October is an important month for Russia, especially if you’re a communist! ‘The October Revolution’ which began in St. Petersburg on October 25, 1917 (O.S.), under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, moved Peter the Great’s Tsarist capital in St. Petersburg back to the original capital of the Russian state: Moscow. Spurred on by the philosophies of Karl Marx, the politically-motivated Bolsheviks who yearned for a more egalitarian society fought to overthrow the decadent lifestyle of the Tsars and aristocrats. Hence the Soviet Union was born. However, what many expected to become a healthier, more wholesome state, in reality became a reign of terror for the next several decades.
Russia’s history, with Moscow at its pinnacle, is dramatic. Many great novels have been written in various genres, which capture the injustices, the hardships, the societal expectations, the corrupt elements, and the heroism that can be found throughout its history. Now with the war in Ukraine, the saga continues; a history of power struggle is being written as we read.
Below are a few great novels that capture the essence of Moscow before, during, and after the Soviet years. Reading any of these works will bring the reader a deeper understanding of defining world events under the shadow of this powerful nation, and what it means to be Russian.
War and Peace. One of Russia’s greatest novelists, whose works have been read and revered all over the world, is Leo Tolstoy. His epic novel War and Peace is set in both St. Petersburg and Moscow during the Napoleonic Era. It’s a bit difficult to keep up with all the characters since there are so many, and when not using nicknames and abbreviations for his characters, Tolstoy employs the usual complicated names of Russians from that era such as Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky. The grand societal topics of the title, in contrast with the individual lives of characters living through youth, marriage, age, and death, are relevant in some way to anyone. The writing is deep, rich and profoundly human. It broke many of the conventions of the time to the point that it was at first not considered a novel, but today it stands as one of the most celebrated classics.
Anna Karenina. Anna Karenina is another of Tolstoy’s novels that features a Muscovite setting. Anna Karenina was Tolstoy’s first attempt at a European-style novel, and he succeeded in impressing now only Fyodor Dostoyevski who called it “flawless,” but also American Nobel Laureate William Faulkner and our most popular contemporary book club influencer: Oprah Winfrey. This novel tells the story of a young woman who leaves a passionless marriage for an ill-fated affair with a dashing officer. Her story is set against the backdrop of 19th century Russia, both metropolitan and rural, with all of its cultural values and social mores on display.
Moscow During the Soviet Years:
Dr. Zhivago. If you’re more interested in the years of the revolution and its aftermath, you might like reading Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. This epic story is a romance set against the backdrop of the revolution in St. Petersburg and various locations in Moscow and beyond. The drama and terror of the revolution and the havoc it wreaked on individual lives is masterfully told by this able storyteller. It’s a sad story, but then so are many, real and fictitious, set in this place and time.
A Gentleman in Moscow. I picked up this book a few years ago and within the first chapter it became one of my favorites. Author Amor Towles lived for a time in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow where this book is set, as he researched and wrote the novel. I have to say that this novel has a decisively non-Russian tone. Perhaps the American background of the author tinted the story away from a Muscovite mood. It’s witty, optimistic, and humorous with a type of British luxury to it. But the subject matter is distinctly Russian, right down to the details of the writing of the Soviet Constitution in the same hotel, and the pilgrimmages of citizens to the tomb of Lenin.
Post Soviet Moscow:
Wolves Eat Dogs (Arkady Renko #5). Soviet villains have so often captured the imagination of Americans that novels featuring them have become a much loved genre of their own. Few authors have become more successful at writing about sinister plots in Russia than Martin Cruz Smith, whose Arkady Renko series features no less than ten novels. His fifth novel in the series is set in post-Soviet Moscow where Renko struggles to survive in the transforming nation. It isn’t long before he realizes that a Russia without communism is no less dangerous.
The Deceit of Riches. This debut novel by American author V M Karren reads like a thriller but contains a lesson on Russian culture and politics. So true it is to the mood and culture of Russia that one might expect the author to be Russian-born. Karren did live in Russia in the mid-1990s and experienced many harrowing things there: his phone lines tapped by former KGB, run-ins with local mafia, and a friendship with an undercover American spy. His story corroborates the fact established by Cruz Smith–that Post-Soviet Russia was still as corrupt and dangerous as Lenin’s. Little wonder that these experiences made it into this novel, which Karren admits is difficult to make a division between what is a true story and what is made up. The fictitious part, he says, is what would have happened had he not left Russia when he sensed the danger mounting.