Easy Reading: How to Find and Enjoy Russian Short Stories for Beginners
Classic Russian literature is one of the best reasons to learn Russian.
If you dream of reading in Russian (or enjoying some sweet audiobooks), you’ve got some of the best material in the world to choose from.
From Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Pushkin, to more recent classics like Bulgakov, Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn—a world of great literature is at your fingertips.
That’s why, in the first flush of your excitement about learning to read in Russian, you’ll probably have your head full of dreams of reading “Война и мир” (“War and Peace”) or “Братья Карамазовы” (“The Brothers Karamazov”) in the original Russian.
If you jump right in, though, it’s easy to get discouraged and give up. It’s better to take it in steps, building your skills and confidence with simpler texts, like easy Russian short stories.
Then, when the glorious day arrives and you can finally crack open a book of Chekhov’s best plays, you’ll find the experience much smoother and more enjoyable.
This article is here to help you do just that!
Easy Reading: How to Find and Enjoy Russian Short Stories for Beginners
The Checklist of What to Look For in an “Easy” Russian Short Story
- When was it written? When does the story take place? If the story was written long ago (here’s looking at you, aspiring Pushkin readers!), you may well find a lot of old-fashioned words or spellings that would trip up even a native speaker. Be careful with historical fiction, too. It often makes reference to occupations, equipment and personal items no longer in use.
- How long is it? Length can make a big difference in your perception of how difficult the text is—and how likely you are to finish it. Even a “short story” of several pages is harder to finish than one of a single page. Start with smaller texts to build your speed and stamina, then work your way up to longer ones.
- Is it likely to have any specialized vocabulary or wordplay? Identify the topic or theme of the story, and ask yourself what vocabulary it’s likely to have. Specialized vocabulary could include religious references, military terms and technological jargon, among other things. Depending on your own specialty, this could be a pro or con. Beware children’s books, too. Though a lot of people assume they’ll be easy (since they’re written for children), they’re often filled with childish terms and wordplay that can be baffling to a non-native speaker.
- Is it likely to use a lot of cultural references? If you’ve ever understood all the words of a sentence but missed the meaning entirely, it’s probably because you didn’t know the context. This can be a problem while reading, too. So before you read a story, ask yourself if it’s likely to make a lot of cultural references. Some genres you’ll want to watch out for include contemporary humor or satire (which can refer to history, politics, pop culture and other national conversations) and stories inspired by folklore. If you’re up to the task of researching, then by all means, go for it—but know that you may have to compensate by choosing a shorter, more manageable text.
- Was it adapted for your level? If the story was adapted specifically for your level of Russian, that’s a pretty obvious indicator that you’ve found an “easy” Russian short story. If you still find yourself struggling, try reading a story one level down to build your confidence. You can even try adding other elements to your reading, like listening to the story through an audio recording or watching an animated short story—you can find the latter on FluentU, among many other types of videos hand-picked for language learners.
- Does the author have a reputation for simple, clear writing? Each writer has his or her own style, and some are going to be easier to read than others. Ask friends, language buddies or tutors for recommendations of short story writers with a reputation for straightforward writing.
- Does the text come with stress marks? This may seem like a small detail, but for us learners it makes a huge difference when it comes to the readability of a text. Stress marks help you sound out new words correctly (whether you’re reading aloud or in your head) and make sure you’re stressing the right syllable from the start. Reading goes more smoothly when you’re not questioning each word, wondering where the stress falls and how to pronounce it.
How to Enjoy Reading in Russian and Avoid Being Overwhelmed
Even with simple stories, it’s easy to get overwhelmed while reading in a foreign language. Here are a few ways to avoid frustration.
- Be honest about your level and choose resources accordingly. If you’re an avid reader—and especially if you’ve experienced the magic of Russian literature already in English—you’ll be tempted to reach for more complicated texts, convincing yourself there’s nothing you can’t handle with a dictionary and translator by your side. I know the temptation very well. Don’t give into it! You’ll progress much faster and have far more fun working with your current level and taking things one step at a time.
- Preview the story by reading plot summaries or blurbs. Before reading anything, even in your native language, it’s always smart to familiarize yourself with the context of the story. What’s the theme? Who are the major characters? When does it take place? What’s the central conflict? If you can read a plot summary first—ideally in Russian—you’ll have a solid idea of what to expect, which will give you a leg up when it comes to understanding what you read. (And if you don’t want to spoil the story for yourself, at least look for a teaser, something like what you’d find on the back of a novel.)
- If an English version exists, read that first. This is a variation of previewing the story for context—but in this case, you’re previewing the entire story, with all its events, dialogue and themes. Read through the story in English to get a solid picture, and then read it in Russian while the memory’s fresh. You’ll be able to spot some differences, but you’ll also be better prepared to guess the meanings of new words and fill in gaps in your understanding.
- Read along with audiobooks whenever possible. Especially if you’re more of an audio learner than a visual learner, reading along with an audiobook can greatly improve your understanding. Based on the narrator’s tone of voice, you’ll be able to pick up on shades of meaning that you might’ve missed by reading silently. (This is also a good way to make up for a lack of stress marks.)
- Give the dictionary a day off. It’s so, so tempting to reach for a Russian dictionary or translator app whenever you encounter a mysterious new word—but it’s also exhausting to constantly interrupt the flow of the story to look up a word. Try speed reading first for a general impression. You may be surprised at how much you understand! Another way to avoid overuse of the dictionary is to break the story into manageable chunks, then read through, underlining anything you can’t guess from context. When you get to the end of the first chunk, ask yourself which words seemed most important to understand what’s going on. Focus on looking up those words. Write them down somewhere, and then get on with the next chunk (and so on). The key is to keep up your momentum, even if it’s only in sprints.
4 Easy Steps to Get Started with Russian Short Stories
1. Start with stories written especially for you.
If you’re dreaming of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, it may seem boring to rely on stories written for learners. But that’s not actually true, and the benefits to your reading stamina are too good to ignore. Remember: Тише едешь – дальше будешь. (Slow and steady wins the race!)
Besides, there are some great resources out there for Russian learners:
- The website Pa-russki offers a fairly large collection of online stories and texts for learners, organized by CEFR level. They also include some short adapted texts. (Look for the word по—meaning “adapted from”—by an author’s name, like this one from Chekhov.)
- You can order print and audio books from the site Red Kalinka, and the materials are graded from CEFR levels A1 to B2. Their books include simple texts with stress marks, side-by-side translations and audio. You can even order “Easy Russian” versions of the classics “Anna Karenina,” Lermontov’s “A Hero of Our Time” and Gogol’s “Taras Bulba.”
- Polyglots Olly Richards and Alex Rawlings co-authored a book of eight “unconventional” stories for Russian learners, called “Russian Short Stories for Beginners.” These guys have been through the learning process themselves, so they know how to break things down while also challenging you.
- If you like humorous detective stories, try a 3-book series of “easy readers” by Ignaty Dyakov. These books are written specifically with Russian learners in mind and include exercises and glossaries, as well as everyday Russian vocabulary.
- If you’re at intermediate level, look into “Stories From Today’s Russia,” a reader that offers three contemporary novelettes broken into chapters. The book includes stress marks, vocabulary in footnotes, and exercises at the end of chapters.
2. Get a confidence boost with adapted classics.
Now you can give yourself a taste of the classics—but on your terms. Adapted books allow you to read what you like, but without the difficulty. Start with these and you’ll feel better prepared when you decide to tackle the authentic stuff later.
- Take a look through the catalog at The Online Russian Bookshop to find textbooks and adaptations for various ages and CEFR levels. (Scroll down to “Russian > Reading”)
- Middlebury College, famous for its intensive language immersion programs, offers an online treasury of adapted stories based on the Russian school curriculum. These are stories that ordinary Russians read in school, and they’ll go a long way toward helping you learn more about the cultural context of today’s Russia. You can start with an adapted and abridged version (including an audio reading!) and then read the original afterward.
3. Dive into dual-language stories for your level.
Another good strategy for breaking into authentic Russian stories is to read a bilingual edition, with the original text and the translation side by side. There are plenty of these in print (and you can find some suggestions here), but you can also find a few good resources online.
- Chekhov fans will be happy to know “Дама с собачкой” (“The Lady with the Dog”) is available online as a dual-language story—for free. The story is broken into chapters, with paragraphs translated side by side for easy comparison. While there aren’t any stress marks, the host blog makes up for it by providing audio versions you can stream while reading.
- Another exciting resource is the website Learn Russian Through Stories, a small online library with bilingual texts and audio divided by level. At Levels 1 and 2, the translation is shown line by line and sometimes phrase by phrase, so it can be clunky to read. On the other hand, it makes it easier to learn new words.
While reading, you can either read the translation first for context, or test how far you can go in the original before “cheating” by looking at the translation. Personally, I try to alternate between both approaches, depending on how difficult the text is for me.
4. Go native—in baby steps.
When you’re ready for original Russian stories—not adapted or translated—be sure to start small. Work with shorter and simpler stories before you get into novellas, and get comfortable with novellas before you try something like “Crime and Punishment.”
You might begin with…
- Russian children’s stories. I know I warned you about them, but some kiddie books really are easy. For example, check out this collection of tales for children (also with German translations, if you speak German).
- “Short shorts.” Truly short Russian stories do exist, despite the stereotypes of epic Russian novels. Check out Chekhov’s “Пари” (“The Bet”), Bunin’s “Третий класс” (“Third Class”) and Nabokov’s “Слово” (“The Word”).
Then, when you’re up for more, a host of online Russian literature libraries are there for the exploring. That includes Public-library.ru, organized by author, and Lib.ru, organized by genre and author. There are also several more on the Multilingual Books index.
Finally, a last word about reading in Russian: Don’t give up.
Some days it’s going to be hard. Some days you’re going to want to throw the book down and never pick it back up again.
If that happens, take a break, and pick it up again the next day. Keep in mind the vision of why you’re doing this in the first place. Imagine how awesome it will be when you’re reading your favorite easy Russian short stories without the filter of translation.
Again: тише едешь, дальше будешь—slow and steady, folks!
And One More Thing...
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