Russia-Infused YA Lit

Photo by Jessica Lind
Photo by Jessica Lind

One year ago today, my first post for The Hub, From Russia with YA, went live. Today, I am celebrating my blogiversary with another Russian-related topic: the abundance of YA lit being published with a Russian connection.

Over the past couple of years, it seems that Russia (or the USSR) has been popping up everywhere! At first, I thought I was only noticing this theme because I moved here, much like how the world felt like it was suddenly filled with weddings as soon as I got engaged. I had a few conversations with friends who did not have the same connection and they had noticed it, too.

What is it about Russia that makes for such an interesting background in YA lit? Is it simply because it is a country that has such a long history filled with royalty, religion, and rebellion? Did the Cold War draw a clear line between the cultures of the US and the USSR, making life in Russia seem even more distant and distinct, a novelty?

The books that I have included in this post focus on various aspects of Russian history and culture, across a range of historical time periods. None of these books are contemporary stories (the most recent occur during the Soviet Union) and most include elements of fantasy and the supernatural. It seems that something about Russia cries out for the inclusion of magic – even a story of spies and ballet is open to a supernatural addition!

  • shadow_and_bone_coverThe Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo (Shadow and Bone2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2013 Readers’ Choice)
    • The Grisha trilogy is a Russian-influenced high-fantasy series based on magical powers and battles between light and dark. Bardugo used elements of Russian culture and language to create a completely new world. Some readers have expressed frustration with her departure from the traditional rules and customs of Russia, for example not following the proper gendering of surnames, but the Grisha trilogy is a separate fantasy world, not an attempt to recreate the actual culture. 
  • Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
    • In Deathless, Valente brings a traditional villain from Russian folklore, Koschei the Deathless, to twentieth-century Russia. The story weaves together fantasy and history, including Stanlinist house elves and Baba Yaga, another well-known character from Russian folklore.
  • TsarinaTsarina by J. Nelle Patrick
    • Patrick uses the intrigue of the Romanov family’s history as the basis for her newest release. Blending history and fantasy, the main character, Natalya, finds herself caught between royalty and revolution in a battle for a magical Faberge egg.
  • The Katerina Trilogy by Robin Bridges
    • The Katerina trilogy is another blend of fantasy and Russian history. It is the story of a young necromancer who happens to be a royal debutante in St. Petersburg during the late nineteenth century. Katerina Alexandrovna does not wish for her powers to be known, but after she finds herself forced to use them, she is thrust into the middle of a battle in which she is unsure which side is truly right.
  • Dancer Daughter Traitor SpyDancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Kiem
    • Taking place during the Cold War, this is the story of Marina, daughter of a prima ballerina who goes missing as a result of knowing information she should not. Marina and her father defect to the United States, but find themselves once again in danger as a result of the Russian mob presence in their new home in New York’s Brighton Beach. Marina takes after her mother not only as a ballet dancer, but also by having the gift of seeing future events. This adds a touch of supernatural to a tale of spies and intrigue.
  • The Danilov Quintet by Jasper Kent
    • This series begins with Twelve which takes place in Russia during the War of 1812. In order to defend against Napoleon’s invasion, a group of mercenaries called the oprichniki are called in. Kent uses this reference to members of a governing organization from the time of Ivan the Terrible to introduce vampires to the battle. The set of four books covers four different time periods in Russian history between 1812 and 1881, adding vampires to the story along the way.
  • The Boy on the BridgeThe Boy on the Bridge by Natalie Standiford
    • The Boy on the Bridge is the story of American college student Laura Reid who is studying abroad in the U.S.S.R. in 1982. She meets a young Russian artist named Alexei who shows her life in Leningrad as she never would have seen with a tour guide. As the couple falls in love, Laura has to question whether their romance is based on true affection or if Alexei is using her as a ticket to the United States. It is a story of love and trust, based on the author’s own experience.
  • Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (2012 Morris Award Finalist, 2012 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2012 Readers’ Choice List for Realistic Fiction, 2014 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults Top Ten)
    • This book focuses on the effect of the Soviet Union on a family living in Lithuanian under Soviet rule. Fifteen-year-old Lina’s family is removed from their home and sent to work camps in Siberia. Lina remains with her mother and younger brother, but her father is separated from them and sent to another camp. The is a story of survival, strength, and love under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

Please share any other Russian-infused YA titles you know of in the comments!

– Jessica Lind (aka Джессика Линд), currently reading Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Kiem

2 thoughts on “Russia-Infused YA Lit”

  1. Seconding SEKRET! My favorite of the Russia bunch. 1960s USSR setting with the space race, spies, romance, and a touch of fantasy.

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