Golden Age of Russian Literature

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The Golden Age of Russian Literature is notably not a term often employed in literary criticism. It does not refer to any particular school or movement (e.g., Classicism, Romanticism, Realism); rather, it encompasses several of them. As such, it immediately falls prey to all the shortcomings of such literary categorizations, not the least of which is imprecision. The term furthermore demands, eo ipso, a pair of ungilded ages at either end, and might lead one to an easy and unstudied dismissal of works outside its tenure. Finally, those who wrote during its span were not particularly aware of living in an aureate age, and they certainly never consciously identified themselves as belonging to a unified or coherent factionany similarity is adduced from the outside and puts in jeopardy the authors' particular geniuses. That said, the phrase "golden age of Russian literature" has gained currency and therefore, if for no other reason, deserves to be defined as carefully and intelligently as possible.

When they indulge in a yen for periodization, literary specialists tend to distinguish two contiguous (or perhaps slightly overlapping) golden ages: the first, a golden age of Russian poetry, which lasted (roughly) from the publication of Gavrila Derzhavin's Ossianic-inspired "The Waterfall" in 1794, until Aleksandr Pushkin's "turn to prose" around 1831 (or as late as Mikhail Lermontov's death in 1841); and the second, a Golden Age of Russian prose, which began with the nearly simultaneous publication of Nikolai Gogol's Evenings on a Farm near the Dikanka and Pushkin's Tales of Belkin (1831), and which petered out sometime during the last decades of the nineteenth century.

It is historians, with their professional inclination to divide time into discrete and digestible pieces, who most often make use of the term under discussion. Nicholas Riasanovsky, in A History of Russia, offers the following span: The golden age of Russian literature has been dated roughly from 1820 to 1880, from Pushkin's first major poems [his stylized, Voltairean folk-epic Ruslan and Liudmila ] to Dostoevsky's last major novel [Brothers Karamazov ]. Riasanovsky's dates are notably narrower than those mentioned above. His span omits the first two decades of the century, and with them the late pseudo-classicism of Derzhavin, as well as the Sentimentalism and Ossianic Romanticism of Nikolai Karamzin and Vasily Zhukovskyschools that constituted Pushkin's and Gogol's frame of reference and laid the verbal foundation for the later glorious literary output of Russia. On the far end, it disbars the final two decades of the nineteenth century, Anton Chekhov and Maksim Gorky notwithstanding. Ending the golden age in 1880 furthermore neatly excludes the second half of Tolstoy's remarkable sixty-year career.

1830s and 1840s: romanticism

If one is to follow the historians in disregarding the first decades of the nineteenth centuryto discount, so to say, the first blush and to wait until the flower has fully bloomedthen arguably a better date to initiate the golden age of literature would be 1831, which witnessed the debut of two uncontested masterpieces of Russian literature. In January, for the first time in its final form, Woe from Wit, Alexander Griboyedov's droll drama in verse (free iambs), was performed. A few months later, Pushkin put the final touches on Eugene Onegin, his unequaled novel in verse, which he had begun in 1823. The works are both widely recognized by Russians as the hallmarks of Russian literature, but they receive short shrift outside of their native land, a fate perhaps ineluctable for works of subtle and inventive poetry.

The year 1831 also witnessed Gogol's successful entry into literary fame with his folksy Evenings on a Farm near the Dikanka. Gogol and Pushkin had struck up an acquaintance in that year, and Gogol claimed that Pushkin had given him the kernel of the ideas for his two greatest works: Dead Souls (1842), perhaps the comic novel par excellence; and the uproarious Inspector General (1836), generally recognized as the greatest Russian play and one that certainly ranks as one of the world's most stageable.

Pushkin also served as the springboard for another literato of the golden age, Lermontov, who responded to Pushkin's death (in a duel) in 1837 with his impassioned "Death of a Poet," a poem which launched Lermontov's brief literary career (he was killed four years later in a duel). Although his corpus is smallishhe had written little serious verse before 1837and much of it was left unpublished until after his death (mostly for censorial reasons), Lermontov is generally considered Russia's second-greatest poet. He also penned a prose masterpiece, A Hero of Our Time, a cycle of short stories united by its jaded and cruel protagonist, Pechorin, who became a stock type in Russian literature.

In 1847 Gogol published his Selected Passages from My Correspondence with Friends, a pastiche of religious, conservative, and monarchical sermonetteshe endorses serfdomthat was met by an overwhelmingly negative reaction by critics who had long assumed that Gogol shared their progressive mindset. Vissarion Belinsky, perhaps the most influential critic ever in Russia, wrote a lashing rebuke that was banned by the censor, in part because it claimed that the Russian people were naturally atheists. The uproar surrounding Selected Passages effectively ended Gogol's career five years before the author's death in 1852.


In 1849, the young writer Fyodor Dostoyevskywho had created a sensation in 1845 with his parodic sentimentalist epistolary novel Poor Folk, but whose subsequent works had been coolly receivedinjudiciously read the abovementioned rebuke of Gogol and allowed his copy to be reproduced, for which he spent ten years in Siberia. When he returned to St. Petersburg, he published Notes from the House of the Dead, an engrossing fictionalized memoir of the years he had spent in penal servitude. The work was his first critical success since Poor Folk, and he followed it, during the 1860s and 1870s, with a series of novels that were both critical and popular successes, including Notes from Underground (1864) and Crime and Punishment (1866)both, in part, rejoinders to the positivistic and utilitarian Geist of the time. His masterpiece Brothers Karamazov (1880) won him the preeminent position in Russian letters shortly before his death in 1881.

Gogol's death in 1852 moved Ivan Turgenev to write an innocuous commemorative essay, for which he was arrested, jailed for a month, and then banished to his estate. That year, his Sportsman's Sketches was first published in book form, and popular response to the vivid sketches of life in the countryside has been long identified as galvanizing support for the Emancipation. (Its upper-class readers were apparently jarred by the realization that peasants were heterogeneous and distinct individuals). Turgenev's prose works are united by their careful and subtle psychological depictions of highly self-conscious characters whose search for truth and a vocation reflects Russia's own vacillations during the decades of the 1860s and 1870s. His greatest work, Fathers and Sons (1862), depicted the nihilist and utilitarian milieu of Russia at the inception of Age of the Great Reforms. The clamor surrounding Fathers and Sons it was condemned by conservatives as too liberal, but liberals as too conservativepricked Turgenev's amour propre, and he spent the much of his remaining two decades abroad in France and Germany.

It was also in 1852 that Tolstoy's first published work, Childhood, appeared in The Contemporary (a journal Pushkin founded), under the byline L. N. (the initials of Tolstoy's Christian and patronymic names). The piece made Tolstoy an instant success: Turgenev wrote the journal's editor to praise the work and encourage the anonymous author, and Dostoyevsky wrote to a friend from faraway Siberia to learn the identity L. N., whose story had so engaged him. Along with Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy's prose dominated the Russian literary and intellectual spheres during the 1860s and 1870s. War and Peace (1869), his magnum opus, describes the Russian victory over Napoleon's army. Anna Karenina (1878), a Russian version of a family novel, was published serially in The Russian Messenger (the same journal that soon thereafter published Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov ) and is generally considered one of the finest novels ever written.

the end of the golden age

Although none of Tolstoy's works (before 1884) treated politics and social conflict in the direct manner of Dostoyevsky or Turgenev, they were nonetheless socially engaged, treating obliquely historical or philosophical questions present in contemporary debates. This circumspectness ended in the early 1880s after Tolstoy's self-described "spiritual restructuring," after which he penned a series of highly controversial, mostly banned works beginning with A Confession, (1884). Marking the end of golden age at the threshold of the 1880swith Tolstoy's crisis and the deaths of Dostoyevsky (1881) and Turgenev (1883)relies on the convenient myth of Tolstoy's rejection of literature in 1881, despite works such as Death of Ivan Ilich, Resurrection, Kreutzer Sonata, Hadji Murad, several excellent and innovative plays, and dozens of short storiesin brief, an output of belletristic literature that, even without War and Peace and Anna Karenina, would have qualified Tolstoy as a world-class writer. It also excludes Anton Chekhov, whose short stories and plays in many ways defined the genres for the twentieth century. Chekhov's first serious stories began to appear in the mid-1880s, and by the 1890s he was one of the most popular writers in Russia. Ending the golden age in the early 1880s likewise leaves out Maxim Gorky (pseudonym of Alexei Peshkov), whose half-century career writing wildly popular, provocative and much-imitated stories and plays depicting the social dregs of Russia began with the publication of "Chelkash" in 1895.

A better date to end the golden age, therefore, might well be 1899, a year that bore witness to the publication of Sergei Diagilev's and Alexander Benois's The World of Art, that herald of the silver age of Russian literature, with its bold, syncretic program of music, theater, painting, and sculpture, idealistic metaphysics, and religion. The same year Tolstoy published (abroad) his influential What Is Art?, an invective raging equally against the Realist, socially-engaged literature of the previous century and the esthete, l'art pour l'art school that then dominated the literary scene. In their stead, it promulgated an emotive art that would unify all of humankind into a mystical brotherhooda program not at all irreconcilable with the silver age aesthetics, proving the lozenge that les extrêmes se touchent.


Although the golden age should in no way be seen as an internally, self-consciously united movement, several features marry the individual authors and their works. Russian literature of this period thrived independently of politics. Its prodigious growth was unchecked, perhaps encouraged, by autocracy (some flowers bloom best in poor soil): It set its roots during the stifling reign of Nicholas I, continued to grow during the Era of Great Reforms begun under the Tsar-Liberator Alexander II, blossomed profusely during the reactionarily conservative final years of his rule, and continued to bloom in fits under Alexander III. The literature of the period engaged and influenced the social debates of the era. It remained, however, above the fray, characteristically criticizing, as overly simplistic, the autocratic and conservative government and the utilitarian ideas of progressive critics alike, for which it was frequently condemned by all sides.

It was also, in many important ways, sui generis. One constant characteristic of all the works cited above is their distinctive Russian-ness. All of the authors were fluent in the conventions and heritage of Western European literature, but they frequently and consciously rejected and parodied its traditions. (This tendency explains why many early Western European readers and popularizers of Russian literature (e.g., Vogüé) considered Russians to be brilliant but unschooled savages.) What exactly constitutes the quiddity of this Russian-ness is a thorny issue, though one might safely hazard that one defining characteristic of Russian literature is its concern with elaborating the Russian idea.

Finally, the limited amount of Russian literature cannot be exaggerated. In the brief overview of the period given above, one might be surprised by the tightly interdigitated fates of Russian authors during the golden age. However, the world of Russian letters was remarkably small. As late as 1897, according to the census conducted that year, only 21.1 percent of the population was literate, and only 1 percent of the 125 million residents had middle or higher education. The Russian novelist and critic Vladimir Nabokov once noted that the entirety of the Russian canon, the generally acknowledged best of poetry and prose, would span 23,000 pages of ordinary print, practically all of it written during the nineteenth centurya very compact library indeed, when one figures that a handful of the works included in this anthological daydream are nearly a thousand pages each. Despite its slenderness, youth, and narrow base, in influence and artistic worth Russian literature rivals that of any national tradition.

See also: chekhov, anton pavlovich; dostoyevsky, fyodor mikhailovich; gogol, nikolai vasilievich; lermontov, mikhail yurievich; pushkin, alexander sergeyevich; tolstoy, leo nikolayevich


Billington, James H. (1966). The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. New York: Vintage Books.

Brown, W. E. (1986). A History of Russian Literature of the Romantic Period. 4 vols. Ann Arbor: MI: Ardis.

Mirsky, D. P. (1958). A History of Russian Literature from Its Beginnings to 1900, ed. Francis Whitfield. New York: Vintage Books.

Proffer, Carl R., comp. (1989). Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature in English: A Bibliography of Criticism and Translations. Ann Arbor: MI: Ardis.

Terras, Victor. (1991). A History of Russian Literature. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Terras, Victor, ed. (1985). Handbook of Russian Literature. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Todd, William Mills, III, ed. (1978). Literature and Society in Imperial Russia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Michael A. Denner