Dreams of My Russian Summers
by Andrei Makine
This extraordinary novel won the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis, France's top literary prizes and was a national bestseller. The author was born in Siberia and was granted political asylum in France in 1987. This book reads like a love letter to memory. Beautifully written, all the major events of Russia during the past century are brought to light. A marvelous choice for anyone travelling to Russia.
"One of the great autobiographical books of this century." – Thomas McGonigle, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Absolutely magical … quite simply … beautiful."– Cyril Jones-Kellert, San Diego Union-Tribune
"One day I came upon a photo I should not have seen. …xI was spending my holidays with my grandmother in the town at the edge of the Russian steppe where she had been stranded after the war. A warm, slow summer dusk was drawing in and flooding the rooms with a mauve glow. This somewhat unearthly light fell upon the photos that I was examining before an open window, the oldest snapshots in our albums. The pictures spanned the historic watershed of the 1917 revolution; brought to life the era of the tsars; and, moreover, pierced the iron curtain, which was then almost impenetrable, transporting me at one moment to the precinct of a gothic cathedral and the next into the pathways of a garden where the precise geometry of the plants left me perplexed. I was plunging into our family prehistory." – Dreams of My Russian Summers, Scribner, 1998 edition.
Catherine The Great: Portrait of a Woman
by Robert Massie
Robert Massie has once again written an excellent biography of a fascinating Russian character. Like his other books, Massie forms a deep bond with his subject, this time the young German princess who was betrothed to the heir of the throne. This is the story of how Sophie, renamed Catherine, ends up becoming one of the greatest rulers of history. It is a tale of intrigue, deception, power, love and loss of love. This reads like a novel, and is hard to put down. Massie is a fine writer and never overwhelms with too many details. To go to Russia, and particularly to go to St. Petersburg without reading this biography would be a shame. Catherine, and her surroundings are unforgettable.
"One of the unexpected pleasures of Catherine The Great is the degree to which Massie invites us to identify with his subject." – The New York Times
"… an unforgettable picture of the last woman to rule Russia." – The Telegraph
"(Upon meeting her betrothed for the first time) Sophia (Catherine) later remembered of Peter that 'for the first ten days, he seemed glad to see my mother and me. …xIn that short space of time I became aware that he cared little for the nation over which he was destined to rule, that he remained a convinced Lutheran, did not like his entourage, and was very childish. I kept silent and listened which helped gain his confidence'" – Catherine The Great, Random House, 2011 edition.
by Mikhail Bulgakov
White Guard takes place in Kiev during the Russian Revolution. Bulgakov writes of a once wealthy family, the Turbins, whose lives change dramatically with the Revolution and the times of great uncertainty. The beauty and wonders of Kiev form the background of this novel by a well-regarded writer. And have no fear, the names are easy to keep track of (unlike Tolstoy or Dostoevsky). If you enjoy this book I would recommend his other well-known novel, The Master and Margarita.
"… infused with a passion for the old city and for its people that catches the reader up in its sweeping intensity. …xHis characters have a classic universality that has kept them alive for half a century." – The New York Times Book Review
"… (the author) unfurls great fictional canvases conjuring up the atmosphere and beauty of his beloved Kievx…x." – Newsweek
"Number 13 was a curious building. On the street the Turbins' apartment was on the second floor, but so steep was the hill behind the house that their back door opened directly on to the sloping yard, where the house was brushed and overhung by the branches of the trees growing in the little garden that clung to the hillside. The back-gardens filled up with snow, and the hill turned white until it became one gigantic sugar-loaf. The house acquired a covering like a White general's winter fur cap; on the lower floor (on the street side it was the first floor, whilst at the back, under the Turbins' verandah, it was the basement) the disagreeable Vasily Lisovich – an engineer, a coward and a bourgeois – lit his flickering little yellow lamps, whilst upstairs the Turbins' windows shone brightly and cheerfully." – White Guard, Academy of Chicago Publishers, 1987 edition.
Fathers and Sons
by Ivan Turgenev
Fathers and Sons is one of the great 19th century Russian novels. Although not much happens, Turgenev manages to represent all the ideas flowing through Russian society at the time through his characters and their relationships and conversations. If that sounds dull, it isn't. The ideas are heady and the generations gap profound. Turgenev recognized that Russia must change as it moved into the 20th century, and his ideas angered many in Russia. Russia's current political forces can easily be traced back to the ideas talked about in this novel.
"No fiction writer can be read through with a steadier admiration." – Edmund Wilson
"… Kirsamov, was one of those military ladies who take their full share of the duties and dignities of office. She wore gorgeous caps and rustling silk dresses, in church she was the first to advance to the cross; she talked a great deal in a loud voice, let her children kiss her hand in the morning, and gave them her blessing at night – in fact, she got everything out of life she could." – Fathers and Sons, Dover Publications, 1998 edition.
by Boris Pasternak
Although I haven't mentioned Leo Tolstoy's great masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, these two books along with Dr. Zhivago would fill your suitcase and easily keep you reading for many weeks. I'm assuming all travelers to Russia will be reading some Tolstoy, but perhaps have forgotten how compelling Pasternak is as a writer. I read Dr. Zhivago when I was in high school and, of course, remember best the romance between Yuri and Lara (if you haven't seen the film, do so, but read the book first). Pasternak sets his story during the early part of the 20th century, when the country is in vast upheaval. Although the background is the great turmoil and chaos of history, this is still a personal, character-driver saga.
"The best way to understand Pasternak's achievement in Doctor Zhivago is to see it in terms of this great Russian literary tradition, as a fairy tale, not so much of good and evil as of opposing forces and needs in human destiny and history that can never be reconciled. …x(Zhivago is) a figure who embodies the principle of life itself, the principle that contradicts every abstraction of revolutionary politics." – From the Introduction of Dr. Zhivago by John Bayley
"One of the great books of our time." – The New Yorker
"One day in the summer of 1903, Yura was driving across fields in a two-horse open carriage with his Uncle Nikolai. …xIt was the Feast of the Virgin of Kazan. The harvest was in full swing but, whether because of the feast or because of the midday break, there was not a soul in sight. The half-reaped fields under the glaring sun looked like the half-shorn heads of convicts. Birds were circling overhead. …x'Whose fields are these?' Nikolai Nikolaievich asked Pavel, the publisher's odd-job man who sat sideways on the box, shoulders hunched and legs crossed to show that driving was not his regular job. 'The landlord's or the peasants' ?'" – Dr. Zhivago, Vintage, 2011 edition.