Anna Shevchenko studied at the National University, Kiev, before moving to the UK to study at Cambridge University. A linguist and international negotiator, she speaks seven languages and is the author of two cultural guides to Russia and Ukraine. Her first novel, Bequest, is an international thriller set in both Kiev and Moscow.
I chose the books where Moscow is more than a setting – it shapes the characters and their actions, almost becoming a character itself. I was always intrigued by the way the cityscape can influence the mindset: Moscow, for example, can be seen as a chaotic cluster of villages, a cobweb of streets or as a grid.
The Moscow of Russian authors builds various stage sets which resemble giant, grotesque Russian dolls with grimaces on brightly painted faces. Their image of Moscow is often exaggerated or distorted.
Western writers’ Moscow settings are more linear: they recreate and distill the existing reality of controlled society, reflecting western perceptions of monochrome gloom and danger and, recently, of the bizarre chaos of the post-Soviet capital.
The Moscow of my novel, Bequest, is a hungry metropolis, which swallows its provincial victims and influences the decisions of one of its characters.
1. Boris Godunov by Alexander Pushkin (Moscow in 1598)
Pushkin’s drama about the rule of Boris Godunov, a charismatic leader with dark secrets, untangles Kremlin intrigues and plotting. Red Square is full of drunken crowds, raw emotion and brutal force. (“Why doesn’t my baby cry when he needs to? Everybody is crying …” asks a peasant at the square, throwing her baby on the pavement.) Moscow is dark and intense.
2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Moscow from 1810-1813)
The city of glamour and gambling, of superstition and appearances, relationships and glitzy balls.
“Moscow is about gossip, St Petersburg is about politics,” says one of the characters.
It contrasts with the abandoned and burned city of 1813, Moscow after the Napoleonic invasion: the city of lost hopes, lost loves and lives.
3. Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov (Moscow in 1900)
Moscow as a symbol, rather than a city, a dream of escape from drab provincial reality for three educated sisters.
Their “To Moscow!” is a desperate cry for help. They do not return to the capital of their childhood, abandoning their hopes of a perfect life. This play is often compared with the story of the Brontë sisters, but I find it very Russian for all its melancholy, nostalgia and layered emotions.
4. The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov (Moscow in 1927)
Masterly theatrical satire of the Moscow of the first post-revolutionary decade. Moscow here is a railway station, full of con artists, chaos and … missing chairs. One of them contains diamonds, hidden under the shabby upholstery: just as the sparkles of humour and joie de vivre are hidden in an impoverished Moscow, under communist slogans of canteens providing carrot burgers.
5. Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (Moscow in 1933)
My favourite book of all time. I re-read it on my birthday, together with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, every decade (at 20, 30, 40), always to discover a different angle, a new depth.
The phantasmagoria of Satan’s arrival in Moscow in the 1930s is mixed with the sadness of doomed passion. This is a Moscow full of irony and covert satire on the first ominous stirrings of Stalin’s regime. This book made the Patriarch’s Ponds in Moscow a place of literary pilgrimage.
6. The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Moscow in 1949)
“If a man has no freedom even in prison, where else might he have it then?” asks one character.
Moscow as a prison. The characters work in the first circle of hell – as prisoners in the KGB secret research institute, Sharazhka. They joke, laugh, love, make complex moral choices, but there is no escape from Moscow and from themselves. Autobiographical, chilling; a powerful triumph of the freedom of the human spirit.
7. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (Moscow in 1981)
For me, as an insider of the Soviet system, Martin Cruz Smith’s crime novel was one of the best western descriptions of the Moscow map as a grid of Soviet ideology at the beginning of the 1980s.
The background of the story of Soviet investigator Arkady Renko is the hypocrisy and corruption of the system, with the mutilated bodies in a Moscow amusement park as the main attractions.
8. Generation ‘П’ (published as Babylon in the UK) by Victor Pelevin (Moscow in the early 1990s
Victor Pelevin is an author you either love or hate, but you cannot remain indifferent to his description of a new generation – the generation that thrived in the post-Soviet Moscow of the early 1990s, where the move from collective to individual is through smoky underground passages, hallucinating mushrooms, drugs and consumerism.
9. The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko (Moscow in the late 1990s)
The Day Watch-Twilight Watch-Night Watch trilogy, by Sergei Lukyanenko, became a phenomenal bestseller in Russia, satisfying Russian craving for all things mystical.
The Night Watch is my favourite, set in the futuristic and twisted Moscow of parallel worlds. Dark evil forces, vampires and ordinary Muscovites coexist. Walking the streets of Moscow, you never know where you will be crossing the line …
10. Icon by Frederick Forsyth (Moscow in 1999)
The city is dark and intense. There are Kremlin intrigues and drunken crowds, a charismatic leader with dark secrets and brutal force.
… Or have I said that already about the Moscow of 1598, in Boris Godunov?
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