Deep Dives: The Golden Age of Russian literature

In the first of a new series, Josh Smith takes a deep dive into the Russian Golden Age of literature

Josh Smith
17th February 2021
The 19th century of Russian literature gets called the Golden Age. While England had Byron and Dickens and France had Hugo and Dumas, Russia went their own direction from Western Europe, as they often have — a darker, more ambitious route. This will be a spoiler-free tour of this Golden Age, a scratch and sniff sample of what lies within this era and why I love it.

First, Leo Tolstoy, the author of everyone’s favourite doorstopper, War and Peace, as well as Anna Karenina and numerous other works. War and Peace draws from Tolstoy's unique experiences in upper-class society and as an officer in the Crimean War, following around 500 characters, building as comprehensive a picture of life itself as possible. In both the Austenian domestic scenes and graphic warfare, issues of bravery, luck, romance, religion and wealth clash within expertly crafted plots. If 1,300 pages feels too much of a commitment, Anna Karenina’s 820 pages may be more appealing. It is a story about the darkest underbellies of human romance, yet miraculously never moralises the reader or characters. It is a gripping read, with the same force as War & Peace. Even more attractive of a starting point would be his short stories: The Raid’s 34 pages tell an autobiographical account of a man descending from bravery to disillusion on the battlefield; A Spark Neglected Burns the House’s 20 pages capture the religious thought behind much of his longer novels in a bite-sized chunk.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, my personal favourite, has four novels which carry the same seed of inspiration, as if all written on the same day: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons and The Brothers Karamazov. They all take vastly complex characters, put them under a hydraulic press and watch what pours out of their heads. Guilt and power form the basis of most of this brain-mush, with Dostoevsky exploring social crimes, familial crimes and crimes too awful to discuss in an article. Religion also forms a large part of the mess, as well as desire, ambition and philosophy. All four novels have the dramatic mastery which makes them impossible to close and the uncanniness which makes reading them excitingly eerie.

Nikolai Gogol, thankfully, never wrote doorstoppers. He did, however, write “the greatest Russian short story ever written”, according to Vladimir Nabokov (and me), The Overcoat, as well as dozens of other masterpieces. The Overcoat is the closest an author has gotten to the absurdity and vividness of a dream without descending into incoherent plots or unreadable Poundian lines. In the interest of leaving this masterpiece spoiler-free, I will leave the rest to your curiosity. My other favourite Gogol stories are The Nose, a story of a man’s nose running away and becoming more successful than him, and Diary of a Madman, a first-person descent from “October 3rd” to “April 43rd” to “No date. The day didn’t have one”. Gogol is weird, entertaining and his work is mostly readable in one sitting — what more could you want?

Well, if you do want more, here are some places to look. Alexander Pushkin is the Russian Goethe, one of the best known poets, authors and playwrights of the era. Similarly, the name Anton Chekhov may ring a bell, whether from his brilliant work or from creative writing books all milking the ‘Chekhov’s gun’ principle. Ivan Turgenev is also a good place to look for prose. Beyond the 19th century, the typical Golden Age classification, these big names become fewer and fewer, partially from Soviet censorship. Nonetheless, some authors were able to slip through the cracks and carry the torch of Russian literature, like the father of dystopian fiction, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and the notorious yet loved Vladimir Nabokov.

The Russian Golden Age gave us a more ambitious and darker side of literature than their Victorian or French neighbours. The adventures of Dumas or the laughs of Dickens have their own appeal, yet we often feel like reading something darker and more introspective. Regardless of whether you want a Tolstoyal doorstopper, a Dostoevskian bowl of brain-mush or the absurdity of Gogol, you will be glad that you went down the rabbit hole.

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