Despite being the largest country on the planet, as well as one of the most powerful, most of us know little about Russia and particularly its language. While we may remember some French, German or Spanish from school, Russian, with its 33-character Cyrillic alphabet, is a lot more alien to the majority of Brits. This is despite the language having 145 million native speakers and another 110 million who speak it as a second language.
Since 2010, June 6th has been known as Russian Language Day. The event was set up by the UN to celebrate one of the six working languages within the organisation (the others are English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic).
If learning a little bit of Russian seems too much for you to take on, a gentle and enjoyable way to get an introduction to Russia’s way with words is to explore some books originally written in the language. Here are three celebrated writers from the country:
1. Alexander Pushkin
June 6th wasn’t a date pulled out of a hat for Russian Language Day; it was chosen because Alexander Pushkin was born on that day in 1799.
Widely considered the forefather of modern Russian literature, Moscow-born Pushkin rose to acclaim as a poet and playwright, hence his work provided plenty of opportunity for Russia’s prominent composers. Works like ‘Eugene Onegin’ and ‘The Queen of Spades’ deal with complex themes like gender identity and inhumanity.
2. Leo Tolstoy
Known for his realist fiction and, in later life, interest in pacifism and nonviolent resistance, Tolstoy’s work is said to have influenced activists who lived long after him, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi.
Tolstoy is best known for ‘War and Peace’, although at over half a million words it’s not exactly light reading. Perhaps a better introduction to his work are the much shorter ‘Sevastopol Sketches’ and ‘The Cossacks’.
3. Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A much more journalistic writer than the previous two, Dostoyevsky’s work centres more on human psychology in 19th-Century Russia. His 1868-69 novel ‘The Idiot’ is particularly celebrated by philosophers.
These are three very different, but highly rewarding Russian writers. Why not dip into their work for Russian Language Day?