The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (Book)
Best for: Understanding the Russian mentality; Russian humor; the feelings of Russians regarding Communism and religion
It’s difficult to explain what this book is about without sounding mildly insane: it’s about Communist Russia, Jesus, and a group of bandits including a talking cat that terrorizes Moscow. There’s also a beautiful love story and a lot of subtext discussing the meaning of life. The bottom line is that this cult book is one of the most iconic in recent Russian literary history; it’s hilarious; it’s touching, meaningful and absorbing; and if you visit Moscow, I highly recommend reading it and then visiting the place where the famous opening scene takes place. The best part about the book is its lightheartedness: while it touches on a lot of serious topics, it allows you to discover Russian mentality and the experience of Communist Russia from a humorous, magical-realism kind of perspective.
The Sea Gull by Anton Chekhov (Play)
Best for: A peek into Russian life; Russian tragedy
I’ve never met anyone that didn’t like this beautiful, touching, short play by Chekhov. The story takes place at a countryside lakehouse, and is largely about the complicated interactions between a small group of oddly related people. Covering such complex topics as life, death, love and heartbreak, the story is highly relatable and engaging. It can take a while to understand who all the characters are and how they all know each other, but in the end, it’s more than worth it. Personally, I just ripped out the front page with the cast of characters on it and kept it beside me while reading the play.
The Bronze Horseman by Alexander Pushkin (Poem)
Best for: Russian poetry; visitors to St. Petersburg
Pushkin is widely regarded as the greatest Russian poet of all time, and his poetry is an essential part of the Russian school curriculum (and as a result, of Russian culture in general). Pushkin is also known as the founder of modern Russian literature, and of course is famous for his penchant for getting into duels. This poem is the reason that the statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg is called the Bronze Horseman. It’s considered to be Pushkin’s most successful narrative poem. It recounts Peter the Great’s founding of St. Petersburg and elaborates on a tragic love story that takes place in front of the watchful, somewhat sinister eyes of the Bronze Horseman statue and along the famous Neva River.
God Sees the Truth, But Waits by Leo Tolstoy (Short Story)
Best for: Russian classics; Russian literature; Russian religious views
Tolstoy is one of Russia’s most famous authors and a controversial historical figure. He is widely known for having founded his own philosophy and even his own anti-religion; his works are difficult, uncomfortable, unorthodox but highly interesting and rewarding. He is considered one of the world’s greatest novelists and is responsible for the famous Russian novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina. For a gentler introduction to his writing, however, I suggest this short story about a man convicted for a crime he did not commit. This theme also appears in War and Peace and will give you a good understanding of Tolstoy’s thinking, beliefs and style.