Russian Writers

Recently, a writing tips page pointed out the importance of reading Russian authors if you want to become a skilled writer.

At the moment, I am reading Leo Tolstoy’s, ‘Anna Karenina’ and loving every word. I am in the drawing room with the characters and inside their lives. I have also read Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Nabakov, and Nikolai Gogol, along with several other Russian writers. All share the same characteristic of capturing completely the people and the places they occupy. I feel the ambiance, sense the tensions, and understand the inner conflicts.

But why would I list writers from Russia and not writers from anywhere else in the world?

The famous short story, The Overcoat, by Nikolai Gogol explains why. The story captures Gogol’s wry humour, often found in Russian authors. He explains the main character’s name, Akaky Akakievich, in this way, “The reader will perhaps find that somewhat strange and far-fetched, but he can be assured that it was not fetched at all……”

The quality of Gogol’s writing that is most engaging is the way he appears to break out from his narrative and address the reader, as in the case of describing the tailor to whom Akaky goes. “There exists a rule,” he says, “that the character of every person in a story be well delineated….” He then goes on to describe the character of the tailor in a way that, if you bumped into him in the street, you would recognise him. It is not a list of characteristics but rather a weaving of the character’s values and history to explain why he acts as he does.

But the character profile I love is that of Akaky:

“And so, in a certain department there served a certain clerk; a not very remarkable clerk, one might say – short, somewhat pockmarked, somewhat red-haired, even with a somewhat near sighted look, slightly bald in front, with wrinkles on both cheeks and a complexion that is known as haemorrhoidal…”

We later learn he has remained a lowly paid copy clerk all his life, but is incapable of change. It is essentially a story about a very boring copy clerk whose character leads him to, for a very brief moment, a burst of excitement when his tailor persuades him to get a new overcoat to replace his thin and tattered old overcoat. He has to save for this new overcoat and the anticipation of getting it gives him unimaginable excitement. We get a sense of a dull, boring existence suddenly coming alive, as if awaking from a trance-like state. He discovers there are dangers in allowing pride in a new object overtake his usually sensible unassuming approach to life. He falls victim to that one quality that is the downfall of many, conceit.

There is another weakness in his character and that is an inability to say ‘no’ when invited to a party in honour of a fellow clerk’s birthday. He does not want to go to the party, and the reader will forever wonder if he is set up, but reluctantly agrees.

Then, and this is such insight into the complexities of the human condition, we are told…“Afterwards, however, he was pleased when he remembered that he would thus even have occasion to take a stroll that evening in his new overcoat.” Vanity has now eclipsed his reserve.

And at this moment his life begins to unravel in the most terrible way.

The thing I find intriguing about Russian authors and other skilled writers is the way they can take what appears to be a trivial thing and use that to portray the human condition. One of the best examples of this is Shakespeare’s Othello when a planted handkerchief becomes Othello’s undoing.


Russian writers
Anna Kerenina


I love this blog - when doing my BA in Russian History, we had this very hard task master Professor (I learnt a huge amount under him). One day he gave a lecture of great Russian writers and he had to stop it as he got too emotional describing Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. It had a huge impact on me.

I went out and bought a number of books from top Russian Authors and they intrigued me how they drew me into the scene, even though I have never been to Russia. Their understanding of human nature, is in my biased opinion, second to none.

I love "The Overcoat" - I think it is one of the best short stories ever.

Thank you Suraya for bringing back wonderful memories. Brilliant blog.