At the beginning of the 19th century much of Western Europe viewed
Russia as hopelessly backward--even Medieval. It was considered
more a part of Asia than an outpost of European thought. During
the first half of the century, indeed, peasants (called "serfs")
were still treated as the property of their feudal masters and
could be bought and sold, though they had a few more rights than
slaves. Russian serfs gained their freedom only in 1861, two years
before the American Emancipation Proclamation.
However, the nobility of Russia had looked to the West for ideals
and fashions since the early 18th Century, when Peter the Great
had instituted a series of reforms aimed at modernizing the country.
Russian aristocrats traveled extensively in Western Europe and
adopted French as the language of polite discourse. They read
French and English literature and philosophy, followed Western
fashions, and generally considered themselves a part of modern
St. Petersburg was created the new capital of Russia in 1721,
and remained the most Westernized of Russian cities. Indeed, Dostoyevsky
was to consider it an alien presence in the land, spiritually
vacuous compared to the old Russian capital of Moscow.
The German-born czarina Catherine the Great, who reigned from
1762 to 1796, corresponded with Voltaire and fancied herself an
Enlightenment monarch; but her plans for liberal reforms came
to nothing, and she became better known as vainglorious autocrat.
Despite the general backwardness of Russian society, its openness
to the West (briefly interrupted by Napoleon's 1812 invasion)
had profound influences on its literature throughout the 19th
Century. The first great national author of Russia, Alexander
Pushkin (1799-1837)--despite his celebration of Russian history
and folklore--was profoundly influenced by such English writers
as Shakespeare, Byron and Scott. Although he plays a role in Russian
literature comparable to that of Goethe in Germany or even Shakespeare
in England, his works were little known abroad during his lifetime.
It was Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883)--who lived and wrote for many
years in Europe and was profoundly Western in his outlook--that
first brought Russian literature to the attention of European
readers, but at the cost of often being considered an alien in
his own land.
It was the twin giants Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky whose
work exploded out of Russia in the 1870s to overwhelm Europeans
with their imaginative and emotional power. To many readers it
must have seemed as if this distant, obscure country had suddenly
leaped to the forefront of contemporary letters. Both were profoundly
influenced both by European Romanticism and Realism, but their
fiction offered characters more complex and impassioned than those
Europeans were used to.
Tolstoy is known chiefly for his two masterpieces, War and
Peace (1865-1869) and Anna Karenina (1875-1877). These
works which wrestle with life's most profound questions earned
Tolstoy the reputation of perhaps the world's greatest novelist.
The first is a vast portrait of Russia during the period of the
Napoleonic wars, and the second the story of a tormented adulterous
woman treated far more seriously than Flaubert's Emma Bovary.
Like the English Victorian novelists, Tolstoy sought to do more
than entertain or even move his readers, taking the writing of
fiction seriously as a moral enterprise. In the end Tolstoy became
a Christian utopian, abandoning fiction altogether.
Dostoyevsky is famous for his complex analyses of the human mind.
Unlike Turgenev or Tolstoy, he pays little attention to details
of setting or the personal appearance of his characters, instead
concentrating on their thoughts and emotions. His work and that
of Tolstoy revealed to Europeans that modern fiction could serve
ends far more sophisticated than it had in the hands of Zola or
Dostoyevsky had a sensational life which is variously reflected
in his fiction. He believed his father to have been murdered
by his own serfs, a belief which led him to be obsessed with murder
as a subject in many of his greatest works, such as Crime and
Punishment (1866)and The Brothers Karamazov (1881).
After being arrested for his involvement in a radical group (the
model for The Possessed) he was abruptly notified that
he was about to be shot, but was spared at the last minute and
sent to Siberia for ten years. He often described the traumatic effect which
this mock-execution had on him in his fiction, and devoted another
novel (The House of the Dead) to the story of his time
While there, he developed epilepsy, and later made epileptic seizures one
of the chief characteristics of the Christ-figure Prince Myshkin
in The Idiot. He also analyzed his addiction to gambling
in The Gambler. The fervent Christianity and anti-Western,
anti-Enlightenment attitudes of his later years color much of
his writing, and underlie the influential long story "Notes
Some Western readers, notably the very restrained American novelist
Henry James, found Dostoyevsky's fiction exaggerated. The
combination of traditional Russian effusiveness with Dostoyevsky's
truly sensational life made for sensational writing. But it is
important to note that though his characters always seem to be
undergoing some sort of torment, he creates the extreme situations
and emotions in his novels not out of mere sensationalism, but
to plumb the depths of human experience.
Of the other Russian writers of the 19th Century, the only other one to
make much of an impression abroad was Anton Chekhov (1860-1904),
whose short stories and plays used Realism in a much more understated
way. His four great plays written just before and after the turn
of the century--The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and
The Cherry Orchard, along with the Realist masterworks
of the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen--helped to rescue the theater from
the dismal state into which it had plunged after the time of the
German Romantics. The theatrical genius of the 19th century seems
to have gone into opera rather than stage plays; few of the plays
written between Schiller and Chekhov are remembered or performed
today, but his works are seldom absent from the stage for long.
Chekhov's works are often seen as the last echo of a fading tradition before Stalinism made "socialist realism" into a suffocating orthodoxy. Under Communism, Tolstoy was regarded a great national writer despite his mystical leanings because of his sympathies with the peasants and utopian idealism; but Dostoyevsky was out of favor during much of the Stalinist period because he was an outspoken foe of socialism and fervent Christian. Yet abroad, his reputation continued to grow. He was seen as a prophet of the evils which followed in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, as a psychologist who anticipated many of the most striking discoveries of Sigmund Freud, and as a welcome challenger to the pervasive celebration of modernity so characteristic of the period 1850-1960. Despite his anti-modernism, Dostoyevsky still speaks directly to many readers in ways that most of his contemporaries do not. In post-Communist Russia he is again celebrated as a national treasure, just as he is revered as a classic abroad.
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