From Russia, with Bookish Love

I've been "reading Russia" since first encountering the classics (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin) and then the contemporaries (Solzhenitsyn, Akhmatova) in the mid-20th century, during my ancient college years. The adventure continues. I'm always ready for something new.

One of my favorite books this year is The Long Hangover: Putin's New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past by Shaun Walker (Oxford University Press), the Guardian's central and eastern Europe correspondent. A "large cast of Russian characters" populate Walker's book, from ordinary citizens to the man at the top ("Putin was, to some extent, the director of the post-Soviet story for modern Russia, but he was also very much a character in it.").

A speculative novel that's had a profound impact on me is the The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin,‎ translated by Lisa Hayden (Oneworld). When Innokenty Petrovich Platanov wakes up in 1999, he is a 100-year-old man in a 30-year-old body. Under a doctor's care, he gradually recovers memories from before he was cryogenically preserved as part of a Gulag experiment. What has he missed? Among other things, the rise and fall of the Soviet empire... and much of his life.

Other reads of note recently are Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi (Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya), translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and Irina Steinberg (New York Review Books); and the amazing memoir Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich (Random House).

I also recommend 2017: A Novel by Olga Slavnikova, a Russian Booker Prize-winning work translated by‎ Marian Schwartz (Overlook Press). I began reading Slavnikova in 2012 after seeing her on a book conference panel, where she stressed the importance of translators while serving up a sharp little jab: "The only way to reach the American reader is to have the books translated so well they read like they were written in English." Well played, I thought at the time. --Robert Gray, contributing editor

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