Nekrasov, Nikolai Alexeyevich

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(18211878), one of Russia's most famous poets.

Painfully aware of the injustice of serfdom, Nikolai Nekrasov (the "master poet of the peasant masses") was the first poet to make the "People" (narod ) the focal point of his poetryespecially the downtrodden, who became the symbol of national suffering and exploitation. In one of his masterpieces, the satiric folk epic Who Can Be Happy and Free in Russia? (written between 1873 and 1877), seven peasants try endlessly to guess the answer to the question in the title. Nekrasov also served for thirty years as editor of Sovremenik (The Contemporary ), a journal he bought in 1847. Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Herzen, Vissarion Belinsky, and Fyodor Dostoevsky gladly sent their writings to him, and soon Nekrasov became a leading intellectual figure of the time. Censorship was at its height at the beginning of his career, intensified by the French Revolution of 1848 and later the Crimean War (18541856), and Nekrasov was only able to write freely after the death of Nicholas I and the accession of the liberal Alexander II.

The decade from 1855 to 1865 was one of the bright periods in Russian literature. Serfdom was abolished (1861), Sovremenik' s readership steadily increased, and Nekrasov published some of his finest poems, including "The Peasant Children," "Orina, the Mother of a Soldier," "The Gossips," "The Peddlers," and "The Railway." Some contemporaries criticized Nekrasov for his didacticism and prosiness. The enthusiastic response of radical revolutionaries to his poetry confirmed their suspicion that he was primarily a propagandist. But Nekrasov, as he wrote to Leo Tolstoy, believed that the role of a writer was to be a "teacher" and a "representative for the humble and voiceless."

Nekrasov's empathy for the poor and oppressed stemmed from his life experiences. He was the son of a noble family that had lost its wealth and land. His father, an officer in the army, had eloped with the daughter of a Polish aristocrat, inducing her to give up her wealth. The couple settled in Yaroslav Province on the Volga River, where the young Nekrasov could hear and see convicts pass on their way to Siberia. His father, who had become the local police chief, often took Nekrasov with him on his rounds, during which the boy heard the condescending way he spoke to peasants and witnessed the cruel corporal punishments he inflicted on them. When Nekrasov was seventeen, his father sent him to St. Petersburg to join the army, cutting off his funds when he disobeyed and tried to enter the university instead. It took the poet three years of near-starvation before he could make enough money from his writing to survive.

See also: golden age of russian literature; populism


Birkenmayer, Sigmund S. (1968). Nikolaj Nekrasov: His Life and Poetic Art. Paris: Mouton.

Kates, J. (1999). In the Grip of Strange Thoughts: Russian Poetry in a New Era. Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press.

Peppard, Murray B. (1967). Nikolai Nekrasov. New York: Twayne.

Smith, Vassar W. (1996). Lermontov's Legacy: Selected Poems of Eight Great Russian Poets, with Parallel Texts in English Verse Translation. Palo Alto, CA: Zapad Press.

Johanna Granville