Top Picks: Short Russian Classics

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the pioneers of Russian literature, was born 200 years ago on November 11th. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Russian classics, you're probably aware that many of these books are very long (including Dostoyevsky’s). While I am a reader of all books, I love being able to stick a small book in my bag for reading on the train. For that occasion, here are my top picks of short Russian classics (under 500 pages) in honor of Dostoyevsky’s big birthday.

We will start with the guest of honor himself! Dostoyevsky is best known for Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov but Notes From Underground is one of his most revolutionary and shortest novels. Notes from Underground is about a unnamed narrator who rejects life as he knows it and becomes isolated underground. It is thought to be one of the first existentialist novels.

If you enjoy more bite-sized narratives, consider trying short stories by Russian authors. Nikolai Gogol was a Ukrainian author who lived in Russia and often wrote about Ukrainian serfdom. Because many Ukrainian serfs were illiterate, Gogol's work was often published in Russian. Both Russian and Ukrainian cultures claim him as their own. The Overcoat, and Other Tales of Good and Evil by Nikolai Gogol is an interesting dive into the author's work. The story The Overcoat follows an impoverished clerk who is teased by his coworkers for having a ratty overcoat. The overcoat then becomes a driving force in the clerk's life.

While Leo Tolstoy is most famous for War and Peace, his book The Death of Ivan Ilyich is one of his most well-known novellas. Ivan Ilyich is a man who is indifferent with his life. It's an interesting and sometimes sad examination on the meaning of life, or rather, life without meaning. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is often regarded as one of the best novellas ever written.

Eugene Onegin is a novel in verse, and is thought of as one of the hardest texts to translate. Not only must it be translated from Russian to English, but the translation must maintain the original poetic style. Originally published serially, the novel follows Eugene Onegin and his love interest Tatyana. The story ebbs and flows with comedy, tragedy and even a duel.

The Master and Margarita is the longest book on this list weighing in at a few hundred pages, but it's still shorter than War and Peace! Part of the next generation of Russian authors after Dostoyevsky, author Mikhail Bulgakov, manages to strike a perfect balance between the fantastical and political. It is also the most recent of the books mentioned here, offering a different perspective of Russia.

With winter coming up, make sure to check out Kate's post on Russian Classics: Top Picks for Winter. What are your favorite short(ish) Russian novels?

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