Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature
The nineteenth century is often known as the golden age of Russian literature. During this period Russia produced some of the greatest writers in the world. Early in the century, the nobleman Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) led the way. He is most famous for his poetry, including the verse-novel Evgeny Onegin (1833), first published in English as Eugene Onegin in 1881. He is also known for his play Boris Godunov (1825). One of Pushkin’s poetic themes was freedom, and for this he was as a young man banished from Moscow. Although the tsar later recalled him his work was still subject to censorship. Pushkin died young in somewhat tragic circumstances. He challenged his wife’s alleged lover to a duel, was shot, and died two days later.
After Pushkin came the poet and novelist Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841). Lermontov was an aristocrat and a cavalry officer, and he wrote the novel A Hero of Our Time (1840), which some compare favorably to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, although it is on a much smaller scale. The hero of the novel is an autobiographical figure, Pechorin, an army officer given to ruthless self-examination. Like Pushkin, Lermontov died young in a duel. The duel was with an army officer over a trivial incident.
Another important figure was Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852), a failed professor of history who turned instead to literature. Gogol left Russia in the mid-1830s and eventually settled in Rome. He published his masterpiece, the satirical novel Dead Souls, in 1842.
Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883) was the first major Russian writer of Tolstoy’s generation. He was also the first Russian writer to establish a reputation in Europe, where he lived and traveled frequently. His six novels are all set in Russia during the period from the 1830s to the 1870s, and they cover the social problems of Russia during these decades. His masterpiece was Fathers and Sons (1862). Henri Troyat’s Tolstoy says that Turgenev was an admirer of Tolstoy, and even though he disagreed with the direction Tolstoy’s work took after 1881, called him ‘‘without doubt, the most remarkable man in Russia today.’’ During Turgenev’s lifetime, Tolstoy was highly critical of his work, but after Turgenev died, Tolstoy reread his complete works and heaped praise on him.
Along with Tolstoy, the greatest name in Russian literature is Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821– 1881). He was educated in Moscow and St. Petersburg and had begun to have success as a writer but in 1849 he was arrested and sentenced to death for being a member of a liberal intellectual group, the Petrashevsky Circle. He was reprieved and spent four years in prison in Siberia. Dostoyevsky’s greatest novels, in which he explored the darker aspects of the human condition, include Crime and Punishment (1866), The Gambler (1867), The Idiot (1868), The Possessed (1871– 72), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were literary rivals, although they never met in person. Tolstoy, according to his biographer Henri Troyat, ‘‘disliked Dostoyevsky’s exaggeration, his implausibility, his ‘shapeless style,’ his grammatical errors, his mania for crowding the stage with epileptics, alcoholics and paranoics.’’ For his part, Dostoyevsky thought Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina ‘‘a boring book, by and large, and nothing out of the ordinary at all.’’
The Emancipation of the Serfs
When Tolstoy wrote ‘‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’’ in 1886, Russia’s peasants had been free from serfdom for only twenty-five years. It was Tsar Alexander II who ordered the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Under its terms, the nobility no longer had any legal authority over their peasants. The peasants were not completely free, however. They were compelled to become members of a village commune, which exercised control over land held by individual peasants. No peasant could leave the commune, or the territory it controlled, without the permission of the commune. Each commune elected its own officials.
This is the historical background for the incidents in the story in which (in part 2) the peasants try to arrange for the commune to buy the small landowner’s estate, and Pahom gets involved in disputes with the commune (parts 3 and 4).
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Leo Tolstoy – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.