Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41) lived and worked in the shadow of Pushkin. His verse forms, his subject matter, and his death in a pointless duel (age 27), suggest his older contemporary at every turn. For the last four years of his life, he was widely acknowledged as Pushkin's heir, Russia's greatest living poet. But Lermontov is very much worth reading for his own sake.
Lermontov's single short novel, A Hero of Our Time (1840), is a series of four adventures of Pechorin, the supposed hero of the title. The adventures are all set on the war-torn Caucasian frontier, and involve smugglers and Chechnyan bandits, kidnapping, Russian roulette, and dueling - exciting stuff. Why, then, is Pechorin always so bored?
That's the central irony of the novel - the adventures are all a result of Pechorin's boredom, his struggle against the meaningless of his life. The result is always some sort of disaster. Pechorin sows chaos, just to have something to do, and leaves a trail of casualties. Here's a sample of how he operates. Pechorin is trying to steal the Princess Mary from his friend Grushnitski, for sport:
"During all these days, I never once departed from my system. The young princess begins to like my conversation. I told her some of the strange occurrences in my life, and she begins to see in me an extraordinary person. I laugh at everything in the world, especially at feelings: this is beginning to frighten her. In my presence she does not dare to launch upon sentimental debates with Grushnitski, and has several times already replied to his sallies with a mocking smile; but every time that Grushnitski comes up to her, I assume a humble air and leave them alone together. The first time she was glad of it or tried to make it seem so; the second time she became cross with me; the third time she became cross with Grushnitski." (p. 121, Ardis edition)
The result, in this case, is one of the greatest, craziest, dueling scenes in Russian literature.
A Hero of Our Time has an indirect, modern structure. A Lermontov-like narrator first hears a long story about Pechorin, then, by chance, actually meets him. Then the last three stories are in Pechorin's own voice, from his journals. So the reader starts at a distance, but draws closer and closer to Pechorin.
Lermontov's hero is a relative of Goethe's Werther and any number of Byronic heroes, and his own descendants will be seen again in certain protagonists of Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky, and any other character who asks "What's the point of it all?"
This is cross-posted at the Russian Reading Challenge. I'm not sure it's any more useful or well written than Lermontov's wikipedia entry, but such is life.
The long "Princess Mary" chapter is the earliest non-English story I know set in a spa town. In England, I'm thinking of Jane Austen and Tobias Smollett. Who am I forgetting?