Unless you grew up with it (and even then), Russian literature is often shrouded in mystery, intrigue and intimidation. “Have you read any of the Russian greats?” one might ask with a sense of deference. “Why yes, actually,” you answer. “I’ve even begun to read Russian books in Russian.”
Beyond bragging rights, reading books in your target language is an excellent way to immerse yourself and gain a deeper cultural understanding of the people who speak the language. But don’t worry — it’s not expected (or even advisable) to begin with a formidable tome like War and Peace. And if the sight of Dostoyevsky’s name written in Cyrillic letters is enough to make you shudder, have no fear. His unusual approach to the Russian language is not one that many consider helpful to language learners.
Here are five of our recommended Russian books for language learners, curated with the help of Babbel’s language experts. And don’t worry — there’s something in here for everyone.
Сказка о рыбаке и рыбке (The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish)
The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish is the story of an old man, an old woman, a magical golden fish and the foibles of human greed. This classic poem by Alexander Pushkin is simple enough for children to read, but also complex enough for adults to appreciate. Beyond being manageable for beginners, this 1800s fairy tale written in verse is an excellent introduction to Russia’s poet laureate (and arguably most beloved author). Pushkin is thought to be the de facto father of the modern Russian language, and it’s precisely because he elevated everyday, colloquial Russian by making it a fixture of the literary canon.
Дама с собачкой (The Lady with the Dog)
For intermediate students, The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov is a short story that’s easy to read and understand, especially compared to the challenging texts of some Russian classics. This story (written in 1899, and also one of Chekhov’s most famous) involves a love affair between two married people on vacation in the Crimean sea resort of Yalta.
Иностранка (A Foreign Woman)
Sergei Dovlatov worked as a journalist and writer in the Soviet Union, but after a period of intense harassment by the authorities, he emigrated to the United States in 1978. A Foreign Woman, written in 1986, is Dovlatov’s homage to the Soviet immigrants living in New York in the 1980s. Our language experts recommend this novel for intermediate students thanks to its short sentences and vivid dialogue.
Стилист (The Stylist)
Alexandra Marinina is one of the best-selling contemporary Russian authors of detective stories. In The Stylist, she tells the story of Anastasia Kamenskaya, an officer with the Criminal Investigation Department who leads the investigation of a serial murder. This book is ideal for intermediate students, as well as those interested in Russian literature that’s a bit more of-the-moment (this book was published in 2015). It also provides a great opportunity to dive into the everyday life of different social classes in Russia.
Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago)
You didn’t think we would end without a classic, did you? For the more advanced student, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is a good nut to crack: it’s not so old that you’ll stumble over archaic words (it was published in 1957), but it’s got a long, complicated plot that makes it challenging to follow even for native Russian speakers. Plus, it’s got that whole “historical importance” thing going for it. Doctor Zhivago is the quintessential literary masterpiece of Soviet-era Russia. It was actually banned in the USSR, and so it had to be published in Italy. Pasternak earned the Nobel Prize in Literature the following year.