Five books that make us want to visit Russia, through space and time, from the Russian countryside of the early 19th century to Siberia, via St. Petersburg and Moscow
by Nikolai Gogol
In the Russian Empire of the early 19th century, the word 'soul ' was used to count serfs. Well, the male ones, anyway. Women were perceived to have no soul or value. The number of souls in an estate made it possible to work out its value. The amount of property tax on the property depended on it. But censuses only took place every five years and a number of 'dead souls' continued to populate state registers. The book tells of land credit schemes employed by Chichikov, a crook who takes advantage of the absurdity of the system. At once brilliant, hilarious and ambitious, this book denounces various aspects of humans at their worst.
Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Raskolnikov is a young student. Sadly, he has to give up his studies. His sister is getting married in order to save the family and he decides to kill an old pawnbroker, partly for her money, partly (and this where it gets deep) to test the limits of freedom through the practice of evil and the transgression of the moral order. 'If one day Napoleonhadn'thad the courage to shoot into an unarmed crowd, no-onewould have paid any attention to him and he would have remained an unknown', he said . The crime is perfect but doesn't produce the expected windfall and the moral upheavals lead Raskolnikov to turn himself in and serve his sentence in Siberia.
The Master and Margarita
by Mikail Bulgakov
This is about love, politics and social analysis. And it's also a satirical comedy. And a fairy tale. It's Faust in 1930s Stalinist Moscow. There are a whole host of whimsical characters; the Master, Behemoth the black cat, a giant, headless beings, Pontius Pilate, Hella the impudent witch, Satan and, inevitably, Margarita, who, in order to get back the man she loves, agrees to surrender her soul to the devil. Mikail Bulgakov, struggling with the Stalinist dictatorship, devoted the last twelve years of his life to bringing this novel to life, even though he probably knew it could not be published during his lifetime. But he wrote the famous phrase ' the manuscripts will not burn ' , making this an ode to the freedom of thought. A major book in 20th century Russian literature.
The Gulag Archipelago
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Arrested in 1945 for criticising Stalin's policies in his private correspondence, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in the labour camps - the gulags. He began writing his book as soon as he left the camp. Based not only on his own experience, the book is a mouthpiece for victims of the gulag : it brings together the testimonies of more than 200 of these prisoners. ' This book does not contain any invented characters or events. Men and places are referred to by their real names ', the author explains in the book. It is so true, so strong, that he hesitated for a long time before publishing the book. It was when a manuscript was confiscated by the KGB that he decided to take the plunge. ' For years I resisted publishing this book when it was already finished : duty to the living weighed more heavily than duty to the dead. But now that this book has been seized by state security anyway, there is nothing left for me to do other than publish it without delay '. The book was released abroad in 1973. To say it put the cat among the pigeons, would be an understatement. In bien pensant Western Europe, the book tore the left apart. In the Soviet Union, it was outlawed until 1989. It is now on the list of books studied in Russian high schools, and we think is one of the best books to read before travelling to Russia.
Consolations of the Forest
by Sylvain Tesson
Finally, a less intense book; one about a 21st century French traveller who tells us about his voluntary retirement - six months in a cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal. For company he took a whole pile of books and a goodly supply of vodka. He hunts, he cuts wood. Apart from rare visits by other humans, his Russian ' neighbours ' - the nearest village is more than 60 miles from his small house - or French friends, he is there alone. And time changes him.