Ideas on books and stories to read
Do you like books that are serious, funny, sad, or full of interesting facts? Or perhaps all of those things at once and sometimes a bit crazy too? If so it’s time to discover Russian literature!
In the sample of stories we’ve chosen you can read about a cunning fox, a talking fish and a wicked witch, a man who loses his nose… and then meets it walking the streets, about life just after the Russian Revolution, about the grim reality of prison camps in the 1950s and about the terrifying 1930s seen through the eyes of children who lost their parents and couldn’t understand why.
How can you choose where to start?
Pick what seems interesting from the pictures going round here and you will find very short extracts from some great Russian books and a couple of fairy tales. We hope you will want to read the rest later.
That will give you a taste of Russian literature and get you thinking about what the stories are really about – and definitely help you understand Russia better too.
There are a lot more books and writers to try – visit your school or local library and see what you can find there.
The Fables of Ivan Krylov
by Ivan Krylov. Written 1809-44. Translated by Stephen Pimenoff. Publ. Dedalus 2017.
Book I, No. I, pages 21-22
extract reproduced by permission of Dedalus Books
The Crow and the Fox (extract)
How many times has the world been told
That flattery is vile and harmful? But it has done no good:
In the heart the flatterer always finds a little corner.
God sent to a Crow somewhere a little piece of cheese.
Having settled herself on a fir tree,
The Crow prepared to breakfast.
She grew thoughtful, holding the cheese in her beak.
Unfortunately, a Fox happened to be running near:
The scent of the cheese stopped the Fox in her tracks:
She saw the cheese, and was captivated by it.
The cunning creature approached the tree on tiptoe
Twitching her tail, and not taking her eyes off the Crow.
She said so sweetly, scarcely breathing:
"My dear, how beautiful you are:
What a neck you have, what wonderful eyes!
They are such as to be found only in fairy tales!
What feathers! What a nose!
And indeed angelic must be your voice!
Sing, my dear, don't be shy! If, little sister.
With such beauty you are also good at singing,
Surely you would be our queen of birds!"
From flattery the Crow's head was turned,
With delight her breath was taken away;
And at the friendly Fox's words
She cawed with all her might.
The cheese fell - and was caught by the cunning Fox.
A Tale about a Fisherman and a Fish (extract)
By Alexander Pushkin. 1833. Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler.
Published in Russian Magic Tales: from Pushkin to Platonov, Penguin Books 2012, p.18.
Extract from "Russian Magic Tales by Pushkin to Platonov" translated by copyright © Robert Chandler 2007 published Penguin Books 2007. Reproduced by permission of Penguin Books Ltd. ©2012.
Find other translations of this story online, for example:
retold by Arthur Ransome
By the very edge of the blue sea
lived an old man and his old woman.
For three and thirty years they had lived
in a tumbledown hut made of mud.
The old man caught fish in his fishing net;
the old woman span with her spinning wheel.
One day the old man cast his net
and all he caught in his net was slime.
The old man cast his net a second time
and all he caught in his net was weed.
A third time the old man cast his net
and what he found in his net was a fish --
no ordinary fish, but a golden fish.
The fish begged, the fish begged and implored;
the fish prayed in a human voice:
'Release me, set me free in the sea --
and in return you'll receive a grand ransom,
I'll grant you whatever you wish.'
The old man was amazed and frightened.
Baba Yaga (extract)
A Russian fairy tale retold by Arthur Ransome in “Old Peter’s Russian Tales”, illus. Dmitri Mitrokhin, publ. Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York 1917, pp. 88-105.
"Baba Yaga" by Dmitri Mitrokhin
For more about Baba Yaga look at
Inside the railing was Baba Yaga's hut, and it stood on hen's legs and walked about the yard. And in the yard there was standing Baba Yaga's servant, and she was crying bitterly because of the tasks Baba Yaga set her to do. She was crying bitterly and wiping her eyes on her petticoat.
"How lucky," says the little girl, "that I picked up a handkerchief!" And she gave the handkerchief to Baba Yaga's servant, who wiped her eyes on it and smiled through her tears.
Close by the hut was a huge dog, very thin, gnawing a dry crust.
"How lucky," says the little girl, "that I picked up a loaf!" And she gave the loaf to the dog, and he gobbled it up and licked his lips.
The little girl went bravely up to the hut and knocked on the door.
"Come in," says Baba Yaga.
The little girl went in, and there was Baba Yaga, the bony-legged, the witch, sitting weaving at a loom. In a corner of the hut was a thin black cat watching a mouse-hole.
"Good-day to you, auntie," says the little girl, trying not to tremble.
"Good-day to you, niece," says Baba Yaga.
"My stepmother has sent me to you to ask for a needle and thread to mend a shirt."
"Very well," says Baba Yaga, smiling, and showing her iron teeth. "You sit down here at the loom, and go on with my weaving, while I go and get you the needle and thread."
The little girl sat down at the loom and began to weave.
Baba Yaga went out and called to her servant, "Go, make the bath hot and scrub my niece. Scrub her clean. I'll make a dainty meal of her."
Available under the Project Gutenberg License at www.gutenberg.net, EBook #16981
A short video about Baba Yaga to the music of Tchaikovsky's "The Witch / Baba Yaga" from his "Children's Album".
The Nose (extract)
by Nikolai Gogol 1835-36. Translated by Ronald Wilks. Publ. Penguin Books 2015, p1.
An extraordinarily strange event took place in St Petersburg on 25 March. Ivan Yakovievich, a barber who lived on Voznesensky Prospekt (his surname has been lost and all that his shop sign shows is a gentleman with a lathered cheek and the inscription 'We also let blood'), woke up rather early one morning and smelt hot bread. Raising himself slightly on his bed he saw his wife, who was a quite respectable lady and a great coffee-drinker, taking some freshly baked rolls out of the oven.
'I don't want any coffee today, Praskovya Osipovna,' said Ivan Yakovlevich, 'I'll make do with a hot roll and onion instead.' (Here I must explain that Ivan Yakovievich would really have liked to have had some coffee as well, but knew it was quite out of the question to expect both coffee and rolls, since Praskovya Osipovna did not take very kindly to these whims of his.) 'Let the old fool have his bread, I don't mind,' she thought. 'That means extra coffee for me!' And she threw a roll on to the table.
Ivan pulled his frock-coat over his nightshirt for decency's sake, sat down at the table, poured out some salt, peeled two onions, took a knife and with a determined expression on his face started cutting one of the rolls.
When he had sliced the roll in two, he peered into the middle and was amazed to see something white there. Ivan carefully picked at it with his knife, and felt it with his finger. 'Quite thick,' he said to himself 'What on earth can it be?'
He poked two fingers in and pulled out - a nose!
Ivan Yakovlevich let his arms drop to his sides and began rubbing his eyes and feeling around in the roll again. Yes, it was a nose all right, no mistake about that. And, what's more, it seemed a very familiar nose…
Another translation of the whole story can be downloaded from:
Reproduction rights provisionally agreed
A Thief (extract)
by Mikhail Zoshchenko, 1923. Translated by Jeremy Hicks. Published in The Galosh and other stories, The Overlook Press, 2009, p.27
1920s tram in St Petersburg
Some information on Zoshchenko and links to public domain versions of his work here.
Vaska Tyapkin was a pickpocket by profession. He was mainly active on the trams.
But don't envy him reader, it's a worthless profession. You go through one pocket - crap: a lighter, maybe; you go through another - more crap: a handkerchief, or ten cigarettes say, or maybe even worse, an electricity bill.
It's a joke, not a profession.
And as for more worthwhile things, like watches or wallets, not bloody likely.
It's a mystery where passengers keep them these days.
And people have become so damned mean. You've got to keep your eyes open, or it'll be your pocket they'll clean out. And they really will clean you out. It's easily done. You're eyeing the conductor's bag and that's it, they've already cleaned you out. For crying out loud…
And as for their valuables, the passengers are so mean they probably wear them on their chests or maybe on their stomachs. Places like that are tender, you see, and you can't tickle them at all. You hardly need scratch them with your finger and there'll be shouting: They've robbed me. A disgusting sight.
It's a bloody worthless profession.
Reproduction rights applied for
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (extract)
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1962. Translated by Ralph Parker. Publ. Penguin Books 1963, p7.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn in prison uniform 1953
As usual, at five o'clock that morning reveille was sounded by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters. The intermittent sound barely penetrated the window-panes on which the frost lay two fingers thick, and they ended almost as soon as they'd begun. It was cold outside, and the camp-guard was reluctant to go on beating out the reveille for long.
The clanging ceased, but everything-outside still looked like the middle of the night when Ivan Denisovich Shukhov got up to go to the bucket. It was pitch dark except for the yellow light cast on the window by three lamps - two in the outer zone, one inside the camp itself.
And no one came to unbolt the barrack-hut door; there was no sound of the barrack-orderlies pushing a pole into place to lift the barrel of nightsoil and carry it out.
Shukhov never overslept reveille. He always got up at once, for the next ninety minutes, until they assembled for work, belonged to him, not to the authorities, and any old-timer could always earn a bit - by sewing a pair of over-mittens for someone out of old sleeve lining; or bringing some rich lag in the team his dry valenki* - right up to his bunk, so that he wouldn't have to stumble barefoot round the heaps of boots looking for his own pair; or going the rounds of the store-huts, offering to be of service, sweeping up this or fetching that; or going to the mess-hall to collect bowls from the tables and bring them stacked to the dishwashers - you're sure to be given something to eat there, though there were plenty of others at that game, more than plenty - and, what's worse, if you found a bowl with something left in it you could hardly resist licking it out. ….
*Knee-length felt boots for winter wear.
Reproduction rights applied for
The Raven's Children (extract)
by Yulia Yakovleva, 2016. Translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp. Publ. Puffin Books 2018, p112.
GAZ M1 (1935-40), "the Raven"
Shura rushed away from the house and his enraged sister, telling himself it was to save her from being caught. He ran along the pavement …
Towards the raven-black car that growled menacingly as it rumbled down the road.
The Black Raven crept slowly along the embankment, as if listening to the houses and windows. He seemed huge, but otherwise quite ordinary - the kind you see everywhere on the streets. This made him especially frightening, with his lacquered, black wings gleaming.
Shura ran to meet him, waving his arms. His heart was throbbing painfully in his chest. He was terrified.
I'm no coward, Shura told himself. I'll prove it to her.
‘Hey! Hey, you... You're looking for me.’
The Raven stopped. Shura stood directly in front of him. He felt hot and clammy under his armpits. The Raven's crooked eyes peered at Shura without any expression.
And Shura said: 'I'm here.’
One hundred fifty-two (152) words from The Raven's Children by Yulia Yakovleva (Penguin Classics 2018). Original Copyright © Yulia Yakovleva, 2016, English language translation copyright © Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, 2018. Reproduced by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.