Russian Literature During the 19th Century


From the encounter-clash of the various trends that intersect at the beginning of the century, a predominant line emerges, represented by young nobles, lovers of poetry, innovators of the language, open to the spirit of sentimentality and Romanticism, although often anchored to the forms of eighteenth-century classicism ; some are collected in the Arzamas circle, such as V. Žukovskij, an excellent translator and author of very popular ballads; P. Vyazemskij, theorist of Romanticism, elegant and light poet; K. Batjuškov, whose classicism has its roots in the Latin and Italian tradition; the very young A. Pushkin. Elegy, fugitive poetry, the epistle to friends are the favorite genres of the Arzamasians. Romanticism dominated, in various forms, the literary life of the 1820s and 1830s., A. Del´vig, E. Baratynskij, N. Jazykov), have made talk of a golden age of poetry. Baratynskij is, with D. Venevitinov, one of the few representatives of a high level philosophical poetry. With Pushkin, however, a totally new page of Russian literature opens up, joining the ranks of the great European literatures. Pushkin has been transforming literary genres by innovating since Ruslan i Ljudmila (“Ruslan and Ljudmila”, 1820), fusion of the fantastic poem with elements of folklore; with the novel in verse Evgenij Onegin (1825-33) creates a new genre and heralds the transition to prose. His clear, concise, classical writing, from Pikovaja dama (“The Queen of Spades”, 1833) to Kapitanskaja dočka (“The Captain’s Daughter”, 1836), initiates one of the lines of Russian fiction. The genre of ‘small tragedies’ is also new (among which Mocart i Sal  ´ eri «Mozart e Salieri» and Kamennyj gost´ «The stone guest»). ● Pushkin’s friends and associates are young Decembrists, such as high school friend V. Kjuchel´beker, poet, playwright and novelist, and poet K. Ryleev, author of historical ballads and poems on Ukrainian history. Also linked to the Decembrists is A. Griboedov, who owes his fame to a single brilliant comedy, Gore ot uma (“Che disgrazia l’intelligenza”, 1824), satire of a closed and immobile world with which the free genius of the protagonist collides. ● In the 1830s the transition from poetic genres to prose is outlined, continuity is broken with the old adventure or picaresque novel, in the style of V. Narežnyj, which also went beyond the simple transposition of French models. In the romantic field, apart from the original experiments of A. Vel´tman, an imaginative prose writer close to the German romantics, the most accomplished researches of new narrative forms are those of the Hofmannian V. Odoevskij, who with Russkie noči (“Russian Nights”, 1844) introduces in Russia the philosophical novella in the form of a conversation, and those of A. Bestužev, which goes from the cycle of short stories gathered from a common frame to the povest And the novel. The work that lays the foundations of the Russian psychological novel is Geroj našego vremeni (“A hero of our time”, 1839-40), written by one of the greatest Russian poets, M. Lermontov. Despite the meagerness of the mature production, Lermontov expresses with great formal mastery the romantic nostalgia for distant lands, the pain of a modern torn conscience, from the Byronic poem Demon (“The demon”, 1829-41) to the enigmatic poem Mcyri (” The novice », 1839), up to the drama Maskarad (“The Masked Ball”, 1835). ● Among the poets of this season now turned to prose are to remember A. Kol´cov for his popular songs and F. Tyutčev, metaphysical poet of great stature, who dualistically contrasts Cosmos and Chaos, sings nature and love in verses with a broad rhythm, without ignoring the tones of oratory in political poetry.


If the poets Pushkin and Lermontov had given brilliant contributions to prose, N. Gogol´ summarizes the previous experiences, including those of the German romantics, creating a very original prose. A man full of contradictions is only partially understood by contemporary critics. The detractors contrast the Gogolian principle, obscure and ambiguous, with the serene luminosity of the Pushkinian principle; admirers, such as V. Belinsky, see him only as the father of the ‘natural school’, the founder of Russian realism. For over half a century, the power of the fantastic component of his writings, populated by devils and ‘impure forces’, escapes. From Gogol´ the realists of the next generation learn the freedom to talk about low or vulgar aspects of existence, the attention to expressive detail,

The re-evaluation of the national tradition and realism

The 1830s and 1840s had a significant weight in Russian cultural and literary life: the intensification of contacts with the West starting from the Napoleonic wars, the penetration of German idealism and Fourierism, the affirmation of a great Russian literature stimulated a new attitude, a mixture of admiration and bitter criticism, towards the rest of Europe, and a re-evaluation of the national tradition. The publication of the first Russian version of the Lettres sur la philosophie de l’histoire (1836) by P. Čaadaev, which supports the cultural superiority of Western Europe and attributes the backwardness of the Russia to its link with Byzantium (orthodoxy) instead of with Rome (Catholicism), it provokes violent discussions; the Teleskop , the magazine that published it, is suppressed, Čaadaev is declared insane. The currents of Westernists and Slavophiles are clearly delineated, crossing the entire cultural history of Russia. Among the Westernists are active T. Granovskij, A. Herzen and Belinskij, true leader of the camp, vehement and brilliant journalist and critic, whose ideas will favor the multiform development of Russian realism. Slavophiles, who include in their ranks such personalities as A. Chomjakov, the brothers I. and P. Kireevskij, S. Aksakov and his sons Konstantin and Ivan, make use of categories that can be traced back to Romanticism in their passionate reflection on the national character of Russian culture and its matrices. ● The raznocincy emerge as a culturally hegemonic group(“Men of different classes”), first generation of non-noble intellectuals. The intelligentsia, excluded from public life, nevertheless feels a civil responsibility, expressed through magazines and literature, which takes on social or openly political tasks. Important magazines arise; the Sovremennik (“The Contemporary”), founded in 1836 by Pushkin, passed into the hands of N. Nekrasov in 1846. The controversy arises between committed art and art for art, utilitarian criticism and aesthetic criticism. Some of the best lyrics of A. Fet, a ‘pure’ poet, later recognized by the Symbolists as their predecessor, date back to this period, alongside those of J. Polonskij, A. Majkov and the Slavophile poet and critic A. Grigor´ev. ● The theater experienced a new flowering in the second half of the century, with the historical drama of AK Tolstoy, the cruel satire of A. Suchovo-Kobylin, the psychological comedy of I. Turgenev. The new genre of comedy by A. Ostrovskij stands out in the theatrical panorama for its dramatic realism with works often set among the merchants of Moscow and the province, of which they show the greed, the narrow-mindedness, family despotism. ● The people are the protagonists of Nekrasov’s poetry, now vigorously oratory, now interwoven with motifs of peasant folklore and elements of everyday language, in the spirit of folk song. The poems Moroz, krasnyj nos («Frost, red nose», 1864) and Komu na Rusi žit  ´ chorošo? (“Who Lives Well in Russia?”, 1866-76) are examples of a poetry free from traditional models, whose social content has overshadowed its remarkable poetic qualities. ● Herzen, known primarily as a journalist and politician, smuggles his magazine Kolokol into Russia(“The Bell”, 1857-67), published in London, one of the sites of his long exile. Personal memories and historical reflections blend happily in his Byloe i dumy («Past and thoughts», 1867), in an elegant and ironic writing that reaches moments of true poetry. The radical and rationalistic critique of N. Dobroljubov, D. Pisarev and N. Černyševskij, author of the famous novel Čto delat  ´, contributes to accentuating the impulse towards a realism attentive to social problems ? (“What to do?”, 1863). The values ​​of populism, which arose after 1848 as a Russian response to European revolutions, a decisive political and cultural experience for more than a generation, are elaborated in this atmosphere. In literature, the imprint of populism is profound; it is enough to recall the fiction of G. Uspenskij.

The realistic novel

It is the dominant genre in the second half of the nineteenth century and constitutes the main contribution of Russian literature to that of Europe. The great Russian novelists enjoyed a popularity in Europe unknown to the genius of Pushkin and Lermontov. Turgenev, well known abroad for his long stays in France, begins with verses, plays and short stories; his first highly resonant prose work is Zapiski ochotnika (“Memoirs of a Hunter”, 1852), a series of stories about peasant life, interpreted by both authorities and radical critics as a denunciation of serfdom. Turgenev then tries to express the anxieties of his time with some novels in which emblematic characters of Russian society appear. On the figure of the nihilist Bazarov of Otcy i deti (“Fathers and sons”, 1862) the break with radical criticism occurs. Some delicate love stories such as Asja (1858), Pervaja ljubov  ´ (“First love”, 1860), Vešnye vody (“Waters of Spring”, 1872) have stood the test of time better than his novels. ● Far from the thesis novels then in vogue are Semejnaja chronika (“Family Chronicle”, 1856) and Detskie gody Bagrova-vnuka (“Years of the childhood of Bagrov’s nephew”, 1858) by Aksakov, who begins to write late, stimulated by Gogol´. In that choral historical and psychological, ethical and philosophical reflection that makes the Russian novel of the nineteenth century so peculiar, the Oblomov (1859) by I. Goncharov proposes a completely original perspective. From the name of the protagonist, which has become a symbol, the term oblomovism was coined to indicate the incurable inertia of a parasitic class in decline; Oblomov is, however, a more complex figure, and his proverbial laziness must be interpreted as a form of tenacious resistance to the frenetic lifestyle embodied by his antipode, the German Stolz, and as a defense of the freedom to dream and reflect. M. Saltykov (known as Saltykov-Ščedrin) uses the weapon of violent satire, arousing an immediate echo in many contemporaries when, in Istorija odnogo goroda (“History of a city”, 1869-70), he represents the history of the Russia and its rulers, or when, in Gospoda Golovlëvy (“The lords Golovlëv”, 1875-80), describes in a dark and masterful way the decay and the final ruin of a rich family of landowners. ● The work of F. Dostoevskij is animated by a powerful ideological charge which is actually a perennial questioning on issues such as human freedom, socialism, good, evil, Christ, the golden age; the dramatic intensity of these questions and the tumultuous life of the writer have often overshadowed the artistic qualities, which were revealed right from the beginning in the epistolary novel Bednye ljudi (“Povera People”, 1846). The other works from the period preceding the sentencing to forced labor already show a great thematic and stylistic complexity. The convict experience inspires Zapiski iz mërtvogo doma (“Memoirs from a house of the dead”, 1861-62), a reflection on freedom and human dignity, which marks the beginning of a completely new phase; the dialectic between truth and freedom will be the central theme of the mature Dostoevsky. In the ‘house of the dead’ a difficult contact is established with the people which changes the writer’s relationship with the faith, leading him to ‘choose Christ’, as he will confirm in the great novels, from Prestuplenie i nakazanie (“Crime and punishment”, 1866) to Brat  ´ ja Karamazovy (“The Karamazov brothers”, 1878-80): built around a philosophical-religious or political-social idea, the organizing center of the plot, they give life to heroes in revolt, such as Raskol’nikov (Crime and Punishment) and Stavrogin (Besy «The demons», 1871-73), or imbued with Christian love, such as Sonja Marmeladova (Crime and punishment) or Prince Myškin (Idiot «The idiot», 1868-69), always caught in moments of dramatic crisis. ● The search for truth and the depth of spiritual experience unite Dostoevsky with the other great Russian novelist, L. Tolstoy, despite the radical difference in thought, life, literary procedures. Tolstoy, immersed in the problems of his time, considers them from an ethical and psychological or historical point of view. From the youthful Kazakhs (“The Cossacks”, publ. 1863) to the epic Vojna i mir (“War and Peace”, 1865-69), the bearers of moral health are those who live according to nature: the conscience of good and evil breaks the integrity of man, who can reconstitute it and recover true moral values ​​only alongside to the people, according to the lesson of J.-J. Rousseau. About a decade separates Anna Karenina (1875-77) from Vojna i mir: serfdom has been abolished for many years, faith in the path to follow has failed, restlessness, bewilderment reigns, to the point of despair which, with Anna’s suicide, ideally concludes the novel. In the following years, despite going through a crisis that led him to devote himself to educational and religious activities, Tolstoy still wrote some novels, plays and splendid short stories. Will the detachment from literature become almost definitive after Čto takoe iskusstvo? (“What is art?”, 1897-98); from that moment Tolstoy will be a critic of the institutions, a religious thinker, a pacifist. ● N. Leskov approaches Tolstoian theories with the figures of his ‘righteous’, who occupies a place unto himself in nineteenth-century fiction for the richness of language, a fertile mixture of dialectal forms, popular etymologies, voices of professional jargons or Church Slavonic, and for the skilful use of skaz, a technique that reproduces the intonation of the spoken language of a fictional narrator. His style, demonstration of the vitality of oral popular literature, strongly marked twentieth-century writers such as A. Remizov and E. Zamyatin.

The short genres

After the season of the giants of the realist novel, the short genres assert themselves, in valuable authors such as V. Garšin, endowed with a tragic vision of life and a morbid sensitivity that will lead him to madness and suicide, or V. Korolenko, who he fights with meekness, in life and in literary work, social injustice and human wickedness.

● The creator of a new form of short story, destined to enjoy extraordinary success in Russia and abroad, is A. Chekhov, who begins publishing humorous stories in 1880 under various pseudonyms. Soon, beyond the comic surface, a melancholy attention to the apparently insignificant and gray aspects of life shines forth, and the characteristics of the Chekhovian tale are outlined: soft colors, ability to grasp the slightest variations of moods, importance of details, firm construction of the weave. There are no strong personalities, no great deeds, no lofty ideals; the attention is shifted towards the common man, the banal, everyday gestures. In the stories as in the plays there is a sense of strangeness; the lack of communication between the characters reveals self-dissatisfaction, the opacity of life. Chekhov’s collaboration with K. Stanislavskij’s Art Theater initiates a total renewal of theatrical art that will continue in the following decades, in different directions.

● M. Gor´kij made his debut as a romantic writer, singer of vagabonds, free anarchist individuals who oppose the rules of society, with Makar Čudra (1892), Starucha Izergil  ´ (1894), Čelkaš (1895). In a decade filled with mysticism and dark premonitions, the tales of the self-taught young man with an adventurous life gain immediate popularity. Later Gor´kij participated in the realist trend circle Sreda (“Wednesday”) and in 1904 founded the almanacs of Znanie (“Knowledge”), which published works by the writers of the group, including A. Serafimovič (pseudonym of A. Popov), V. Veresaev (pseudonym of V. Smidovič), A. Kuprin, I. Bunin, L. Andreev. In the passage between the two centuries the figures of V. Solov´ëv and V. Rozanov stand out. A large part of the religious thought of the 20th century is linked to Solov´ëv, philosopher and man of letters; the Symbolists in their mystical phase refer explicitly to him, as to a teacher. To Rozanov the writing of the twentieth century is indebted to a new literary genre, the montage of fragments, the mixture of an intimate diary, a cookbook, private letters, aphorisms, experimented in Uedinennoe («Solitaria», 1912) and Opavšie list  ´ ja («Leaves falls “, 1913-15).

Russian Literature During the 19th Century