19th-Century Russian Literature


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 Europe.

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 even Flaubert.

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 in prison.

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 from Underground."

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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Created by Paul Brians March 22, 1998.

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