Russian Literature of the Nineteenth Century


The Alchemy of Renaissance and Revolution






In Russian Literature of the early 19th century, one must search for the forerunners of Pushkin, who stands otherwise alone. Idealized as the Shakespeare of the Russian language, Pushkin developed a national literature, as well as a way of writing Russian, which had never been attempted before. Because of the unique position of his creative product in Russian literary history, it is difficult to hypothesize upon his primary literary influences based solely on style, and while international authors such as Shakespeare and Dickens surely had there affect on the poet, whom among Russian authors who preceded him did Pushkin truly learn his craft from?

            One of the answers to this question I propose to be Nikolay Karamzin, 1766-1826. Karamzin edited numerous literary journals after traveling through Europe in his twenties, among these the ‘Moscow Journal.’ These journals were successful due to his sentimental optimism, and differed greatly in form and style from other literary journals of the day. Serious subjects were given novel composition, the individualized experience of Karamzin was diffused into the nascent Russian intelligentsia, lending perspective and expanding the infant ideal of artistic license in the country. These aspects of Karamzin’s work would leave the stage of Russian literature at a place where the founding of a national literature could be achieved by an individual who believed himself capable of the task. It was waiting to happen, and along came Pushkin.

            Karamzin also dallied in history, if dallying could describe his immense ‘History of the Russian Empire,’ a history which his sentimentalist approach idealized as an epic march from the past straight to the present, without interruption, wrong turn or alternative possible conclusion. This idealization of the past is something the Soviets would have little trouble adopting a century and a half later as there own method of historical education of the masses – but that was at a time when Russian literature had all but died, when Pushkin had already inspired Tolstoy, who had inspired Nabokov, who had moved out of Russia because he wanted to learn the real history of his land, and because he wanted to write about subjects of which he knew the party would not approve. The use not of scientific method, but of literary exposition, in which Karamzin not only idealized the Russian’s history but edited the church-Slavic words out of the Russian he wrote –  borrowing from the spoken language as Pushkin would go on to do best – isolating his style from his contemporaries by purifying, in a sense, the language in which he chose to write.

Karamzin also took English and French grammar into account when trying to shorten the lengthy sentences of his traditional language, and succeed in perfecting a kind of primitive pithy sentence structure before the Russian language was fully formed in a literary sense. Karamzin also promotes literature as something everyone should and does love, even if they cannot read, the literature each individual’s history and culture. In the introduction he writes, ‘Even before knowing the use of letters, the nations love history: the old man points out to the youth the elevated tomb and narrates the deeds of the hero resting within.’ This could be seen as a reflection of how Karamzin viewed himself, or how he wanted others to view him. History inspires individuals to mirror past greatness, and literature inspires artists to create new works; Karamzin was like a pep-talking self-help program for the Russian nation, and he formed part of what would become known as the Russian literary revolution. His style of historiography may be suspect due to the possible influence it had on education during the Soviet era, but as the author himself says,


‘Even fiction pleases, but to get a full pleasure out of it we must imagine it is true. By opening the graves, raising the dead, putting life into their hearts and words upon there lips, by recreating kingdoms from the dust and presenting to the imagination a series of the ages with their several passions, customs, acts – history expands the limits of our own existence. By its creative power we live with the men of all times, see and hear them, love and hate them; before we think of usefulness, we revel in the contemplation of the various occurrences and of the characters that entertain the mind or nurture our sensibilities.’


Why does the above prove my point concerning his approach to history and the possible affect it had on the future histories of the Russian nation? For one, Karamzin calls the power of history ‘creative’; secondly, in the first sentence of the above paragraph he inclines his head towards fiction but proclaims we must let ourselves believe to truly enjoy it. While it may be inaccurate to put words on the lips of those we revere from the past, Karamzin makes a strong point introducing the importance of a national mythology to mirror a national literature. Pushkin must have counted himself lucky to appear on the scene soon after this man had achieved his lasting creations, a half-history and a half-literature, both waiting to be refinished.

Another interesting note I felt inclined to include on Karamzin’s history also comes from the introduction, which is basically an abstract underlining the sentimentalist overtones of his creation. This goes into detail describing the multicultural confluence of ideologies and cultures which make up the Russian landscape. I noted it because it brought on a sudden wave of understanding concerning the subjects nineteenth century Russian literature dealt with more often than not, and it was not this plethora of multiculturalism, it was not a melting pot of characters from backgrounds as diverse as the reality of diversity in 19th century Russia – it was all about aristocratic, ‘superfluous men’ and their toying with each other’s emotions.

Looking abroad for perspective, one finds that the nineteenth century found much of world literature studying only a few different classes of people, and truly studying them, putting them in situations and selling the resulting outcomes to those on the opposite end of the social spectrum; i.e. the aristocrats loved to read about the farmers, and the farmers loved to hear of the soap opera lives of the glamorous. Finally, one finds in world literature of the period that the subjects were almost entirely domestically oriented, providing ample space and time for inspection so that if a national literature was to come of age, it would come of age during the nineteenth century if it had not before, and this is exactly what happened in Russia.

Finally, my last comment on Karamzin’s history finds him praising the Russians for gaining dominion over a ninth part of the world, ‘discovering’ countries and ‘enlightening them through God-sent faith, without violence, without atrocities practiced by the other devotees of Christianity in Europe and America…’ Despite the lie this has been turned into following up nearly two centuries of Russian domination over the countries it once so peacefully entered as missionaries, this statement has other modern connotations which could answer the governments of the West when they ask why the Islamic extremists have chosen us as the evil ones: its because we have tried to make them believe our way for far too long.

            The place Karamzin created inside the Russian literary movement could be best observed when taking into account his ‘On Shakespeare.’ While he extolled Shakespeare and named him a man who ‘created for eternity, though paying tribute to his age,’ Karamzin called for the Russian equivalent to step up and fill the hitherto vacant slot of Russian literary icon. What is interesting is that Karamzin never thought of himself as the one who could take up this role. By naming the English master, proclaiming his genius, and at the same time criticizing the rest of English dramatic poetry, Karamzin succeeds only in highlighting the absence of a Russian equivalent to Shakespeare.


            Another author who can be seen to have influenced Pushkin – who at this point in this narrative essay is the pinnacle of Russian literary achievement – is Ivan Kozlov, 1779-1840. Here we find a writer who can be said to be one of the first ‘wordsmiths’ the Russian language had yet seen. His descriptive powers, when suddenly confronting you in the midst of a dreary introduction to early nineteenth century Russian literature, strike as almost stream of consciousness style writing, like beat poetry from Cossack fields, and they achieve their aim of pulling the reader into the works. His characterization is excellent as well, as the following sentence illustrates, showing Kozlov at the peak of his powers, ‘Sullen, melancholy, wild, I pined away, dreaming an old dream, and sobbed for what is not.’  This excerpt from the second chapter of ‘The Confession of the Black Monk’ appeals to everyone who has felt the way so described, and though it may not seem too exceptional in this day and age, at the time it was written it was revolutionary, and Pushkin’s style surely developed in part due to the effortless effulgence of Kozlov’s words as they tripped down the page in a merry menagerie of hybrid new connections, until him unbeknownst to Russian literature.

Kozlov starts the tale of ‘The Confession of the Black Monk’ with  a fable-like introduction to the setting, then follows in chapter two with more of the above quoted self-inspection, existentialism battling with faith in God, and sorrow becoming delight. Then we discover why this intense personal struggle has overtaken the hermit in his cave; his family died those seven years ago, and he has been alone in his cave ever since. While he wants to believe they are alive, he also hates god for having let them die; but he sees religion as the only path to eternity with his family and thus tries hard to be religious. Then comes the quote that caused me to pick this piece of literature out – though until this point we have been dealing with an intense emotional tale of loss and ideological confusion, suddenly an aspect of all Russian literature rears its head momentarily before submerging itself again, though assuredly not for the last time:


‘My soul rose to her, and my mind was full of this: I wished to be as pure as she, and I gladly bid life farewell. But I wanted to die in my native home. I began to pine away in mountains of other lands. I wanted to cast my last glance upon our woods and our dales, to see the country which was full of her, and our village house, and the garden…and the glowing evening sky over their quiet grave.’


            The aspect I mentioned above is, of course, the self-aggrandizement the Russian land seems to be able to achieve in the work of every major Russian artist. Pride in their land is something which has always been found in the Russian people, though the nineteenth century saw it boom, and this also contributed to the revolutionary sentiments of the Bolsheviks – who were, in fact, starving while residing in the largest nation in the world. The bolstering of national pride through sentiments expressed like the one from the above paragraph, a statement of Kozlov’s showing us that a country is always a little bit more your home if you have lost someone to it, became a primary tool of Communistic nationalism and ethnic pride – and the fate of many such pieces of literature have been twisted out of context to serve the purposes of ideology since they were innocently written before the revolution by the now-gone Soviet forces.

            Back to the tale – the Monk walks back to his old home, and ‘breaths the sacred air,’ and finds the graves of his loved ones, who will always tie his spirit to this land, and he ‘prayed, and wept, and loved.’ This story could have an interesting interpretation for post-Soviet Russia, an allegory relating the lost Russian people who were alienated by Communist doctrine, who ‘pine away’ for their homeland and the dead members of their cultural family, who finally return after the years of madness to find the land is still holy, their family gone but not forgotten.


            The interpretations of patriotic spirit found in the aforementioned authors’ works, as well as the varying levels of stylistic and linguistic evolution found therein, aided in the coming of the ‘Russian Shakespeare,’ Pushkin. Other than these facets of his inspiration, however, the rest seems to have either originated abroad, or come from somewhere within the poet himself, an aspect of his identity needing to create a mythology around itself as so many others had done for their cultures before.

            Pushkin was an individual, with his individual view of Russian greatness and his own personal destiny, and it is this individuality which stands as the greatest contradiction I find in the Soviet use of him as ideal of nationalistic patriotism. While he extolled the virtues of his land and people, Pushkin did so in a language as deep and varied as those broad subjects which he described, inventing the poetic form of Russian and thereby ascribing his name permanently in the canon of Great Russian writers. But this flamboyant verse was exactly the kind of individualistic bourgeoisie pettiness the party wished to wipe out following the Red revolution. How was Pushkin portrayed as an emblem of Soviet Russia’s nationalistic pride campaign while his work went against the principles of the Soviet movement?

His work was edited, or the pieces chosen reflected merely the party’s ideals, and the rest were restricted material.

            Perhaps one of the derivative questions behind my study of nineteenth century Russian literature is how a national literature of great beauty recuperates from an era of almost absolute silence. When will this lost identity which would have evolved completely differently if not for the interruption of a fundamentalist ideology recuperate, and not only abroad but on its native soil?

            Pushkin surely held Russia as an ideal in his mind when he wrote, as did many of the most famous Russian writers who followed after him, from Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky to Pasternak. Pushkin, however, was chosen and the ‘Pushkin Myth’ was created by the Soviet government to represent him to the Russian people, and the creation of the ‘National literature,’ vis-à-vis a flawed political ideology, came about. This kind of categorization marginalized many of Russia’s writing minorities, such as women and non-whites, a further limitation during Soviet times to an already half-inherited literary trove. The Communist government would happily edit a dead writer’s words to express their ideology, rather than tolerating the living writers who always managed to include a critique of the party in their work: thus dead writers were regularly rotated-then-touted as the spokesmen for the Russian leaders, who rose and fell in succession, and Pushkin came to be the most favored disenfranchised champion of ideologies he probably would have detested, and chunky plane-and-angle statues were made of him all over Russia.

            Before reading any of Pushkin’s works, I found information concerning the difficulty of understanding the revolutionary aspects of an author’s talent when reading it without contextual perspective in regard to the development of the language itself and the ability to read the language. Reading Pushkin in translation and trying to see the beauty of his creative talents is very difficult, for those kinds of transformations cannot be translated, except perhaps metaphorically. In 1925 the literary critic D. S. Mirsky was quoted in ‘Russian Literature’ by Catriona Kelly saying;


It is indeed difficult for the foreigner, perhaps impossible if he is ignorant of the language, to believe in the supreme greatness of Pushkin among Russian writers. Yet it is necessary for him to accept this belief, even if he disagrees with it. Otherwise every idea he forms about Russian literature and Russian civilization will be inadequate and out of proportion with reality.


            And thus I prepared to divine my way through the projected greatness of a group of works I was told I would not understand. Russian literature is known for rich prose which sets out moral dilemmas and ideas in conjunction with each other, hybridizing idiosyncratic vision and morality with Russian life. Because Russian literature is known for its expansive novels, such as Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ and Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ combined with the difficulty in understanding the rudimental greatness of translated poetry, Pushkin has been neglected by international audiences while being proclaimed as the greatest at home. Yet it was Pushkin’s prose novel ‘Eugeny Onegin,’ – which, unlike ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ is not included in the ‘spell check’ dictionary – with the same strangled, submerged emotions, the same digressive pauses, the same suave, informed tone, which served to inspire Tolstoy in writing ‘Anna Karenina,’ most critics have agreed.

            Pushkin’s poetry is similar to the poetry of Larny and Lamartine, and his style has close associations with the French style of poetry, full of dramatic imagery and emotionally charged. And while foreigners have often spoken of the strangeness of Pushkin, Russian Critics have also mentioned it before. Nationalists believe this degree of remove from the general Russian public is due to the alienation of the intelligentsia from the ‘common people.’ That this is propaganda is obvious enough, but in this case, it could be the simplified truth. Pushkin did, after all, come from an aristocratic family, and he had no cause to suffer much in his life. Some members of the Russian intellectual establishment have countered the claim of the later Soviets in calling Pushkin an ‘accident.’ Gustav Sphet, a philosopher who followed the xenophobic ‘Slavophiles’ movement in lamentation to the infiltration of European culture into the Russian cultural sphere, that very thing which created Pushkin, said in repudiation of him, ‘His writing was precisely his writing, the writing of a genius who did not emerge from the Russian national spirit.’ (Kel 6)

            Funny to read in hindsight as the Communists scramble to avoid idealizing western-influenced individuals and arrive with nothing. But whether they agreed with his principles or not, as above, they acknowledged his genius. Though we cannot understand this genius without a working knowledge of Russian, we can read what the critics have said about it in translations which require significantly less nuance.

            All Pushkin’s writings exemplify two characteristics of Russian literature which make them unique in that they were the first forms which have been used as models from the moment of their creation; the first is a high expectation on the reader to understand the words written between the words, the connotations of words single and then  paired, in particular, according to Russian critics, the opposition inherently understood by native speakers between Church-Slavonic words, from Russian liturgical Orthodoxy, and native Russian words. For example, Zlatyi and Zolotoi are both translatable as golden…yet the associations of the words are as different as comparing the old English-German hybrid language used in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ to modern English. Thus confrontations between the two shades of the same language cannot be translated, or understood without a lengthy annotation, which hasn’t been done to my knowledge.

Alliteration, assonance, and meter are all subtly expedited into the verse without any apparent hassle, which makes Pushkin’s works smooth reading even in translation. Sentences are compressed to the maximum allowed by Russian grammar, giving his work a stylistic density that would serve as the model for the later tome-writers Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The grammar usage employed allows the educated Russian reader to supply many omitted words which the reader of a translation might never know they should see, and supposedly this process, called ‘ellipsis,’ can be used to a much greater extent in Russian than in English. But this stylistic factor Pushkin introduced into the literature by taking forms of Russian speech and simply writing them down. Pushkin worked against some of the norms of literature at the time; he kept himself from falling into the rhetorical expansionism of creative repetition which so many of his forebears had used to turn their poetry into epic song. In this way revolutionary to Russian literature’s course of development, Russian Critic Roman Jacobson wrote that modern readers wanting to understand Pushkin ‘must wholly abandon ordinary aesthetic criteria,’ or in other words, look at what his writing did rather than what it reads like. Or understand that what a Russian would find beautifully translated, due to the connotations of the words in the original language, a Westernized reader would find laughable or tasteless, especially if that reader has swallowed T.S. Eliot’s commandments on poetic style.


I intend to look at Pushkin’s work and see what it inspired. In his ‘The Queen of Spades,’ the poet manages to convey some sense of meaninglessness simply by telling a particularly bland tale. This at least is my interpretation of the story. While he was more than once jailed for his poetry, writing such works as ‘The Upas Tree,’ an indictment of the Tsarist regime, and ‘The Gavriliad,’ a roguish burlesque of the Annunciation, some of his most popular work remains the depictions of early eighteenth century Russian aristocratic society. ‘The Queen of Spades’ is this in, well, spades, replete with card-playing officers, balls, countesses with secrets…it’s almost ‘Anna Karenina’ minus the morality.

The story starts out with a tale told at a card-party of officers, about a secret known by a countess with which any man could win his fortune. The tale then shifts to the countess herself, old in a room, ‘not to be informed of the death of any of her contemporaries,’ (Pus 4) ‘..for the hundredth time relating some anecdote to her grandson,’ (pus 5) she asked her visitor for novels, asking the question Pushkin may well have asked himself before writing his own, ‘…are there any Russian novels?’ (Pus 5)

Then Pushkin dives into morality despite himself, adding a touch of insight into social differentiation when comparing the countess and her maid (Pus 6) and the injustice of the countess’ attitude to her maid. She asks her to prepare everything to go to town, then decides it better to stay, her capriciousness coming at no cost to anyone but her long-suffering maid. Then they journey to a ball, where she sits, ‘…like a deformed but indispensable ornament of the ballroom.’ (Pus 7) Pushkin is really hammering her hard now, letting his contempt for the pretentious inanities of the upper classes show. But it is almost like an aside, separate from the plot and only included because the artist felt he could without misdirecting the short piece.

Suddenly a young man begins to stand outside the window and gaze in at the countess’ maid. While he pretends to be in love with her, in truth he is in debt and wishes to learn the secret of the countess’ three cards. The moment he found where the countess lived, the moment he began standing outside the window, it was ‘That moment decided my fate.’ (Pus 9) Hermann, the one determined to get the secret from the countess, intrigues the young maid with letters and finally obtains information concerning a time when he can enter the house without anyone there, on the pretense of seeing the maid.

But once inside, he hides in a closet and waits for the maid and the countess to return. When they do, he slips into the countess’s chamber, pulls a pistol, and demands her to tell him the secret. On (Pus 13) he has doubts, just before the two return ‘For a moment his heart was assailed by something like the pricking of conscience, but the emotion was only transitory, and his heart became petrified as before.’ While this is a hint of the morality which his descendants in the Russian literary family would fill volumes with, here, used in this sense, Pushkin uses its presence to infuse the Hermann character with life.

 Only a moment of doubt, replacing Tolstoy’s Anna’s chapters, yet certainly a far stride from repeating choruses meant to portray characterization. Something else apparent in this piece of Pushkin’s is the nascent presence of the industrial revolution as it is incorporated into every aspect of human existence. While it was only just beginning, Pushkin uses a metaphor which might have come from a century later, revealing his cutting-edge virtuosity even in translation, ‘…one would have thought the rocking of here body was not a voluntary action of her own, but was produced by some concealed, galvanic mechanism.’ (Pus 14)

Pushkin even inserts a subversive notion when he articulates Hermann’s feeling on the countess’ trying to keep the secret of the cards to her grandsons, saying, ‘They are rich enough without it, they do not know the worth of money….I know the value of money…I am ready to take your sins upon my soul, only reveal to me your secret.’ (Pus 15) His desperation for money could also be viewed as an indirect critique of the capitalistic system as opposed by the notions of Rousseau which Pushkin read so thoroughly.

After Hermann threatened the countess with the pistol, she remained motionless in her chair; it took him a moment to realize she was dead. In the meantime, the maid is glad he did not show up at her door. Then he does, and he tells her that he indirectly killed her mistress, and she ‘wept bitter tears of agonized repentance.’ (Pus 18) Then Hermann decides to beg her forgiveness just in case the countess returns to haunt him – but Pushkin makes it clear his motives are strictly selfish, and not based on conscience, which is a parallel to my earlier comparison between his moment of conscience in the closet, its brevity, and the conclusions that can be made based on that.

The corpse winks at him when he tries to repent, and then at home that night she comes to him in white, and tells him that she will forgive him only if he marries the countess’ maid, who was left without position. The ghost tells him ‘3, 7, Ace’ will win for him every time. She also says that she had come against her wish, that she had been told to do what she did.

I interpret this as a religious connotation connecting the favor she asks in return to the compassion of a loving Russian orthodox God. Hermann ignores the favor and uses the secret once, twice he wins; then the final battle (Pus 24) sees him holding what appears the be the Ace in his hands, all his winnings from the previous two wins are on the table – he plumps down what he is sure to be a winning card, only to have it change into a queen as he watches it on the table. The Queen winks, Hermann goes insane, and, most importantly for me and the thing which holds the greatest existentialist connotations, the maid remains alone and position-less despite the attempts of God. Or so we think, when suddenly Pushkin pens one last, pithy paragraph showing how she was helped in a better way.

Just after Pushkin relates that Hermann went insane, I found an impeccable example of the bad translations of Pushkin’s conclusions, what I mentioned in the above paragraph;


‘Lizaveta Ivanovna [the maid] has married a very amiable young man, a son of the former steward of the old countess. He is in the service of the state somewhere [already an ideal job for a man long before Communism] and is in receipt of a good income. Lizaveta is also supporting a poor relative [example of Christian Charity being passed on – the invention of Christ led Lizaveta to help a relative]. Tomsky has been promoted to the rank of Captain, and is husband to the Princess Pauline.’


            This shows both the complexity and the number of inferences possible in Pushkin’s conclusions, as well as the difficulty in seeing them without knowledge of the language. While his following among western readers grows as the world becomes more global, Pushkin remains relatively unknown, perhaps as a reaction against what had been force-fed for so many years in Russia, but certainly because translations which capture the complexity of his works do not exist. An example of a poem by Pushkin which works its magic in translation or in the original Russian is ‘The Prophet.’


                        ‘By spiritual thirst oppressed,

                        I hied me to the desert dim,

                        When lo! Upon my path appeared

                        The holy six-winged seraphim.

                        My brows his fingers lightly pressed,

                        Soothing my eyelids into rest;

                        Open my inward vision flies,

                        As ope a startled eagle’s eyes.

                        He touched my ears and they were filled

                        With sound that all by being trilled.

                        I felt a trembling fill the skies,

                        I heard the sweep of angel’s wings,

                        Beneath the sea saw creeping things,

                        And in the valleys vines arise.

                        Over my lips awhile he hung,

                        And tore from me my sinful tongue-

                        The babbling tongue of vanity.

                        The sting of serpent’s subtlety,

                        Within my lips, as chilled I stood,

                        He placed, with right hand red with blood,

                        Then with a sword my bosom cut,

                        And forth my quivering heart he drew;

                        A glowing coal of fire he put

                        Within my breast laid bare to view.

                        As corpse-like on the waste I lay,

                        Thus unto me God’s voice did say-

                        “Prophet arise! Confess my name;

                        Fulfill my will; Submit to me!

                        Arise! Go forth o’er land and sea,

                        And with high words men’s heart aflame!”



            The power of this tale of initiation and the obtaining of wisdom through the sacrifice of the self is something which would be understood in any translation. Pushkin achieves in this poem a kind of archetypal approach to the subject of eternal wisdom, and through the suffering caused him by sensitivity to the machinations of invisible beings, perhaps angles being metaphors for humans and their actions symbols of the way they hurt him and each other, while his impassivity makes him a saint and a chosen one of God. While this poem could be seen as blatant self-aggrandizement, its power is non-negotiable, even in translation.

            While many translations published before the nineties make Pushkin sound like a Russian Byron his verse is actually closer to Blake, as the better-funded translations of the nineties indicate. It takes twice as many words in English to literally translate Pushkin’s poem ‘The Monument,’ from Russian. The poem is Pushkin telling his audience – and himself, perhaps – that his work will live forever after his own death, a monument to his existence, praise for him ‘Because in my cruel age I have celebrated freedom.’ Some modern critics have seen this poem as a kind of suicide note, written just before Pushkin’s fateful duel. Some wonder, from the last stanza, whether Pushkin was trying to imply that none but another poet could understand his writing, nor see his ‘Monument,’ included below:


‘I have raised myself a monument not made by human hands,

The path of the people to it will never grow over,

Its insubordinate head has risen higher

Than the Alexandrian Pillar.

No, I shall not fully die – the soul in my fateful lyre

Shall survive my dust, and shall escape putrefaction –

And I shall be famous, wherever in the sublunar world

A poet lives.

Tidings of me will go out over all great Rus,

And every tribe and every tongue will name me:

The proud descendant of the Slavs, the Finn, the Tungus

Who is now savage, and the steppe-loving Kalmyk.

And for long shall I remain loved by the people

for awakening noble feelings with my lyre,

because in my cruel age I have celebrated freedom,

And called for pity to the fallen

O Muse, be obedient to the command of God,

Do not be fearful of abuse, do not demand a crown,

Accept both praise and slander with indifference,

And don’t dispute with fools.’


            While Pushkin ardently believed in the Enlightenment ideals which reigned in the circles of the intelligentsia of all of Europe, he created a poem more Modernist than Romantic, writing of a monument which cannot be come upon by accident, something that must be translated, which might be interpreted wrongly; in other words, the poem ‘The Monument’ could be seen as a poem about the impossibility of an artist’s message to exist long after his time.

 I would agree with this due to three factors: the first is that human civilization started thousands of years ago and many of the tenets of our civilizations which are the most basic and thus which survive the longest have already been discovered and their discoverers remain known, such as the founders of the religions, and the great early writers and philosophers; two, the method of critical analysis – so often wrongly interpreted if not left inscribed somewhere by the artist, translation difficulties, and eras of political censure make it difficult for the message to survive in the same form; and three, the context in which the work is created will differ greatly from the context in which it will be found one hundred years later. Religious art, political art, philosophical art – all of it could be destroyed if the wrong people got their hands on it – or the reigns of power.

Art is transitory, but it relates something relevant to the time it was created, surely, and sometimes it manages to capture something quintessential connected to human existence, and thus manages to reflect the eternal, if not quite to be it. Shakespeare said in sonnet 55, ‘Not Marble, nor the gilded monuments/Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme…’

            What has lasted of Russian literature is based on what that literature tells us as human beings reading it. If a writer manipulates his words and phrases his characters in certain kinds of frames of reference which reach a universal level of human existence, it can be translated because in reaching its universal level it leaves behind the culture in which it was originally set. A successful translation will relate the universal aspects of the novel first, and follow up with matching style, etc. These are just my opinions.

            Pushkin, with some of his works, standing as he was on the shoulders of (the not quite giant but certainly worthy) Karamzin and Kozlov, reached that place, and his translations can be moving in any language, I would imagine.

            The following painting, ‘Pushkin at Tsarskoe Selo’ by Ilya Repin represents the tradition of worship which has been established around Pushkin:



            This painting was commissioned to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the founding of Pushkin’s school, the Tsarskoe Selo Lyceum, in 1911. It shows the aged poet-maximus of pre-Pushkin Russia, Gavrila Derzhavin, listening in open admiration, if with a bit of difficulty, to the words of Pushkin’s ‘Remembrances of Tsarskoe Selo,’ while the rest of the onlookers are modeled on Dutch and Flemish caricatures of greed, selfishness, and stupidity from renderings of ‘The Mocking of Christ.’ Created in 1911, this painting paints Pushkin as a harbinger of the new world – whatever that may be, which means whoever is there to manipulate the art – destroying the apathetic nonsense of what the Communist party must surely have called the bourgeoisie self-indulgence of the era. Looking at the painting for the first time, I noticed Pushkin is cornered: if they don’t like his ideas, they might just pounce; and what comes to mind is the danger of artistic output being misunderstood and destroyed by the blind hostility of ideologies – which is exactly what happened thirty years after the painting was produced. With Derzhavin in red, I wonder if Repin got what he expected by supporting the Bolshevik party. It is a surety that the Red can stand for the unremarkable nature of Derzhavin’s poetry, as far as I am concerned, which is why I did not include him in my perusal of Pushkin’s possible influences.

            Another Russian writer I found has the ability to reach a universal level of human being is Anton Chekhov. The third of five children, he was born in 1860 in the provincial south-Russian town of Taganrog on the Sea of Azov. Anton’s father was a strict grocery store proprietor, where Anton worked until he was old enough to go to high school. He went to the local high school for ten years, staying on in the rural community after the rest of his family moved off to Moscow. Chekhov supported himself during this time by tutoring young students. He followed after graduation and began to write humorous sketches at about the same time he was earning his medical degree. Once the degree had been obtained, however, his sketches turned tragic.

            When his brother died prematurely in 1889, Anton stopped listening to the literary critics who expected leading writers to express serious moral and societal issues in their writing, and wrote works which eschewed political involvement, trying to avoid inserting social prescriptions into his work of the period. Fifteen years after his brother succumbed to tuberculosis, in 1904, Anton was brought down by the same disease, but not before his hundreds of short stories had insured him a place in the canon of great World Literature.

            Two short works I read of Chekhov’s include ‘In Autumn’ as well as ‘To Speak or be Silent.’ The former was interesting, immature with bold-stroke writing, implying the age and experience of the author at the time. As one of his earlier stories, the plotline is simplistic; addiction and love, empathy versus apathy.  It relates the tale of a drunk who trades a locket with the picture of his beloved for a glass of vodka, then despairs and runs out of the tavern. The peasants are left relating how the man had once been distinguished, but had lost everything for the love of a woman. We presume that woman was the one pictured in the locket, and thus the man’s addiction – a reaction to love’s rejection, rejected love which could have been said to be addictive to have caused such withdrawal – causes the man to give up the last memento of his love.  The revenge of the addict, Chekhov is telling us, is always on himself. And one can be addicted to things one only thinks about.

            The latter of the above two stories, ‘To Speak or be Silent,’ is interesting for a number of reasons relevant to the history of Russian Literature as well as to the universal level of human experience. The tale is of two men on a train, one who seizes every chance he can out of life, and one who lets opportunities slip past. A woman comes and sits in their car, and the former man chats with her while the second is silent and rigid. When the train stops, the former man and the woman get off the train together for an extended period of time, then the man comes back and scolds his friend about his lackluster approach to life. The short tale can be boiled down to a universal lesson on the nature of the world and what is necessary to achieve one’s desires, relevant to any human life. It is doubly interesting because, preaching individuality and survival of the fittest as it does, ‘To Speak or be Silent’ was banned for decades under successive Soviet governments. As it relates the natural imbalance of attributes between the two men, Chekhov’s story goes against the grain of two of Communism’s most basic principles: the equality of all, and that life is not what you make it. For this reason, three generations of Russians never read this beautiful sketch by Chekhov.

            Finally, ‘Uncle Vanya’ is a depiction of the trivial squabbles of a flock of 19th century Russian aristocrats at a country estate, portrayed in such a way that it is almost impossible not to interpret it as a social critique. The sheer pettiness of the Professor and the lives of the farmers who gave everything to keep the professor comfortable while he wrote nonsense about art for decades makes both parties look bad. The women speak more than they should on this farm, and even the environment is brought up as an issue, all in this setting of meaninglessness that gives the issues their urgency.

            With Chekhov I believe the growth of Russian literature was truly on the rise; after him would come the other greats of the century, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and the three together would inspire the great writers of all nations over the course of the following decades. But the price that seems to have had to be paid for this effortless spring of brilliant literature was the complete reaction against it represented by the Communist party. Communism was a reaction against honoring the expression of the individual and as such was most likely to take root in Russia, the country which at the time was just reaching a new pinnacle of achievement in the arts – while simultaneously reaching this achievement only by leaving a majority of Russia’s citizens outside of the identifying sphere of the new national mythology. It was those who had not read stories like their own lives in the books who wanted to get rid of the ‘pettiness’ of literature, to be sure, for what hero destroys his own tale?



            Yes, Chekhov was an amazing writer, and though I found it comical the way he uses dialogue as a kind of expositional tool rather than as a narrative tool, his writing is still good – agelessness being a trait most writer’s work will never attain – Yet the next subject of my study of nineteenth century Russian literature could be said to have come closer to attaining that goal than any other writer of the genre, Count Leo Tolstoy.

            One of Tolstoy’s most interesting works is titled ‘The Kreutzer Sonata,’ a short piece from the later period of the artist’s life which was banned upon release for bringing about an unwanted confrontation between fiction and ideology. Tolstoy’s ‘afterword’ to the piece was a indignant endorsement of the main character Pozdnyshev’s incredible case – that absolute celibacy was the only morally laudable form of human conduct. The ‘afterword’ also held Tolstoy’s regrets at the difficulty the masses that had widely rejected his latest work had in understanding it. Yet in the novel itself, as with Tolstoy’s private life, the prophet of the new way of life is secretly getting high on the forbidden backstage: Pozdnyshev is shown at the beginning of the story feeding a powerful addiction, covered in nervous tics, yet proclaiming that abstention from intoxicating substances is the only route to happiness. On the real side of the hypocrisy, we find Tolstoy with his love of all things pleasurable, and we think of the celibacy notion with his handfuls of children, and we do not believe him, though I, at least, know he truly wanted us to.

            And thus, with its half-woven morality tale all but transparent, purposefully, of course, ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ reads less like a fable and much more like what it is: a gloomy window into the workings of a sinister mind, prowling in his own house, remembering the feeling of the knife cutting through different kinds of flesh. This same dual role of the literary piece I found in ‘Anna Karenina,’ where the communicative uncertainty lay with whether passion should take reign or should be held at bay, whether social convention is a boon or a blight, whether a man or a woman can determine his or her actions based solely on what they desire: These facets came across with uncertainty due to the confused methods the writer has with dealing with them…Tolstoy manages to make the reader of ‘Anna Karenina feel as if the joy the lovers take from living their love makes up for any tragedy they had to suffer in return.

            And so we turn our attention on Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina,’ a modern masterpiece hailed by Nabokov as ‘…a piece of life.’ and the centerpiece of my study of Russian literature. I will study the original text, and two film versions to attempt to compare the mediums and the effectiveness of their interpretations of the material.

            A note on the subject to give the story of Tolstoy a bit of historical perspective: Tolstoy came at a time in Russian literature quite close to the brink, over which much of the individuality allowed in the nineteenth century would not be able to jump. In fact, while famous writers were disinterred from their tombs and placed in more fitting, Soviet resting places, their work was actively edited or even banned. The veneration of writers as national heroes became a kind of non-secular religion, as can be seen today with the Pushkin cult I mentioned previously, and the materialism which held such a keystone position in the archway of Marxism – Leninism manifested itself literally into the inclusion of the icon into the monument; i.e. the dust of the writers was placed in their monuments as a sing of reverence. Tolstoy’s house was open to the public a year after his death in 1911.

While critics have claimed that the capacity for writer’s cults in Russia to withstand historical vicissitude is exceptional, I would only respond with the fact that the nation from which the writer’s cults in question come is Russia, the ace of spades for trumping historical vicissitude. Yet when two writers clash over decades of ideological and societal evolution, which writer’s cult wins? In Tolstoy’s ‘What is Art?’ he asks whether a self-respecting culture can accept a womanizing, gambling dandy like Pushkin as literary and national saint. In his slightly more subtle than blatant way, Tolstoy is offering himself for the role, an offer that would be taken up by numerous regimes over the years – his ‘progressiveness,’ or the way his moral ideas seemed to foreshadow the Soviet’s, determined, as it did with any writer, whether he was touted as a national champion or removed from the shelves.

            I digress. Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ is a voluminous tale of the married lives of a group of Russian Aristocrats living in 19th century Moscow and St. Petersburg, the adulteries, the passions, the masks, and the guilt; the balls, soirees, train rides, and ice skating rinks; the proprieties, improprieties, affectations, and bluntness of characters as varied as they are compelling in a Russia depicted with detail unlike any seen before Tolstoy. As previously stated, The second sentence held within it already a hint of the influence Pushkin had on Tolstoy as a writer; ‘Everything had gotten mixed up in the Oblonsky household.’ contains the exact same feeling of emptiness/existentialism that I found in the first line, and, to be honest, most of the story ‘The Queen of Spades.’ Tolstoy’s father had made him learn Pushkin’s poem by memory from the time he was an infant, and his surety in Pushkin as a inherited resource was strong. While Tolstoy’s ending tend to return to ethical questions the reader feels the author cannot force himself to leave behind, in  an ‘afterword’ such as that mentioned above, Pushkin’s endings are neat and difficult to translate. Yet Tolstoy shared Pushkin’s enthusiasm for many aspects of a similar style, and, in my opinion, Tolstoy simply got slightly carried away with his own words.


            ‘Anna Karenina’ begins with adultery. The culpable count Oblonsky has been caught with the French nanny by his wife, and his marriage is on the rocks. The woman he calls to aid him in his attempt at re-winning the heart of his wife, Dolly, one of three sisters, is his own sister, Anna Karenina. Married to a powerful yet cold and calculating government minister, Anna journeys south, leaving her husband and son in St. Petersburg, to Moscow to try to persuade Dolly to take her brother back.

            Meanwhile, count Oblonsky’s friend from the country, Levin – a character largely emulating the characteristics of Tolstoy himself – is journeying into Moscow from his farm in the country to propose to the woman he loves, Kitty, the youngest sister of Dolly.

            But Kitty loves Count Vronsky, and after refusing Levin, who returns home and throws himself into his work, Anna succeeds in reuniting Dolly with the adulterous Count, but before leaving, the plot must thicken. At a ball, Vronsky makes it clear to Anna as well as everyone else that he is in love with her and her alone. Dolly, thus rejected, spirals into a nauseating pit of frustration that she refused the hand of the man she actually loved just to be left by the man she had hoped to get attain a prominent position in society next to. Anna, embarrassed and quite distressed about the nature of her reaction to Vronsky’s immature approaches, gets on the first train homeward-bound and tries to forget her moral slip on the ride home.

            But getting off at a stop to stretch her legs – and in one of Tolstoy-s best scenes ever – Vronsky walks up out of the blizzard, hundreds of miles from where she had last seen him, and reiterates his love for her. Thus begins there struggle against the conventions of society and, adversely, their own passionate and immediately felt connection to each other. After much deliberation, months attempting to deny her feelings, and finally a farcical parody of what her relationship had once ‘been’ with her husband – a parody involving not answering any questions he poses with seriousness in a way that implies empathy, or simply ignoring any implications of the affair with Vronsky he makes, as well as being completely closed off to him – Anna decides to leave Russia behind and takes off with Vronsky for Europe.

            There, she misses her child, wishes to return, loves Vronsky yet wonders how such love could cause such pain, and ultimately serves as Tolstoy’s moralizing vehicle at her own imagined expense. By the end of the novel, I almost feel sorry for her, the convolutions of her confused heart making it difficult to bear her tragically self-induced end. Vronsky, on the other hand, with his whims and his ability to tear people apart inside, is a character that it is exceptionally easy to hate, yet also a character not unlike many of the people surrounding us today. She ends, after Vronsky has deserted her for his beloved regiment, by throwing herself in front of a train – an important symbol which was used in the beginning of the novel immediately after Vronsky and Anna met for the first time, representing perhaps the structures of modern society coming up against the animal in us humans.

            The parallel story serves as a kind of counterbalance to the previously related passionate love story: Levin ends up marrying Kitty, and his narrative finds him seeking spiritual fulfillment and the happiness of family while doing the ‘good-work’ of running a farm and looking after the peasants under his direction. This dual look at the kinds of life possible I finally understood as something I myself have been thinking for a long time, basically that there are only two kinds of knowledge which can be obtained in some or other measure in life: the knowledge which comes from living in the same place your entire life and knowing every single thing about it; and the knowledge that comes from traveling around, picking up trades here and there, and passionately risking everything for the horizon, as Anna did, and Vronsky tried to. Massively, Tolstoy opted for the former approach, as he insinuates with the happiness of Levin in comparison to Vronsky, or even Anna. The country folk win out in the end: they win the only game worth winning, Tolstoy is saying, the game of happiness, which is the meaning of life. And while the mannerisms of the aristocratic society in Moscow may prevent them from expressing things as basic as love and trust and brotherhood, while the forms of high-civilization impede the progress of the individual soul and the closet stuffed with curbed emotions trembles with density, Levin lives outside these things, and need not heed them.

            Ultimately, Tolstoy gave intimations of his previously-shown ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ which would come later by describing the adventures of a passionately oblivious couple who were crushed under the weight of the conventions they sought to deny. The novel of shirking ones familial and societal duties in the name of desire has an inevitable ending coming from a progressive such as Tolstoy; the shirkers of social conventions must fail because if they did not fail social conventions themselves would fail, and Tolstoy is not the kind of man who praises the happiness of the individual over that of the group; or he never would have made himself write this monstrous, magnificent, and obviously heartrending creation of his, something which occupied his mind of decades and which surely cost him much, all for the benefit of the group.

            Tolstoy’s characterization is some of the best in literature, of any nation, as the following example from ‘Anna Karenina,’ at the beginning of the second chapter, proves:


‘He had never clearly thought out the subject, but he had vaguely conceived that his wife must long ago have suspected him of being unfaithful to her, and shut her eyes to the fact. He had even supposed that she, a worn out woman no longer young or good-looking, and in no way remarkable or interesting, merely a good mother, ought from a sense of fairness take an indulgent view. It had turned out quite the other way.’


            Here we see into the soul of count Oblonsky, we are shown his spitefulness, we hear him bluntly speaking about his wife in a manner which would outrage any feminist, we are made to see his view of his own infidelities and the response he once expected from his wife for them, and ultimately we are lead to agree that if she does not take him back, he would deserve it. Yet Tolstoy also manages to make us like this apathetic, lascivious count, almost to respect him for the bluntness of his opinion. Perhaps the story of Oblonsky’s adultery is merely a primer for the real subject of the novel, Anna’s, and thus we are made to feel a bit of compassion for people in such a situation through the colorful Oblonsky and his brilliant characterization before being thrown against the desperation and, quite frankly, in some way ugly passion of Anna and Vronsky. A few other examples of Tolstoy’s amazing characterization follow, picked by the sheer genius of their conveyance:


‘Then, for the first time, grasping that for every man, and himself too, there was nothing in store but suffering, death, an forgetfulness, he had made up his mind that life was impossible like that, and that he must interpret life so that it would not present itself to him as the evil jest of some devil, or shoot himself.’ Pg. 736


‘Is this life? I am not living, but waiting for an event, which is continually put off and put off.’ Pg. 649


‘But after spending two months alone in the country, he was convinced that this was not one of those passions that he had had experience with in his youth; that this feeling gave him not an instant’s rest; that he could not live without deciding the question, would she or would she not be his wife, and that his despair had arisen only from his own imaginings, that he had no sort of proof that he would be rejected. And he had come to Moscow with a firm determination to make an offer, and get married if he were accepted. Or…he could not conceive what would become of him if he were rejected.’ Pg. 25


‘There was apparently nothing extraordinary in what she said, but what unutterable meaning there was for him in every sound, in every turn of her lips, her eyes, her hand as she said it! Their was entreaty for forgiveness, and trust in him, and tenderness – soft, timid tenderness – and promise and hope and love for him, which he could not but believe in and which choked him with happiness.’ Pg. 359


            This last excerpt, something which I believe can be called a thing of beauty in that it transmits the emotions of an experience so truthfully that it feels almost as if the reader is going through the experience themselves, truly shows the ability of Tolstoy to relate human emotion better than the majority of writers who try. The preamble, that it was nothing special, intimates exactly what kind of experience it was, and the rest of the description is gravy.

Tolstoy’s descriptive powers are fabulous and at peak performance in this novel as well, calling on details of quality as well as quantity to provide a complete picture of every single scene in the work: this can, as one can imagine, grow quite tiring, and it makes the two novels of Tolstoy very difficult reads – hence th legendary difficulty of finishing ‘War and Peace.’ The following excerpts of descriptive powers were chosen for their beauty and exemplary status as ideals of Tolstoy’s writing:


‘Suddenly all disguises were thrown off and the very kernel of her soul shown in her eyes.’ Pg. 652


‘…and he like his newspaper, as he did his cigar after dinner, for the slight fog it diffused on his brain.’ Pg.10


‘”That must be Vronsky.” thought Levin, and, to be sure of it, glanced at Kitty. She had already had time to look at Vronsky, and looked around at Levin. And simply from the look in her eyes, that grew unconsciously brighter, Levin knew that she loved the man, knew it as surely as if she had told him so in words. But what sort of man was he? Now, whether for good or for ill, Levin could not choose but remain; he must find out what the man was like whom she loved.’ Pg. 49


            The final example of the descriptive powers of Tolstoy find Levin, the character who most resembles Tolstoy himself, appraising the reaction of the woman who had just rejected his proposal of marriage as she basked in the presence of the man she thought she loved more than him. It is a painful moment for the reader, who cannot but commiserate for the brave Levin who, despite his home in the country, has come to call on the last unmarried daughter of a popular aristocratic family. That this is only the beginning of their story is not yet known to the reader when this happens, and one instantly obtains a view of Kitty as capricious and empty, seemingly conscience-less in a way Tolstoy manages to imbed in many of the women he writes about.

Tolstoy’s metaphors are some of the first to appear in such a modern style, such as the following I saved in memory from a page in ‘Anna Karenina,’ ‘…a look like an intelligent dog who knows its done wrong.’ Another good one, found on Pg. 89, is ‘He felt that in the depths of his soul something had been put in its place, settled down, and laid to rest.’

 By weaving such a giant tapestry of narrative, Tolstoy gives his readers a picture of Russia towards the end of the nineteenth century which leaves little room for guess-work – if one is only interested in aristocrats –  ‘interesting people,’ that is, and not the poor, multi-cultural peasants whom Russian literature strangely skipped over for so many centuries. But the error of following aesthetic criteria one is hardly aware of is not one which can be blamed on anyone.


            The second form of ‘Anna Karenina’ I digested was an ancient film transferred to DVD recently starring Greta Garbo as Anna. The novel followed the storyline of Anna and Vronsky while sacrificing the story of Levin almost completely and editing out his fascinating character completely. He is played as an obtuse cretin form the sticks in town on the coat-tails of his friend count Oblonsky. All the interactions between Anna and Vronsky, however, are shown. So while Tolstoy has his meaning ripped out of the narrative in film form, and much of the Russian atmosphere which was built up in moments of intense description in the novel are represented, sadly, by ballrooms and train stations only, at least half of the morality tale is shown with decent precision. Sadly, Garbo acted Anna as she acted much of her other work; she translated the part as a woman who is impetuous, childish, and could not by any means be seen as ‘right,’ while in the book Anna comes off as a compelling heroine caught between two sides of a single question – whether passion can overcome responsibility – and she handles this situation with a tenacious grace that belies the turmoil she gets herself into. Garbo turned Anna into a kind of villain, abandoning her children for the love of a younger man, impetuously and foolishly ruining everyone’s life involved before taking her own, ‘not to think, but to live, to feel!’

 I would choose to interpret the novel differently were I to create a film version. To begin, I would focus on the dual moral message that Tolstoy was trying to convey in the first place. This would include giving Levin’s story equal coverage regardless of the title of the novel. Anna’s husband, ‘Cold, polite, merciless,’ as she describes him to Vronsky, would be given the heart he had in the book, a man hopelessly lost in the conventions which are his employment, and while Basil Rathbone is the character actor for the above list of verbs, he should have been directed towards moments of warmness which would make him the slightly more sympathetic man he is supposed to be.

Count Oblonsky is a character who, giving the circumstances, was played exceptionally well in the movie, an exuberant, slightly heady mix of talk and polish. Anna, as stated before, would have a kind of supremely confident reserve that didn’t quite manage to keep all her inner beauty contained, intelligent, normal, mature; the woman who counsels Dolly to reunite with her husband, rather than the woman Garbo plays when she reaches her wits end.

I see the fall from grace of the individual who reached for passion – a symbol, to be sure – as a leaf falling from a tree rather than a wolf gnawing off its own leg. The desperation is romantic, but the impetuous and slightly vacuous nature of the love depicted in the Garbo movie made it hard to watch after reading the novel. The love would be real, were I to film it, and the meaning would take precedence over all other aspects of the narration.

The second film version of Anna Karenina I watched was that starring Vivien Leigh as Anna. I was completely amazed to find that the movie had exactly the same approach, defects, and resulting disappointment as the Garbo version (Sarcasm in writing is like English sarcasm – if it’s suspected, it’s safe to assume it’s there), with a slightly better-acted Anna – still too childish for a long-married, successful woman of high-society, but better than Garbo’s version. Levin is still portrayed as a dolt, the movie is even less Russian than the Garbo version, but somehow it tries to carry a bit more of the meaning, hinged largely on the better Anna, throughout its course. Strangely enough, it is Garbo pictured on the cover of the Vivien Leigh version, backwards honors for their respective performances. The modern perception of the ‘Anna Karenina’ story is thus doubly warped, in the eastern hemisphere by bad government and in the western hemisphere by bad acting. An interesting note on the ways our knowledge is limited and the correlations these have to our society in general.

Ultimately, Tolstoy completed, with ‘Anna Karenina,’ his two novel epic story of Russian civilization in the nineteenth century, the first being ‘War and Peace,’ an old favorite of mine, and in doing so, managed to cap the achievements of all those who had written in his language before, with the possible exception of some of the other greats who were writing at the same time he was. This wave of productivity of such quality was the natural opposite end of the balance to what was coming; to what was, perhaps, a reaction to the sheer brilliance and individuality of the writers of Russian – the October Revolution.

Once the revolution swept the country, after the struggle of the first years, the Soviets set up an institutional censuring of any Russian work which had been created without a hint of foreshadowing of the Party’s ideologies therein. Pushkin’s later revelations on the values of serfdom and the need to disseminate enlightenment with a trickledown effect was not popular with the party and their cult of the mass, and therefore is was not taught in schools. Art was viewed by the hostile half of the party as useless self-indulgence, something which may sparkle, to quote Pisarev, but ‘what do you cook your dinner in?’ This is a metaphor for the inadequacy of artistic activity in general, something which the only one half of the party disagreed with, and that was only because art made such great propaganda, especially if it was created by a genius and could be warped into the party’s own organism, evolving with the regimes and the changing ideologies of the Russian state. As a matter of course, adulations of such evolving literary pet-projects involved, by necessity, heavily edited biographies which left out, for Pushkin, his fondness for drinking, fornication, and gambling – and edited the same predilections from Tolstoy’s bio. Now with the half-lived lives of artists whose work could be half-produced, the contemporary writers in Russia decided to keep their manuscripts secret if they were in any way subversive, and thus a long lull in Russian literature, ending only when Russians began to live as expatriates and critique their homeland from afar, commenced which only ended in a true sense in the past twenty years.

That Russian literary culture reached a peak with Tolstoy before falling into the inevitable valley is obvious; what is not so apparent is when it will reach its next peak, and what kind of valley will be waiting on the other side? Does truly revolutionary literature require of a nation a revolution? In the case of nineteenth century Russian literature, I think it is safe to say yes, it does.