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Russian Literature

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

When Alexander I came to the throne of Russia in 1801, he was inclined to peace, but the policy and acts of Napoleon forced him into war, which culminated in the French invasion and the disastrous retreat from Moscow. After the downfall of Napoleon, the influence of Alexander was paramount in the Congresses which settled the affairs of Europe. He was the founder of the Holy Alliance, which was to combine the powers of Church and State in suppressing revolutionary tendencies. But he was also intent on promoting the civilization of his vast Empire. French influence, which during the reign of Catharine II, had prevailed in literature, was supplanted by an effort at a truly national literature.

The historian, Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin (1765-1826) was one of the glories of Alexander's reign, and is said to have revealed Russia to itself. His father was an army officer of Tartar descent and wished his son to follow in that profession, but the latter was drawn into literature at St. Petersburg and Moscow. His visit to France and England gave occasion for his "Letters of a Russian Traveler" (1801), but most of his writings were miscellaneous and sentimental tales, until he took tip in earnest his "History of the Russian Empire." To accomplish this he had gone to live in retirement, but the Czar, Alexander, learning the fact, invited him to St. Petersburg, and gave him every facility for work. In 1825 his health began to fail, and a year later he died. His History was brought down to the year 1613. It was founded on original research and is written in elegant style, modeled upon Addison. It has been censured for the romantic air cast over the barbarism and cruelty of olden times, and has been called an "epic of despotism." It traced the origin of Russian greatness to Ivan the Terrible and even to his grandfather, instead of limiting it to Peter the Great, as previous writers under French influence had done.

In Russia Ivan Kriloff (1768-1844) holds the same place as La Fontaine in France. He is the national fabulist, and lines from his homely verses are stock quotations among the people. He resembled the French fabulist not only in the style of his writing but in the careless unpractical mode of his life. Born at Moscow, the son of an army officer who died in 1779, he was taken to St. Petersburg by his mother, who hoped in vain to get a pension. Kriloff's earliest writings were for the stage, chiefly translations and imitations, and it was not until 1809 that his first volume of "Fables" was issued. Hon-ors then began to be heaped upon him and he was appointed to a position in the Imperial Public Library. Although he professed indifference to public affairs, his fables were really suggested by passing events, and by idiomatic grace and sound sense caught at once the fancy of the people. Their perfection of style was the result of careful polish. Personally, he was careless in dress, regardless of etiquette, and absent-minded.

The chief representative of Romanticism in Russian literature is Vasile Andréevich Zhukovski (1783-1852). He was the preceptor of Alexander II in his youth, and succeeded Karamzin in editing the "European Messenger" in 1808. His aim was to familiarize his countrymen with the best productions of foreign literature, and for this he translated from Goethe, Uhland, Schiller, Gray, Byron and Moore. He even translated Oriental poems - at second-hand through the German. His most famous poems are the ballads in "The Poet in the Russian Camp" which were sung by his fellow soldiers in the War of 1812. Another fine ballad is "Svietlana." His finest tale is "Mary's Grove."

But the most celebrated of Russian poets is Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) who, like Alexandre Dumas, had some negro blood in his veins. His mother's grandfather was a negro who had been brought from Abyssinia, and by his bravery won the favor of Peter the Great. Pushkin was employed in the ministry of foreign affairs and lived as a man of fashion until a daring "Ode to Liberty" incurred censure and he was virtually banished to Bessarabia, near the Danube, where he held office. Under the influence of Byron he composed "The Prisoner of the Caucasus," a story of the love 6f a Circassian girl for a captive Russian officer. Another poem was a tale of love and vengeance called "The Gipsies." With this strange people he had become acquainted in his new residence, and their mode of life attracted-him. His conduct did not give satisfaction to his superiors, and he was dismissed from the service in 1824. He retired to his father's country place and there became embroiled with his relatives, while he was also under the surveillance of the Government. A product of his retirement was the tragedy of "Boris Gudunoff," in which he departed from the French classical style, and sought to imitate Shakespeare. His "Poltava" is a spirited narrative poem of the defeat of Charles XII by Peter the Great. But a much more original poem is "Eugene Oneguin" which relates the adventures of a Russian in sprightly verse somewhat after the fashion of Byron's "Don Juan." Pushkin had married a noble lady in 1831, and six years later out of jealousy fought a duel, in which he was mortally wounded. His opponent was banished. Pushkin's fame as a poet has steadily increased. Though strongly influenced by Byron, he was not a mere copyist. His subjects and scenery are thoroughly Russian. He excelled in his poetical tales, especially in "Eugene Oneguin,'' in which humor and satire are well mingled. His few prose tales and his historical novels display dramatic power.

The death of' Pushkin was lamented in an impassioned poem addressed to the Czar by Mikhail Lermontoff (1814-1841). He declared that if no vengeance was taken on the assassin Heaven would grant no second poet to Russia. But the Czar was seriously offended and sent the new poet, who was an army officer, to the Caucasus on military duty. Lermontoff, who had visited those mountains in childhood, found there the inspiration of his mature years. He became the poet of the Caucasus, celebrating the courage and other virtues of the mountaineers, as well as the sublime and varied scenery amid which they dwelt. Lermontoff was of Scotch ancestry, as he states in one of his poems, but was born in Moscow and carefully educated. When he returned to St. Petersburg, in 1839, he published a volume of poems and a novel, "A Hero of Our Time." Two years later, like his predecessor, he fell in a duel. Three volumes of his poems were then published, and Bodenstedt translated them into German. Among his poems are "Ismail-Bey," "The Demon," and a remarkable imitation of an old Russian ballad.

As in all other countries of Europe, there arose in Russia imitators of Sir Walter Scott, who endeavored to renew the life of past ages of their country's history. The best of these was Zagoskin, who in "Yuri Miloslayski," took for his subject the expulsion of the Poles from Russia in 1612. But a romantic coloring is given to the narrative, and the characters utter sentiments which belong to a more refined age than their own. The first really great and original novelist of Russia was Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809-1852). He was born in Poltava, in South Russia, and early began writing for the stage. At the age of twenty he went to St. Petersburg and published an idyll, which was so severely criticised that he burnt all the copies he could obtain. Then the recollections of childhood came back, when his father was regimental secretary of Cossack troops, and he heard tales of the wild life of these tribes. These he now undertook to repro-duce in a periodical under the title, "Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka." The novelty and brilliance of the stories were acknowledged by all critics. Gogol went on to publish "Arabesques," a mingling of stories and essays, "Taras Bulba," the finest of his "Cossack Tales," and "The Revisor," a satrical comedy. In the last, a traveler, who has just arrived in a town, is mistaken for a revisor or Government inspector, and receives all the attention, favors and bribes that the town officials intended for the real inspector. But much more searching and effective was the exposure made in Gogol's great novel, "Dead Souls" (1842). A speculator travels around the country, purchasing from landlords the title to dead souls, that is, serfs who have died since the last census, and then obtains advances from the Government on this imaginary property. This plan enabled the author to introduce and satirize many varieties of provincial Russians. The painful realism of the whole is acknowledged, yet it had important effect in stirring the Government to redress the wrongs described. A second part of this work was written when he was in Italy, but he sank into religious melancholy and destroyed most of it. Later he wrote "Confessions of an Author," which showed a mind diseased. He made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but died at Moscow.

Alexander Hertzen (1812-1870), was a political agitator, who in youth was exiled to Siberia, afterward was permitted to return and hold official posts, then in 1847 left Russia, and passed the rest of his life in Geneva, Lon-don and Paris. His chief literary work was a novel, "Who Is to Blame?" The story tells how a tutor, having married the unacknowledged daughter of a sensualist of the old type, dull and ignorant, yet kindly, finds his home life troubled by the entrance of a sensualist of a new type, intelligent and accomplished, but callous. The question of the title has reference to the tragical termination. Hertzen's most important political publication was the "Kolokol" (Bell), a periodical printed in London, but vigorously excluded from Russia till after the death of Nicholas I, in 1855. Then smuggled into the country in large quantities, it did much to bring about the sweeping reforms of Alexander II, including the emancipation of the serfs.

A morbid self-analysis is found in many Slavonic writers. This is seen in Feodor Michailovich Dostoievsky (1821-1881), who, at the age of twenty-three, published a novel which won for him the name of "the new Gogol." In "Poor Folk" he revealed the miseries of the poor of St. Petersburg. The power of analysis shown in this work appears also in his later short stories, "The Black Heart," "The Little Hero," and others. In 1849 the novelist was implicated in a socialist conspiracy, and was condemned to death, but at the moment of expected execution, his sentence was commuted to banishment to Siberia. For four years he toiled in the mines, then was allowed to return to St. Petersburg, and published "Recollections of a Dead House," which described his experience. This narrative, revealing the horrors of Siberian prison life, had powerful effect throughout Russia. "Raskolnikoff," another novel, has been translated into English as "Crime and Punishment." In it a weak man is led to murder a woman for a little money, then slowly driven by remorse to admit the crime to a girl friend, and by her friendly sympathy, induced to confess it to the authorities and submit to the punishment of exile. In all Dostoievsky's work the love of the morbid prevails, so as to make the reading of them a painful task.

In novel writing, Gogol had introduced the practice of realism, and Ivan Turgenieff (1818-1883), perfected it. Until the rise of Tolstoi, Turgenieff was the Russian author most widely known. He was born at Orel, of wealthy parents, his father being colonel of a cavalry regiment. In his mother's house French only was spoken, save in intercourse with servants. The serfs were treated with extreme cruelty. From one of these Turgenieff learned that there really was a Russian literature. His mother believed that her son had degraded himself when he began to write in his native tongue. His first sketches that attracted attention were the "Memoirs of a Sports-man," which set various characters of the Russian peasantry in a favorable light and revealed the miseries of their life. The novelist's next production was the pathetic story, "A Nest of Nobles" (1859), which was soon followed by "On the Eve," which showed the generous but indolent youth of Russia. In "Fathers and Sons" (1862), Turgenieff marked the rise of Nihilism, and, in fact, invented that word to express the destructive doctrines then beginning to pervade the educated young men of his country. Their creed was to tear down all existing institutions without caring to substitute anything in their place. During the latter part of his life Turgenieff resided chiefly at Baden-Baden and Paris. At the former he met several Russians exiled for their participation in plots. He came to see that their schemes were mere illusions, and his romance "Smoke" (1867) showed the alteration of his opinions. Though he still retained faith in Russia's final freedom, the Nihilists regarded him as a renegade. Ten years later he published "Virgin Soil," which exposes the futility of Nihilism in action. He was now accused of having been bribed by the Russian Government; yet the book really shows sympathy with the liberty desired by the Nihilists, though condemning the methods they proposed to use in attaining it. Turgenieff produced many short stories, exquisitely finished. All his writings exhibit wide sympathy, close study of the human soul, and pervading all a poetical pessimism.

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