25 Books by Women in Translation From the Russian Language

August is Women in Translation month; a month to celebrate women whose work has been translated from languages other than English, into the English language.

This year I wanted to take some time to celebrate work by women who are typically underrepresented in the translation field.

According to a 2018 Diversity Report, this includes women who are writing in the Russian language.

Russian is an East Slavic language. It is the official language of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as being widely used in the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

When suggesting 20 Great Russian Novels, Qwiklit says: “the Russian literary tradition rivals most if not all countries, and its consistent ambition to define (and even redefine) social conditions has kept even it’s oldest works relevant in the public sphere.”

While compiling this list of Russian language translations, I noticed this in the literature I was finding: a desire to redefine the boundaries of literature and push the reader to view the world through a critical lens.

With that said, here are 25 recommendations for books by women in translation from the Russian language.

1. Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina, tr. Lisa Hayden

Genre: Historical Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia
Put forward by @secretbookaholic

Synopsis:

The year is 1930. In a small Tartar village, a woman named Zuleikha watches as her husband is murdered by communists. Zuleikha herself is sent into exile, enduring a horrendous train journey to a remote spot on the Angara River in Siberia. Conditions in the camp are tough, and many of her group do not survive the first difficult winter.

As she gradually settles into a routine, Zuleikha starts to get to know her companions. The eclectic group includes a rather dotty doctor, an artist who paints on the sly, and Ignatov, Zuleikha’s husband’s killer.

Together, the group starts to build a new life, one that is far removed from those they left behind.

2. Three Apples Fell From the Sky by Narine Abgaryan, tr. Lisa C. Hayden

Genre: Historical Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Armenia
Put forward by @secretbookaholic and @internationalreads

Synopsis:

In an isolated village high in the Armenian mountains, a close-knit community bickers, gossips and laughs. Their only connection to the outside world is an ancient telegraph wire and a perilous mountain road that even goats struggle to navigate.

As they go about their daily lives – harvesting crops, making baklava, tidying houses – the villagers sustain one another through good times and bad. But sometimes all it takes is a spark of romance to turn life on its head, and a plot to bring two of Maran’s most stubbornly single residents together soon gives the village something new to gossip about.

3. Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, tr. Bela Shayevich

Genre: Non-Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Ukraine

Synopsis:

From the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, comes the first English translation of her latest work, an oral history of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia.

Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive documentary style, Secondhand Time is a monument to the collapse of the USSR, charting the decline of Soviet culture and speculating on what will rise from the ashes of Communism.

As in all her books, Alexievich gives voice to women and men whose stories are lost in the official narratives of nation-states, creating a powerful alternative history from the personal and private stories of individuals.

4. Subtly Worded by Teffi, tr. Anne Marie Jackson and Robert Chandler

Genre: Short Stories
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia

Synopsis:

Teffi’s genius with the short form made her a literary star in pre-revolutionary Russia, beloved by Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin alike. These stories, taken from the whole of her career, show the full range of her gifts. Extremely funny – a wry, scathing observer of society – she is also capable, as capable even as Chekhov, of miraculous subtlety and depth of character.

There are stories here from her own life (as a child, going to meet Tolstoy to plead for the life of War and Peace’s Prince Bolkonsky, or, much later, her strange, charged meetings with the already-legendary Rasputin). There are stories of émigré society, its members held together by mutual repulsion.

There are stories of people misunderstanding each other or misrepresenting themselves. And throughout there is a sly, sardonic wit and deep, compelling intelligence.

5. The Freedom Factory by Ksenia Buksha, tr. Anne Fisher

Genre: Literary Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia

Synopsis:

The Freedom Factory tells the story of a real weapons factory in Saint Petersburg, recounted in the form of monologues collected from its anonymized workers, managers, and engineers.

The Freedom Factory is not exactly realism: it combines poetry and documentary in unique proportion to convey the atmosphere of the absurd, harsh, and magnetic factory floor. Sometimes the narrative comes very close to everyday speech, sometimes it evolves into lyricism or grotesque humour, but it always remains sincere.

The Freedom Factory recounts life stories and love stories, military secrets and anecdotes, work and leisure, as the many voices of the factory merge into a chorus.

6. City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, tr. Nora Seligman Favorov

Genre: Literary Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia

Synopsis:

Upending Russian literary cliches of female passivity and rural gentry benightedness, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya centres her story on common sense, hardworking noblewoman and her self-assured daughter living on their small rural estate.

The antithesis of the thoughtful, intellectual, and self-denying young heroines created by Khvoshchinskaya’s male peers, especially Ivan Turgenev, seventeen-year-old Olenka ultimately helps her mother overcome a sense of duty to her “betters” and leads the two to triumph over the urbanites’ financial, amorous, and matrimonial machinations.

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya and her writer sisters closely mirror Britain’s Brontes, yet Khvoshchinskaya’s work contains more of Jane Austen’s wit and social repartee, as well an intellectual engagement reminiscent of Elizabeth Gaskell’s condition-of- England novels.

7. Madness Treads Lightly by Polina Dashkova, tr. Marian Schwartz

Genre: Crime Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia

Synopsis:

Only three people can connect a present-day murderer to a serial killer who, fourteen years ago, terrorised a small Siberian town. And one of them is already dead. As a working mother, Lena Polyanskaya has her hands full. She’s busy caring for her two-year-old daughter, editing a successful magazine, and supporting her husband, a high-ranking colonel in counterintelligence. She doesn’t have time to play amateur detective.

But when a close friend’s suspicious death is labelled a suicide, she’s determined to prove he wouldn’t have taken his own life. As Lena digs into her investigation, all clues point to murder—and its connection to a string of grisly cold-case homicides that stretches back to the Soviet era.

When another person in her circle falls victim, Lena fears she and her family may be next. She’s determined to do whatever it takes to protect them. But will learning the truth unmask a killer…or put her and her family in even more danger?

8. The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya, tr. Jamey Gambrell

Genre: Dystopian
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia

Synopsis:

In what remains of Moscow some two hundred years after the “Blast,” a community persists in primitive, ridiculous, and often brutal circumstances. Mice are the current source of food, clothes, and commerce, as well as a source of humour for Tatyana Tolstaya.

Owning books in this society is prohibited by the tyrant, who plagiarises the old masters, becoming his people’s sole writer. One of the tyrant’s scribes, Benedikt, is the main narrator of The Slynx. He is in love with books as objects but is unable to derive any meaning or moral benefit from them. Like the imagined, feared animal of this rollicking satirical novel’s title, Benedikt represents lust, cruelty, egotism, and ignorance.

The Slynx and Benedikt are one.

9. Dark Elderberry Branch by Marina Tsvetaeva, tr. Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine

Genre: Poetry
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia

Synopsis:

“A poet of genius.”—Vladimir Nabokov

Via what Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine call “readings”—not translations—of fragments of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems and prose, Tsvetaeva’s lyrical genius is made accessible and poignant to a new generation of readers.

By juxtaposing fragments of her poems with short pieces of prose, we begin to know her as poet, friend, enemy, woman, lover, and revolutionary.

10. The Living by Anna Starobinets, tr. James Rann

Genre: Science Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia

Synopsis:

The world as we know it has come to an end. After the Great Reduction, Earth’s population remains fixed at three trillion. No one dies: at the end of their lives people are reborn somewhere else on the globe; an incarnation code maintains information about their previous lives.

There are no more individuals, each human being is only one element in a greater consciousness, The Living One.

This central brain decides everything: where people will live, how their work will be, how long they will be allowed to survive in their current incarnation… Until a being without code is born, and the entire planetary system is threatened.

11. The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan, tr. Yuri Machkasov

Genre: Magical Realism
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Armenia

Synopsis:

The Gray House is an astounding tale of how what others understand as liabilities can be leveraged into strengths. Bound to wheelchairs and dependent on prosthetic limbs, the physically disabled students living in the House are overlooked by the Outsides. Not that it matters to anyone living in the House, a hulking old structure that its residents know is alive.

From the corridors and crawl spaces to the classrooms and dorms, the House is full of tribes, tinctures, scared teachers, and laws—all seen and understood through a prismatic array of teenagers’ eyes.

But student deaths and mounting pressure from the Outsides put the time-defying order of the House in danger. As the tribe leaders struggle to maintain power, they defer to the awesome power of the House, attempting to make it through days and nights that pass in ways that clocks and watches cannot record.

12. The Raven’s Children by Yulia Yakovleva, tr. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

Genre: Children’s
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: unknown

Synopsis:

Russia in 1938 is a place of great terror. Joseph Stalin is in charge. His Secret Police are everywhere, searching for anyone who might be his enemy. People have no idea who they can trust. Seven-year-old Shura doesn’t know about any of this.

He’s happy in his little home in Leningrad going to school in the mornings, playing with his best friend in the afternoon, fighting with his big sister, spending time with his Mama, Papa and baby brother Bobka.

Until one day everything changes. Mama and Papa and Bobka disappear without a trace. The whispers of their neighbours are that Mama and Papa were spies, enemies of Stalin and so they have now been taken by something mysterious called The Raven. Desperate to reunite his family, Shura decides to hunt down The Raven, finding help in the most unexpected places but facing more danger than he has ever known.

13. Russian Treasures by Elvira Baryakina, tr. unknown

Genre: Historical Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia

Synopsis:

For most of his life, Klim Rogov has been working abroad as a journalist. In the summer of 1917, he returns to a Russia devastated by the Great War to claim an inheritance left to him by his father. If he had wrapped up his affairs and left the country earlier, he might have escaped the violence of the Bolshevik Revolution, however, he finds himself tarrying for good reason after meeting an amazing young woman by the name of Nina Odintzova.

Widowed at eighteen, she has the strength and composure to run a flax mill, see off a band of robbers with an unloaded gun, and take care of her grumpy mother-in-law. But Klim senses that she is much more vulnerable than she is prepared to let on: nothing has ever prepared her for the heavy burden she now has to bear.

Russian Treasures is one of those precious books that bring the past into the present, and it’s a rare find for readers who enjoy being transported to different places and eras.

14. Jacob’s Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya, tr. Polly Gannon

Genre: Historical Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia

Synopsis:

Jumping between the diaries and letters of Jacob Ossetsky in Kiev in the early 1900s and the experiences of his granddaughter Nora in the theatrical world of Moscow in the 1970s and beyond, Jacob’s Ladder guides the reader through some of the most turbulent times in the history of Russia and Ukraine, and draws suggestive parallels between historical events of the early twentieth century and those of more recent memory.

Spanning the seeming promise of the pre-revolutionary years, to the dark Stalinist era, to the corruption and confusion of the present day, Jacob’s Ladder is a pageant of romance, betrayal, and memory. With a scale worthy of Tolstoy, it asks how much control any of us have over our lives–and how much is in fact determined by history, by chance, or indeed by the genes passed down by the generations that have preceded us into the world.

15. The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, tr. Bela Shayevich

Genre: Historical Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia

Synopsis:

Rich with love stories, intrigue, and a cast of dissenters and spies, The Big Green Tent offers a panoramic survey of life after Stalin and a dramatic investigation into the prospects for integrity in a society defined by the KGB.

Each of the central characters seeks to transcend an oppressive regime through art, a love of Russian literature, and activism. And each of them ends up face-to-face with a secret police that is highly skilled at fomenting paranoia, division, and self-betrayal. An artist is chased into the woods, where he remains in hiding for four years; a researcher is forced to deem a patient insane, damning him to torture in a psychiatric ward; a man and his wife each become collaborators, without the other knowing.

16. A Captive of Time by Olga Ivinskaia, tr. Max Hayward

Genre: Non-Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia

Synopsis:

She is “Lara” – Boris Pasternak’s model for the unforgettable heroine of Doctor Zhivago. She shared the last fourteen years of Pasternak’s life, and he immortalised her in the crowning work of his brilliant, turbulent career.

Now Olga Ivinskaya tells the remarkable story of their time and their love together. In a memoir filled with unprecedented insights into the man and his work, she offers the first detailed account of the systematic harassment suffered by Pasternak and those close to him at the hands of the Russian bureaucracy. She recounts the much-misunderstood events surrounding his refusal of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1958.

Here is the intimate portrait of an extraordinary romance, which flourished amid the intrigues and repressions of postwar Russia.

17. Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya, tr. Aline Werth

Genre: Historical Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia

Synopsis:

Sofia Petrovna is Lydia Chukovskaya’s fictional account of the Great Purge. Sofia is a Soviet Everywoman, a doctor’s widow who works as a typist in a Leningrad publishing house. When her beloved son is caught up in the maelstrom of the purge, she joins the long lines of women outside the prosecutor’s office, hoping against hope for any good news.

Confronted with a world that makes no moral sense, Sofia goes mad, a madness which manifests itself in delusions little different from the lies those around her tell every day to protect themselves. Sofia Petrovna offers a rare and vital record of Stalin’s Great Purges.

18. Journey into the Whirlwind by Evgenia Ginzburg, tr. Paul Stevenson and Max Hayward

Genre: Non-Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia

Synopsis:

Eugenia Ginzburg’s critically acclaimed memoir of the harrowing eighteen years she spent in prisons and labour camps under Stalin’s rule. By the late 1930s, Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg had been a loyal and very active member of the Communist Party for many years. Yet like millions of others who suffered during Stalin’s reign of terror, she was arrested—on trumped-up charges of being a Trotskyist terrorist and counter-revolutionary—and sentenced to prison.

With an amazing eye for detail, profound strength, and an indefatigable spirit, Ginzburg recounts the years, days, and minutes she endured in prisons and labour camps, including two years of solitary confinement. A classic account of survival, Journey into the Whirlwind is considered one of the most important documents of Stalin’s regime ever written.

19. A Week Like Any Other: Novellas and Stories by Natalya Baranskaya, tr. Pieta Monks

Genre: Short Stories
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia

Synopsis:

One of Russia’s finest short story writers makes her U.S. debut in this enthralling collection of fiction. Women’s lives are the central preoccupation of Natalya Baranskaya: A scientist frantically juggles her professional life with her duties as wife and mother; a woman writer who regrets never marrying is finally glad of it; a delinquent girl is brought before the people’s court for her “anti-social” behaviour.

With candour and satirical wit, Baranskaya captures perfectly everyday realities of family and society.

20. My Journey: How One Woman Survived Stalin’s Gulag by Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, tr. Katharine Gratwick Baker

Genre: Non-Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia

Synopsis:

Arrested along with her husband (who, she would much later learn, was shot the next day) in the great purges of the thirties, Adamova-Sliozberg decided to record her Gulag experiences a year after her arrest, and she “wrote them down in her head” (paper and pencils were not available to prisoners) every night for years.

When she returned to Moscow after the war in 1946, she composed the memoir on paper for the first time and then buried it in the garden of the family dacha. After her re-arrest and seven more years of banishment to Kazakhstan, she returned to the dacha to dig up the buried memoir, but could not find it. She sat down and wrote it all over again.

In her later years, she also added a collection of stories about her family. Concluding on a hopeful note—Adamova-Sliozberg’s record is cleared, she re-marries a fellow former-prisoner, and she is reunited with her children—this story is a stunning account of perseverance in the face of injustice and unimaginable hardship.

21. The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova by Anna Akhmatova, tr. Judith Hemschemeyer

Genre: Poetry
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Ukraine (formerly Russian Empire)

Synopsis:

Initially published in 1990, when the New York Times Book Review named it one of fourteen “Best Books of the Year,” Judith Hemschemeyer’s translation of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova is the definitive edition and has sold over 13,000 copies, making it one of the most successful poetry titles of recent years. This reissued and revised printing features a new biographical essay as well as expanded notes to the poems, both by Roberta Reeder, project editor and author of Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet (St. Martin’s Press, 1994).

Encyclopaedic in scope, with more than 800 poems, 100 photographs, a historical chronology, index of first lines, and a bibliography. The Complete Poems will be the definitive English language collection of Akhmatova for many years to come.

22. Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva, tr. Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg

Genre: Classic
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Latvia
Recommended by @charleyroxy

Synopsis:

Left to her own devices in Biarritz, fourteen-year-old Russian Liza meets an older English boy, Cromwell, on a beach. He thinks he has found a magical, romantic beauty and insists upon calling her Isolde; she is taken with his Buick and ability to pay for dinner and champagne. Disaffected and restless, Liza, her brother Nikolai and her boyfriend Andrei enjoy Cromwell’s company in restaurants and jazz bars after he follows Liza back to Paris – until his mother stops giving him money. When the siblings’ own mother abandons them to follow a lover to Nice, the group falls deeper into its haze of alcohol, and their darker drives begin to take over.

First published in 1929, Isolde is a startlingly fresh, disturbing portrait of a lost generation of Russian exiles by Irina Odoevtseva, a major Russian writer who has never before appeared in English.

23. Klotsvog by Margarita Khemlin, tr. Lisa Hayden

Genre: Historical Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Ukraine
Recommended by @charleyroxy

Synopsis:

Klotsvog is a novel about being Jewish in the Soviet Union and the historical trauma of World War II–and it’s a novel about the petty dramas and demons of one wonderfully vain woman. Maya Abramovna Klotsvog has had quite a life, and she wants you to know all about it.

Selfish, garrulous, and thoroughly entertaining, she tells us where she came from, who she didn’t get along with, and what became of all her husbands and lovers.

In Klotsvog, Margarita Khemlin creates a first-person narrator who is both deeply self-absorbed and deeply compelling. From Maya’s perspective, Khemlin unfurls a retelling of the Soviet Jewish experience that integrates the historical and the personal into her protagonist’s vividly drawn inner and outer lives.

24. There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, tr. Anna Summers

Genre: Short Stories
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia
Recommended by @charleyroxy

Synopsis:

After her work was suppressed for many years, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya won wide recognition for capturing the experiences of everyday Russians with profound pathos and mordant wit.

Among her most famous and controversial works, these three novellas—The Time Is Night, Chocolates with Liqueur (inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”), and Among Friends—are modern classics that breathe new life into Tolstoy’s famous dictum, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Together they confirm the genius of an author with a gift for turning adversity into art.

25. The Man Who Couldn’t Die: The Tale of an Authentic Human Being by Olga Slavnikova, tr. Marian Schwartz

Genre: Historical Fiction
Originally Published In: Russian
Author’s Country of Birth: Russia
Recommended by @charleyroxy

Synopsis:

In the chaos of early-1990s Russia, the wife and stepdaughter of a paralysed veteran conceal the Soviet Union’s collapse from him in order to keep him–and his pension–alive until it turns out the tough old man has other plans.

Olga Slavnikova’s The Man Who Couldn’t Die tells the story of how two women try to prolong a life–and the means and meaning of their own lives–by creating a world that doesn’t change, a Soviet Union that never crumbled.

After her stepfather’s stroke, Marina hangs Brezhnev’s portrait on the wall, edits the Pravda articles read to him, and uses her media connections to cobble together entire newscasts of events that never happened.

Meanwhile, her mother, Nina Alexandrovna, can barely navigate the bewildering new world outside, especially in comparison to the blunt reality of her uncommunicative husband. As Marina is caught up in a local election campaign that gets out of hand, Nina discovers that her husband is conspiring as well–to kill himself and put an end to the charade.

I hope you find some great reads among this list of women in translation from the Russian language! Do leave a comment if you’re read any of these or have any other books that you’d add to this list.

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