July 01, 2020

Books to Read During the Great Pause

Books to Read During the Great Pause
Menshikov in Berezovo Vasily Surikov (1888)

For this issue, rather than review recent publications (of which there have been few), we asked our editors, advisors, and frequent contributors to share a Russian literary work they felt was particularly apt to read during The Great Pause. Is there a work from the Russian canon you have re-read in this time and want to share? Visit this post online and then share your reading via Facebook.

The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

Translated by Judith Hemschemeyer
Edited by Roberta Reeder

For Akhmatova, everything mattered. Her rival in a nightclub. To emigrate or stay. A city with a history, a landscape, and a rejected poet. Another poet, his body alive in his writing. And “Requiem,” the poems of witness – a mother’s witness – to a government turning on its people. Akhmatova’s urgency, in her spirited everyday vocabulary, are just what we need right now.

– Joan Neuberger



Nature’s Diary,

The Sun’s Storehouse
Mikhail Prishvin

During the lockdown in Moscow, nature became the hottest commodity. The mayor ordered that all parks be closed, in some cases welding their gates shut. Walking through a forest became a subversive activity. But it’s still possible to read about nature, and Mikhail Prishvin delivers it in his sometimes naive and sometimes whimsical tales about watching the seasons change or picking cranberries in a dark and dangerous swamp. To many Russians, Prishvin is a literary simpleton, whose stories were required reading in schools. In fact, his nature writings were a disguise: Prishvin considered his diary to be his true life’s work. For decades, he secretly used it to document his views on politics and current events. He often said he would be arrested and killed if his diaries went public. It is something to contemplate as you subversively traipse through the woods with the author, while obediently self-isolating in your house.

– Maria Antonova



Classic Russian Cooking: Elena Molokhovets’ A Gift to Young Housewives

Translated by Joyce Toomre

During the quarantine, cooking has become a pastime even for those who rarely ventured into the kitchen before. This activity puts me in mind of Elena Molokhovets’ classic nineteenth-century cookbook, which during the ingredient-scarce Soviet era became a symbol of all that had been lost. Her book remains a great escape into Russian culinary culture.

– Darra Goldstein



Battle Near Madabalhan, Mongolia

Fyodor Svarovsky
Translated by Peter Golub

The characters in Svarovsky’s works eat rats, get left behind on the moon, get blown up by mines with their past loves. Svarovsky intentionally uses the most clichéd apocalyptic themes, deconstructing them and employing extreme situations to intensify emotions. “Battle Near Madabalhan” and “Mongolia” feature robots and endless solitude. They make for ideal reading in this pandemic era, when we all feel like we have been dropped into a science fiction film we watched long ago.

– Natalia Beskhlebnaya



Feast in Time of Plague

Aleksandr Pushkin

This is the final play of Pushkin’s cycle of Little Tragedies. Stranded at his estate in Boldino by the cholera epidemic of 1830, he wrote a short verse play which poses a question relevant for our current pandemic: trapped in a circle of death, which is more courageous, to revel or to repent? The crisis breaks, but a resolution does not occur.

– Michael Katz




Mikhail Lermontov

Aside from being a revered classic of Russian poetry, it talks about the eternal unrest of a human soul...

– Yuliya Ballou



Hadji Murad

Lev Tolstoy

At the end of his life, and in secret, Tolstoy put himself into the artistic mode he had been in while writing War and Peace. Tolstoy met the actual Murad in the early 1850s. Fascinated by the energy and integrity of this Chechen warrior, Tolstoy infuses this short novel, published posthumously, with the utmost seriousness and intensity as he imagines Murad’s last days.

—Bob Blaisdell




Guzel Yakhina
Translated by Lisa C. Hayden

Russian literature is filled with evidence that – within the arc of human history – what we (at least most of us) are experiencing today isn’t uniquely awful. This beautifully written and translated novel, involving a fabulous cast of characters thrown together in Siberian exile by fate and Comrade Stalin, is loosely based on the experiences of the author’s grandmother. Excerpted in the May/June 2019 issue of Russian Life, it reminds us that adversity sometimes brings unexpected blessings.

– Nora Seligman Favorov



Sandro of Chegem

Fazil Iskander
Translated by Susan Brownsberger

When it seems as if the world has gone crazy, nothing offers more relief than a good book. And at times like this it is best to read intelligent and wise authors. This is a truly picaresque novel, a wonderful classic of the genre. The character Sandro – his charm, aristocratic mien, and his firm belief that everything will end badly sooner or later – somehow raises us above the vanity of our world. His respect for nature, for his ancestral homeland (Georgia), and for family, is the best defense in our times. And of course no one has invented a better vaccine than humor.

– Darya Grebenshchikova



Dead Souls

Nikolai Gogol
Translated by Bernard Guilbert Guerney

In agreement with Darya Greben-shchikova, I feel that laughter is the best medicine during these difficult times. There are few works of Russian lit that can make me laugh out loud. Yet Dead Souls is definitely one of them, and it does it every time I return to it, even if only dipping in for a quick taste of Gogol’s delightfully dark mixture of satire, absurdity, and social commentary.

 – Paul Richardson


The End. Or just the beginning?

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