Russian Literature in 19th Century

By | November 11, 2021

The reign of Alexander I (1801-25) meant the gradual transition for Russian literature from late classicism by GR Derschavins and from sentimentalism by NM Karamzin to pre-romanticism, the main representatives of which were the poet and important translator W. A. ​​Schukowski, the playwright A. S. Gribojedow (“Gore ot uma”, published in 1833; German “understanding creates suffering”). WA Schukowski transplanted the ballad to Russia by translating the most important German examples of the genre. By approaching the Russian vernacular, they already achieved a clear liberation from the normative style and language constraints of classicism.


Romanticism created the Russian literary language, which finally overcame the constraints of the archaic Church Slavonic, and produced works that put Russian literature on an equal footing with the great European national literatures. As in the rest of Europe, Romanticism in Russia was determined by an anti-rational attitude and by breaking open classical formal unity. She took on suggestions from all European literatures, especially from the English, French and German. The Pole A. Mickiewicz, exiled to Russia, had a significant influence. This gave subjective emotional experiences design possibilities that were developed by A. S. Puschkin, M. J. Lermontow and N. W. Gogol were masterfully realized.

AS Pushkin is considered to be the real creator of the Russian literary language and the greatest Russian poet, who excelled in all three basic genres – lyric, epic, drama; he embodies the “golden age” of Russian literature. In contrast to his contemporaries, he was hardly or only temporarily affected by influences from abroad (such as G. G. N. Byron’s or German idealism), and he cannot be assigned to any particular school. Most romantic in his poetry are the motifs of dreams and night, fairy tales and legends, as well as his “southern” poems, which thematize the Caucasus as an exotic equivalent to the Orient, which was cultivated by Western European Romanticism. AS Pushkins mature poetry, his verse novel “Evgenij Onegin” (published in full in 1833; German “Eugen Onegin”), but also his dramas (“Boris Godunov”, published 1831) and the prose that predominated from 1830 (“Povesti Belkina”, 1830, German ” Stories by Belkin “;” Kapitanskaja dočka “, 1836, German” The Captain’s Daughter “) point in their wealth of thought and form already beyond the framework of Romanticism and influence Russian literature up to the present day.

Alongside and with AS Pushkin, a number of important poets appeared, the so-called Pushkin Pleiad with A. A. Delwig, W. K. Kjuchelbeker, N. M. Jasykow, J. A. Baratynski and W. F. Odojewski as well as the Decembrist K. F. Rylejew. Even F. I. Tyutchev, whose early poems in Russia by AS Pushkin published, has with his love and the content of F. W. J. Schelling influenced thoughts poetry, which draws its expressive power of exciting contrasts of sound and image, still important.

The main representative of the second generation of romantic poets is M. J. Lermontow, whose novel »Geroj našego vremeni« (1840; German »A Hero of Our Time«) continues the design of a contemporary literary hero begun by AS Pushkin with »Evgenij Onegin«, whereby both works are experiments open the series of great psychological and socio-critical Russian novels with the novel form and as a discerning analysis of a time type.

NW Gogol finally turned in stories (»Nos«, 1836, German »Die Nase«; »Šinel ‘«, 1842, German »Der Mantel«), comedies (»Revizor«, 1836; German »Der Revisor«) and in the satirical novel “Mertvye duši” (1st part 1842; German “Die toten Seelen”) the romantic poetics to shape the emptiness and dehumanization of social types and structures in contemporary Russia to the point of grotesque exaggeration. The leading contemporary criticism (W. G. Belinsky, N. A. Dobroljubow, N. G. Chernyshevsky) allowed his work to be regarded only as a polemic against the social and political order of Russia and, from this point of view, declared it to be a model for a literature that was completely dedicated to this function. Against this “Gogol direction” the artistic “Puškin direction” could not hold its own for long.

During this time the debate about a new meaning of Russian history and about new central ideas (Slavophiles, Westerners), which had a great effect on literature, began. Since the government of Nicholas I (1825–55) strictly forbade any journalistic or even open political expression of opinion on social issues (such as the abolition of serfdom, adaptation of Russia to the rule of law), Russian literature and especially literary criticism grew into one for the great European literatures have a unique function: literature and criticism became the highest spiritual authority, the conscience of society and its main mouthpiece. The style that best suited this function was that of des critical realism. The transition to this took place in the on Gogol professional end natural school. The drama received its artistically convincing form through A. N. Ostrowski (“Groza”, 1859; German “Das Gewitter”). The climax of the radically socially critical satire, which because of the censorship had to express itself largely in an “aesopian” (ie a circumscribing or obscuring but thoroughly understandable to the experienced reader) way, is the work of M. J. Saltykow-Shchedrin (novel “Gospoda Golovlëvy”, 1880; German »The Lords Golowljow«), while A. F. Pissemski’s novels and plays are more committed to an analytical naturalism, but also portrayed the fate of women without make-up. The poetry adapted to the socially critical tendency (although only N. A. Nekrasov succeeded in making the new views formally convincing) or, as “pure art”, evaded any partisanship (A. A. Fet, J. P. Polonski, A. K. Tolstoi).


The second half of the 19th century – the turning point is around 1840 – is determined by the prose: the brittle “sketch” (Otscherk) of the transition period, characteristic form of the “natural school” with its concerns, representatives especially of the lower social classes truthfully portray, soon stepped back behind the complex novel. The great realistic storytellers have all gone through this phase; they differ from the Romantics v. a. through choice of topic (current problems in Russian society and the recent past), consideration of social, psychological and moral-religious aspects as well as through a very detailed description that motivates the course of events. I. S. Turgenev, who had begun with prose sketches (“Zapiski ochotnika”, 1852; German “Notes of a hunter”), thematized in his novels (“Nakanune”, 1860, German including “Am Vorabend”; “Otcy i deti”, 1862, German ” Fathers and Sons ”) the political and social problems of different generations of Russian society and in his later novels also dealt with great general human subjects such as love, death and art. I. A. Goncharov also emerged from the tradition of the “natural school”; his later novels (“Oblomov”, 1859, German; “Obryv”, 1869, German “Die Schlucht”) depict characteristic figures and behaviors of contemporary society (intellectual resignation or boredom, nihilism).

M. Dostoevsky, too, was initially oriented towards NW Gogol and the ideas of the “natural school”. His personal path of suffering (death sentence, exile) and the resulting rapprochement with the Orthodox Church gave rise to those great “polyphonic” novels which, through their deep psychological motivation and their artistic means (inner monologue, experienced speech), the development of the genre in the 20th century anticipate (»Prestuplenie i nakazanie« 1866, German including »Schuld und Sühne«; »Idiot«, 1868, German »Der Idiot«; »Besy«, 1871–72, German including »The Demons«; »Brat’ja Karamazovy«, 1879–80, German “The Karamazov Brothers”).

The unconditional striving for moral and social perfection of society determined the monumental life work of L. N. Tolstoy. With his great novels (»Vojna i mir«, 1868/69, German »War and Peace«; »Anna Karenina«, 1878, German) he shaped the future European social novel. In the late stories (“Krejcerova sonata”, 1891, German “Kreutzersonate”, etc.) and his third novel “Voskresenie” (“Resurrection”, 1899) the tendency increased strongly. His personality had a strong effect on contemporary European intellectual life. N. S. Leskow, the storyteller among the Russian realists, has achieved an artistic stylization of the “popular” narrative and point of view in his novels (“Soborjane”, 1872; German “Die Klerisei”) and his “Russian novellas”.

The final phase of realism is marked by authors such as W. M. Garschin, G. I. Uspenski and W. G. Korolenko, in whose stories tendencies towards impressionism and symbolism are already emerging, as well as – all outstanding – A. P. Chekhov, who in his stories and dramas (»Čajka«, 1896, German »Die Möwe«; »Tri sestry«, 1901, German »Drei Schwestern«; »Višnevyj sad«, 1904, German »Der Kirschgarten«) a synthesis of subtle milieu and character study and indirectly symbolizing, atmospheric poetry succeeded.

Russian Literature in 19th Century