Winston Churchill said, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
Figuring out what to read on a 1000 mile cruise that extends from Moscow to St. Peterburg is also a puzzle. Russia has produced some of the great literature of the world. Here are a few of the usual suspects:
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The 19th century author of The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment.
- Leo Tolstoy: More massive novels in the form of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. (For an interesting take on Tolstoy, check out this New Yorker article on how and why Tolstoy learned to play tennis and ride a bike late in life.
- Anton Checkhov, who is said to have invented the short story, but is better known for his plays Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, and The Cherry Orchard.
- Ivan Turgenev, author of Fathers and Sons.
Alexander Pushkin, a poet and author of Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin (probably best known for their operatic versions), who was so revered
that the Tsar’s Village outside of St. Petersburg, where Catherine Palace stands, was renamed Pushkin. The drama in verse, Boris Godunov, would pair well with the village of Uglich, where Ivan the Terrible’s younger son Dmitry was murdered at 8 years of age in 1591, most likely at the order of his foster father, Godunov. The Church of St. Dmitry on the Blood was built in late 17th century on the spot where his body was found. His epic poem, “The Bronze Horseman” describes the iconic sculpture of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. (A possible pairing is the romantic trilogy set in World War II, Paullina Simons’ The Bronze Horseman.)
- Nobel-Prize winning Boris Pasternak, whose Doctor Zhivago couples romance and Russian Revolution and became a glorious film in 1966 with its haunting “Lara’s Theme” music. Those of us of a certain age recall Omar Sharif in the title role with Julie Christie as his love interest.
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn chronicled the life of prisoners in Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
- Nikolai Gogol, whose absurdist satirical stories such as “The Nose” pokes fun at bureaucracy.
- Mikhail Bulgakov continues the tradition of satire in The Master and Margarita. Imagine that the devil comes to Moscow.
Some of the chronicles of Russian history are equally well-written and well-known, particularly Robert K. Massie’s popular Nicholas and Alexandra that describes the last days of the last Tsar. He returns to this subject in The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. He turned to an earlier tsar in Peter the Great. His Catherine the Great is yet another meticulously researched tome on the unlikely woman who survived a disastrous marriage to imbecilic Tsar Peter III and went on to serve as Russia’s longest-ruling woman (1762-1796). Catherine II was known for her intelligence, her devotion to Russia—although Prussian, she learned Russian quickly and loved her adopted country—and the cultural advances she brought to a country considered backward. More infamously, she was also known for her sexual liaisons.
Readers, I chose titles other than these that allowed me to read several books over the course of ten days in country, novels that also correlated to the journey. But, first, a look at the geography covered on this trip.
One of Russia’s great challenges has been its lack of sea access. As early as the 18th century, Peter the Great—who was truly a visionary—envisioned a series of waterways connecting St. Petersburg, which he founded on the Gulf of Finland, to Moscow. The realization of the Volga-Baltic Waterway did not happen until the 1930s when Stalin used Gulag forced-labor prisoners to dig 80 miles for the Moscow Canal. Today’s passengers on the popular cruise from the two cities that have alternated as capital pass through 11 locks. “Mother Volga” at 2,000 miles is Europe’s longest river.
The “Golden Ring” cities visited along the cruise are Russia’s oldest towns,
home to important cathedrals and kremlins (fortresses).
An article in The Guardian pointed out that the “masters” of Russian literature still top the list of Russian literature. Part of the reason fewer contemporary writers are mentioned is the fact that until glasnost—and even after—fear exists about what literature is sanctioned by the government. Writers are notorious for taking on injustices, which may not fit party lines. Boris Akunin, the pen name of a political activist, is also the author of two series of detective novels. The first features Erast Fandorin, a wet-behind-the-ears police investigator, who is introduced in The Winter Garden. Erast’s family lost its fortune through his father’s card playing, but his native intelligence, eager beaver attitude, and indestructible luck quickly make him a star. There is a bit of James Bond about him as he travels from Moscow to London and St. Petersburg. Moscow is featured with its 12th century fortress—the Kremlin—literally a collection of government and church buildings inside a wall with the stunning St. Basil’s outside.
At one point, Erast calls another character “as fresh as a Yaroslavl cucumber.” I read that line the night before our stop in Yaroslavl; a village 14 kilometers away is famous for its cucumbers and its pickles, which are kept over the winter under the ice. And, I got to sample some of them at the town’s lively market.
The second sleuth, Sister Pelagia of the early 20th century, is a cross between Miss Marple and Father Brown. Her role as a gymnastics teacher stands her in good stead when she goes under cover to solve a mystery as she does in Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk (2008). It’s a perfect pairing for the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery that looks more like a fortress in its lovely setting on White Lake, near Kuzino.
From a nun’s story to a bodice ripper. Rebel Princess (1953, 2015) by Evelyn Anthony is the first of a trilogy that focuses on the woman who would become Catherine the Great. It’s a quick and lively read that recounts incident after incident when her life was in danger—reminiscent of the story of another monumental leader in world history, Elizabeth I. It was Catherine the Great, one of the most prolific art collectors of history, who started the amazing collection at The Hermitage—the name associated with five buildings, including the Winter Palace—in St. Petersburg on the shores of the Neva River.
By the way, the extraordinary collection of Impressionism and post-Impressionism paintings, which came out of the vaults in 1995, are now housed separately in a wonderfully remodeled General Staff Building across Art Square from The Hermitage.
Speaking of The Hermitage, its cats are famous—about 50 felines who protect the works of art from mice and rats—introduced by Catherine the Great, who ordered the fierce Kazan mousers. The Day of the Cat is celebrated May 21, and visitors are allowed into the cellars to meet the feline stars. The Hermitage Cats features both real and artistic cats in its pages. In 2016, the museum also put on display illustrated books of the genre “How the Mice Buried the Cat,” a folkloric story of the clever wife of a recently-deceased Tomcat who has no funds for a funeral and thus invites mice to host it.
An aside: The Russian alphabet is also celebrated annually in May. A bit of a challenge with its 33 letters, some of them adopted from Greek and Hebrew, it’s useful to know as it’s helpful in recognizing words such as Россия, which is Russia.
From cats to dogs: for younger readers, the graphic novel Laika by Nick Abadzis tells the story of the street dog made famous as the first astronaut. It would pair well with a visit to Moscow’s Cosmonaut Museum.
The list of Russian notables has notable gaps in women writers. An exception is the 2015 Nobel Prize winning Svetlana Alexievich, whose works are being translated into English, including Secondhand Time. She takes what might be recognized as a Studs Terkel approach, interviewing people and then weaving a narrative from their voices.
Books set in Russia abound, as its puzzling nature and closed society have made it an intriguing setting. John Steinbeck with photographer Robert Capa produced A Russian Journal (1948). John Le Carre set many spy novels during the Cold War as did Ian Fleming, and Martin Cruz Smith’s detective Arkady Renko is featured in several novels, including Gorky Park. It’s a huge country with an equally impressive list of literary choices.