Russian History


The Nineteenth Century

By 1800 Russian literature had an established tradition of representing real-life problems, and its eighteenth-century practitioners had enriched its language with new elements. On this basis, a brilliant century of literary endeavor followed.

Russian literature of the nineteenth century provided a congenial medium for the discussion of political and social issues whose direct presentation was censored. The prose writers of this period shared important qualities: attention to realistic, detailed descriptions of everyday Russian life; the lifting of the taboo on describing the vulgar, unsightly side of life; and a satirical attitude toward mediocrity and routine. All of those elements were articulated primarily in the novel and short story forms borrowed from Western Europe, but the poets of the nineteenth century also produced works of lasting value.

The Age of Realism, generally considered the culmination of the literary synthesis of earlier generations, began around 1850. The writers of that period owed a great debt to four men of the previous generation: the writers Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Nikolay Gogol', and the critic Vissarion Belinskiy, each of whom contributed to new standards for language, subject matter, form, and narrative techniques. Pushkin is recognized as the greatest Russian poet, and the critic Belinskiy was the "patron saint" of the influential "social message" writers and critics who followed. Lermontov contributed innovations in both poetic and prose genres. Gogol' is accepted as the originator of modern realistic Russian prose, although much of his work contains strong elements of fantasy. The rich language of Gogol' was much different from the direct, sparse lexicon of Pushkin; each of the two approaches to the language of literary prose was adopted by significant writers of later generations.

By mid-century a heated debate was under way on the appropriateness of social questions in literature. The debate filled the pages of the "thick journals" of the time, which remained the most fertile site for literary discussion and innovation into the 1990s; traces of the debate appeared in the pages of much of Russia's best literature as well. The foremost advocates of social commentary were Nikolay Chernyshevskiy and Nikolay Dobrolyubov, critics who wrote for the thick journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary) in the late 1850s and early 1860s.

The best prose writers of the Age of Realism were Ivan Turgenev, Fedor Dostoyevskiy, and Lev Tolstoy. Because of the enduring quality of their combination of pure literature with eternal philosophical questions, the last two are accepted as Russia's premier prose artists; Dostoyevskiy's novels Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov , like Tolstoy's novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina , are classics of world literature.

Other outstanding writers of the Age of Realism were the playwright Aleksandr Ostrovskiy, the novelist Ivan Goncharov, and the prose innovator Nikolay Leskov, all of whom were closely involved in some way with the debate over social commentary. The most notable poets of mid-century were Afanasiy Fet and Fedor Tyutchev.

An important tool for writers of social commentary under strict tsarist censorship was a device called Aesopic language--a variety of linguistic tricks, allusions, and distortions comprehensible to an attuned reader but baffling to censors. The best practitioner of this style was Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, a prose satirist who, along with the poet Nikolay Nekrasov, was considered a leader of the literary left wing in the second half of the century.

The major literary figure in the last decade of the nineteenth century was Anton Chekhov, who wrote in two genres: the short story and drama. Chekhov was a realist who examined the foibles of individuals rather than society as a whole. His plays The Cherry Orchard , The Seagull , and The Three Sisters continue to be performed worldwide.

In the 1890s, Russian poetry was revived and thoroughly reshaped by a new group, the symbolists, whose most prominent representative was Aleksandr Blok. Two more groups, the futurists and the acmeists, added new poetic principles at the start of the twentieth century. The leading figure of the former was Vladimir Mayakovskiy, and of the latter, Anna Akhmatova. The premier prose writers of the period were the realist writers Leonid Andreyev, Ivan Bunin, Maksim Gor'kiy, Vladimir Korolenko, and Aleksandr Kuprin. Gor'kiy became the literary figurehead of the Bolsheviks and of the Soviet regimes of the 1920s and 1930s; shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, Bunin and Kuprin emigrated to Paris. In 1933 Bunin became the first Russian to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.