How may Russian authors do you know? We offer this guide to help you find and enjoy reading Great Russian Stories by favorite Russian Writers of the 19th and early-20th centuries. We hope this guide is particularly useful for students and teachers, in which we discuss Why They Wrote, offer Historical Context, as well as Author Anecdotes, Quotes, and Teaching Ideas
'He loved three things, alive:' by Anna Akhmatova references the 1925 execution of her husband, Nikolay Gumilev at the hands of the Bolsheviks. A leading (and rare) female voice in Russian literature, Akhmatova relied on an economy of words and emotional restraint that was celebrated by the public, withstanding the suppression and censorship by the Stalinists.
Many readers are familiar with the masterworks of Anton Chekhov, and may recall that Leo Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina. Ambitious literary enthusiasts may hope to one day finish reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. These, and a small group of other Russian authors featured here, took chances to write their stories during desperate times of revolution-- worker and peasant strikes, starvation, death squads, personal tragedies, and general hopelessness for the individual-- all which crept into their writing and made it distinctly Russian. We ask our readers to explore the following questions (no, we aren't giving out the answers!):
Anyone who knows Chekhov's work appreciates his clever wit, emotional depth, and unwillingness to embrace victimhood. He, along with other Russian authors featured here, used writing, particularly satire, to help escape harsh and tragic realities. These authors shared a common cultural bond of transcending personal, cultural, and economic hardships unique to their Russian identity. They shared a desire to express their individualism in words, and a hope to publish their works, knowing the personal risks to their families, and the likelihood of censorship.
Most modern Russian authors featured here wrote in the genre of Realism. You may be interested in our Realism Study Guide, but it features mostly Western authors. Russian Realism tends to exhibit a love of detail and a feeling of pessimisn that pervades their writings, moreso than most Western authors-- exposing harsh, naked truths about life, graphic descriptions steeped in conditions of poverty, government corruption, extreme hierarchical social systems, and various forms of injustice. Through their writing, Western readers get a glimpse of life in Russia, before and after the "Iron Curtain" fell. [Editor's note: due to copyright laws, we are limited to works in the public domain, which prevents us from featuring many later-20th century writers.]
To understand these authors, it's important to understand the revolutionary times in which they lived. Some, like Pushkin and Tolstoy, participated in the French invasion of Russia during the War of 1812. Others experienced the 1905 Russian Revolution in which worker, peasant strikes and military mutinies were directed at the government. It led to constitutional reform and a multi-party system. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was actually two revolutions: one which overthrew the imperial government, the other placed the Bolsheviks in power, resulting in incredible fear and bloodshed. While it's beyond the scope of this guide, we offer a link to an excellent overview of Russian history to appreciate the writers' collective circumstances: Russian History Timeline
Defending his honor: Pushkin must have set a record for the most duels to defend his honor. His last proved to be fatal, when Georges d'Anthes, a French officer who seduced Pushkin's wife, mortally wounded him. Pushkin died three days later at the age of 37.
What's in a name: Gorky's own name describes his Russian temperament: "Gorky" translates as "bitter" and "Maxim" is "a short, pithy statement expressing a general truth."
Goldfinch trader: Chekhov's family fled to Moscow to avoid creditors in 1875. Chekhov stayed behind for three more years to finish school, selling goldfinches, short story sketches to newspapers, and tutoring to pay his tuition. He sent any money he could spare to his family in Moscow. This inspired his many child-family separation stories, such as Vanka.
Practical joke by the Devil: Gogol earned the nickname "mysterious dwarf" while in school, his satire was considered unconventional, and he delving into surrealism. In 1852, he burned some of his manuscripts by mistake, calling it "A practical joke played on me by the Devil." He died nine days later.
Passive resistance: Consider Leo Tolstoy, who was a direct descendent of old Russian nobility, but he lived far from a privileged life. Tolstoy served in the Crimean War of 1812, later became a pacifist and embraced nonviolent resistance. He inspiring world leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. His 1872 story, God Sees the Truth, But Waits, is about a man serving a sentence for a murder he did not commit, a parable for forgiveness. Tolstoy's work inspired Stephen King's novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, adapted into the memorable 1994 film.
Delays and censorship: When Pushkin finished his most famous play, Boris Godunov in 1825, it took until 1831 to get it published. Censors did not allow the play to be performed until 1866-- 41 years after it was written. You would think writing about a Russian Tsar in the 16th century would be "safe," but it was a time of relative anarchy, therefore, subject to censure.
Almost lost in translation: It took 32 years for Leo Tolstoy's finest accomplishment and one of the most significant pieces of world literature, War and Peace (published in 1867), to be translated into English (1899).
Exile and death: S.T. Semyonov, best known for his semi-autobiographical story, The Servant, was fortunate to be mentored by both Tolstoy and Gorky. Semyonov was exiled in 1906 as a result of his revolutionary affiliations, and murdered by bandits in 1922 as retribution for his role in the Revolution of 1917.
Injustice and personal loss: Anna Akhmatova's husband, Nikolay Gumilev was executed in 1925 by the Bolsheviks, the regime that became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Her common-law husband and son were both locked up in the Gulag for many years, her husband died there. The reader can sense what's bubbling just below the surface of Akhmatova's sparse, powerful poetry.
"Any idiot can face a crisis; it's this day-to-day living that wears you out."
-- Anton Chekhov
"I am a poor woman, I earn my bread by taking in lodgers. I am a weak, defenceless woman . . . I have to put up with ill-usage from everyone and never hear a kind word..."
-- Anton Chekhov's A Defenseless Creature
"If God does not exist, since death is inevitable, what is the meaning of life?"
-- Leo Tolstoy's A Confession
"His whiskers were really fine, but he stroked them so assiduously that one got the feeling that the whiskers had come into the world first and afterwards the man in order to stroke them.”
-- Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Christmas Tree and the Wedding
"The mind of a hungry man is always better nourished and healthier than the mind of the well-fed man; and there you have a situation from which you may draw a very ingenious conclusion in favour of the ill fed."
-- Maxim Gorky, in One Autumn Night
"We ought to realize that without a wide education of the people, Russia will collapse, like a house built of badly baked bricks. A teacher must be an artist, in love with his calling; but with us he is a journeyman, ill educated, who goes to the village to teach children as though he were going into exile."
-- Maxim Gorky's conversation with Anton Chekhov in Fragments of Recollections
"There is nothing more irritable than departments, regiments, courts of justice, and, in a word, every branch of public service. Each individual attached to them nowadays thinks all society insulted in his person."
-- Nikolai Gogol's The Overcoat
"I haven't had champagne for a long time."
-- Anton Chekhov's last words before dying. Satirical to the end, he references a German medical practice where a doctor offers champagne to a patient who has no hope of recovery.
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