19C Russian Literature
19C russian literature

Aleksandr Sergeyevich PushkinŠ1998 Grolier Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Fig. 1  Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799 - 1837)

In the 19th century, Russia's greatest literary genius, Aleksandr Pushkin, completed the process of adapting the language as a literary vehicle. His greatest poems include the verse novel Eugene Onegin (1823-31; Eng. trans., 1881); The Bronze Horseman (1832; Eng. trans., 1931), a collection of folktales; the verse play Boris Godunov; and a wealth of lyrics notable for the eloquence, playfulness, and precision of their style. The best-known prose works are the novel A Captain's Daughter (1836; Eng. trans., 1846), the tale The Queen of Spades (1833; Eng. trans., 1850), and a collection of five short stories, The Tales of Belkin (1830; Eng. trans., 1894). Pushkin's prolific career ended early when he died in a duel at the age of 38.

Another significant writer at the time of Pushkin was the playwright Aleksandr Griboyedov, whose fame rests on the comedy Woe from Wit (1823; Eng. trans., 1857). Two successors of Pushkin were the nature poet Fyodor Tyutchev and the romantic Mikhail Lermontov, whose works deal with frustration and isolation. When Lermontov died, also in a duel, at the age of 26, he left an impressive collection of lyrics and longer poems, as well as A Hero of Our Time, Russia's first psychological novel.

After Pushkin, emphasis began to shift from poetry to prose. Nikolai Gogol, who moved from romanticism to his own eccentric brand of realism, was an inspired and highly original talent. He is best known for such historical short stories as "Taras Bulba" (1835; Eng. trans., 1860), about Cossack life; for the satire The Inspector General; for the novel Dead Souls; and for his Saint Petersburg tales, among which "The Overcoat" (1842; Eng. trans., 1922) is preeminent.
NIkolai Gogol
Fig 2. Nikolai Gogol (1809 - 1852)

Although it had produced several powerful original talents, Russia in the 1840s still lacked a general literary movement.  The influential literary critic Vissarion Belinsky sought to remedy the deficiency, insisting that art had a duty to society, that it must reflect reality, and that it must have a message.  Under his tutelage a movement satisfying these criteria began in the mid-1840s.  At first termed the natural school, the movement developed into the so-called realist school after Belinsky's death.

The general characteristics of 19th-century Russian realism include the urge to explore the human condition in a spirit of serious enquiry, although without excluding humor and satire; the tendency to set works of fiction in the Russia of the writer's own day; the cultivation of a straightforward style, but one also involving factual detail; an emphasis on character and atmosphere rather than on plot and action; and an underlying tolerance of human weakness and wickedness.  The leading realists began to be published in the late 1840s: the novelists Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Goncharov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Count Leo Tolstoi; the playwright Aleksandr Ostrovsky; the poet Nikolai Nekrasov; and the novelist and political thinker Aleksandr Herzen.

Count Leo Tolstoi
Fig. 3  Count Leo Tolstoi (1828 - 1910)
Literature Under Alexander II (1855-81)
Many of the best-known literary works come from this period, the heyday of Russian realist fiction.  They include the six short novels in which Turgenev presents the chief political, social, and ideological concerns of his day and among which his Fathers and Sons (1862; Eng. trans., 1903) is outstanding.  Goncharov's Oblomov (1859; Eng. trans., 1915) is a portrait in depth of the laziest hero in fiction. Dostoyevsky's major works are his four long novels, (The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Possessed). They present a clash between the mind and the heart or between rationality, which Dostoyevsky detested, and intuitiveness, in which he discerned (especially in its religious manifestations) the only hope of rescuing Russia and the world from their self-inflicted troubles. Tolstoi's masterpieces, the long novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina also weave religious and philosophical problems into the fabric of fiction.

Among works of fiction other than the novel, Turgenev's short love stories are especially poignant, as are his Sportsman's Sketches (1847-52; Eng. trans., 1855), which sympathetically present the lives of serfs. Nikolai Leskov wrote numerous tales chronicling Russian life of his day in its rich variety, a task performed for the theater by the prolific dramatist Aleksandr Ostrovsky with his command of pungent vernacular Russian.  My Past and Thoughts (1852-68; Eng. trans., 1924-27) by the emigre socialist journalist Herzen remains the most outstanding among all of Russia's many fine autobiographical memoirs.

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky

Fig. 4  Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (1821 - 1881)

An influential group of radical critics and authors followed Belinsky in trying to insist, despite censorship controls, that literature should attempt to purvey a socialist message.  Its chief representative was Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who was imprisoned for his beliefs, and whose What Is To Be Done? (1863; Eng. trans., 1866) while not an impressive work of art became the century's most influential novel among young Russians.  The poet Nikolai Nekrasov, author of works stressing the misery of the peasants, also belonged to this radical school.