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Literature and art in Russia in XIX century

Nikolai Troitsky notes that "the leading sphere of spiritual life in Russia in XIX century was literature". This is explained by the fact that a direct criticism of the social order was not allowed, and hence people found an indirect way to do it. 

A popular fabler in XIX and in XX centuries was Ivan Krylov (1769-1844). Troitsky writes about Krylov:

Krylov summer garden

A statue of Krylov and his personages

"Krylov was not a revolutionary, but a revealing force of his fables was nothing less than revolutionary. He made fun of aristocracy,  bureaucracy, priests, portraying them in the images of small and large predators - foxes, wolves, tigers and bears. Often, Krylov pointed the sword of his satire against the very 'king of the animals', i.e. in reality against the Caesar himself".

It is curious to note that in the USSR in 1950's there were made a number of cartoons, based on the fables of Krylov (see them here). Just as in the times of the Tsar regime it was very dangerous to criticize the tsar and the social order directly, so in the epoch of Stalinism a direct criticism of the powers that be could be very costly.

Among the plurality of the Russian writers of XIX century two stand out: Fyodor Dostoevsky and Lev Tolstoy.


A mock execution of the Petrashevsky circle, 1849

Dostoevsky (1821-1881) in youth belonged to the Petrashevsky circle, for which he was sentenced to death, and at the last moment this verdict was substituted for 4 years of hard labor in Siberia. In the period of hard labor, Dostoevsky got to know the common people better (see a biographical film about Dostoevsky).

N. Troitsky writes:

"While I.A. Goncharov in the novel 'Oblomov' (1859) has revealed the stagnancy, parasitic character and the odium of aristocracy as the ruling class in Russia before the Emancipation (of 1861), F.M. Dostoevsky, in such novels as 'The Idiot' (1868) and 'The Karamazov Brothers' (1879-1880) has portrayed the a literary way the process of social and moral decay of the same class in the epoch following the Emancipation".

Dostoevsky his mature years he became very conservative, adhering to the Russian church and conservative members of the Russian "high society". In vain you would look for revolutionary characters even in such novel as "The Demons". His novels are examples of "psychological novels", with exclusive focus on psychology of individual persons to the detriment of the social atmosphere.


Tolstoy telling a story to his children

Another important Russian writer of the times was Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). Tolstoy was both a progressive and a reactionary writer. While revealing the hypocrisy of the Tsar's Russia - for which he was excommunicated by the Russian Church! - Tolstoy stood for non-resistance to evil and non-violence. In addition, while criticizing the official church and its representatives, he called for a substitution of the official priests by self-appointed priests, thus in principle remaining on the religious platform (read Lenin's "Leo Tolstoy as a Mirror of the Russian Revolution", 1908).

There is a curious information on the pedagogical activity of Leo Tolstoy. In his hometown of Yasnaya Polyana he founded a school for the children of the peasants. Russian Wikipedia writes:

Tolstoy grave

Simplicity of the grave of Tolstoy.

"In the epoch of unlimited worship before the modern German pedagogy Tolstoy has rebelled against any regiment and discipline in school; the only method of teaching and upbringing which he recognized was that no method is necessary. All in teaching should be individual - a teacher, a student and their mutual relations. In the school in Yasnaya Polyana the children sat where they wanted, when they wanted and in the manner which they wanted. The only problem of a teacher was to get the students interested. The lessons went well. They were led by Tolstoy himself with the help of a few permanent teachers and several accidental acquaintances, from the circle of those who came to visit the writer". 

On the life and works of Tolstoy, see a documentary film, in English.

Next: Narodniki, part 5

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