Nineteenth-Century European Literary Movements
Russian realism as a literary movement flourished during the latter half of the nineteenth century, which coincided with Dostoevsky’s literary career.
His works and those of other prominent Russian fiction writers—including Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev—exemplified the characteristics of the realist movement. Russian realist fiction represented a reaction against the romanticism that had dominated Russian literature in the early part of the nineteenth century. Notable romantic writers included Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Nikolai Gogol. Romanticism was characterized by idealism, the drawing of inspiration from nature, and the focus on the senses and emotion verifiable events rational thought. It focused on the individual and ideas rather than on society and the sciences, which were the subject of the classicism of the Enlightenment period in art and literature of the late eighteenth century. Russian romanticism was also concerned with a reawakening of interest in its national history. It was further influenced by corresponding developments in works of literature by Western European contemporaries. By mid-century, however, romanticism began to yield to the new literary concerns of realism. Realists explored social and psychological realities, focusing on the darker aspects of society and of the mind. While some realists exposed social ills as part of a political agenda, others combined the romantic focus on the individual with the realist’s emphasis on society. As Richard Freeborn explains in his essay on Russian realism in The Cambridge History of Russian Literature , when viewed within the context of Russia’s turbulent history during this same period, Russian realist fiction is ‘‘concerned with the realities of individual human experience in a spirit of protest, even outrage. It was literature’s duty, in pursuit of reality, to enfranchise the eccentric as well as the highest, the murderer as well as the humblest, the social outcast as well as the positive hero.’’
Russia during the Reign of Czar Alexander II
At the time that Dostoevsky wrote ‘‘The Heavenly Christmas Tree,’’ the Russian Empire was headed by Czar Alexander II, who ruled from 1855 to 1881. Alexander’s reign was characterized by its contrast to the reign of Alexander’s father, Czar Nicholas I, who ruled from 1825 to 1855. The latter was known for his fervent belief in the supremacy of the Russian Orthodox Church and his own divine right to rule. His repressive policies led to the imprisonment of anyone—including Dostoevsky—who appeared to question the Russian government. Under Alexander II, by contrast, major reforms were implemented: the emancipation (freeing) of the serfs (peasants forced to work for landholders), the creation of provincial elected administrative assemblies (local governing bodies), and the overhaul of the judicial system. Following an 1863 uprising of Polish patriots against the Russian governing authorities, Alexander began to scale back his reforms and return to the more repressive policies instituted by his father. Censorship of the press and of political activities was reinstated; the government once again reserved the right to decide whether offenses were criminal or political, and could exile suspected radicals to Siberia. Alexander’s reversal of his reformist policies was protested by intellectuals and socialists. (Nineteenth-century socialists were members of a political group that was originally formed to uphold the basic rights of all members of society, and that advocated the creation of a classless society. The more radical branch of socialism advocated the eradication, through revolution, of the oppressive Russian government church.
Another branch of socialism that was tied to Christianity supported the twin goals of democracy and brotherhood. At one time, Dostoevsky was affiliated with this type of socialism.) Alexander II’s reign ended in 1881 when he was assassinated by a Russian terrorist group.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Published by Gale Group, 2010