They do get a lot of sun in the summer...
April 29, 2011 12:57 PM   Subscribe

Looking for non-depressing fiction about Russia (any time period). Is there an equivalent to Connie Willis's wonderful Blackout/All Clear?

I'm going to be visiting St. Petersburg and Moscow this summer - yay! - and I want to prepare by reading a lot. I've found old questions that are full of good suggestions for nonfiction (and I plan to take you all up on it), but I'm also looking for something a bit different.

I realize that Russia has had rather a rough go of things, but it's definitely possible to write books about dark periods in history that aren't in themselves depressing. I have a lot of respect for Dostoevsky, but I've had rather a rough last month and I don't think I can handle reading exclusively that sort of thing. I'm looking for something that will give me a strong sense of place (and, ideally, teach me some history), but where the sympathetic characters don't all die in the end. I'm sure there are a lot of such books, but usually you can't tell until you get to the end, and it's hard to tell which ones will be any good.

Time travel is, as always, a bonus :)
posted by you're a kitty! to Travel & Transportation around Russian Federation (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I absolutely LOVED The Dream Life of Sukhanov. Like, imagine I am shaking you emphatically: that is how much I loved this book.
posted by thebazilist at 1:07 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

No time travel, but possibly aliens: Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts. The two reviewers in the link were ambivalent, but I definitely enjoyed it.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 1:07 PM on April 29, 2011

Turgenev's Fathers and Sons was a lot sunnier than I assumed it would be, given that it was a 19th century Russian novel.
posted by dfan at 1:12 PM on April 29, 2011

Michael Moorcock's Byzantium Endures (followed by The Laughter of Carthage, Jerusalem Commands and The Vengeance of Rome - incidentally, not all set in Russia) is pretty good too, although the narrator isn't at all likeable.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 1:13 PM on April 29, 2011

Sergei Lukyanenko's Night Watch is the first of four in the Watch series. Set in modern Russia, with a fantasy twist.
posted by lizbunny at 1:15 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente is a fairy tale set in 20th century Russia. I'm not finished it yet (it just came out the other week), but I am finding it lovely and not a downer at all.
posted by bewilderbeast at 1:18 PM on April 29, 2011

Chekhov's fiction might be a little dark, but his letters are incredible, funny sweet and enlightening. Also a great snapshot of a time and lifestyle in Russia. Might be worth a try. The copy I have is called simply "The Letters of Anton Chekhov".
posted by kris.reiss at 2:21 PM on April 29, 2011

I loved The Twelve Chairs by Il'f & Petrov. It's a pretty fun and funny novel (Mel Brooks actually made a movie based on it), although there's a bit of darkness beneath the surface. Also, the two protagonists travel all over Russia, so there's quite a bit of geography in it.
posted by alittlecloser at 2:46 PM on April 29, 2011

Dark but not depressing -- Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko books are about relatively moderm post-Soviet Union collapse Russia --- Gorky Park being the most well-known. There is a lot of social/historical/cultural commentary in these dectective novels.
posted by rtimmel at 2:54 PM on April 29, 2011

The Russian Debutante's Handbook and others by Gary Shteyngart are quite funny.

I like Pushkin and don't find Gogol particularly depressing. Weird, yes. Depressing no.

I mean, Tolstoy really isn't depressing. War and Peace is pretty uplifting, all in a all.
posted by lalalana at 3:06 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Ilf and Petrov—not only The Twelve Chairs but the sequel, The Little Golden Calf. They're hilarious and full of Russian atmosphere. The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov is a brilliant and thrilling mix of fantasy, history, and Soviet satire; if you like it at all, you'll really love it, and it's a great immersion in Moscow. Here's Anna Shevchenko's "top 10 novels set in Moscow," mostly obvious picks but the descriptions may be useful (and I agree with lalalana that War and Peace isn't depressing). I'm afraid novels set in St. Petersburg tend for whatever reason to be pretty depressing, but if I think of a cheery one I'll let you know!
posted by languagehat at 5:03 PM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

City of Thieves by David Benioff. It's set during the siege of Leningrad during WWII. Darkly comic, becomes a rousing adventure story in parts, and all in all I found it to be a really satisfying read.
posted by Carol O at 7:30 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Bulgakov's The Master & Margarita - IMHO one of the best & most idiosyncratically entertaining novels of all time.

Gogol's Dead Souls is rightly a classic, too. Both of these suggestions are full of dark humour, though, so you'd have to be into that kind of thing.

Oblomov, by Goncharov, is a fun satire of an indolent nobleman doing, well, basically nothing.

Andre├» Makine is more contemporary, and specialises in a kind of rich & delicate nostalgia. Once Upon the River Love is set in Siberia if that counts, & Le Testament fran├žais is another that I really enjoyed.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:03 AM on April 30, 2011

The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin was delightful, and has a sequel.
posted by RedEmma at 7:33 AM on April 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah, Oblomov is wonderful!

Also, I know you asked about fiction, but there are some excellent nonfiction books about SPb that would give you good background for your trip; I particularly recommend W. Bruce Lincoln's Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia (for actual history) and Solomon Volkov's St. Petersburg: A Cultural History (for juicy cultural gossip).
posted by languagehat at 11:31 AM on April 30, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! I'm not going to mark best answers because I won't know which ones I like until I read them, but you've all given me some very promising suggestions.
posted by you're a kitty! at 5:28 PM on May 1, 2011

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