The world is a chaotic place—and few writers have grappled with its complexity as well as did Leo Tolstoy, who was born a hundred and ninety years ago today, on September 9, 1828. This week, we’re bringing you pieces on Tolstoy and five other great Russian writers. In “Movable Types,” James Wood chronicles the making of “War and Peace” and explains what makes it magical; Janet Malcolm, in “Three Journeys,” follows Anton Chekhov on his travels and discovers how he turned them into art. In “Under Siege,” Keith Gessen tells the story of Vasily Grossman, who began his career as a research chemist and then, in Stalin’s Russia, became a dissident; in “The Weight of Words” and “The Memory Keeper,” Masha Gessen explores the uncomfortable truths and revelatory histories of Lyudmila Ulitskaya and Svetlana Alexievich, respectively. Finally, “The Russian Professor” collects a series of heartfelt letters written by Vladimir Nabokov to his wife, Véra, during a 1942 lecture tour that brought him to Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, and other places. We hope that these literary excursions enrich and enliven your Sunday.

David Remnick


“Three Journeys”

“If the trip to Sakhalin did not yield a work of literary distinction, its personal (and eventual literary) significance for Chekhov was momentous. He needed to go on a journey.” Read more.


“The Weight of Words”

“In recent years, as Russia has grown politically repressive and culturally conservative, Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s fiction, which addresses both religion and politics, has moved in for a confrontation.” Read more.


“Movable Types”

“Readers always feel that Tolstoy is both an intrusive narrator—breaking in to explain things, telling us what to think, writing essays and sermons—and a miraculously absent one, who simply lets his world narrate itself.” Read more.


“The Russian Professor”

“On the way a lightning bolt of undefined inspiration ran right through me—a passionate desire to write, and to write in Russian. And yet I can’t. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t experienced this feeling can really understand its torment, its tragedy.” Read more.


“Under Siege”

“In the end, Vasily Grossman, who during and after the war had been so popular, so in touch with his readers, was as isolated and discouraged as any writer in Russian history.” Read more.


“The Memory Keeper”

“Svetlana Alexievich’s books deal with historical crises—the Second World War, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, and the collapse of the Soviet Union—through the voices of ordinary individuals.” Read more.