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Nineteenth Century Russian Realism

The majority of the population lived in the countryside earning their income from
agriculture and farming, the rest working in metal factories under inhumane
conditions 10-11 hours a day. It was a hard life for the majority of the population,
who were starving peasants, even if they were employed.

People were usually Russian Orthodox, which is a branch if Christianity.

The late 19th century saw the rise of various socialist movements in Russia.
Alexander II was killed in 1881 by revolutionary terrorists, and the reign of his son
Alexander III (188194) was less liberal but more peaceful. The last Russian
Emperor, Nicholas II (18941917), was unable to prevent the events of the Russian
Revolution of 1905, triggered by the unsuccessful Russo-Japanese War and the
demonstration incident known as Bloody Sunday.

Unusual flourishing of Russian realistic literature in the second half of the 19th
century was going on against the background of social and political distemper that
started in the 1840s, under the reign of Nicholas I (18251855). It was the literary
critic Vissarion Grigoryevich Belinsky (18111848) who heralded the reforms: he
called upon writers to realistically approach the countrys social problems, such as
serfdom and the like, and realize their role as critics of the social order. As quoted
by Thomas Gaiton Marullo, the Russian Realist Literature provided an alternative
government to tsarist dictates.

The general characteristics of 19th-century Russian realism include the urge to


explore the human condition in a spirit of serious enquiry, although without
excluding humor and satire; the tendency to set works of fiction in the Russia of the
writers own day; the cultivation of a straightforward style, but one also involving
factual detail; an emphasis on character and atmosphere rather than on plot and
action; and an underlying tolerance of human weakness and wickedness. The
leading realists began to be published in the late 1840s: the novelists Ivan
Turgenev, Ivan Goncharov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Count Leo Tolstoy; the
playwright Aleksandr Ostrovsky; the poet Nikolai Nekrasov; and the novelist and
political thinker Aleksandr Herzen.

Although it had produced several powerful orginal literary giants, Russia in the
184os still lacked a general literary movement. Under Belinskys tutelage the seed
of the realist movement was sown in the mid-1840s. He was assisted by Nikolai
Gogol, who moved from romanticism to his own eccentric brand of realism. He is
best known for such historical short stories as Taras Bulba, about Cossack life; for
the satire The Inspector General; for the novel Dead Souls; and for his Saint
Petersburg tales, among which The Overcoat) is preeminent In Bielinskis view,
the emergence of the Gogolian period, the struggle for the triumph of Gogolian
realism, coincided with the growing intensity of the democratic revolutionary
struggle against absolutism and feudalism. The great social and political importance
of Gogols realism lay in its merciless exposure of the social realities of its time and
in its faithful mirroring of the harsh discordances of life. At first termed the natural
school, the movement developed into the so-called realist school after Belinskys
death.

The defeat of the revolutions of 1848 did not bring the same swerve towards
reaction in the ideological development of Russia as the rest of the Europe, although
a sort period of depression was obviously inevitable. But comparatively soon, in the
middle of the 1850s, a new upsurge of democratic ideas began in Russia. The
economic, social and political evolution of the country squarely poised the issue of
inevitable abolition of serfdom and the general unrest bound up with this had forced
the government of the time to grant temporarily a somewhat greater freedom of
opinion. The classical leaders and representatives of this new upsurge of democratic
thought were the two great heirs to Bielinskis life-work: Nikolay Gavrilovich
Chernyshevsky (18281889) and Nikolay Aleksandrovich Dobrolyubov (18361861).

The central problem around which the thinking of the Russian society revolved at
the time of their activities was the issue of the abolition of serfdom. However, there
were sharp differences among various progressive camps regarding the method of
liberation. To quote George Lukas, It was on this issue that the liberalism and
democrats first parted company in Russia. The democrats wanted a radical socio-
economic change in the feudal agrarian structure of the Russia, whereas the liberals
were hesitant to any conflict with the feudal land-owners, bureaucracy and the
autocracy. Throughout the fifties this political division was reflected in literature.
Chernyshevki and Dobrolyubov were the ideological leaders of the radical
democrats against the liberals.

This new upsurge of revolutionary democracy in Russia thus took place in politically
and socially more advanced conditions than those in which Bielinski fought his
ideological battle. The higher level of political struggle is apparent in all writings of
Chernyshevki and Dobrolyubov. Literary criticism was now directed not just towards
the despotism of autocracy and feudal reaction regarded as the chief enemy by
Bielinski, but also towards the liberal bourgeoisie and their ideological
representations. They no longer based themselves on Hegels philosophy but on the
radical militant materialism of Ludwig Feuerbach. This stemmed from the conflict
from Bielinkski and Herzens time between the Slavophiles who believed in the
superiority of Orthodoxy and pre-Petrine Russia and the Westernizers who became
increasingly critical of religion and became more and more sympathetic towards
socialist ideals that aimed at creating a more humane, resolute and just society. For
them, any democratic change meant in the first place the political and social
liberation of the lower plebeian section of society which involved a complete radical
change in the social power structures and ladders of hierarchy. They conceived a
social cataclysm, a revolution in the Universalist sense, as a radical change in all
human relations and all manifestations of life, from massive economic foundations
to the highest form of ideology. Moreover, since both these writers could historically
and philosophically gain insight into and digest the period following upon the great
French revolution, they could look at the obstacles of the liberation of the popular
masses with fewer illusions. We find in their realist writings and concrete analysis of
a certain phenomenon, a lively dialectic although derived from Feuerbachs
mechanistic materialism. Also they were engaged in a bitter struggle against the
aesthetistic critics of their time, who advocated art for arts sake and attempted
to separate the conception of artistic perfection from the realistic reproduction of
social phenomenon, and who regarded art and literature as phenomenon
independent of social strife. In contrast two such ideas, the realist writers laid great
emphasis on the connection between literature and society. They believed that life
itself, deeply conceived and faithfully reproduced in literature, is the most effective
means of throwing light on the problems of social life and an excellent weapon in
the ideological preparation of the democratic revolution they expected and desired.
They demanded of the writers that in faithfully depicting the everyday destinies of
men they should demonstrate the great problems agitating Russian society, and
those decisive, fateful social forces which determine its evolution and not a mere
naturalistic reproduction of the surface of life. It is to them that we owe the correct
appreciation of emerging Russian realist like Turgenev, Goncharov, Ostrovski,
Dostoyevski etc.

As has been mentioned before, the incipient struggle between liberalism and
democracy was one of the central battlegrounds in the Russian political and
intellectual atmosphere. Most of the realist writers of the time inclined towards the
liberal philosophy, but inasmuch as they depicted Russian reality faithfully, they
involuntarily aided revolutionary democracy in many ways. For instance,
Chernyshevki showed in his criticism of Turgenevs Asya, that Turgenev being a
gifted realist writer quite unintentionally but inevitably produced a shattering
exposure of the type of Liberal intellectual.Similarly. It was precisely because
Turgenev was a genuine, serious realist that his work could supply weapons against
his own political philosophy. The same argument explains why his epochal work,
Fathers and Sons got attacked from all sides: liberals, radicals and conservatives
alike.

This period of nineteenth century realist movement in Russia is often regarded as


the Golden Age in Russian literature: while in other European countries writers
were involved in documenting and analyzing the revolutionary processes, in Russia,
it was the realist movement in literature and art itself which initiated the
revolutionary wave and carried it forward.