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Quotes From 5 Controversial Russian Novels That Changed the World

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Let's explore some quotes from five great (and controversial) Russian novels.

Let's explore some quotes from five great (and controversial) Russian novels.

A Preliminary Note

As a bona fide bookworm and a Russian expatriate, I'm deeply biased, I admit. I think there's nothing greater in the world than Russian literature.

This collection of quotes focuses on five Russian novels that had a particularly profound impact on me. Once again, I'm hopelessly biased.

Griboiedov Canal in St. Petersburg, backdrop for Dostoyevsky's 'Crime and Punishment'

Griboiedov Canal in St. Petersburg, backdrop for Dostoyevsky's 'Crime and Punishment'

"Crime and Punishment" (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

An emotionally disturbed student Rodion Raskolnikov kills and robs two women to prove that he is one of the "chosen ones," great men like Napoleon who can take human lives in the name of greater good. The novel is essentially a contemplation on the nature of good and evil, and a philosophical critique of nihilism, which was popular in the 19th century Russia (Raskolnikov's name references the word "raskol" - dissent, opposition).

  • “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”
  • “Man has it all in his hands, and it all slips through his fingers from sheer cowardice.”
  • "You never reach any truth without making fourteen mistakes and very likely a hundred and fourteen."
  • "Mere existence had always been too little for him; he had always wanted more."
  • “The darker the night, the brighter the stars, The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”

Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.

— Dostoyevsky, "Crime and Punishment"

  • “It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently.”
  • "Man is a vile creature!...And vile is he who calls him vile for that."
  • "I did not bow down to you, I bowed down to all the suffering of humanity."
  • "Brother, brother, what are you saying? Why, you have shed blood?" cried Dunia in despair. "Which all men shed," he put in almost frantically, "which flows and has always flowed in streams, which is spilt like champagne, and for which men are crowned in the Capitol and are called afterwards benefactors of mankind... If I had succeeded I should have been crowned with glory, but now I'm trapped."
  • "I fail to understand why it is more honourable to shell some besieged town than to destroy by the blows of an axe."
Scene from the film "Anna Karenina", 1914. Anna is about to end her life.

Scene from the film "Anna Karenina", 1914. Anna is about to end her life.

"Anna Karenina" (1877) by Leo Tolstoy

"Anna Karenina" is a story of tragic love between a married woman Anna Karenina and a young officer Count Vronsky. Spoiler alert: she dies. This remarkable novel tackled many controversial topics of the day including adultery, atheism, Russia's political future, and the role of women in society.

  • “If you look for perfection, you'll never be content.”
  • “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
  • “Love. The reason I dislike that word is that it means too much for me, far more than you can understand."
  • “All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.”
  • "I don't want to prove anything, I just want to live; to cause no evil to anyone but myself. I have that right, haven't I?”

Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.

— Tolstoy, "Anna Karenina"

  • “He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that their happiness depends on the realization of their desires.”
  • “Anna spoke not only naturally and intelligently, but intelligently and casually, without attaching any value to her own thoughts, yet giving great value to the thoughts of the one she was talking to.”
  • “He looked at her as a man looks at a faded flower he has gathered, with difficulty recognizing in it the beauty for which he picked and ruined it."
  • “These joys were so trifling as to be as imperceptible as grains of gold among the sand, and in moments of depression she saw nothing but the sand; yet there were brighter moments when she felt nothing but joy, saw nothing but the gold.”
Illustration to Gogol's "Dead Souls" (1901), by M. Dalkevich.

Illustration to Gogol's "Dead Souls" (1901), by M. Dalkevich.

"Dead Souls" (1842) by Nikolai Gogol

In his bold satirical novel "Dead Souls" Gogol uses humor to expose bureaucratic anarchy and corruption in Imperial Russia, and asks fundamental questions like: "What won't people do for money?" The book was considered highly controversial at the time, and marked an important change in Russian political and social life. Gogol burnt the second part of "Dead Souls" not long before his death, experiencing a severe manic-depressive episode.

  • “...and sank into the profound slumber which comes only to such fortunate folk as are troubled neither with mosquitoes nor fleas nor excessive activity of brain.
  • "The inner state of his soul might be compared to a demolished building, which has been demolished so that from it a new one could be built; but the new one has not been started yet, because the infinitive plan has not yet come from the architect and the workers are left in perplexity.”
  • “Why, then, make a show of the poverty of our life and our sad imperfection, unearthing people from the backwoods, from remote corners of the state? But what if this is in the writer's nature, and his own imperfection grieves him so, and the makeup of his talent is such, that he can only portray the poverty of our life, unearthing people from the backwoods, from the remote corners of the state!"
  • “Countless as the sands of sea are human passions, and not all of them are alike, and all of them, base and noble alike, are at first obedient to man and only later on become his terrible masters.”
  • "The present generation sees everything clearly, it is amazed and laughs at the folly of its ancestors...and self-confidently enters on a fresh set of errors at which their descendants will laugh again later on.”
  • “Even a stone has its uses, and man who is the most intelligent of all creatures must be of some use, hasn't he?”

How many crooked, out-of-the-way, narrow, impassable, and devious paths has humanity chosen in the attempt to attain eternal truth, while before it the straight road lay open...

— Gogol, "Dead Souls"

"Lolita" (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov

Written by a Russian emigrant Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita is still one of the most controversial pieces of literature ever created. Nabokov was called a pedophile and a pornographer, so authentic was his portrayal of Humbert Humbert, a man passionately in love with a teenage girl. The book was banned in a number of countries. However, the distinctly Nabokovian style of prose embodies the concept of writing as an art form and makes you want to read it over and over again. Honest and provocative.

  • “Human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.”
  • “Words without experience are meaningless.”
  • “Nowadays you have to be a scientist if you want to be a killer.”
  • “Suddenly, gentlemen of the jury, I felt a Dostoevskian grin dawning (through the very grimace that twisted my lips) like a distant and terrible sun.”
  • "She could fade and wither - I didn't care. I would still go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of her face.”
  • “Life is short. From here to that old car you know so well there is a stretch of twenty, twenty-five paces. It is a very short walk. Make those twenty-five steps. Now."

Life is just one small piece of light between two eternal darknesses.

— Nabokov, "Lolita"

  • “There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.”
  • “I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.”
  • “the gin kept my heart alive but bemazed my brain”
  • “I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything, mais je t’aimais, je t’aimais! And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one."
  • “Humbert was perfectly capable of intercourse with Eve, but it was Lilith he longed for.”
  • “Perhaps, somewhere, some day, at a less miserable time, we may see each other again.”
Gulag prisoners at work, 1936-1937.

Gulag prisoners at work, 1936-1937.

"The Gulag Archipelago" (1973) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn based "The Gulag Archipelago" on his personal experience in the Soviet labor camps and the stories of over two hundred other prisoners. Many of them were political prisoners.The authorities immediately condemned the novel. Solzhenitsyn was accused of treason, stripped of Soviet citizenship and deported. All Soviet libraries were ordered to destroy any books by Solzhenitsyn.

  • “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
  • "And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... an unuprooted small corner of evil."
  • "It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”
  • “Every man always has handy a dozen glib little reasons why he is right not to sacrifice himself.”
  • “In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future."

Only those who decline to scramble up the career ladder are interesting as human beings. Nothing is more boring than a man with a career.

— Solzhenitsyn, "The Gulag Archipelago"

  • "Do not pursue what is illusory - property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night."
  • "Live with a steady superiority over life - don't be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn for happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing."
  • "Rub your eyes and purify your heart - and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it may be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted on their memory.”
  • “Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”

© 2014 Lana Adler


Lana Adler (author) from California on June 18, 2017:

NevaNV, thank you for your comment. I loved the insults chosen by you. Good to mention that Tolstoy is far from boring, how dare I express a personal opinion in a comment to a friend, being disrespectful of geniuses and what not!

In all seriousness, I'm actually inclined to agree with you. I recently re-read "Anna Karenina" and totally changed my perspective on the book. The first time I read it I was in high school. And i thought it was boring. Now - I loved it. And I agree, Karenina wasn't an image of an ideal woman at all. To that end, I wouldn't say I'm an expert on Russian lit. But I did read more of it than any other literature. Probably read more than most people. But the only writer I studied in depth was Dostoevsky, and he remains my favorite of all times. If it wasn't for the tone of your comment, I would have loved to talk some more about it. Cheers!

NevaNV on June 17, 2017:

Lana Zakinov, thank you for your work. I loved the quotes chosen by you. Good to mention that most writers use thoughts of other people , not just personal ideas and feelings, when they make their characters speak. Otherwise, Nabokov is indeed a pedophile. I disagree with you whole-heartedly on Anna Karenina. You claim that Tolstoy created an ideal woman in the image of Anna. Pure nonsense. Tolstoy disliked Anna and while creating this novel, he "loved the concept of family" and opposed it to the sin of lust This sin ruined Anna. Love of Levin and Kitty is of finer quality and serves a better example of what Tolstoy thought of love and marriage. It is a well known fact for anyone considering oneself an expert in Russian literature. It is very easy to find personal Tolstoys diaries, his wife diaries, interviews, books devoted to the subject. It is all online. It is free. He is far from "boring". Tolstoy is fascinating. Dostoevsky is fascinating. The more you read them, the more depth you discover. They are geniuses. No pathology there, just beauty and passion. People who show little or no respect towards genius of others usually lack in talent themselves. I do not mean to offend. It is a general comment, which proves to be a common case nowadays.

Lewis Sckolnick on October 12, 2016:

The White Guard a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov

Lana Adler (author) from California on April 14, 2015:

NonCopy, the actor's name was Yuri Yakovlev, and he embodied Prince Myshkin so divinely, that when he had a nervous breakdown and couldn't continue with the film, the director refused to re-cast for his role. That's the legend anyway :) They never made a second part! The film ends with Nastasya Filippovna burning the money

Lana Adler (author) from California on April 14, 2015:

Oh come on :) Not brilliantly, decently :) And my judgement is that Dostoevsky should be canonized immediately, everywhere!!

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on April 13, 2015:

The thing is Lana that when those of us whose native language is English read the English version I think we miss nuances and subtleties that the translator can't always do justice to. Since you speak both languages brilliantly I bow to your judgment on these matters.

Nicholas Daly from NSW Australia on April 13, 2015:

Sounds like Daniel Day Lewis haha.. I wondered how I'd ever find a copy then I saw it's online- including a Vietnamese subbed version on YouTube.. It has an audience...

Lana Adler (author) from California on April 13, 2015:

NonCopyBook, I really liked the series, although there is another version of the Idiot - the older Soviet one from 1958 which I consider absolutely superb. It was meant to be a two-part film, but after the first part the actor playing the main character couldn't continue with the shooting because he became so identified with the character, he was quite literally going insane. Now that's acting!!

Lana Adler (author) from California on April 13, 2015:

Mel, impressive!!! The Brothers Karamazov is my favorite, and probably the most complex novel I've ever read. I agree that it's very different from Crime and Punishment (although, I must say I find it hard to imagine not liking C&P), and for me personally, it was so revelatory and powerful, to the point of disturbing.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on April 11, 2015:

Svetlana I just thought I would add that I am almost finished reading the Brothers Karamazov and I find it very engaging. I never realized it was a crime drama, and I never realized what a master plot formulator Dostoyevsky was in addition to being a great philosopher. Since I didn't like Crime and Punishment when I read it as a young man I am pleasantly surprised.

Nicholas Daly from NSW Australia on April 10, 2015:

That's probably a good place to start, though I can't recall writing of Tolstoy's that I didn't find interesting on some level (I confess to not reading all of "Childhood, Boyhood, Youth" however, given I prefer fiction to memoirs - but I'll get back to that someday), and War & Peace was the greatest achievement for me. I noticed "Idiot" is on amazon and available in other places of course/no doubt.. I enjoyed the series, just finished watching..

Lana Adler (author) from California on April 10, 2015:

Oooooh I'm so jealous! I want to be watching "The Idiot"! Sorry I haven't had a chance to check out your hubs yet, but it's finally weekend, so I'm looking forward to that. I respect Proust - mad respect, but since I can never appreciate him the way he was meant to be appreciated (in French), I'm sticking with Russian Lit :-)

Yes, it's hard to argue tastes, and maybe I should give Tolstoy another chance. Our discussion here made me curious about what I might have missed when I was younger. I am by no means an expert on Tolstoy, and I probably overlooked some of his major works while chasing the high of murder mysteries with Dostoevsky. Ok, Anna Karenina, here I come!

Nicholas Daly from NSW Australia on April 09, 2015:

Cheers, I'm enjoying the final of the 10 hours in the series now.. As you'll see in my hubs B Karamazov is no. 3 for me- I envy your reading Russian by the way, given Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are two of the three best novelists (again, I would say Proust is better). It's hard to explain tastes; I love darkness too or the depth of Dostoyevsky (again comparable to Shakespeare)- I think maybe if you revisited W & Peace or A Karenina you might appreciate the level of achievement in the writing more, it is such a crazy impressive balancing act to capture history and keep so many balls in the air! That's kind of underselling or oversimplifying the whole thing, but yeah you can only love what you love, & I do love Dostoyevsky as well... Also "Death of Ivan Ilyich" and "How Much Land Does A Man Need" and other novels by Tolstoy are great (imho) too.. Happy reading ;)

Lana Adler (author) from California on April 09, 2015:

To each his own...I became infected with Dostoevsky early, back in school (in Russian schools they start teaching these pretty complex classic novels fairly early, way before what they call here "high school"), but never got into Tolstoy. Couldn't finish "War and Peace". I think they represent two different approaches to literature, two different (even conflicting) worldviews. I always liked a little darkness, so I prefer Dostoevsky. Some of his novels I wasn't ready for then, so I've read them much later in life - like "Brothers Karamazov," for example, the best book I've ever read. And I also love "Idiot" - both the book and the TV film/series. So there is a translated version of the TV series? How awesome! You've inspired me to watch it again, and I'll be sure to check out your hubs on the subject.

Nicholas Daly from NSW Australia on April 09, 2015:

I dated a Russian who also said she found Tolstoy boring and loved Dostoyevsky - I agree that the latter is more forceful and akin to Shakespeare in its emotional depths, but I prefer Tolstoy because of the truth it captures and shares (as it says in a translation of War and Peace, "If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy".. I've written a little about these things in my hubs and will write more- to me no other novels come close to Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky- and Proust, as such novels such as those by Nabokov are a big disappointment). I searched on here for Dostoyevsky because right now I'm watching the Russian TV version of "Idiot"!

Lana Adler (author) from California o