Literature

Russian favourite authors'
life-stories and photos

(click on pictures for enlargement)

Alexander Pushkin

38 years, 1799-1837

Inspired by the thinking of the French Enlightenment, was committed to social reforms. Exiled in 1820. When the Tsar gave Pushkin the lowest court title: Gentleman of the Chamber, the poet became enraged, feeling that the Tsar intended to humiliate him by implying that he was being admitted to court not on his own merits, but solely so that his wife, who had many admirers including the Tsar himself, could properly attend court balls. Falling into greater and greater debt, facing scandalous rumours that his wife had a love affair, he sent a challenge to a dual to the obvious rival (a military officer) and got killed.

Nikolaj Gogol

43 years, 1809–1852

Wrote Ukrainian stories and satire. Was made Professor of Medieval History, a job for which he had no qualifications: he acted there in a way ludicrous enough to warrant the satiric treatment of one of his own stories. Lived in Europe for 12 years. Fell in love with a man there, who however soon died.

Dead Souls was but the first part of a planned modern-day counterpart to Dante's Divine Comedy. The published first part represented the Inferno; the second part, Purgatory, would then depict the gradual purification and transformation of the rogue Chichikov under uplifting influences. During his last year, he burned some of his manuscripts, including most of the second part of Dead Souls, on which he'd worked for 10 years. He then saw this destruction as a mistake, a practical joke played on him by the Devil. A spiritual elder had strengthened Gogol's fear of damnation, by insisting on the sinfulness of all his imaginative work. Exaggerated ascetic practices undermined his health and he fell into a state of deep depression, took to bed, refused to eat, and died in great pain nine days later.

Ivan Turgenev

65 years , 1818-1883

His father was mostly absent, his mother a very educated but authoritarian woman. After living abroad, Turgenev believed that Russia could best improve itself by incorporating ideas from the Age of Enlightenment. He was particularly opposed to serfdom. Had some affairs with his family's serfs. At 19, on a steamboat in Germany, the boat caught fire and Turgenev reacted cowardly. He followed the celebrated, married opera singer Pauline Viardot all over Europe for years, in lifelong adoration. Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to a duel, afterwards apologizing, but the two did not speak for 17 years. On his death bed he pleaded with Tolstoy: "My friend, return (from your spiritual, reclusive life) to literature!" After this Tolstoy wrote such powerful stories as The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kreutzer Sonata.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

60 years, 1821-1881

Was introduced to literature as a child through fairy tales and legends. The influencial literary critic Belinsky initially endorsed him, but his books' later Russian Orthodox themes clashed with Berlinsky's atheism and dislike of religion. He was arrested for belonging to a literary group that discussed banned books critical of "Tsarist Russia" and spent four years in a Siberian prison camp - where, classified as "one of the most dangerous convicts", he had his hands and feet shackled until his release, and was only permitted to read his New Testament Bible. Followed by six years of compulsory military service in exile, and then remained under police surveillance the rest of his life. Got journalist jobs, and a gambling addiction in Europe. Had several extramarital affairs. His son Alyosha, epileptic like himself, died of a severe seizure.

He advocated social change, removal of the feudal system and a weakening of the divisions between the peasantry and the affluent classes. Was skeptical about the creation of a constitution, a concept he saw as unrelated to Russia's history, and felt it would lead to the people's enslavement. His political progression to conservatism. His ideal was a utopian, Christianized Russia, whose example would inspire the West.

A Writer’s Diary sold more than twice as many copies as his previous books. Tsar Alexander II ordered Dostoevsky to visit his palace to present the Diary to him, and asked him to educate his own sons.

Lev Tolstoi

82 years, 1828-1910

From an aristocratic Russian family, he inherited the estate at 19 (mother died at 2, father at 9). From 17-22 dropped out of the university, instead drinking, prostitutes, big gambling debts. Travelled with his older brother to the Caucasus and joined the army. His conversion from a dissolute and privileged upper-society author to the non-violent and spiritual anarchist of his latter years was a reaction to his army experiences and his travels in Europe. He witnessed a public guillotine execution in Paris, a traumatic experience that marked the rest of his life. "The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens ... Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere."

Married at 34 to a girl of 18 and they had 16 children. He founded 13 alternative schools on his estate and elsewhere for the children of peasants, who had just been emancipated from serfdom in 1861. These were a direct forerunner to A. S. Neill's student-based Summerhill school 60 years later. He collected for famine relief, besides writing numerous pamphlets to spread his ideas. At ca. 50 experienced a profound moral crisis, meeting Death, followed by an equally profound spiritual awakening, as outlined in "A Confession" in 1882. The Russian Orthodox church excommunicated him because of his writings arguing for inner faith rather than outer trappings. His literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus, centering on the Sermon on the Mount, caused him to become a fervent Christian anarchist and pacifist. Renounced meat, tobacco, alcohol. At 63 renounced receiving any profits from his writings from then on.

Nikolai Leskov

64 years, 1831-1895

Travelled widely through Russia, and created his bizarre characters from real people. Strung powerful anecdotes together in a story, "like life", rather than pursuing a fixed plot in the novel’s usual form. Works were very widely read and liked by common people. Refused to back up any of the many political factions of his era, and so was criticized, isolated and censored by both the government and leftist movements. Wrote satirically about the Russian Orthodox church, mostly sympathetically about Old Believers, and praised non-denominational Christian behaviour based on selfless humility.

Guy de Maupassant

42 years, 1850-1892

From a prosperous bourgeois family. At 11, his mother, an independently-minded woman, risked social disgrace to obtain a legal separation from her husband, who was violent towards her, and she kept her two sons. At 18, he saved the famous poet Swinburne from drowning. Volunteer in the Franco-Prussian War. Sexually promiscuous, broke out with syphilis at 25, but refused treatment. He published 2-4 volumes annually, and his talent and practical business sense made him wealthy. With an aversion to society, he loved retirement, solitude, and meditation. He often ate lunch in the restaurant at the Eiffel Tower's base, as he said not because of the food, but because it was only there that he could avoid seeing its ugly, otherwise unavoidable profile. In later years, he developed a constant desire for solitude, an obsession with self-preservation, a fear of death, and paranoia of persecution, partly as mental results from his sicknesses. Tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat, and was committed to a private asylum. Wrote his own grave epitaph: "I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing."

Anton Chekhov

44 years, 1860-1904

His grandfather was a serf, but his father with difficulty became a store-keeper and then went bankrupt. His father: despotism and hypocrisy. Chekhov became a doctor but wrote during his entire study-time to make money for his extended family. Treated the poor free of charge. Tuberculosis from his 20’s and later died of it. Youthful love affairs and later preferred passing liaisons and brothel visits over commitment.

After becoming popular and receiving praise from respected literary people, he wrote intensively from 1885 on. His plays were a revolutionary backbone to what is today considered common sense in theatre-acting: an effort to recreate and express the "realism" of how people truly act and speak with each other, and translating this to the stage to manifest the human condition as accurately as possible, in hopes of making the audience reflect upon their own definition of what it means to be human. "Chekhov’s Gun" is a dramatic principle that requires that every element in a narrative be necessary and irreplaceable, and that everything else be removed. He witnessed much in the penal colony at Sakhalin that shocked and angered him, including floggings, embezzlement of supplies, and forced prostitution of women.

Maxim Gorky

68 years, 1868–1936

His writings show solidarity with the lowest classes, but with a non-romantic view of their individuals. Travelling the life of the streets as a casual laborer. Pro-Bolshevic, friend and later critic of Lenin, unofficially exiled, and then invited back by Stalin after Lenin's death. For Stalin, he led the propaganda campaign about the (supposedly innocent) heroism of building the White Sea Canal, which was actually built with the heavy loss of life by prisoners from the Gulag. Later distanced himself from Stalin. Officilly died of tuberculosis, was possibly poisoned.

Leonid Andreyev

48 years, 1871-1919

Gorky discovered his talent and helped him forward. Defender of democratic ideals. The stories "In the Fog" and "The Abyss," were a response to "The Kreutzer Sonata" by Leo Tolstoy, and caused great commotion because of their candid and audacious treatment of sex. After the 1905 revolution, his stories often evoke absolute pessimism and a despairing mood. Foresaw the Bolsheviks' coming to power as catastrophic, and moved into the countryside in Finland in 1917. Idealist and rebel, Andreyev spent his last years in bitter poverty, and prematurely died from anguish and heart failure.

Vsevolod Garshin

33 yrs.old, 1885-1888

Tatar Ukrainian background. He volunteered to serve in the army at the start of the Russo-Turkish War in 1877, participated in the Balkans Campaign as a private, and was wounded in action. Writing theme: empathy and violence. Had bouts of mental illness and 3 nervous breakdowns, was committed to a psychiatric hospital. Tried to commit suicide by throwing himself down the stone stairs leading to his apartment building, and died from his injuries a year later.

Lydia Zinovienva-Annibal

41 years, 1866-1907

She became associated with the socialist movement Narodniks. She and her poet husband hosted an influential literary salon in Saint Petersburg. Her short novel openly discussed lesbianism. Her short stories describe fascination with the grotesque and painful.

Isaac Babel

46 years, 1894-1940

His best tales about Russian Jewish characters are written in a pithy but rich-textured, raucous, ironic, humourous style. His stories became quickly popular after being first published by Gorky, who befriended and politically protected him through many years, until his own death. When officially pressured to change his writing style to the new Bolshevik type of heroic social realism, he declared himself "master of a new literary genre, silence". Moved to Paris and his earlier emigrated family, but returned to Russia again, as he felt he wrote best and was most acknowledged there. Was arrested, imprisoned, put to hard labour, and shot.

Varlam Shalamov

75 years, 1907-1982

He was imprisoned from 1929-1931 and again 1937-1951 in forced-labor camps in the arctic region of Kolyma, due to his having supported Trotsky and praised the anti-Soviet writer Bunin. Near death, he became a medical-assistant while a prisoner for the last 5 years. After finished imprisonment, he continued an old survival-habit of keeping verbal secrecy. In the end, he lived 3 years in an old-age home for writers under awful conditions. Was first published in Russian in 1987, as a result of Gorbachev’s glasnost policy.

Vasily Shukshin

45 years, 1929-1974

From a peasant village family. His father was arrested and executed as a counter-revolutionary, under the founding of Soviet collectivization. His main interest was the situation of ordinary, simple, rural people in the more modern Soviet Union. He books and films have both humor and a melancholy tone.

Sergei Dovlatov

48 years, 1941-1990

His mother was Armenian and a proofreader, and his father a jewish theater director. After flunking university, he was drafted into the Soviet Internal Troops and served as a prison guard in high-security camps. Later worked as a journalist for various newspapers and magazines. It was impossible for his writings to get out in Russia, so he smuggled them into Western Europe for publication in foreign journals. Emigrated to NYC, and after publishing in "The New Yorker" magazine, got famous.