Tips for Reading Classic Russian Literature

When I read my first Russian classic, I didn’t know anything about Russian literature. I just had been told that The Brothers Karamazov was a must read and was the favorite of some people I knew at the time. So I just dove right into that novel. Unfortunately, I found myself quickly getting confused with names and getting bogged down with the book. I ended up setting it aside and not coming back to finish it until probably a good year later. Since that time, I have gone on to read more Russian literature; and I’ve learned a few things that have helped me enjoy it more. Here are just a few tips I’ve learned from my experience reading the handful of novels I’ve read so far.

*My small but growing collection of classic Russian literature*

*Keep a Character List.*

As weird as it might sound, when I started reading The Brothers Karamazov, the confusion of the names really detracted from my reading experience. When reading Russian literature, know that a character will likely have multiple names. Keep a character list. Grab an index card or a notebook or even a post-it note that you can stick in the front of the book. Each time a character is introduced, write down their name. As you continue to read, write down each different name a character is given. Then refer to that list as often as needed as you continue to read. Eventually, you will probably get used to who is who with all their different names and not need the list. But until then, that character list you make will be invaluable!

*Expect philosophical-type tangents.*

I think there has been at least one philosophical-type tangent (usually more than one!) in every book I’ve read. If that is not your thing, then you can quickly read over it and move on with the story. If it is, you can deep dive into the author’s view(s) that is being expressed as a way to enhance the reading of the book and learn more about the author and/or characters, events, etc. in the book.

*A lot of these novels are very layered and complex.*

I have found that all the Russian novels I’ve read so far are very somber, deep, and contemplative. This makes them very layered and complex. I wouldn’t go into reading them expecting a typical happily-ever-after story. Because they are layered and complex, because they are deep and contemplative, Russian novels lend themselves to multiple readings. In fact, I venture to say that they require multiple readings to really grasp all that the novels contain.

*Annotate. And annotate some more.*

If you follow me on Instagram, then you know I am a fan of annotating books. I love my book darts, and post-it notes…my different colored pens and my little notebooks. I won’t go into a gushing of my love of annotation right now. Aren’t you glad? LOL But I will say, that annotating a book really helps me engage even more with it. Do I annotate every single book I read? No. But these deep, contemplative classics? They are perfect candidates for annotation. I think I will do a post soon on how I annotate books. But for the purposes of this post, I’ll share just a couple of things you can annotate. I would keep it simple starting out.

  • Characters – This is separate from your character list. Choose one color of a book dart or post-it of choice. You can mark a variety of things from introduction of new characters to character development to things you want to remember about characters.
  • Historical events and references – This comes in especially handy if you like to research and deep dive into things mentioned in the book. But this is also handy to mark if the book is set in an historical time or if certain events in history happen as part of the backdrop of the story.
  • Things that stand out – This really is just a general annotation where you use a book dart or sticky tab of some sort and mark anything that stands out to you and things you want to remember.

There is so much more you can annotate. But I’ll save that for a different post. In the meantime, these three above are a great starting place.

*Keep a notebook.*

If you don’t like using sticky tabs or post-its in your books, keeping a small notebook is a perfect option. One of our local stores has these small notebooks that are very inexpensive (less than $1) and I find them to be perfect for this! Even though I annotate, I still sometimes keep a small notebook for additional notes and things I want to write down. Here is a sample from my notebook for Anna Karenina:

And here is a sample from a different type of notebook I started keeping at one point with War and Peace. I found a statement to write down for each chapter I read or for whatever the reading was for that day (in other words, if I read several chapters that day, I still just picked one statement unless several stood out to me) and wrote them in a notebook. I actually enjoyed this and found that it helped me engage even more with the book.

*Start with a short work.*

As I mentioned before, my first Russian novel I read was The Brothers Karamazov. A friend told me later on that I really picked a hard book to start with. Leave it to me to do that! LOL Because my reading experience with The Brothers Karamazov wasn’t the greatest, it kind of put me off wanting to read any more Russian literature. Finally a LONG time after that, I attempted a short story by Chekhov and found that I really liked it! I also found myself wishing I had started with that first. I thought, if I had started with a shorter work like that first, it would have most likely panned out to be a much better reading experience. There are a number of short works you can choose from. I have only read a handful of short stories by Chekhov so far. But I have a copy of A Dog’s Heart by Bulgakov on my shelf that I really want to get to!

I hope that these handful of tips I’ve learned from my own reading of Russian literature is helpful. Are there any other tips you have found helpful?

11 thoughts on “Tips for Reading Classic Russian Literature

  1. Interesting to read about your experiences and I loved seeing your notebooks!!

    It was an epiphany for me when I learned that eastern cultures love to use hyperbole to express themselves and emphasize points. Suddenly the high Russian drama that I almost distrusted became clearer when I saw that it was being employed for communication and everyone wasn’t actually unbalanced, lol!

    I’m longing to get to Heart of a Dog too! And it’s short. Have you read his The Master and Margarita?

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    • Thanks for sharing that Cleo! I didn’t know that! I will note that down.

      I have not read The Master and Margarita. It seems like it’s been all over Bookstagram as of late. Have you read it? If so, what did you think?
      I really would like to fit in A Dog’s Heart before the end of the year. Like you mentioned, it’s short. So maybe I can get it squeezed in at some point. If not, maybe in the new year!

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        • I may have to add it to my TBR. I’m not in the mood for bizarre right now after a month of reading classic gothic stories, a modern gothic novel, and a post-apocalyptic book. Ha! Whew! And I’m getting ready to dive into a re-read of War and Peace……

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  3. Pingback: Tips for Reading Classic Russian Literature – Jackanori, (MPD)

  4. LOVE Russian Literature and the looks I get when I say that! The first book I lost my mind over was War & Peace and it’s snowballed from there. Once I got a book with a list of characters and ALL their names…life got so much easier.

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