To read or not to read big Russian books.

Last month I’ve participated in the read-along #TomeTopple, where the point is to read books longer than 500 pages. I have, due to my work, done most of mine for-fun reading by audiobook, and decided to do the read-along also by audiobook. I read Shirley, which was a fun book that I’ve had too long on my TBR. Then I started to listen to Doctor Zhivago, and this was when I ran into the question that started this text.
I have read my share of Russian literature. A lot of them have been presented here on this blog. One of the things I love about Russian literature is the oblique nature of the story. A lot of the Russian books do present a very difficult life, they don’t shy away from everyday struggles and don’t always have a happy ending. To me, there is something oddly down to earth about them. The characters are usually well-rounded, and you don’t often find the perfect character as you do in a lot of Anglo-American literature or too-good-for-this-world characters that can pop up in French literature. I’m not saying this to say anything negative about British, American or French literature. On the contrary; British literature is by far my favourite. I’m trying to point out that a lot of Russian and other Eastern European literature can offer something that I enjoy very much.
I think one of the reasons the dark, yet realistic aspect of the Russian literature is so compelling to me is that it’s usually accompanied by a reflection on why the world is this way. They present surprisingly deep, philosophical debates on the very nature of our lives. A want to keep having Russian literature as a part of my literary diet.
I can hear you ask yourself, fine, what is the problem?
The problem is that Russian literature is filled with a ton of characters (which doesn’t bother me), and each of these characters have several names. Now, when I read the physical book, I can just make a map in the back and when I’m stomped check the map. When you are listening to audiobooks this isn’t that easy to do. The problem is that all the names resulted in me struggling with following the larger story of Doctor Zhivago. Sometimes I guessed who had entered the scene based on literature convention, not because I recognised the character from the story, even though they were a big character (I’m not going to give details due to fear of spoiling).
Because I do love Russian literature, I felt compelled to try and find a solution. I, therefore, asked my friends on twitter and facebook on how they handled this problem. As several people mentioned the same points, I’ve tried to organise it to a handy list down below:

  1. 313krt

I wanted to put this first since it just states read more Russian literature which I’m all for. I was told by several people that the more you read, the better you get at understanding this cultural phenomenon. The Russian nicknames are based on diminutive form, which in one way is about adding a suffix to a name. The suffix you add tells you something about the mood of the person talking, about the person’s relationship to the other person and about the Russian language in general. Apparently, the Russian language is filled with these suffixes, and by one person’s account makes learning Russian quite a chore. But, the good thing about this means that there is a system in place, even if I don’t know. Yet.


One of the most common solutions people had for this problem was to make a list or character-map. I do agree this is helpful when you are sitting there with a physical book, but I don’t know how to make this work when listening to audiobooks. If you have any tips, please let me know.


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This was what I ended up doing when reading Doctor Zhivago. I went onto the Wikipedia page and read through the synopsis of the book every time I didn’t know who I was reading about. This is very much a double edge sword. On one hand, you will be spoiled. On the other hand, I realised I didn’t mind. I didn’t like Doctor Zhivago for the surprises, but the philosophical debates. If you are of the same mind, this could work for you, but I also understand if you don’t like this way of reading a book.


The last general tip I got was to not worry so much about trying to remember the characters name. You would pick up the general idea of what happens by context. I like this approach as it emphasises that reading should be for fun, and if you are stressing with remembering a character or plot it’s not necessarily fun (people are different). This in connection with the first tip that practice makes perfect could result in the general rule that you don’t worry, because you will get this if you read actively.

What do you think about these tips? Do you have other tips in dealing with Russian nicknames? Please let me know in the comments below.

5 thoughts on “To read or not to read big Russian books.

Add yours

  1. These days I often make notes on a text file on my phone but if the book is famous you could probably find a character list somewhere online.


  2. Great Post! Great Blog!

    Just the other day I was discussing this book and heard an interesting comment: “Pasternak adds characters at the same rate as George Martin kills them”. Although I don’t think it is useful with an audiobook, I just wanted to explain some of the suffixes.

    “–ov” – Example: “Antipov” – a Russian last name. If a Last name does not end on “-ov” then its not a Russian name ends on and “–o” – usually Ukrainian, not sure about Zhivago though; ends with “-in” – Tatar (Galiullin) or Russian (Vedeniapin); Gordon – clearly Jewish. “– sky” – usually Polish descent.

    “-sha” “-chka” “-enka” – Example “Misha” – usually a form of endearment, usually used when speaking of a child. Some names use different suffix Example: Yurochka if affectionate name for Yurii, so suffix –“chka” is usually the same as “sha” (the same goes for “–enka” Example Pashenka)

    “-vich” – Paternal name. Usually in Russia no second name is given, instead a Paternal name is used: Example: “Yurii Andreievich Zhivago” = Yurii son of Andrei Zhivago (female version of paternal name ending is “-ovna” Larisa Feodorovna = Larisa daughter of Feodor)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like that comparison, and thank you so much for the introduction. I agree that audiobooks probably aren’t the best way of consuming Russian books, but those sufixes will help when trying the next book.


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