Maurice Baring.

An Outline of Russian Literature

The foremost representative of French influence was Prince Kantemir (1708-44), who wrote the first Russian literary verse satires in the pseudo-classic French manner, modelled on Boileau. But by far the most abundant source of French ideas in Russia during the eighteenth century was Catherine II, the German Princess. During Catherines reign, French influence was predominant in Russia. The Empress was the friend of Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot. Diderot came to St. Petersburg, and the Russian military schools were flooded with French teachers. Voltaire and Rousseau were the fashion, and cultured society was platonically enamoured of the Rights of Man. Catherine herself, besides being a great ruler and diplomatist, was a large-minded philosopher, an elegant and witty writer. But the French Revolution had a damping effect on all liberal enthusiasm, for the one thing an autocrat, however enlightened, finds difficulty in understanding, is a revolution.

This change of point of view proved disastrous for the writer of what is the most thoughtful book of the age: namely Radishchev, an official who wrote a book in twenty-five chapters called A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Radishchev gave a simple and true account of the effects of serfdom, a series of pictures drawn without exaggeration, showing the appalling evils of the system, and appealing to the conscience of the slave-owners; the book contained also a condemnation of the Censorship. It appeared in 1790, with the permission of the police. It was too late for the times; for in 1790 the events in France were making all the rulers of Europe pensive. Radishchev was accused of being a rebel, and was condemned to death. The sentence was commuted to one of banishment to Eastern Siberia. He was pardoned by the Emperor Paul, and reinstated by the Emperor Alexander; but he ultimately committed suicide on being threatened in jest with exile once more. Until 1905 it was very difficult to get a copy of this book. Thus Radishchev stands out as the martyr of Russian literature; the first writer to suffer for expressing opinions at the wrong moment: opinions which had they been stated in this case twenty years sooner would have coincided with those published by the Empress herself.

Catherines reign, which left behind it many splendid results, and had the effect of bestowing European culture on Russia, produced hardly a single poet or prose-writer whose work can be read with pleasure to-day, although a great importance was attached to the writing of verse. There were poets in profusion, especially writers of Odes, the best known of whom was Derzhavin (1743-1816), a brilliant master of the pseudo-classical, in whose work, in spite of its antiquated convention, elements of real poetical beauty are to be found, which entitle him to be called the first Russian poet. But so far no national literature had been produced. French was the language of the cultured classes. Literature had become an artificial plaything, to be played with according to French rules; but the Russian language was waiting there, a language which possessed, as Lomonosov said, the vivacity of French, the strength of German, the softness of Italian, the richness and powerful conciseness of Greek and Latin waiting for some one who should have the desire and the power to use it.


The value of Russian literature, its peculiar and unique message to the world, would not be sensibly diminished, had everything it produced from the twelfth to the beginning of the nineteenth century perished, with the exception of The Raid of Prince Igor.

With the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the accession of Alexander I, the New Age began, and the real dawn of Russian literature broke. It was soon to be followed by a glorious sunrise. The literature which sprang up now and later, was profoundly affected by public events; and public events during this epoch were intimately linked with the events which were happening in Western Europe. It was the epoch of the Napoleonic wars, and Russia played a vital part in that drama. Public opinion, after enthusiasm had been roused by the deeds of Suvorov, was exasperated and humiliated by Napoleons subsequent victories over Russian arms. But when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, a wave of patriotism swept over the country, and the struggle resulted in an increased sense of unity and nationality. Russia emerged stronger and more solid from the struggle. As far as foreign affairs were concerned, the Emperor Alexander I on whom everything depended played his national part well, and he fitly embodied the patriotic movement of the day. At the beginning of his reign he raised great hopes of internal reform which were never fulfilled. He was a dreamer of dreams born out of his due time; a pupil of La Harpe, the Swiss Jacobin, who instilled into him aspirations towards liberty, truth and humanity, which throughout remained his ideals, but which were too vague to lead to anything practical or definite. His reign was thus a series of more or less undefined and fitful struggles to put the crooked straight. He desired to give Russia a constitution, but the attempts he made to do so proved fruitless; and towards the end of his life he is said to have been considerably influenced by Metternich. It is at any rate a fact that during these years reaction once more triumphed.

Nevertheless windows had been opened which could not be shut, and the light which had streamed in produced some remarkable fruits.

When Alexander I came to the throne, the immediate effect of his accession was the ungagging of literature, and the first writer of importance to take advantage of this new state of things was Karamzin (1726-1826). In 1802 he started a new review called the Messenger of Europe. This was not his d?but. In the reign of Catherine, Karamzin had been brought to Moscow from the provinces, and initiated into German and English literature. In 1789-90 he travelled abroad and visited Switzerland, London and Paris. On his return, he published his impressions in the shape of Letters of a Russian Traveller in the Moscow Journal, which he founded himself. His ideals were republican; he was an enthusiastic admirer of England and the Swiss, and the reforms of Peter the Great. But his importance in Russian literature lies in his being the first Russian to write unstudied, simple and natural prose, Russian as spoken. He published two sentimental stories in his Journal, but the reign of Catherine II which now came to an end (1796) was followed by a period of unmitigated censorship, which lasted throughout the reign of the Emperor Paul, until Alexander I came to the throne. The new review which Karamzin then started differed radically from all preceding Russian reviews in that it dealt with politics and made belles lettres and criticism a permanent feature. As soon as Karamzin had put this review on a firm basis, he devoted himself to historical research, and the fruit of his work in this field was his History of the Russian Dominion, in twelve volumes; eight published in 1816, the rest in 1821-1826. The Russian language was, as has been said, like an instrument waiting for a great player to play on it, and to make use of all its possibilities. Karamzin accomplished this, in the domain of prose. He spoke to the Russian heart by speaking Russian, pure and unmarred by stilted and alien conventionalisms.

The publication of Karamzins history was epoch-making. In the first place, the success of the work was overwhelming. It was the first time in Russian history that a prose work had enjoyed so immense a success. Not only were the undreamed-of riches of the Russian language revealed to the Russians in the style, but the subject-matter came as a surprise. Karamzin, as Pushkin put it, revealed Russia to the Russians, just as Columbus discovered America. He made the dry bones of history live, he wrote a great and glowing prose epic. His influence on his contemporaries was enormous. His work received at once the consecration of a classic, and it inspired Pushkin with his most important if not his finest achievement in dramatic verse (Boris Godunov).

The first Russian poet of national importance belongs likewise to this epoch, namely Krylov (176922
Not 1763, as generally stated in his biographies.

-1844), although he had written a great deal for the stage in the preceding reigns, and continued to write for a long time after the death of Alexander I. Krylov is also a Russian classic, of quite a different kind. The son of an officer of the line, he started by being a clerk in the provincial magistrature. Many of his plays were produced with success, though none of them had any durable qualities. But it was not until 1805 that he found his vocation which was to write fables. The first of these were published in 1806 in the Moscow Journal; from that time onward he went on writing fables until he died in 1844.

His early fables were translations from La Fontaine. They imitate La Fontaines free versification and they are written in iambics of varying length. They were at once successful, and he continued to translate fables from the French, or to adapt from ?sop or other sources. But as time went on, he began to invent fables of his own; and out of the two hundred fables which he left at his death, forty only are inspired by La Fontaine and seven suggested by ?sop: the remainder are original. Krylovs translations of La Fontaine are not so much translations as re-creations. He takes the same subject, and although often following the original in every single incident, he thinks out each motif for himself and re-creates it, so that his translations have the same personal stamp and the same originality as his own inventions.

This is true even when the original is a masterpiece of the highest order, such as La Fontaines Deux Pigeons. You would think the opening lines

Deux pigeons samoient damour tendre,
Lun deux sennuyant au logis
Fut assez fou pour entreprendre
Un voyage en lointain pays

were untranslatable; that nothing could be subtracted from them, and that still less could anything be added; one ray the more, one shade the less, you would think, would certainly impair their nameless grace. But what does Krylov do? He re-creates the situation, expanding La Fontaines first line into six lines, makes it his own, and stamps on it the impress of his personality and his nationality. Here is a literal translation of the Russian, in rhyme. (I am not ambitiously trying a third English version.)

Two pigeons lived like sons born of one mother.
Neither would eat nor drink without the other;
Where you see one, the others surely near,
And every joy they halved and every tear;
They never noticed how the time flew by,
They sighed, but it was not a weary sigh.

This gives the sense of Krylovs poem word for word, except for what is the most important touch of all in the last line. The trouble is that Krylov has written six lines which are as untranslatable as La Fontaines four; and he has made them as profoundly Russian as La Fontaines are French. Nothing could be more Russian than the last line, which it is impossible to translate; because it should run

They were sometimes sad, but they never felt ennui

literally, it was never boring to them. The difficulty is that the word for boring in Russian, skuchno, which occurs with the utmost felicity in contradistinction to sad, grustno, cannot be rendered in English in its poetical simplicity. There are no six lines more tender, musical, wistful, and subtly poetical in the whole of Russian literature.

Krylovs fables, like La Fontaines, deal with animals, birds, fishes and men; the Russian peasant plays a large part in them; often they are satirical; nearly always they are bubbling with humour. A writer of fables is essentially a satirist, whose aim it is sometimes to convey pregnant sense, keen mockery or scathing criticism in a veiled manner, sometimes merely to laugh at human foibles, or to express wisdom in the form of wit, yet whose aim it always is to amuse. But Krylov, though a satirist, succeeded in remaining a poet. It has been said that his images are conventional and outworn that is to say, he uses the machinery of Zephyrs, Nymphs, Gods and Demigods, and that his conceptions are antiquated. But what splendid use he makes of this machinery! When he speaks of a Zephyr you feel it is a Zephyr blowing, for instance, as when the ailing cornflower whispers to the breeze. Sometimes by the mere sound of his verse he conveys a picture, and more than a picture, as in the Fable of the Eagle and the Mole, in the first lines of which he makes you see and hear the eagle and his mate sweeping to the dreaming wood, and swooping down on to the oak-tree. Or again, in another fable, the Eagle and the Spider, he gives in a few words the sense of height and space, as if you were looking down from a balloon, when the eagle, soaring over the mountains of the Caucasus, sees the end of the earth, the rivers meandering in the plains, the woods, the meadows in all their spring glory, and the angry Caspian Sea, darkling like the wing of a raven in the distance. But his greatest triumph, in this respect, is the fable of the Ass and the Nightingale, in which the verse echoes the very trills of the nightingale, and renders the stillness and the delighted awe of the listeners, the lovers and the shepherd. Again a convention, if you like, but what a felicitous convention!

The fables are discursive like La Fontaines, and not brief like ?sops; but like La Fontaine, Krylov has the gift of summing up a situation, of scoring a sharp dramatic effect by the sudden evocation of a whole picture in a terse phrase: as, for instance, in the fable of the Peasants and the River: the peasants go to complain to the river of the conduct of the streams which are continually overflowing and destroying their goods, but when they reach the river, they see half their goods floating on it. They looked at each other, and shaking their heads, says Krylov, went home. The two words went home in Russian (poshli domoi) express their hopelessness more than pages of rhetoric. This is just one of those terse effects such as La Fontaine delights in.

Krylov in his youth lived much among the poor, and his language is peculiarly native, racy, nervous, and near to the soil. It is the language of the people and of the peasants, and it abounds in humorous turns. He is, moreover, always dramatic, and his fables are for this reason most effective when read aloud or recited. He is dramatic not only in that part of the fable which is narrative, but in the prologue, epilogue, or moral the authors commentary; he adapts himself to the tone of every separate fable, and becomes himself one of the dramatis person?. Sometimes his fables deal with political events the French Revolution, Napoleons invasion of Russia, the Congress of Vienna; the education of Alexander I by La Harpe, in the well-known fable of the Lion who sends his son to be educated by the Eagle, of whom he consequently learns how to make nests. Sometimes they deal with internal evils and abuses: the administration of justice, in fables such as that of the peasant who brings a case against the sheep and is found guilty by the fox; the censorship is aimed at in the fable of the nightingale bidden to sing in the cats claws; the futility of bureaucratic regulations in the fable of the sheep who are devoured by their superfluous watchdogs, or in that of the sheep who are told solemnly and pompously to drag any offending wolf before the nearest magistrate; or, again, in that of the high dignitary who is admitted immediately into paradise because on earth he left his work to be done by his secretaries for being obviously a fool, had he done his work himself, the result would have been disastrous to all concerned. Sometimes they deal merely with human follies and affairs, and the idiosyncrasies of men.

Krylovs fables have that special quality which only permanent classics possess of appealing to different generations, to people of every age, kind and class, for different reasons; so that children can read them simply for the story, and grown-up people for their philosophy; their style pleases the unlettered by its simplicity, and is the envy and despair of the artist in its supreme art. Pushkin calls him le plus national et le plus populaire de nos po?tes (this was true in Pushkins day), and said his fables were read by men of letters, merchants, men of the world, servants and children. His work bears the stamp of ageless modernity just as The Pilgrims Progress or Ciceros letters seem modern. It also has the peculiarly Russian quality of unexaggerated realism. He sees life as it is, and writes down what he sees. It is true that although his style is finished and polished, he only at times reaches the high-water mark of what can be done with the Russian language: his style, always idiomatic, pregnant and natural, is sometimes heavy, and even clumsy; but then he never sets out to be anything more than a fabulist. In this he is supremely successful, and since at the same time he gives us snatches of exquisite poetry, the greater the praise to him. But, when all is said and done, Krylov has the talisman which defies criticism, baffles analysis, and defeats time: namely, charm. His fables achieved an instantaneous popularity, which has never diminished until to-day.

Internal political events proved the next factor in Russian literature; a factor out of which the so-called romantic movement was to grow.

During the Napoleonic wars a great many Russian officers had lived abroad. They came back to Russia after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, teeming with new ideas and new ideals. They took life seriously, and were called by Pushkin the Puritans of the North. Their aim was culture and the public welfare. They were not revolutionaries; on the contrary, they were anxious to co-operate with the Government. They formed for their purpose a society, in imitation of the German Tugendbund, called The Society of Welfare: its aims were philanthropic, educational, and economic. It consisted chiefly of officers of the Guard, and its headquarters were at St. Petersburg. All this was known and approved of by the Emperor. But when the Government became reactionary, this peaceful progressive movement changed its character. The Society of Welfare was closed in 1821, and its place was taken by two new societies, which, instead of being political, were social and revolutionary. The success of the revolutionary movements in Spain and in Italy encouraged these societies to follow their example.

The death of Alexander I in 1825 forced them to immediate action. The shape it took was the Decembrist rising. Constantine, the Emperors brother, renounced his claim to the throne, and was succeeded by his brother Nicholas. December 14 (O.S.) was fixed for the day on which the Emperor should receive the oath of allegiance of his troops. An organized insurrection took place, which was confined to certain regiments. The Emperor was supported by the majority of the Guards regiments, and the people showed no signs of supporting the rising, which was at once suppressed.

One hundred and twenty-five of the conspirators were condemned. Five of them were hanged, and among them the poet Ryleev (1795-1826). But although the political results of the movement were nil, the effect of the movement on literature was far-reaching. Philosophy took the place of politics, and liberalism was diverted into the channel of romanticism; but out of this romantic movement came the springtide of Russian poetry, in which, for the first time, the soul of the Russian people found adequate expression. And the very fact that politics were excluded from the movement proved, in one sense, a boon to literature: for it gave Russian men of genius the chance to be writers, artists and poets, and prevented them from exhausting their whole energy in being inefficient politicians or unsuccessful revolutionaries. I will dwell on the drawbacks, on the dark side of the medal, presently.

As far as the actual Decembrist movement is concerned, its concrete and direct legacy to literature consists in the work of Ryleev, and its indirect legacy in the most famous comedy of the Russian stage, Gore ot Uma, The Misfortune of being Clever, by Griboyedov (1795-1829).

Ryleevs life was cut short before his poetical powers had come to maturity. It is idle to speculate what he might have achieved had he lived longer. The work which he left is notable for its pessimism, but still suffers from the old rhetorical conventions of the eighteenth century and the imitation of French models; moreover he looked on literature as a matter of secondary importance. I am not a poet, he said, I am a citizen. In spite of this, every now and then there are flashes of intense poetical inspiration in his work; and he struck one or two powerful chords for instance, in his stanzas on the vision of enslaved Russia, which have a tense strength and fire that remind one of Emily Bront?. He was a poet as well as a citizen, but even had he lived to a prosperous old age and achieved artistic perfection in his work, he could never have won a brighter aureole than that which his death gained him. The poems of his last days in prison breathe a spirit of religious humility, and he died forgiving and praying for his enemies. His name shines in Russian history and Russian literature, as that of a martyr to a high ideal.

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