How many modern Russian books have you read or contemporary Russian authors you heard of? Outside Russia its literature is primarily associated with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. Their books are often in top 100 must-read lists. Yet, it’s strange that the riches of Post-Soviet literature don’t spread much to the West as if being stopped by an invisible barrier.
The barrier is called commercial potential.
Literature can be mainstream (entertaining) and intellectual (food for thought mostly) and something in between.
Under “mainstream” I don’t mean just trashy genre fiction, which is as abundant in Russia as everywhere else in the world. I mean solid well-written genre fiction.
Russian literature remains largely literary and intellectual, while the West has moved on – fiction is for pleasure, entertainment.
Literature’s past role in personal development is almost obsolete, it is now a subject of interest to rare enthusiasts and specialists. Serious literature is largely perceived as boring. Therefore, mass culture including fiction becomes increasingly focused on entertainment.
Some of the modern Russian authors have started following the commercial path and became successful in the West. The examples: Boris Akunin (who’s written the Erast Fandorin detective stories) and Sergey Lukyanenko (known for his sci-fi Night Watch tetralogy).
The Russian government has long abandoned its massive promotion of the country’s culture, which was the case in the Soviet times; The Kremlin is now too busy enjoying material pleasures and swimming in oil dollars. It’s now up to us, Russian expats, to inform the international readership about new books coming out from Russia.
Here I have made my top 20 of authors, who, in my opinion, represent the best of the modern Russian literature. Below I give links to English translations of some of their books.
GRISHA’S TOP 20 MODERN RUSSIAN WRITERS
- Victor Pelevin writes eclectic, post-modernistic, multi-layered fiction; modern pop culture hybridised with ancient and esoteric philosophies. Notable works: Omon Ra, The Life of Insects.
- Mikhail Shishkin is known for his superb literary style, depth and complexity; notable works include Maidenhair and Letter Book.
- Yuri Mamleev is known for his metaphysical realism, the concept of “eternal” Russia. Evgeny Gorny says about him: “It seems sometimes as if critics avoid his writings merely out of a sense of self-preservation”. The Sublimes is considered the most terrifying novel of the past century..
- Zakhar Prilepin writes in the realism genre and has been compared to Leo Tolstoy by critics. Notable works: Sankya, Sin.
- Mariam Petrosyan is a graphic designer who wrote a sleeper bestseller, a parable about an orphanage for disabled children. “The House That is a remarkable work. It’s a door leading to that new literature we all have been waiting for.” – Dmitry Bykov. Yet to be translated into English.
- Tatiana Tolstaya is a publicist, writer and TV persona, she’s known for her exquisitely written short stories and the dystopian novel The Slynx.
- Pavel Sanaev is a writer and film-maker focused on the social constructs of the modern Russian society. Best known for his novel Bury Me Behind the Molding, which was made into a feature film. Yet to be translated into English.
- Andrey Rubanov is an ex-banker and now a prolific author (releases two novels a year), he first got into the spotlight for his autobiographical psychological novel Do Time Get Time, a story set in a Russian prison. He’s definitely one to watch.
- Mikhail Elizarov is known for scandalous but intellectual high-energy prose, sometimes compared to Vladimir Sorokin. Notable works: Pasternak, The Librarian. Yet to be translated into English.
- Alexei Ivanov is an author of speculative and historical fiction, one of the best Russian storytellers. His novels are often being made into films, which is a sure indication of the appeal to wider audiences. Notable works: The Heart of Parma, The Geographer Who Swapped an Earth Globe for Booze (French translation). Yet to be translated into English.
- Sergey Lukyanenko may be viewed as a follower of Brothers Strugatsky and Stanislaw Lem, he is an author of intellectual science fiction and fantasy. Best known for his Night Watch series.
- Boris Akunin (real name – Grigory Tchkhartishvili) is the most successful Russian writer on the international market, the author of mystery and detective novels, which boast a combination of great plots and a masterful writing style. Notable works: Pelagia series and Erast Fandorin series.
- Mikhail Gigolashvili is a Georgian-born writer, known for social prose and dark humor. Works of Dostoevsky are his major influence. Notable work: The Devil’s Wheel. Yet to be translated into English.
- Alexander Terekhov is known for the unique writing style, phantasmagoria and satire. Notable works: The Stone Bridge, The Rat Killer.
- Vladimir Makanin is a master of literary fiction; psychological dissection of Russian soul. Notable works: Asan, Escape Hatch.
- Vladimir Sorokin is one of the most scandalous Russian authors known for often shocking stories with sexually explicit/deviant, sadistic/violent and sharp political content. Literary extremism and conceptualism. Notable works include Ice and Day of The Oprichnik.
- Dmitri Bykov is a phenomenal polymath acting as a journalist-publicist, TV persona, school teacher, political activist, playwright, fiction author and poet. He’s authored the biographies of Russian poets Okudzhava and Pasternak. His bestselling novels include Orthography, Ostromov and Living Souls.
- Ludmila Ulitskaya is an ex-geneticist, the author of bestselling novels covering various periods of the recent Soviet history, some of them were adapted into films. Notable works – Medea and Her Children, Daniel Stein and The Funeral party.
- Tatiana Moskvina is a theatre and film critic, the author of Death is All Men and Shame and Purity. The latter is my favorite contemporary Russian novel. Yet to be translated into English.
- Sergei Samsonov is a rising star of the Russian literary fiction; notable works – Oxygen’s Limit and The Kamlayev Anomaly. Yet to be translated into English.
This top 20 is my personal choice and, of course, a reflection of my reading scope. As you can see the majority of the authors’ books mentioned have not even been translated into English so far. Translators, hello!!!!
If you think of more worthy writers, which need to be added to this list, please leave a comment. I hope this list will help you to navigate through the less-explored ocean of the new Russian literature.
update: The Reader’s Mini Guide to Modern Russian Books is out now on Amazon Kindle/paperback here.