One of my earliest blog entries was a list of my favorite Russian authors from the 19th Century, called Great Russian Authors. I have been surprised to see that this list has consistently been one of my top viewed posts, and the only one from my first year of blogging that maintains any attention. Thus, there seems to be a fair amount of interest from the book blogging community and others to learn more about Russian Literature. Because I am such a big fan, I am eager to share it with anyone who is intrigued by it as well. So now I would like to follow up and offer you a list of the great Russian authors from the 20th Century:
1. Mikhail Bulgakov (1891 - 1940)
Early in his career life, Bulgakov discovered his great passion and affinity for writing. He quickly abandoned his other pursuits and took on some high profile positions as a critic and a playwright. However, he generated a lot of backlash for his writing, and many of his works were censored and banned. His freedom was increasingly restricted, and in frustration he wrote his brilliant, biting satire, The Master and Marguerita, in the last years of his life. Yet because of its daring content, it wasn't published until 26 years after his death.
2. Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918 - 2008)
Perhaps the embodiment of 20th Century Russian literature, Solzhenitsyn revealed to the world the corrupt and violent nature of Soviet Russia. In 1945, he was sent to a Siberian labor camp for writing derogatory comments about Stalin in a letter. The 8 years he was imprisoned had a profound impact on his life and writing. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich spread through the West like wildfire, but it was just the beginning. In addition to many fictional pieces, he wrote countless articles and essays that have carried an immense impact on intellectual society. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970, but he was exiled and stripped of his Russian citizenship until 1990.
3. Anna Akhmatova (1889 - 1966)
One of the few prominent female authors in her generation, Akhmatova is most renowned for her poetry. It is said that the women in Russia showered her with support and admiration, and the men were likewise complimentary. Yet after a period of notoriety, her work was banned and denounced in the 1920s. Although she escaped arrest, many of her friends were exiled and sent to labor camps. Her ex-husband was executed and her son was imprisoned. Nevertheless, she refused to leave her home country and continued writing poetry. As the years continued, the themes of her poems evolved from romance and beauty to suffering and lamentation.
4. Boris Pasternak (1890 - 1960)
Leo Tolstoy was actually a close friend of the Pasternak family, and his influence is embedded throughout Boris's life and writing. However, Pasternak's style is entirely his own; his perspective on the Bolshevik Revolution is brilliant, cutting, and totally unique. Despite great risk and suffering, Pasternak refused to leave Russia during the tumult. His name was added and removed from execution lists during the Great Purge. When Pasternak published Dr. Zhivago in 1956, he knew he was taking an enormous risk. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958, angry threats and demonstrations broke out in the Soviet Union. Because he would be refused re-entry if he left, he had to decline the acceptance of the award in Stockholm.
5. Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Nabokov was born into great wealth and privilege. However, his family had to flee Russia and his father was ultimately murdered in 1922, a tragedy that irrevocably shook his life and later writing. Most of his early work was poetry, and he moved to the USA to work as a college professor in 1940. It was during his years in the US that he wrote Lolita, his most famous and enduring piece of work. With its success, he moved back to Europe and devoted himself to writing, though he was never able to surpass its literary acclaim.
6. Ayn Rand (1905-1982)
This may surprise you, but I want to add Rand to this list. She was born and raised in Russia, though she eventually became an American citizen and did all of her writing in the United States. She is a fabulously brilliant and inventive author, and her work was dedicated to philosophical reasoning and satire. Her first novel, We the Living, is the only one set in Russia with an overt message about her native land. However, her devotion to individualism, capitalism, and rationalism were undoubtedly affected by her years in the restrictive Soviet state. The Fountainhead is my current favorite of her works, but I still have much more to read.
7. Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996)
Yet another Nobel Prize winner, Brodsky is most known for his poetry and essays. It kind of amazes me how many of these Russian authors were awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature during such a prohibitive regime. During his time in Russia, Brodsky was interrogated, thrown into mental institutions, arrested, sent to labor camp, and ultimately exiled. Today he is one of the most celebrated Russian poets, and he was mentored by Akhmatova. One poem I recommend was written in English near the end of his life, called "Bosnia Tune."
Though I truly believe that the 19th Century was the Golden Age of Russian Literature, the authors I have listed are also brilliant and extremely praiseworthy. It is important to note that many of these writers produced their work in a time of strict censorship and at the risk of severe punishment. They are also highly influenced by the Russian authors who preceded them, and they frequently allude to 19th century literature in their work.
If you are aware of another 20th century Russian author whom you believe deserves to be included in this list, please let me know in the comments! I would be thrilled to learn of another author and happy to give you credit for the suggestion.