Russian Literature
By John Mooers

Russia was transformed at the hands of Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725). Peter, so impressed with what he saw on his tour of Western Europe, personally cut off the beards of some of his nobles on the very day he returned to Russia and ordered them to wear western dress. He proceeded with an authoritarian and sometimes ruthless force to totally secularize and Westernize his Medieval and Byzantine Russia. Peter built the city of Petersburg, he brought in Dutch and French and German teachers, took schools in Russia away from the Church, simplified the alphabet, changed printing from Old World Church Slavonic to modern European script. Translations of European literature followed, and French became the language of the educated aristocratic class.

Russia, whether it wanted to or not, transformed. But it created an ever increasing gap between the educated, mostly city dwelling but land owning aristocratic class, and the peasants, crushed by poverty, serfdom, and in some cases simple slavery. By the early 19th Century some children of the upper classes only spoke French. Russia became a foreign language to them. Russian intellectuals conversed freely with Voltaire, Diderot, and the other French Enlightenment figures. The poetry of Mikhail Lomonossov (1711-1765) and Gavriil Derzhavin (1743-1816) imitated the French Classical literature of a Racine or Moliere. It became the standard Russian form of poetic expression.

But, by bringing in the culture of the Western European world the Russian government could not stop the free flow of western ideas, such as liberal democracy and freedom. This, of course, was totally counter to the all encompassing oppressive power that the Tsar system had over the Russian people. The result was inevitable. So when these ideas of freedom and self rule exploded in the West in both the French and American Revolutions the Russian government did, indeed, try to stop the flow of ideas.

When Alexander Radishchev (1744-1802) published his ‘Voyage from St. Petersburg to Moscow,’ exposing the inhuman treatment of peasants and the corruption of local government officials, he was quickly arrested, condemned to death, but then sentenced to Siberia.

So Russian literature was formed at the very beginning into a literature of criticism and opposition to the censorship and oppression of the Tsarist rule.

As Romanticism swept Europe through the works of Rousseau, Byron, Goethe and Schiller, so too it swept Russia. This new school of literature came in the person of Nicholas Karamzin (1766-1826). Taking more realistic and common themes in his poetry, rather than classical Greek and Roman heroes, Karamzin helped to transform his art from the highly stylized and ridged forms of the French Classical school. His massive and scholarly ‘History of the Russian State’ became passionate reading for a generation of students who found in its pages a growing awareness of Mother Russia and the Slavophile Soul bound and gagged by an oppressive government. Suddenly the westernized intellectual, separated by his class and education from the Russian peasant and serf, found in them, as Mother Russia and Slavic consciousness, a cause for opposition and criticism.

The birth of Russian literature is Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). It has been said that all the currents of the 18th Century converge on Pushkin, and all the rivers of the 19th Century flow from him. He wrote, and excelled, in a wide range of literary genres: lyrical poems, drama, novels in verse, novels in prose, historical narratives, short stories, essays, fairy tales, and, for all the young ladies he spent his short life chasing and, mostly, successfully seducing, love songs. Unfortunately his writing style, so beautifully wedded to the Russian, loses much of its beauty in translation.

But his ideas come through. In his greatest work, ‘Eugene Onegin,’ Pushkin helps create the idea of the ‘ridiculous,’ or ‘superfluous’ man. Educated, refined, but cut off from the heart and soil of Russia, the ridiculous man is full of energy and desire but without an outlet for his passion. A Nobleman, his needs taken care of by his serfs, supported by his inherited land holdings, unable to act for fear of censorship, an oppressive government, and loss of social standing, the ridiculous man wastes his time and energy on nothing of substance. Cut off from the heart and soul of the true Mother Russia he is superfluous to life, he is useless and spiritually empty. How is he to find fulfillment? This became a common theme throughout the rest of Russian literature.

Pushkin, passionate for poetry, women, and honor, exiled to the Caucasus for six years for expressing too much of his ideals, died in a duel at age thirty seven.

Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841), a Byronic Romantic, creates in his ‘A Hero of Our Times’ a more complete expression of the ridiculous man by his hero Pechorin. Filled with need and energy, but stifled by inactivity and political control, Pechorin starts down a path of action which will eventually culminate in Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov.

Lermontov too, exiled by the Tsar to the Caucasus, spent a life passionate for writing, a slightly less successful passion for woman, as well as honor. He too died in a duel, at twenty seven.

Nicholas Gogol (1809-1852) is considered the father of both the Russian novel and the Naturalistic school of writing. Through his slightly bizarre stories and plays and his novel ‘Dead Souls’ Gogol placed Russian literature upon the international scene. He spent many years writing a second volume to his ‘Dead Souls’ but in a fit of despair burned the whole manuscript a few months before his death at forty three.

It was the critic Vissarion Belinsky (1810-1848) who praised Gogol as the first of the Naturalistic School. Literature seldom flowers alone. It is artistic criticism and exposition that helps to spread the influence of the struggling writer. For Russia the principal critic was Belinsky and his followers, such as Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), Nicholas Chernyshevsky (1828-1889) whose ‘What Is to Be Done?’ was written while in prison, and Michael Bakunin (1814-1876).

Although Gogol spent many years living in Europe, it was Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) who became the international man of letters. Friends with the likes of Flaubert, Zola, and Henry James, Turgenev spent some thirty years of his life living outside of Russia, mostly in France and Germany. In works like ‘Sketches from a Sportsman’s Notebook.,’ ‘On the Eve,’ ‘Rudin,’ and his most famous ‘Fathers and Sons,’ Turgenev demonstrates an elegant and smooth prose of great craftsmanship.

It is in Ivan Goncharov (1812-1891) that the ridiculous man achieves a term. From his novel ‘Oblomov,’ the story of a man who, cultured, educated, his every physical task handled by serfs, idles away his life in inaction. Physical labor, the work of serfs, is beneath him. It opened a spiritual emptiness that haunted a generation of idle  educated youth. From his novel came the term Oblomovism. Such restless energy would, of course, eventually, spawn a revolution.

A literary movement known as Populism, or writers of the soil, developed in the mid 19th Century. It influenced both Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in their own unique way. Essentially it was an attempt to reunite the lost unity of the educated class and the large popular masses, by praising the soil, the earth, the ‘old’ Russia. Two such writers stand out.

Sergei Aksakov (1791-1859) began his writing career late in life, inspired, it is said, by meeting Gogol. His ‘Family Chronicle: A Russian Gentleman, A Russian Schoolboy, Years of Childhood,’ is the semi fictional autobiography of his family from his grandfather forward. His prose sparkles with the beauty of his native Russian land.

A second writer of the soil was Nicholas Leskov (1831-1895). Working as a Civil Servant he traveled about Russia and gained a unique understanding of Russians of all classes and stations in life. He depicted them with a flair for the humorous and noble, no matter how idiosyncratic. Gorky says of Leskov: “he did not write about the muzhik, the Nihilist, the landowner--he wrote about the Russian.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) is by far one of the greatest writers who has ever lived. ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is considered one of the greatest novels ever written. To read his works, with full attention, can be a frightening experience. His own life reads like one of his novels. His mother died when he was 16, his alcoholic father was murdered by his own serfs, Dostoyevsky spent 10 years in penal servitude, his first wife died, he spent most of his life desperate for money, his beloved brother died, his three year old son died, and he suffered from epileptic attacks all of his adult life. In a string of novels from ‘Notes From The Underground’ to ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ he explored the depths and heights of the human experience with an uncanny understanding.

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) wrote with a broad sweep of the epic story. ‘War and Peace,’ ‘Anna Karenina,’ these are stories that include not only the vast history of Russia, but also the broad story of families, or several families, as they interlink over years and generations. It is said there are 559 characters in ‘War and Peace’ but all of them are individuals, with their own history and idiosyncrasies.

Through his short stories and plays Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) is the social chronicler of all the walks of Russian life. His stories, although realistic, are not written in classical story form. They are small snap shots, a slice of life; but by centering in on key symbolic details the story, after reading, grows in significance in the minds of the reader. The art form of the short story, and drama, has changed as a result of Chekhov’s influence.

Growing out of a hard, horrible childhood, Maxim Gorky (pen name of Alexis Peshkov) (1868-1936), through a string of menial jobs, came to understand and appreciate the struggle of the poor: “creatures that once were men.” Gorky learned to read and write from a cook while working on a barge on the Volga river. Previous Russian writers were from the landed gentry, Gorky was the first major Russian writer to emerge from the proletariat. Born in Nizhni Novgorod, it was later named Gorky in his honor.

Along with Gorky there are several important writers who lived during the difficult years of revolution, civil war, and the rise of the Soviet state. Osip Mandelstam (1891-?1938?), whose meticulously constructed lyrics served as a reaction against the Symbolist Movement in Russia, disappeared into the Siberian prison camps never to be heard from again. The symbolists Andrei Bely (1880-1934) and Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921) composed poems to a mystical vision of Sophia, the eternal feminine. Later in life Blok, disillusioned, tried to find solace in love affairs. But he claimed there were only two such love affairs in his life: his wife Lyubov, “and all the others.”

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), who left Russia after the Revolution, wrote stories in Russian, German, and English. He became a success with his novel ‘Lolita,’ the story of Professor Humbert Humbert’s passion for a 12 year old nymphet. Noted for a long string of other novels, Nabokov was also an expert in butterflies.

Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) had to leave his native Russia in 1918, but became the first Russian to win in 1933 the Nobel Prize in literature. The early poetry of Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) displeased the censors so he spent a long time only translating. Unable to find a publisher for his novel, it finally came out in the West as ‘Doctor Zhivago.’ He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958 but the Soviet government forced him to decline. The epic ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’ brought Mikhail Sholokhov (1905- ) the Nobel Prize in 1965. Although Khrushchev helped Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918- ) publish his ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ in 1962, after 1966 Solzhenitsyn could only find Western publishers for his ‘The First Circle,’ ‘Cancer Ward,’ ‘August 1914,’ and ‘The Gulag Archipelago.’ He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, and was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974.

It is hard to know where Russian literature will go. There is the literature written under the Tsars, and there is the literature written under the Soviet State. But now, in the post-Soviet world of Russia, what themes will develop and what direction will Mother Russia’s literature take? It will be interesting to watch.

*Copyright © 1999 John Mooers. All rights reserved.