James Meek worked in Moscow as a foreign correspondent for the Guardian from 1991 to 1999, and won several awards (including Foreign correspondent of the Year) for his reporting from Iraq and Guantanamo Bay last year. He has published two short story collections and three novels, the latest of which, the Booker-longlisted The People’s Act of Love, is set in Siberia in 1919 and tells the story of an obscure Christian sect and a stranded regiment of Czech soldiers.
“People tend to exaggerate, to others and to themselves, the number of books they have read – and no wonder. If we were to sit down at the age of 12 and work out how many books we could reasonably expect to read in our lifetime, the result would be terrifyingly small. Recommendations, therefore, are not to be made lightly. Having looked at these books again to write this, I feel I have to reread them all, they’re so good. Whether you are interested in Russia by itself, or in the richness and strangeness of human life in general, time spent in these volumes will not, I promise, be wasted.”
1. Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol, 1842
A novel of comedy and shame.
“Chichikov saw that the old woman was far from grasping the issue, and that he needed to make it clear. In a few words he explained that the transfer, or purchase, would take place only on paper and that the souls would be registered as if they were living.
‘And what good are they to you?’ asked the old woman, her eyes bulging.
‘That’s my business.’
‘But, really, all the same, they’re dead.’
‘Who said they were alive? You’re losing money because they’re dead: you’re still paying for them, and I’m offering to rid you of all these bills and bother. Do you understand? Not just rid you, but give you 15 roubles into the bargain. Is that clear?’
‘Really, I’m not sure,” said the proprietress hesitantly. “I’ve never sold dead people before, you know.'”
2. Fathers And Sons, by Ivan Turgenev, 1862
A novel of ease versus rebellion.
“We were discussing happiness, I believe. I was telling you about myself. Incidentally, I just used the word ‘happiness’. Tell me, why is it that even when we are enjoying music, for instance, or a beautiful evening, or a conversation in agreeable company, it all seems no more than a hint of some infinite felicity existing apart somewhere, rather than actual happiness – such, I mean, as we ourselves can really possess?'”
3. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodr Dostoyevsky, 1879
A pious brother, a wild-living brother, a political brother and their wretched father.
“‘So you married a lame woman?’ cried Kalganov.
‘Yes. They both deceived me a little bit at the time, and concealed it. I thought she was hopping; she kept hopping … I thought it was for fun.'”
4. Petersburg, by Andrei Bely, 1916-1922
A symbolist novel of terrorism.
“Entering the dressing room, Apollon Apollonovich (like other little old men of exalted rank) took his small red-laquered boxes out of a small wardrobe. Under their lids, on soft velvet cushions, lay all his rare decorations. He had been brought a small resplendent uniform (smaller than those worn by others), with a glittering gilded chest, white worsted trousers, and a pair of gloves, an odd-shaped hat box, and a scabbard (from its hilt dangled a silver fringe). Under the pressure of his yellow fingernail, all 10 lids sprang open; and there were extracted: the White Eagle, and corresponding star; and a blue ribbon. All this went onto his chest.”
5. The Master And Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, 1940
A novel of magic, hubris and retribution.
“Having lost one of the gang, Ivan concentrated his attention on the tom cat and saw how this strange animal walked over to the boarding stop of an “A” tram waiting at the stop, brazenly elbowed aside a woman who squealed as she saw him, grasped the hand rails and even attempted to give the conductor a coin through the window, which was open because of the heat.
The cat’s behaviour struck Ivan with such amazement that he stopped transfixed near the grocer’s on the corner. And now he was struck again, even more forcibly, by the behaviour of the woman conductor. As soon as she saw the tom trying to climb into the streetcar, she screamed, trembling with rage: ‘No cats allowed here! Nobody with cats allowed! Scram! Get off, or I’ll call the militia!'”
6. To The Finland Station, by Edmund Wilson, 1940
How Lenin’s mind got to where it was in 1917.
“In one of Karl Marx’s ballads, a mariner is roused from his bed by the storm: he will go forth, he will leave behind him the warm and quiet towns; will put to sea, and let his ship’s sail swell, keep his course by the changeless stars, contend with the waves and the wind, feel the joy of all his forces at full strain, blood pounding in his breast at the danger – he will defy and he will conquer the sea, which is picking at the bones of his brother.”
7. Russian Thinkers, by Isaiah Berlin, 1948
A wise, beautiful guide to 19th-century minds.
“… As a child Turgenev had witnessed abominable cruelties and humiliations which his mother inflicted upon her serfs and dependents; an episode in his story The Brigadier is founded on his maternal grandmother’s murder of one of her boy serfs: she struck him in a fit of rage; he fell wounded on the ground; irritated by the spectacle she smothered him with a pillow.”
8. Kolyma Tales, by Varlam Shalamov, 1929-1982
Stories of Stalin’s slave empire.
“On the fifth of December 1947, the steamship Kim entered the port of Nagaevo with a human cargo – 3,000 convicts. During the trip the convicts had mutinied, and the ship authorities had decided to hose down all the holds. This was done when the temperature was 40 degrees below zero. Kubantsev had come to Kolyma to speed up his pension, and on the first day of his Kolyma service he learned what third- and fourth-degree frostbite were.”
9. A People’s Tragedy, by Orlando Figes, 1997
Revolution and civil war as seen from the ground.
“When the Bolsheviks took control of the Winter Palace, they discovered one of the largest wine cellars ever known. During the following days tens of thousands of antique bottles disappeared from the vaults. The Bolshevik workers and soldiers were helping themselves to the Chateau d’Yquem 1847, the last Tsar’s favourite vintage, and selling off the vodka to the crowds outside. The drunken mobs went on the rampage. The Winter Palace was badly vandalized. Shops and liquor stores were looted. Sailors and soldiers went around the well-to-do districts robbing apartments and killing people for sport.”
10. Chapayev And Pustota, by Viktor Pelevin, 1998 (published in English both as Buddha’s Little Finger and The Clay Machine Gun)
A novel of Yeltsin’s Russia, with Buddhist-Bolshevik episodes.
“… when the train stopped at Pushkin station Serdyuk got out with the desire for a drink forming in his soul. Not so much to have a drink as to get hammered. But the desire was, at first, formless and subconscious. He apprehended it first as a vague sorrow about something unattainable and lost. It acquired its real form only when Serdyuk found himself in front of a long battery of armoured kiosks, from whose observation slits identical, expressionless Caucasian faces looked out on enemy territory. It was hard to settle on any particular drink. Like in an election, the choice was large, but somehow second rate.”