In Russian letters the essay genre has a weak tradition. This fact is reflected in the absence of an exact, single-word translation for the genre known in English as the essay.
Other words such as opyty (experiments), ocherk (sketch), etiudy (studies), zapiski (notes), rassuzhdenie (thoughts), and pouchenie (instruction) only partially cover the requirements of the genre, which S.I.Ozhegov in his Russian dictionary Slovar’ Russkogo iazyka (1952) defines as a “short prose work of any style on a personal theme which is treated subjectively and usually not exhaustively.”
Although the reasons why a tradition never developed can be partially explained by the absence of the genre in early modern Russian literature, one can claim with certainty that the essay as employed by Montaigne appeared in Russia very late. Although the first translation of Montaigne into Russian was published in 1803, and between 1806 and 1808 there appeared two short articles about him, the genre “essai,” translated as opyty, never set down deep roots. The Russian word esse did not appear until the middle of the 19th century. Thus, instead of borrowing directly, Russian authors molded this foreign form to their own particular needs and desires. Instead of “essays,” Russian writers cultivated literary criticism, political writing, and philosophical speculation.
A study of the essay in Russian culture poses certain problems for scholars, due to the dearth of secondary literature on the subject. The main danger lies in the identification and classification of the genre. Since a broad variety of hybrid literary forms can fall under the rubric “essay” in Russia, there is no consensus about what exactly constitutes an essay. At present scholars are obliged to make independent choices based on criteria which have emerged from Western definitions of the genre. For our purposes, we identify those works which belong to one of three categories—the political essay, the meditative or philosophical essay, and the critical essay. By identifying the essay’s qualities, it may be possible to locate those normative features characteristic of the Russian experience with this literary form.
The genre as it is known in the West came late to Russia, appearing only in the second half of the 18th century. It bears clear marks of its derivation from Western European sources. While literary genres similar to the essay certainly appeared earlier—polemical works and religious apologetics—medieval conventions remained longer in Russian literature than in the West. Russian writing was characterized by thematic topoi and formal conventions, which lasted with few exceptions up to the 17th century. Thus, we may distinguish between the essay as it was practiced in the West (at least by the time of the Renaissance), in which the concrete views of an individualized author were expressed, and those in which the identity of the author was unknown or reflected a conventionalized persona, a monk, a benevolent ruler, or a courtier. In such works the subject matter lacked the personal, meditative quality or the critical bite we associate with the genre.
In the first half of the 18th century the term “essay” did not appear, nor is it easy to identify works belonging to the genre. The classification of genres in classicism, the leading literary style, offered philosophical writing primarily in the form of “odes” or “epistles.” Moreover, subjectivism in general was not characteristic of classicism, which was founded rather on rules and norms. The leading writers in the 18th century, Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–65), Vasilii Trediakovskii (1703–69), and Aleksandr Sumarokov (1718–77), authored treatises on the rules of writing poetry. In such prose works the authors tried to present an objective and authoritative view.
Writing which resembled essays appeared in the satirical journals which proliferated in the early part of the reign (1762–96) of Catherine the Great. These journals, while based on foreign, especially English models such as the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian, were adapted to Russian conditions. Catherine sponsored her own journal and challenged others to follow suit. The most interesting were Nikolai Novikov’s (1744–1818) Truten’ (1769–70; The drone), Aleksandr Sumarokov’s (1717–77) Trudoliobivaia Pchela (1759; Worker bee), and Catherine’s own Vsiakaia Vsiachina (1769; Odds and ends). In these journals the authors published short instructive writings in which they mocked social conditions and criticized universal human foibles. New scholarship has shown that such criticism was not rebellious in intent as was previously thought, but rather was governed by the conventions of satirical journals. These journals, however, did provide a forum for a kind of discourse in which a subjective treatment of intellectually lively subjects could find expression.
The final quarter of the 18th century reflected the growing intensity of political concerns. As Russia’s critical intelligentsia formed, it began to demand a political voice, and several major writers of the period—Prince Mikhail Shcherbatov (1733–90), Denis Fonvizin (1745–92), and Aleksandr Radishchev (1749–1802)—penned political articles in which each tried to describe the proper and most propitious means for governing the state. For example, in his essay O povrezhdenii nravov v Rossii (1786–89; On the Corruption of Morals in Russia), Prince Shcherbatov argued in favor of the rights of the hereditary nobility and “ancient Russian virtues” against the interests of the court and its “western-aping” habits. Similarly, Denis Fonvizin, in his “Rassuzhdenie o neprimennykh gosudarstvennikh zakonakh” (“Discourse on the Indispensable Laws of the State”), advised the new tsar Paul to shun favoritism and tyrannical rule and create inalterable laws that would bring harmony and stability.
Aleksandr Radishchev, the famed author of the fictional Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu (1790; A Joumey From St. Petersburg to Moscow), also argued forcefully for revolution in his “Beseda o tom, chto est’ syn otechestva” (1789; Conversation about who is his nation’s son). Here he railed against serfdom, denouncing the unchecked power of landowners over their human chattel and the illegitimate source of political power in Russia. While the authors delivered serious criticism of Russia’s political system, their presentation of arguments and use of vocabulary from a variety of disciplines link these works with the political essay.
At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, Romanticism replaced classicism as the leading literary sensibility. A change occurred in social and artistic consciousness, the subjective “I” becoming an important source for creative writing. This new tendency gave a strong impetus to essay writing. Sentimentalism gradually destroyed the genre system of classicism; new genres with the potential for confessional narratives appeared (to a great degree influenced by JeanJacques Rousseau’s Confessions [1782– 89]). A variety of travel narratives—journeys, walks, and travel notes (puteshestvie, progulki, putevye zametki)—permitted the expression of personal, spontaneous impressions. In addition, in 1803 Montaigne’s essays were translated and served as a blueprint for many Russian authors.
Nikolai Karamzin (1766–1826) reflected the ethic of sentimentalism, especially its rationalistic and didactic character. For example, in his essay “Nechto o naukakh, iskusstvakh i prosveshchenii” (1793; A bit about the sciences, arts, and Enlightenment), he polemicizes with Rousseau, who had said in one of his discourses that “the sciences ruin morals.” Karamzin argued that enlightenment, science, and art possess an enormous instructive significance. Karamzin also wrote political articles for the journal Vestnik Evropy (The messenger of Europe) in which he analyzed the political situation of Europe before the French Revolution and the wars France waged in Europe and Africa. Karamzin held a conservative position, arguing for the preservation of religion and the restoration of the monarchy. He offered a utopian picture of Europe and the world, employing the stylistic manner typical of sentimentalist aesthetics.
The spirit of Romanticism, known as the “Golden Age” of Russian poetry, was conducive to producing Russia’s first serious literary criticism. In newly established journals, Poliarnaia Zvezda, Aglaia, Msemodia, and Literaturnaia Gazeta (Literary gazette), Vasilii Zhukovskii (1783–1852.), Aleksandr Bestuzhev-Marlinskii (1797–1837), Dmitrii Venevitinov (1805–27), Vil’gelm Kiukhel’beker (1797–1846), O.M. Somov (1793–1833), and Kondratii Ryleev (1795–1825), set forth aesthetic criteria with which they judged the most recent poetic creations. Principally, they emphasized the artistic expression of the author’s unique personality. Furthermore, critics applauded the appearance of their favored works of poetry, viewing them in a national cultural context.
Thus appeared the literary survey, critical articles adumbrating the trends in Russian literary life. Vasilii Zhukovskii is often considered the originator of Russian Romanticism in poetry, but he was also an important critic. Many of Zhukovskii’s critical articles, however, have a programmatic character and served as manifestoes of Romanticism. As a translator he made available the philosophical essays of David Hume, such as “On Simplicity and Refinement in Writing,” “On Tragedy,” and “Of Eloquence.” In his own “Rafaeleva ‘Madonna’” (1824; Raphael’s Madonna), Zhukovskii described his view of the Romantic artist, setting forth his impressions of the painting. He claimed that inspiration from on high is the source of the writer’s art and the author is a prophet or messenger of divine knowledge.
A critical figure in Russian essay writing is Konstantin N. Batiushkov (1787–1855). In his first collection entitled Opyty v stikhakh i proze (1817; Essays in verse and prose—the title imitates Montaigne’s book, and he takes the epigraph from him), he includes prose texts from a variety of genres: the letter, speech, travelogue, philosophical essay, and critical article. In his essay “Nechto o poete i poezii” (1816; A bit about the poet and poetry), Batiushkov depicted the sentimental poet, claiming that art, or spiritual experience, should correspond to real life. In his famous essay, “Progulka v Akademiiu khudozhestv” (1814; A walk to the Academy of Arts), Batiushkov expressed his aesthetic viewpoint, taking as his touchstone the culture of antiquity. From this position, he evaluated the Renaissance and contemporary Russia, illustrating his patriotism with praise for the achievements of national culture.
Petr A.Viazemskii (1792–1878) also penned a number of important essays. The majority were written for monthly journals and can be seen as critical reflections on literary events of the time. Despite the subjectivity of most of his critical opinions, these essays were important in instigating a critical appreciation of literature. Examples are “O Derzhavin” (1816; On Derzhavin), “Sonety Mitskevicha” (1829; Mickievich’s sonnets), and “O duxe partii; o literaturnoi aristokratii” (1830; On the spirit of parties; on literary aristocracy).
During this period Russian literary criticism played a central role in literary life, becoming a permanent feature of the political and literary journals. Bestuzhev- Marlinskii’s survey articles on Russian literature for 1823 and 1824–25 and Vil’gelm Kiukhel’beker’s “O napravlenii nashei poezii osobenno liricheskoi v poslednee desiatiletie” (On the direction of our poetry especially lyrical during the last decade) are representative examples. These articles have common traits with the essay, since the authors freely express their views on literature, literary life, and society. As B.Egorov writes in On the Craft of Literary Criticism (1980), “For criticism of the romantic method, a state of chaos, an intentional disconnectedness of ideas and subjects was very characteristic. The post-Karamzinian epoch, in the period of the birth of a powerful intrusion of the subjective voice of the critic contributed to such discursiveness.”
As a writer of essays, the greatest of Russian poets Aleksandr Pushkin (1799–1837) was prolific. Pushkin’s essays are characterized by a broadness of theme, clarity of thought, and richness of philosophical speculation. In them he expounds on history, philosophy, education, literature, and poetry. As a literary critic, Pushkin observed the subtleties of literary craft, judging with precision the best and worst of the literature of his day. He wrote about his friends, the poets Evgenii Batiushkov and Baron Delvig, and expressed his views on literary life with critical articles on Nikolai Polevoi, Mikhail Zagoskin, and Ivan Krylov. Pushkin also offered thoughtful reflections on poetic inspiration and the role of literature in society in such essays as “O literaturnoi kritike” (1830; “On Literary Criticism”) and “Trebuet li publika izveshcheniia” (1830;
“Does the Public Demand Instruction?”). He wrote on history and historiography with reviews of the Dictionary of Saints and in his famous letter (1836) to Petr Chaadaev.
Often called the father of Russian philosophy, Chaadaev (1794–1856) wrote philosophical essays, which he presented in the form of a fictional correspondence. His Filosoficheskie pis’ma (Philosophical Letters) consisted of eight letters, only one of which was published in his lifetime, appearing in the journal Teleskop in 1836. In this essay, Chaadaev levied all his critical anger at his native land, juxtaposing inferior Russia to a superior Western civilization. Russia, Chaadaev complained, having never experienced the Renaissance and Reformation, lacked the civilizing experiences of the West, the emblem of which he considered the Roman Catholic Church. Although Chaadaev overstated his case, the questions he posed about the meaning of Russia’s history and its relations to the West would become central to the two main philosophical movements of the 19th century, the Slavophiles and the Westernizers.
The great Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’ (1809–52) also wrote a variety of essays. His early attempts at the genre are contained in the volume Arabeski (1835; Arabesques). Part of the volume deals with aesthetic problems: “Ob arkhitekture” (“On Architecture”), “Skul’ptura, zhivopis’, muzyka” (“Sculpture, Painting, Music”), and “Poslednii den’ Pompei” (“The Last Day of Pompei”). The other section is connected with Gogol’s university teaching. In “O srednikh vekakh” (“On the Middle Ages”) he disputed Enlightenment thinkers, who considered the Middle Ages a primitive period, and the Romantics, who idealized it. In “Vzgliad na sostavlenie Malorossii” (“A View on the Formation of Little Russia”) and “O Malorossiiskikh pesniakh” (“On Little Russian Songs”), Gogol’ revealed his interest in Ukrainian national culture and folklore.
Among the Westernizers—individuals whose value system was oriented toward ideas originating in the West—Vissarion Belinskii (1811–48) was the most important literary critic and essayist; he contributed to the development of the profession of literary criticism. He was passionate and personally engaged with his subject, and his prose reflects this involvement. As the literary historian Leonid Grossman put it (in Vissarion Belinsky, 1954), “Belinsky’s primary and favorite form is criticism as speech, criticism as lecture, criticism as conversation. Concentrating on the main intonation of his writings, we can truly imagine him standing on a tribunal before a large audience which he instructs, educates, convinces and entertains with his talk. This is a critic-orator.”
While the political views of a writer were important to Belinskii, aesthetics also mattered a great deal. In part, in his articles on Pushkin (1843–46), he was responsible for canonizing Pushkin as the national poet; in his article “O russkoi povesti i povestiakh g.Gogolia” (1835; On the Russian story and Gogol’s stories) he crowned Gogol’ the leader of the “Natural School.” In his annual review of the year’s events in Russian literature (starting in 1841), Belinskii drew a portrait of the epoch, while presenting theoretical issues about literature. In addition to claiming that literature was an expression of the national spirit, Belinskii promulgated his theoretical position that literature is “thinking in images.” Besides seeking out the political “ideals” in a literary work, Belinskii also “emphasized the dialectical unity of content and form and the indivisibility of progress and historical development” (B.F.Egorov, in Russkie pisateli, 1800–1917, 1992.). Thus, he believed in the transforming role of literature in the general and inexorable improvement of humanity. This commitment to progress led Belinskii into a polemic with Gogol’, and in one of the most influential essays of Russian intellectual history, “Pis’mo k Gogoliu” (1847; “Letter to N.V. Gogol’”), which because of censorship could not be published in Russia, Belinskii condemned the tyranny of tsarism, the unfreedom of serfdom, and Gogol’s own misdirected and unfortunate religious conservatism.
In addition to Belinskii, the “men of the 1840s” included distinguished writers such as Aleksandr Herzen (1812–70), Mikhail Bakunin (1814–76), Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Stankevich (1813–40), and Timofei Granovskii (1813–55). Herzen became the most illustrious and was a master of the political essay. Despite having been born into great wealth, early in his life Herzen became enamored with the ideals of socialism. After having been exiled twice within Russia for his views, he left Russia voluntarily in 1847.
However, it was in emigration that he was to play his greatest role. As the editor and primary writer for his journal, Kolokol (1857–67; The bell), which was smuggled back into Russia, Herzen influenced government policy in the years just before and after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861.
In Kolokol Herzen published political essays such as “Moskva i Peterburg” (1857;
Moscow and Petersburg), “Zapadnye knigi” (1857; Western books), “Very
Dangerous” (1859; original title in English), and “Lishnie liudi i zhelcheviki” (1860;
Superfluous men and revolutionaries). He railed against the illusions of Slavophilism, while criticizing the radicals for not considering the significance of the liberals of the 1840s (of whom Herzen was one) in the struggle against tsarism. Furthermore, in response to witnessing the revolutions of 1848 in Europe and to his own experiences in Russia, Herzen wrote two books composed of essays, Pis’ma iz Frantsii i Italii (1847– 52.; Letters from France and Italy, 1547–1851) and S togo berega (first published in German, 1850, in Russian, 1855; From the Other Shore). In these deftly written, philosophically astute, and personally engaged articles, Herzen spurned the radicals, rejecting the view that history is progressing inexorably to a predestined or purposeful end. He considered that personalities rather than abstract ideas make history.
Another fine essay writer among the Westernizers was the novelist Ivan Turgenev (1818–83). Although he wrote only a few essays, they are important as reflections of the conflicts between the “men of the 1840s” and the revolutionaries of the 1860s. The most important of them is “Gamlet i Don Kikhot” (1860; “Hamlet and Don Quixote”), in which Turgenev describes two basic human types. Hamlet represents a person paralyzed by self-doubt and reflection, someone socially useless or “superfluous.” Don Quixote, on the contrary, is “completely devoted to his ideal, for which he is prepared to sacrifice everything, including his life. It is true that this ideal is sometimes based on fantasy or illusion, so much so that Don Quixote may appear to be a madman. But this does not in any way diminish its purity or sincerity, or Don Quixote’s determination and strength of will” (Leonard Schapiro, Turgenev: His Life and Times, 1978). Like his novels, Turgenev’s essays had a powerful effect on society, since they appeared with perfect
timing at a moment of social convulsion.
Protests against the Westernizers were levied by their intellectual antitheses, the Slavophiles, who widely employed the philosophical essay. Thoroughly Western in their education and sensibility, Ivan Kireevskii (1808–56) and Aleksei Khomiakov (1804–60) used references from European literature, history, and philosophy in order to promulgate their view of Russia as unique from the West. At the start of his career, in his own journal Evropeets (The European), Kireevskii wrote “Deviatnadtsatyi vek” (1832; The 19th century), perhaps the most absorbing essay of his time. In it he treated the intellectual movements of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe from the viewpoint of a “conservative favorably disposed toward the West,” criticizing European irreligiosity but “happy for the return of religion to its rightful central place” (Peter K. Christoff, An Introduction to Nineteenth-Century Russian Slavophilism, 1972,).
Later Kireevskii, together with Khomiakov, would articulate the basic premises of the Slavophile doctrine. In philosophical articles such as Kireevskii’s “O neobkhodimosti I vozmozhnosti novykh nachal dlia filosofii” (1856; On the necessity and possibility of new principles in philosophy) and Khomiakov’s “O sovremennykh iavleniiakh v oblasti
filosofii” (1859; On contemporary trends in the area of philosophy), the two thinkers indicated the differences between Russia and the West. The West, they held, was based on rationalism and religious agnosticism, while the Russian people were religious in their essence. Furthermore, while in Europe the single individual’s well-being was the central goal, Russia was based on principles of unity and inclusion. For these reasons, the latter was superior spiritually, while Europe languished in moral turpitude.
The division between the followers of the Slavophiles and the Westernizers widened in the tumultuous years following the abolition of serfdom in 1861. The conflict grew in part because of the uncompromising attitude of the nihilists, who demanded nothing less than the overthrow of the tsar. Nevertheless, these same nihilists, extremist in their political program, were powerful critics, enormously influential on the thought and behavior of subsequent generations of radicals. Nikolai Chernyshevskii (1828–89), for example, depicted positive heroes useful for public emulation. Furthermore, these radical social critics, such as Chernyshevskii himself, Nikolai Dobroliubov (1836–61), and Dmitrii Pisarev (1840–68), intended to incite the reader’s anger about the wrongs of Russia’s social structure and to provoke action on behalf of political change. Thus, for reasons of censorship, essays purporting to be literary criticism were actually sociopolitical tracts in disguise. Incidentally, Pisarev also wrote educational essays on popular science, transmitting to a Russian audience the ideas of positivism, utilitarianism, and educational reform.
Among the next generation of critics, Apollon Grigor’ev (1822–64) reflected the influence of both the Westernizers and the Slavophiles. Practicing a type of reading he called “organic criticism,” Grigor’ev saw a work of art as a complicated whole, an entity in which the depiction of life emerges from the author’s inner vision. The artist is seen as a prophet or clairvoyant who “opens the mysteries of life” and reveals their relationship with eternal ideals. In critical essays such as “O pravde i iskrennosti v iskusstve” (1856; On truth and honesty in art), Grigor’ev creatively interpreted Russia’s poets as sharp observers of reality and metaphysical visionaries.
During the 1860s, the novelist Fedor Dostoevskii (1821–81) wrote many articles about Russia’s social, political, and psychological character. Many of his journalistic articles he signed under the heading “A Writer’s Diary,” and these have been republished in separate volumes. As editor and owner of his own journals Vremia (1861–63; Time) and Epokha (1864–65; Epoch), and as editor of Grazhdanin (1873–78; The citizen), Dostoevskii had an outlet for his philosophical deliberations about Western civilization and Russia in the years following the liberation of the serfs. Opposing the nihilists, Dostoevskii advocated, in the words of R.L.Belknap (in Handbook of Russian Literature, edited by Victor Terras, 1985), “not a Slavophile repudiation of the West as such, nor a denial of the need to better the lot of Russia’s poor, and certainly not any sympathy with the ideals of Russian aristocrats, bureaucrats, or plutocrats, but a doctrine that he and his associates called pochvennichestvo, or ‘grassroots.’ They argued that Peter the Great’s Westernization had enriched Russia, but that now Russia must turn to the wisdom of its rural past if it is to say its own word in the history of mankind.”
One feature of Dostoevskii’s essays, however, is contradictory and morally disconcerting. In his essays a shrill voice sometimes expresses deep resentment against religions other than Russian Orthodoxy and ethnic races other than Russian. The objects of Dostoevskii’s wrath include Jews, Poles, and Germans. He does not appear to have had much patience with those elements of society which were different or contrary to his idealistic vision of a theocratic Russia.
Lev Tolstoi (1828–1910) wrote his essays primarily in the periods of retreat from fiction writing. The first period of essays follows Tolstoi’s return to his estate, lasnaia Poliana, after feeling snubbed by Petersburg’s professional intellectuals. There he began to write a periodical describing his theory of education and the practical results of his work as a teacher of peasant children in his own school. Twelve issues of lasnaia Poliana appeared between 1862 and 1863. Tolstoi articulated his ideas most strikingly in “Komu u kogo uchit’sia pisat’, krest’ianskim rebiatam u nas, ili nam u krest’ianskikh rabiat?” (1862; “Who Should Learn to Write from Whom, the Peasant Children from Us, or We from the Peasant Children?”). In the years of writing Anna Karenina (1875–77) and thereafter, Tolstoi became engaged in a struggle to remodel Christianity, and expressed his new religious outlook in book-length didactic treatises aimed at attracting readers to his views of nonresistance to evil, the abolition of private property, and the utility of art for moral edification: Tak chtozhe nam delat’? (1888; What to Do?), Tsarvtso Bozhie vnutri vas (1893–94; The Kingdom of God Is Within You), and Chto takoe iskusstvo? (1898; What Is Art?).
The other great realist, Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), was not a prolific essayist, although his articles, letters to the editor, and reviews make entertaining reading. In part, this can be explained by Chekhov’s ability to treat contemporary problems in his fiction; nonfiction therefore held less interest for him. Nevertheless, he did complete Iz Sibiri (1890; From Siberia) and Ostrov Sakalin (1895; A Journey to Sakalin), that “remarkable book,” made up of separate essays about the social, economic, and medical conditions of Russia’s Far East. In addition, Chekhov also published exposés of social problems and sketches of contemporaries: for example, essays on Sarah Bernhardt (1881), I.A.Mel’nikov (1893), N.N.Figner (1893), and “Novoe vremia” (1894), a letter to the editor of The New Times.
A contemporary of Chekhov and a brilliant intellectual, Vladimir Solov’ev (1853– 1900) was a remarkable essayist and gifted stylist. Inspired by Slavophile thought, Solov’ev was a religious philosopher who created his own Christian world view by uniting boundless faith in the divinity with a tremendous respect for science and human creativity. Among his most famous philosophical essays are “Obshchii smysl iskusstva” (1890; “The General Meaning of Art”) and Smysl liubvi (1892–94; The Meaning of Love). His personality and thought were extremely influential for poets and philosophers associated with the younger symbolists.
During the 1880s and 1890s the positivist school of literary criticism dominated the “thick” journals. The leader of the movement, Nikolai Mikhailovskii (1842–1904), was a fine essayist and an important figure, since his blending of utilitarianism, individual egoism, and populism influenced revolutionary thought of the time. In the 18905, however, a new school of writers arose who attacked the general confidence in rationalism and political collectivism in the name of artistic creativity and Nietzschean apolitical individualism. At times called Russian decadents or symbolists, Dmitrii Merezhkovskii (1865–1941), Zinaida Gippius (1869–1945), and Valerii Briusov (1873– 1924) were energetic writers and self-advertisers who for at least a decade devoted their energies to spreading the new aesthetic until it became the leading artistic movement in Russia.
The best statement of the tenets of this new movement can be found in Merezhkovskii’s programmatic essay “O prichinakh upadka i o novykh techeniiakh sovremennoi russkoi literatury” (1893; On the reasons for the decline and the new trends in contemporary Russian literature). Briusov also wrote polemical essays against those intellectual movements antagonistic to symbolism—positivism, materialism, and political conservatism; for example, “Kliuchi tain” (1904; The keys of mysteries) and “Sovremennye soobrazheniia” (1905; Contemporary thoughts). Later Briusov began to write about the necessity of considering the real world, not simply the inner experiences of the authors. In addition, Briusov wrote many important critical essays about Russian literature, especially on the poetry of Aleksandr Pushkin, for example in “Stikhotvornaia technika Pushkina” (1915; Pushkin’s verse techniques).
The 1905 Revolution was the central event of the first decade of the 20th century and it became a major theme for writers. For example, at the same time that the centrist and leftist parties were wresting from the tsar the right to establish the Duma, an elected legislature, a group of intellectuals, notably Viacheslav Ivanov (1866–1949) and Georgii Chulkov (1879–1939), wrote political essays advocating “misticheskom anarkhizme” (mystical anarchy). Later, addressing the unfulfilled expectations of the Revolution, seven non-Marxist philosophers published a collection of essays entitled Vekhi: Sbornik statei o russkoi intelligentsii (1909; Landmarks: A Collection of Essays on the Russian Intelligentsia). These political essays by Nikolai Berdiaev (1874–1948), Sergei Bulgakov (1871–1944), Mikhail Gershenzon (1869–1925), Semion Frank (1877–1950), A. Kistiakovskii (1868–1920), Petr Struve (1870–1944), and Aleksandr Izgoev (1872–1935) had a scandalous success; the volume incited over 200 published responses within the first year alone. Although the contributors disagreed among themselves about a positive solution for Russia’s problems, they joined forces to criticize the revolutionary intelligentsia’s moral maximalism and indifference to truth, beauty, or knowledge, independent of its use for the political cause.
This period of cultural flowering, known to scholars as the “Silver Age” (1890–192,0), also featured excellent essay writers among the religiously-minded intelligentsia. Of special interest are Vasilii Rozanov (1856–1919) and Lev Shestov (1866–1938). In his essays Rozanov treated the issues of Christianity, Judaism, the Russian idea, and his own biography, blending them together in a surprising and idiosyncratic way (in his personal life he was friendly with both anti-Semites and Jews, educated philosophers and peasant artists). His erratic, “irrational” views are matched by a bizarre, personal writing style.
Breaking down genre barriers, in his greatest books, Uedinennoe (1912; Solitaria) and Opavshie list’ia (1913–15; Fallen Leaves), Rozanov included short essays on a variety of topics, which he treated with his characteristic shifting of intonation, from irony to complete seriousness in a single breath.
Lev Shestov was one of Russia’s greatest essay writers because of his clear and limpid style. Writing about literature and philosophy, Shestov created his own approach, organizing his essays around an analysis of his subjects’ biographies. Influenced by Nietzsche, Shestov claimed that creation emerges from personal tragedies, and that authors try to hide their horrifying experiences or transform them in fiction. It is up to the critic, therefore, to reconstruct the artist’s psychological condition. Shestov masterfully applied his subjective method to the study of Shakespeare, Dante, Dostoevskii, Tolstoi, Chekhov, Pushkin, the Greek philosophers, and the heroes of the Bible.
The poet Aleksandr Blok (1880–1921) is also well known for his essay writing. He wrote especially on social and political problems in essays such as “Narod I intelligentsia” (1909; “The People and Intelligentsia”), “Intelligentsiia I revoliutsiia” (1918; “The Intelligentsia and Revolution”), and “Krushenie gumanizma” (1921; “The Collapse of Humanism”). In these works Blok expressed doubts about the value of the humanist tradition and revealed an attraction for the apocalypse, which would bring a conclusion to the unjust and spiritually incomplete world. Thus, Blok fatally embraced the Bolshevik putsch which brought Lenin to power.
Blok’s position was a sign to the entire intelligentsia, and the historian Ivanov-Razumnik (1878–1946) in the journal Skifii (1917–18; Scythians) expressed the view that intellectuals had fully to accept the October Revolution as a fait accompli.
Another group of writers and thinkers, however, interpreted the Bolshevik Revolution as nothing less than unlawful violence. In 1918, under the direction of Petr Struve, a group of religious philosophers and political liberals (the core group from Landmarks plus several other thinkers, minus Gershenzon) contributed essays to De profundis, a volume which was intended to provide a theoretical repudiation of Bolshevism.
Maksim Gor’kii (i.e. Aleksei Peshkov, 1868–1936) was at once a powerful political writer and an important literary critic. In his early years he wrote revolutionary manifestoes, awakening the world proletariat to action (1905–06). In the period during which he resided in Capri (1906–13), Gor’kii published many articles of literary and social criticism. He attacked decadence, individualism, and trounced the leading Russian authors, while praising the ideals of socialism and the virtues of the working class in essays such as “Razrushenie lichnosti” (1909; “The Destruction of the Individual”), “O Karamozovshchine” (1913; “About Karamazovism”). In the revolutionary years, Gor’kii published two books of articles, Revoliutsiia i kul’tura (1918; Revolution and culture) and Nesvoevremennye mysli (1917–18; Untimely Thoughts), in which he argued for the preservation of cultural values and called for the popularization of knowledge and culture for the masses. After the Revolution, in emigration, Gor’kii continued to write critical articles, working as an editor of the journal Dialogue.
The early years of Bolshevik rule are paradoxical in that, while intellectuals in Petersburg and Moscow were literally starving, there occurred a vibrant flowering in the arts. Given the desire to understand the social changes which had taken place since the Revolution, much of the creative energy in literature took the form of philosophical speculation and literary criticism. In weekly issues of the Letopis’ Doma Literatorov (1918–21; Chronicle of the house of writers), famous intellectuals such as Vladislav Khodasevich (18861939), Fedor Kuzmin (1875–1936), Viktor Shklovskii (1893–1984), Aleksandr Blok, and new talents, Evgenii Zamiatin (1884–1937), Mikhail Zoshchenko (1895–1958), and Benedikt Livshits (1881–1939), published their works. During this period Viacheslav Ivanov and Mikhail Gershenzon created their masterpiece, Perepiska iz dvukh uglov (1921; Correspondence Across a Room). Although the work consists of 14 letters, each is in itself a self-contained essay about the purpose of history, metaphysics, and the Russian Revolution. The book has an interesting history, since the two authors actually lived together in a sanitorium and sent letters “across a room.”
While the October Revolution offered communist writers such as Leon Trotskii (1879– 1940), Nikolai Bukharin (1888–1938), and Anatolii Lunacharskii (1875–1933) an advantage in getting into print, they did not have exclusive control over publishing during the 1920s. The relative freedoms of the period permitted other writers to emerge. Among the nondogmatic communists, the best essayist was Aleksandr Voronskii (1884–1943), who published his critical articles on Soviet literature in the thick journal he edited, Krasnaia Nov’ (1921–27; Red virgin soil). Voronskii was something of a sore point for the dogmatists, since he was adamant that Soviet literature had to offer more than merely a message: it should also be aesthetically and formally “beautiful.”
In the 1920s and 1930s the Acmeist poets Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) and Osip Mandel’shtam (1891–1938) offered excellent examples of the genre. Mandel’shtam impressed readers with his essays on the idea of Acmeism—“François Villon” (1913)— and poetic language—“O prirode slova” (1922; “About the Nature of the Word”) and “Utro akmeizma” (1922; “Morning of Acmeism”). He also revealed in part the mysteries of poetic creation with “Razgovor o Dante” (1933; “Conversation About Dante”).
Simultaneously, Akhmatova’s various essays on Pushkin, while scholarly and wellwritten, also reveal in cryptic ways her own creative process. The author Evgenii Zamiatin (1884–1937) also wrote essays in which he expressed his observations and thoughts on the problem of literature in a totalitarian state. In part he argued against censorship and ideological dogmatism in articles such as “Zavtra” (1920; Tomorrow) and
“O segodniashem i sovremennom” (1924; On today and the contemporary).
In post-revolutionary Russia literary scholars such as Viktor Shklovskii offered personal reflections, sociological observations, and insights about literature in short prose works which were collected in Gamburgskii schet (1928; Hamburg account). His student Lidiia Ginzburg (1902–90) also penned synthetic essays in which she joined personal reminiscences and thoughts on literature; these have been published recently in Chelovek za pis’mennym stolom (1989; A person at the writing table).
The exile frotn Russia in the 1920s of so many leading intellectuals brought about a split between Soviet and émigré literature. Despite the difficulties of life in emigration, intellectual life was surprisingly multifarious and vivacious. In the 1920s collections of essays appeared in which émigré movements such as Eurasianism and Smena Vekh (Changing of the signposts) publicized their ideological credo. In addition, émigré journals such as Vozrozhdenie (Resurrection), Put’ (The way), and Dni (Days) were established, and the best writers, poets, and philosophers wrote for them. Among the finest essayists of the period were Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), Vladislav Khodasevich (1886–1939), Georgii Adamovich (1884–1972), Georges Florovsky (1893–1979), Mark Aldanov (1886–1957), and Prince Dmitrii Sviatopolk-Mirskii (1890–1939).
During World War II the most important emigre journals were Novyi Zhurnal (New journal) and Novoe Russkoe Slovo (New Russian word).
During the post-Stalinist “Thaw” (1954–62) in Soviet Russia, essay writing was heralded by Il’ia Ehrenburg (1891–1967), who published a book of literary-critical articles and essays, Frantsuzskie tetradi (1958; French notebooks). During this period, Andrei Siniavskii (1925–97), writing in Russia under the pseudonym Abram Tertz, published his critical essay “Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm” (1959; On Socialist Realism), which, although published abroad, was a brilliant critique of the Soviet policy of engendering literature “by dictate.” In many senses, the Thaw period was a time for revelations of the horrors of the past, a period of literary education rather than a rebirth for Russian letters.
In the “Third Wave” of emigration from Russia (1970–80s), the essay form was dominated by émigré novelists who contributed to the journals appearing in the West and in Israel: Aleksandr Zinov’ev (1922–), Vasilii Aksenov (1932–), Vladimir Voinovich
(1932–), and luzh Alezhkovskii (1929–). The exception to this rule was the poet Joseph Brodsky (1940–96), who published two excellent collections of essays in English, Less than One (1986) and most recently On Grief and Reason (1995). Brodsky’s command of English and insights into the essay form display a mastery rarely encountered.
The 1980s ushered in the era of glasnost, political reform from above and new “openness” in the arts. The essay form found practitioners in new or newfangled reformist journals, Argumenty i Faktii (Arguments and facts), Ogonek (Little flame), and Znamia (The banner), among others. Among the popular essayists during the period, Lev Anninskii (1934-), Natal’ia Ivanova, Dmitrii Likhachev (1906–)—the doyen of Russian scholarship—and Viktor Erofeev were perfect barometers for the mood of the liberal intelligentsia.
In the new postcommunist world the spectrum of intellectual life has broadened considerably, and the essay form is finding ever greater use among religious thinkers, academic philosophers, literary critics, muck-raking journalists, economists, and culturewatchers of all types. While it is difficult to make predictions about the pathways of literary life, signs from the past indicate that the critical, philosophical, and political essays are alive and kicking in all directions in present-day Russia.
Brown, William Edward, A History of 18th Century Russian Literature, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1980
Segel, Harold B., The Literature of 18th-Century Russia, New York: Dutton, 2 vols., 1967
Todd, William Mills III, The Familiar Letter as a Literary Genre in the Age of Pushkin, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976
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