Country Listing

Soviet Union Table of Contents

Soviet Union

The Age of Realism in Literature

Russian literature in the last half of the nineteenth century provided a congenial and artistic medium for the discussion of political and social issues that could not be addressed directly because of government restrictions. The writers of this period shared important qualities: great attention to realistic, detailed descriptions of everyday Russian life; the lifting of the taboo on describing the vulgar, unsightly side of life; and a satirical attitude toward mediocrity and routines. Although varying widely in style, subject matter, and viewpoint, these writers stimulated government bureaucrats, nobles, and intellectuals to think about important social issues. This period of literature, which became known as the Age of Realism, lasted from about mid-century to 1905. The literature of the Age of Realism owed a great debt to three authors and to a literary critic of the preceding half-century: Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol, and Vissarion Belinskii. These figures set a pattern for language, subject matter, and narrative techniques, which before 1830 had been very poorly developed. The critic Belinskii became the patron saint of the radical intelligentsia throughout the century.

The main outlet for literary opinion in the Age of Realism was the "thick journal"--a combination of original literature, criticism, and a wide variety of other material. These publications reached a large portion of the intelligentsia. Most of the materials of the major writers and critics of the period were featured in such journals, and published debates were common between journals of various viewpoints. Much of the prose literature of the period contained sharply polemical messages, favoring either radical or reactionary positions concerning the problems of Russian society. Ivan Turgenev was perhaps the most successful at integrating social concerns with true literary art. His Hunter's Sketches and Fathers and Sons portrayed Russia's problems with great realism and with enough artistry that these works have survived as classics. Many writers of the period did not aim for social commentary, but the realism of their portrayals nevertheless drew comment from radical critics. Such writers included the novelist Ivan Goncharov, whose Oblomov is a very negative portrayal of the provincial gentry, and the dramatist Aleksandr Ostrovskii, whose plays uniformly condemned the bourgeoisie.

Above all the other writers stand two: Lev Tolstoy and Fedor Dostoevskii, the greatest talents of the age. Their realistic style transcended immediate social issues and explored universal issues such as morality and the nature of life itself. Although Dostoevskii was sometimes drawn into polemical satire, both writers kept the main body of their work above the dominant social and political preoccupations of the 1860s and 1870s. Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina and Dostoevskii's Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov have endured as genuine classics because they drew the best from the Russian realistic heritage while focusing on broad human questions. Although Tolstoy continued to write into the twentieth century, he rejected his earlier style and never again reached the level of his greatest works.

The literary careers of Tolstoy, Dostoevskii, and Turgenev had all ended by 1881. Anton Chekhov, the major literary figure in the last decades of the nineteenth century, contributed in two genres: short stories and drama. Chekhov, a realist who examined not society as a whole but the foibles of individuals, produced a large volume of sometimes tragic, sometimes comic, short stories and several outstanding plays, including The Cherry Orchard, a dramatic chronicling of the decay of a Russian aristocratic family.

Data as of May 1989