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Daniel Kalder's 10 favorites of Russian fiction

Partly inspired by his recent piece on Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, partly in honor of the recent chill in Russian-American foreign relations, partly so I could recommend his intriguing post-Soviet travel narratives Strange Telescopes and Lost Cosmonaut, partly because F.D. Reeve's passing is still floating around the psychic swamps, and partly just for the hell of it, I recently asked travel writer and anti-tourist Daniel Kalder to supply me with a list of his top-five Russian novels from both the 19th and 20th centuries, and he thoughtfully included a story collection as well as a 21st-century text (I, too, am one of those people who "loves Gogol" but has never read Dead Souls, and I probably would have included Babel, Chekhov, and Shalamov even if asked for novels).

Here is what Kalder sent to L.U.S.K.:

In no particular order and with no claim to finality, these are the books that came into my head the day I was asked. They’re all good, but I can’t say I would pick exactly the same ones if I were asked on a different day after a better night’s sleep:

19th Century
1) The Devils (or The Possessed), Feodor Dostoevsky.

I could probably fill an entire 19th century list with books by Dostoevsky, but I shall attempt to branch out. This novel is an exceptional study of terror and political extremism in 19th century Russia, and Dostoevsky’s insights into human evil and perversion are as apposite today as they ever were. Also: it’s funny.
2) Petersburg Stories, Nikolai Gogol

Not exactly a novel, but some of these stories are quite long at least. Divine lunacy, fantastical grotesques, plus a bit of satire, all written by a man who- legend has it- was buried alive. I’ve read his novel Dead Souls, but it was years ago and in a horrible translation… I’ll revisit it one day.
3) Notes from Underground, Feodor Dostoevsky

Actually let’s do Dostoevsky again. A slim novella featuring a very nasty protagonist, celebrated for its penetrating exploration of man’s irrational and self-destructive impulses. If more politicians, journalists and think-tank parasites read this, then they would understand the human species better and our public discourse would be much less asinine.
4) Anna Karenina, Lev Tolstoy

I recognize Tolstoy’s greatness--who doesn’t? But I’m definitely more of a Russian grotesque- fantastical kind of reader. At the same time, this book constantly astounds with its perpetual stream of psychological insights, and for that I can forgive the now very dated waffly bits about agriculture, serfdom, etc.
5) Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov

The Russian 19th century canon is pretty much established and although Oblomov is certainly not better than War and Peace I mention it here because of its uniqueness, specifically in regard to the author’s 50-odd page description of the stupendously lazy hero’s epic struggle to move from his bed to a chair. After that you can stop reading--it’s downhill all the way.
20th Century

1) Soul, Andrei Platonov

Soul tells the tale of a man who returns to his tribe in the wastelands of Soviet Turkmenistan after receiving an education in Moscow. He wants to lead them to happiness and the bright communist future. Unspeakable suffering ensues as the tribe wanders in the desert starving and dying. Remarkably, Platonov was a believing communist- or at least he tried to be one.
2) Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman

Epic doorstopper about Stalingrad, written by a Soviet war correspondent who was present at and who was also among the first to write about Hitler’s mass executions of Jews in Europe. Highly critical of Stalin, the Soviet state confiscated it and Grossman never saw it published in his lifetime. It also has interesting reflections on science--Grossman was a trained scientist. More authors should know about science. It’s important, after all.
3) Cancer Ward, Aleksandr Solzhenitysn

Solzhenitsyn is pretty unfashionable these days, but I found this book very affecting when I read it some years ago, and it was still powerful when I read it again a few years after that. Solzhenitsyn’s reputation as anti-Sovet warhorse no doubt leads a lot of people to expect didactic political hectoring in his novels, but in Cancer Ward he views the regime through the eyes of its foes, supporters and fellow travelers alike, and it is a gripping, human story about illness besides.



4) The Letter Killer’s Club, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Few people have heard of Krzhizhanovsky, not least because he only ever published one story in his life or something ridiculous like that. This is the strange tale of a society of storytellers who vow not to write down their bizarre narratives but only relate them to each other orally at the meetings of a secret society in Moscow. It’s strange, philosophical and very good.

5) The Ice Trilogy, Vladimir Sorokin
Post-Soviet literature took a decade or so to really get in gear, and this book is the work of a once underground author who started his career in the 80s, but became very famous in the 21st century. I am cheating here as The Ice Trilogy was written this century, but I feel it is my duty to mention it as it’s a unique and deranged concoction mixing 20th century history, SF tropes and apocalyptic theology in a blend that may or may not make sense, and I’m not persuaded that it ultimately matters either way.       
(Back to L.U.S.K.) 
At a glance, I've read his first three from the nineteenth century, and they'd all get strong consideration for my own list, and then I've always wanted to read his next two (and I've hardly read any Tolstoy at all, I must confess), and although I've even taken a college course in 20th Century Soviet Literature, I've only read one of his listed authors (you guessed it, Solzhenitsyn) and none of the specific books. Kalder's published books, Lost Cosmonaut: Observations of an Anti-Tourist and Strange Telescopes: Following the Apocalypse from Moscow to Siberia take us through post-Soviet Russia, and some of the absurdity he chances upon, from Siberian traffic-cop Messiahs to architecture that could pass for a sci-fi film set, would ring quite true to fans of Gogol and many other Russian writers. 

"What," you scream at your screen, "No Olesha or Biely?"

Well, you're welcome to submit some favorites of your own. 

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