RUSSIAN LITERATURE. Ideals and Realities by Peter Kropotkin eBook £1.50 (see eBookshelf)

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Kropotkinsmall‘Peter Kropotkin’s unique take on pre-Revolutionary Russian literature. A ‘must have’ reference for all intelligent Kindle-owning flâneurs, would-be Tverskoy Boulevardiers, students and aficionados of Russian culture…’ Farquhar McHarg

THIS book originated in a series of eight lectures on ‘Russian Literature during the Nineteenth Century’ which Peter Kropotkin delivered in March 1901, at the Lowell Institute, in Boston.

Given the impossibility of exhausting so wide a subject as Russian Literature within the limits of one book, Kropotkin focused his attention on modern literature. The early writers, down to Púshkin and Gógol — the founders of the modern literature — he deals with in a short introductory sketch. The most representative writers in poetry, the novel, the drama, political literature, and art criticism, are considered next, and round them the author has grouped the less prominent writers, of whom the most important are mentioned in short notes. Kropotkin is fully aware that each of the latter presents something individual and well worth knowing; and that some of the less-known authors have even succeeded occasionally in better representing a given current of thought than their more famous colleagues; but ‘Russian Literature. Ideals and Realities’ is a book intended to provide only a broad, general idea of the subject.

Literary criticism has always been well represented in Russia, and the views taken in this book must needs bear traces of the work of the country’s great critics: Byelínskiy, Tchernyshévskiy, Dobrolúboff, and Písareff, and their modern followers, Mihailóvskiy, Arsénieff, Skabitchévskiy, Venguéroff, and others.

In the first chapter Kropotkin recounts the hard lot which befell the freemason Nóvikoff, the Christian mystic Lábzin, and the political writer Radischeff; but he also might have shown how a whole generation of ‘intellectuals’ was persecuted at the same time, with the intention of weeding out the ideas of the British eighteenth-century philosophers, the French encyclopaedists, and the French Revolution, and how the teachings of the German mystics and metaphysicians — Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel — penetrated instead. Since that time the persecutions never ceased, taking an especially acute character every twenty years or so, when whole generations of writers and thinkers saw their intellectual leaders arrested, exiled, or sent to hard labour, while the remaining ones lived under the menace of a similar fate. The generation of Púshkin, Odóevskiy, and Ryléeff — the so-called Decembrists of 1825, of whose sad fate Kropotkin writes in Chapter II of this book — was followed in 1849 by the ‘circles’ of Petrashévskiy, where the teachings of the French Socialists — Fourier, Cabet, and Pierre Leroux — were discussed. The result being that again a whole generation, including Dostoyévskiy, the critics Byelínskiy and Maykoff, the satirist Schédrin, the poet Pleschéyeff, and quite a number of men of mark who played later on a prominent part in the work of liberation of the serfs, was accused of a dangerous conspiracy, arrested, condemned to be shot, sent to hard labour, or exiled.

Then came, after a short interval of relative freedom, the persecutions of 1863, and with them began the era of uninterrupted persecutions of literature, art, science, and the Universities, which lasted till the year 1905. These were years when nearly every one of the younger writers had to make acquaintance with imprisonment or exile, and these were periods when in almost every intellectual family there was some one of its members or friends in prison or in exile.

No wonder that all joy of life disappeared from the literature of those years. How could a novelist depict the happiness of existence in this beautiful world, when nowhere he could see that happiness? Tchéhoff’s sad irony and Górkiy’s angry rebellion were a necessary outcome of real life.

But even amidst the gloomy conditions of those years Russian literature remained true to its mission. It retained its inner force, its vitality, its capacity of discussing all the great problems of European civilisation, even under the strokes of the censor and the menaces of an omnipotent State’s police. Tolstóy, with his wide humanitarianism, only summed up the aspirations that were kept alive in Russian literature since the times of Névikoff and Radísheff, by the country’s best writers, without distinction of philosophical or religious creed

Preface to the Second Edition (1916)

A WESTERN reader, when he makes acquaintance with Russian literature, is usually impressed by its general sadness and the absence from it of the joy of life, the happiness of existence. This impression is quite correct: a striking note of sadness resounds in our literature; and even with those of our poets and novelists, like Púshkin, Gógol, or Tchéhoff, whose first productions were full of the joys of youth, gladness soon disappeared, and sadness took its place.

This feature of Russian literature was noticed more than once, and as the same character prevails in the Russian and South Slavonian folksongs, the favourite explanation is, that melancholy and sadness are specific features of ‘the mystical Slavonian soul.’ Some would even see in them a characteristic of ‘Eastern races.’

Leaving aside physiological guesses about ‘races’ and the ‘mystical soul’ explanation which explains nothing, but merely restates the fact in different words, the very history of the Russian nation, the raids of the Mongols, the Tartars, the Turks, with their usual sequel of murder and slavery, the hard struggle with an inclement nature, the wide expanse of the Steppes, the endless forests, and later on serfdom, —all these could not but leave deep traces of sadness in the Russian character.

However, the folk songs of all nations bear the same traces of sadness, due to similar causes. But in Western Europe the written literature soon freed itself from the resignation of the early folklore. So that, properly put, the question is, — Why has the nineteenth century Russian literature retained that sad, melancholy character?

Some sort of reply to this question was already given in this book when I mentioned in the brief biographical notes the hard lot of so many of our leading writers. An English reviewer of the first edition of this book had already noticed the striking percentage of Russian poets and novelists who were imprisoned, exiled, or sent to hard labour even though I had made no special point of this aspect of the literary profession in Russia.

The persecutions which our literature and, in fact, whole generations of ‘intellectuals’ have lived through in the nineteenth century would fully explain the absence of a real joy of life in our literature.

However, there is also another, even more characteristic, feature in our literature to which I would like to draw the attention of the Western reader. It is the presence of a certain deeply rooted inner force, which one feels in Russian works of art, literary criticism and science, — a force which has never been quelled and, in spite of all obstacles, has always kept before the Russian reader the higher ideals, the higher aspirations of mankind, reminding him that real happiness can only be found when one has joined in the endeavour for attaining the higher forms of human development.

In the first chapter of this book I have mentioned the hard lot which befell the freemason Nóvikoff, the Christian mystic Lábzin, and the political writer Radischeff; but I might have shown also how a whole generation of ‘intellectuals’ was persecuted at the same time, with the intention of weeding out the ideas of the British eighteenth-century philosophers, the French encyclopaedists, and the French Revolution, and how the teachings of the German mystics and metaphysicians —Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel — penetrated instead. Since that time the persecutions never discontinued, taking an especially acute character every twenty years or so, when whole generations of writers and thinkers saw their intellectual leaders arrested, exiled, or sent to hard labour, while the remaining ones lived under the menace of a similar fate. The generation of Púshkin, Odóevskiy, and Ryléeff — the so-called Decembrists of 1825, of whose sad fate I speak in Chapter II of this book — was followed in 1849 by the ‘circles’ of Petrashévskiy, where the teachings of the French Socialists — Fourier, Cabet, and Pierre Leroux — were discussed. The result being that again a whole generation, including Dostoyévskiy, the critics Byelínskiy and Maykoff, the satirist Schédrin, the poet Pleschéyeff, and quite a number of men of mark who played later on a prominent part in the work of liberation of the serfs, was accused of a dangerous conspiracy, arrested, condemned to be shot, sent to hard labour, or exiled.

Then came, after a short interval of relative freedom, the persecutions of 1863, and with them began the era of uninterrupted persecutions of literature, art, science, and the Universities, which lasted till the year 1905. These were years when nearly every one of the younger writers had to make acquaintance with imprisonment or exile, and these were periods when in almost every intellectual family there was some one of its members or friends in prison or in exile.

No wonder that all joy of life disappeared from the literature of those years. How could a novelist depict the happiness of existence in this beautiful world, when nowhere he could see that happiness? Tchéhoff’s sad irony and Górkiy’s angry rebellion were a necessary outcome of real life.

But even amidst the gloomy conditions of those years Russian literature remained true to its mission. It retained its inner force, its vitality, its capacity of discussing all the great problems of European civilisation, even under the strokes of the censor and the menaces of an omnipotent State’s police. Tolstóy, with his wide humanitarianism, only summed up the aspirations that were kept alive in Russian literature since the times of Névikoff and Radísheff, by our best writers, without distinction of philosophical or religious creed.

There is now, in Western Europe and America, a widely spread desire of a better knowledge of Russian literature, and it surely will not be limited to an acquaintance with our great novelists. It will be extended, I hope, to our ‘folk-novelists ’ and their ideals, as well as to some secondary novelists, mentioned in this book; to Russian art which worked hand in hand with our literature; and also to Russian history and science altogether. It is self-evident that “in all these manifestations of intellectual life Russia owes a great deal to Western literature, art, and science. But a real artist always retains the stamp of his nationality, and, as the Western readers know, the Russian works of art have a specific Russian character.

A few words more. In preparing this new edition my first intention was to add to it a chapter dealing with our contemporary authors. However, such a number of new writers belonging to a variety of new literary schools came to the front during the last five-and-twenty years that a new book would have been required to deal with them in a proper way. The new schools of Decadents, Impressionists, Modernists, and so on, count among their Russian adepts so many writers of incontestable talent, such as Bélmont, Andréeff, Sologúb, Veresáeff, and many others, and the appearance of these innovators is so intimately connected with the political life of Russia within the last twenty-five years, that these new literary schools cannot be dealt with otherwise than in connection with the principal events of these years. One has only to consult the autobiographies of some of the representatives of these different schools, published in the work of Professor V. S. Venguéroff, Russian Twentieth Century Literature, 1890-1910 (its fourth part was published in Moscow in 1915), to see how much the new currents were originated in Russia, not only by Western influences, but still more by the events of Russian life itself. Therefore I had to give up the idea of dealing with this interesting subject in a few pages, and must refer the reader, for general conceptions about the origin of this modern literature, to the just mentioned work of Professor Venguéroff, and to the works themselves of this new pleiad of novelists and poets.

BRIGHTON, Sussex, May 1916.

Preface to the First Edition (1905)

THIS book originated in a series of eight lectures on ‘Russian Literature during the Nineteenth Century’ which I delivered in March 1901, at the Lowell Institute, in Boston.

In accepting the invitation to deliver this course, I fully realised the difficulties that stood in my way. It is by no means an easy task to speak or to write about the literature of a country, when this literature is hardly known to the audience or to the readers. Only three or four Russian writers have been properly and at all completely translated into English; so that very often I had to speak about a poem or a novel, when it could have been readily characterised by simply reading a passage or two from it.

However, if the difficulties were great, the subject was well worth an effort. Russian literature is a rich mine of original poetic thought. It has a freshness and youthfulness that is not found to the same extent in older literatures. It has, moreover, a sincerity and simplicity of expression that render it all the more attractive to the mind that has grown sick of literary artificiality. And it has this distinctive feature, that it brings within the domain of art—the poem, the novel, the drama — nearly all those questions, social and political, which in Western Europe and America, at least in our present generation, are discussed chiefly in the political writings of the day, but seldom in literature.

In no other country does literature occupy so influential a position as it does in Russia. Nowhere else does it exercise so profound and so direct an influence upon the intellectual development of the younger generation. There are novels of Turguéneff, and even of the less-known writers, which have been real stepping-stones in the development of Russian youth within the last fifty years.

The reason why literature exercises such an influence in Russia is self-evident. There is no open political life, and with the exception of a few years at the time of the abolition of serfdom, the Russian people have never been called upon to take an active part in the framing of their country’s institutions.

The consequence has been that the best minds of the country have chosen the poem, the novel, the satire, or literary criticism as the medium for expressing their aspirations, their conceptions of national life, or their ideals. It is not to blue-books, or to newspaper leaders, but to its works of art that one must go in Russia in order to understand the political, economical, and social ideals of the country-— the aspirations of the history-making portions of Russian society.

As it would have been impossible to exhaust so wide a subject as Russian Literature within the limits of this book, I have concentrated my chief attention upon the modern literature. The early writers, down to Púshkin and Gógol — the founders of the modern literature — are dealt with in a short introductory sketch. The most representative writers in poetry, the novel, the drama, political literature, and art criticism, are considered next, and round them I have grouped the less prominent writers, of whom the most important are mentioned in short notes. I am fully aware that every one of the latter presents something individual and well worth knowing; and that some of the less-known authors have even succeeded occasionally in better representing a given current of thought than their more famous colleagues; but in a book which is intended to give only a broad, general idea of the subject, the plan I have pursued was necessary.

Literary criticism has always been well represented in Russia, and the views taken in this book must needs bear traces of the work of our great critics — Byelínskiy, Tchernyshévskiy, Dobrolúboff, and Písareff, and their modern followers, Mihailóvskiy, Arsénieff, Skabitchévskiy, Venguéroff, and others. For biographical data concerning contemporary writers I am indebted to the excellent work on modern Russian literature by the last-named author, and to the eighty volumes of the admirable Russian Encyclopaedic Dictionary.

I take this opportunity to express my hearty thanks to my old friend, Mr. Richard Heath, who was kind enough to read over all this book, both in manuscript and in proof.

BROMLEY, KENT, January 1905