paranoia and inner struggles, the real punishment of Raskolnikov is not imprisonment, but his own mind and conscious. What was initially a crime caused by poverty and belief in his own Napoleon-like nature eventually ended up consuming Rodion, even though murdering the old pawnbroker brought him much needed financial stability. Despite the obsessive acts of charity he conducted with the newly acquired money and persistent rationalization of his crime, nothing Raskolnikov did could silence his consciouss. Written with a master-like knowledge of the darkest side of human nature, Crime and Punishment offers an incredibly moving and personal insight into the mind of a man haunted by radical ideas and eventually, guilt.
2. Fathers and Sons, Ivan S. Turgenev, 1862.
(Отцы и дети, Ива́н Серге́евич Турге́нев)
Accentuating the divide between two generations, Fathers and Sons is considered to be the first modern novel in Russia, as well as the first work by a Russian writer to gain significant following and praise in the West. Situated in 1830s/1840s, this novel deals with the gap between the traditionalist liberals of older generation, represented by fathers of two main characters, and nihilist ideology adopted by protagonists Bazarov and Kirsanov. Massively popularizing the term nihilism, Fathers and Sons tells a timeless story of a clash of generations, old versus new and consequences ideas and ideologies can have on interpersonal relationships.
3. The Mother, Maxim Gorky, 1906.
(Мать, Макси́м Го́рький)
Vocal supporter of Russian revolutionism, Maxim Gorky used revolution only as a background for his literary work ‘’Mother’’; unconditional love mother has for her son is the main theme. The protagonist, Pelageya Vlasova is a single mother whose drunkard husband abandoned her; she works in a factory doing hard manual labour in order to provide for herself and her only son Pavel. Pelageya becomes concerned when she notices elements of troubled behavior in Pavel, such as heavy drinking and aggressiveness. However, one day Pavel comes home with piles of books and changes his ways, completely immersing himself into revolutionary activities from that day. Uneducated and illiterate, Pelageya is wary at first regarding her son’s revolutionary spirit. Yet, motivated by her maternal feelings and love for her son, Pelageya herself becomes a part of revolution. Even though clearly political at times, ‘’Mother’’ remains a one of a kind ode to mothers in the Russian realist literary movement.
4. War and Peace, Lev N. Tolstoy, 1863-1869.
(Война и миръ, Лев Никола́евич Толсто́й)
Work that took Tolstoy six years to complete can only be rivaled in monumentality and complexity by Dostoevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers. Written in a period right before Napoleon’s invasion on Russia, and during the invasion, Tolstoy questions not exactly war, but rather history itself. Who makes history, what is the relevance of an individual when history is seemingly written by few key individuals, and finally what makes a man go to war. According to Tolstoy, those “guided only by the personal interests of the day”, such as going to war to avoid marriage or money problems, are the key figures of history, not Napoleon or Tzar Alexander.
“Man lives consciously for himself, but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achievement of historical, universally human goals. An action once committed is irrevocable, and its effect, coinciding in time with millions of actions of the people, acquires historical significance.” (Page 605)
He condemns those who go to war for any reason other than patriotism, which is the case with most characters of War and Peace, and most people in general according to Tolstoy. Yet, the writer also questions our lives in peace; what it takes for a man to be happy, what morals are necessary for a society and individual to strive both in time of war and peace.
5. Oblomov, Ivan A. Goncharov, 1859.
(Обломов, Ива́н Алекса́ндрович Гончаро́в)
A novel that has irreversibly imprinted itself in the Russian history, Oblomov is a story of a slothish, indecisive and melancholic nobleman. Satirizing Russian nobility and aristocracy of the time, Goncharov’s protagonist Ilya Oblomov has a hard time arranging a wedding with a woman he’s in love with as it would require of him to get out of bed. As all opportunities in life pass him by due to his phlegmatic nature, he ends up marrying an elderly widow only so she would cook, clean and take care of him while he spends most of his time doing nothing. Eventually, the writer states Oblomov died from ”oblomovism”, and his biggest dream to sleep forever finally came true. Term ”oblomovism” (oбломовщина) has established itself since in Russian vocabulary, and is often used as a synonym for extreme passiveness and laziness.
6. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, 1880.
(Братья Карамазовы, Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский)
Last piece written by Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov is an extensive novel that deals with topics of modern Russia, Christian morals and ethics, alienation and doubt. It’s noted for the development of two thesis throughout the novel by two characters whose attitudes towards religion are opposite; Rational Ivan Karamazov and highly spiritual hermit Zosima both present constrasting, yet valid opinions with both of their rhethorics having weak points in which they break. Most notable discussions regarding philosophy and religion are found in the third part of the novel, while second part has the most elements of a thriller as it deals mostly with the murder of Fyodor Karamazov. Many ideas and theories about human psychology, spirituality, purpose and true nature are being discussed throughout the novel from various points of view, which is one of the reasons why it has achieved a cult-like status. Praised as brilliant by the likes of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, The Brothers Karamazov is truly a timeless and undeniably mind provoking work of art.
7. Anna Karenina, Lev N. Tolstoy, 1877.
(Анна Каренина, Лев Никола́евич Толсто́й)
‘’Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’’ (Page 1)
Starting with what might the most famous book quote of all times, Anna Karenina is a novel that is considered by many to be the crown jewel of Russian realism. Divided in eight parts, this novel was praised as ”flawless” by literary giants such as Dostoevsky, Nabokov and William Faulkner. Dealing with topics such as love, gender roles, feudalism, possessiveness, jealousy, religion, passion and hypocrisy, moral of the story is delivered through the tragic destiny of the protagonist Anna Karenina. A woman on an emotional and psychological crossroad, torn between her love for a child and a man, disillusioned by condemnation of society and her own paranoia and jealousy, Anna ends her life out of despair. Deeply thoughtful and opinionated, Tolstoy’s ”first novel” as he considered it, cast a light on double standards regarding gender, love and sexuality, while dealing with a number of political and interpersonal topics.