Literary scholars traditionally refer to the 19th century as “the Golden Age” of Russian literature. Indeed, it has been a period of an unprecedented cultural rise in the country during which being a poet, a writer, a playwright, an essayist, or a literary critic was considered a prestigious and highly honourable occupation. Best minds turned to literature – and it wasn’t true only for Alexander Pushkin who remains, perhaps, the most famous Russian writer from that time. Pushkin was a part of a much larger tradition that supported and was supported by a number of intellectuals. Below are some of the most prominent names of the Golden Age of Russian literature.
Gavrila Derzhavin (1743-1816)
Gavriil Romanovich Derzhavin was born in 1743 and belonged to the generation right before Pushkin. He was both a prominent statesman and a poet, and his literary works followed the canon of classicism. He was still a poet of the 18th century and wrote odes which he dedicated to the Empress Catherine the Great and her courtiers. Among them are “On the Death of Prince Meschersky” (1779), “Ode to Felica” (1782), and “Waterfall” (1794). Derzhavin predated the Golden Age, but his enormous literary fame meant that every single Russian writer after him studied his works and felt his influence. In 1815 Derzhavin met young Pushkin at the school exam in the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum, heard him reading his poem and predicted straight away that the youth would become the next big name in Russian literature. Sixteen-year-old Pushkin was terrified and flattered, but later in life heavily criticized Derzhavin’s literary legacy, proposing to burn “all but several his odes”.
Ivan Krylov (1769-1844)
Ivan Andreyevich Krylov was a journalist and a dramatist who, at the age of forty, discovered his true talent for fables. Starting with a transformation of classical Greek and French fables, Krylov quickly progressed to writing original ones with the help of a unique blend of wisdom and humor. For more than two centuries now, Russian children memorize hundreds of Krylov’s fables as funny little poems, and only some adults are capable of identifying a deep political satire behind them. Although, Government censors at his time recognized it immediately and banned some of Krylov’s works for publication. Legend has it that some of them were eventually published only because the Emperor himself found them funny and intervened.
Vasily Zhukovsky (1783-1852)
Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky was a translator and a poet who introduced to Russian literature European lyrical ballads and thus significantly modernized Russian poetic tradition. Both his original and translated ballads – most prominent among them are “Ludmila” (1808) and “Svetlana” (1813) – became classical works of Russian literature. Zhukovsky was an older friend and a teacher of Pushkin, whom he greatly admired, and their friendship lasted for many years. When Pushkin was dying in 1837, Zhukovsky was by his deathbed until the very last breath of the poet.
Alexander Griboyedov (1795-1829)
Some scholars consider Alexander Sergeyevich Griboyedov to be the first true poet of the Golden Age of Russian literature. Being a prominent diplomat and a Russian ambassador to Persia, Griboyedov is most famous for one theatre play called “Woe from Wit” (1824) which is still often staged in Russian theatres. Griboyedov tragically died in 1829 in Tehran, after an angry mob attacked and massacred the Russian embassy there. His body was decapitated and abandoned and later identified only by an injury from an old duel. When Griboyedov’s remains were transferred to Tiflis sometime later, the procession accidentally met his friend and colleague – Alexander Pushkin himself, who was traveling in the southern Caucasus.
Kondraty Ryleyev (1795-1826)
Kondraty Fyodorovich Ryleyev was a poet and publisher who, however, nowadays is most famous as a leader of the Decembrist Revolt of 1825. His most prominent works are “Thoughts” (1825) and “Voinarovsky” (1825). Ryleyev felt the influence of both Zhukovsky and Pushkin, and all his life admired Lord Byron. In 1826 Ryleyev was executed for his role in the uprising against the tsar. During the execution, the rope broke; Ryleyev fell, and had to be hanged for the second time.
Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)
For those approaching Russian literature for the first time, Pushkin is, probably, a starting point. Scholars consider Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin to be the greatest and the most talented poet, playwright and novelist of the Golden Age of Russian literature. His works are studied and memorized in Russian schools and universities, and his literary legacy is truly enormous. Among his most prominent works are the plays “Boris Godunov” (1825), “Malenkie tragedii” (1830), short stories “Pikovaa dama” (1834), “Povesti pokoynogo Ivana Petrovicha Belkina” (1831), novels “Kapitanskaya dochka” (1836), “Eugene Onegin” (1837), “Dubrovsky” (1841), as well as dozens of fairy tales in verse. Pushkin belonged to the Russian nobility and in his short life experienced literary fame and countrywide recognition, Tsar’s persecution and exile, numerous scandalous and tumultuous love affairs, heart breaks, marriage to the most talked-about Moscow beauty Natalia Goncharova, as well as a subsequent duel because of her, fatal wound and untimely death at the age of 37. His tragic death was surrounded by controversies and endless rumours of conspiracies, but the truth was that it shocked and shook literary Russia to the unimaginable scale.
Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841)
Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov was a poet and novelist, and the greatest representative of the Russian Romanticism. Prominent works of Lermontov include a novel “A Hero of Our Time” (1840), a play “Masquerade” (1835), and poems “The Song of the Merchant Kalashnikov” (1837), “Borodino” (1837). When Pushkin died, Lermontov, shaken in his heart of heart, as so many of his contemporaries, wrote a powerful and passionate impromptu poem “Death of the Poet” (1837) which is now considered one of his best works and classics of Russian literature. At the moment of publication, however, it was found to be critical of the tsar. For this poem, Lermontov was sent in exile to the Caucasus, where he discovered and grew to admire folklore and local languages of the region. Just as Pushkin, Lermontov was shot dead at a duel when he was only 27 years old.
Alexander Herzen (1812-1870)
Alexander Ivanovich Herzen was a Russian novelist and philosopher who is sometimes called “the father of Russian socialism”. Herzen is famous for one novel only – “Who is to Blame?” (1845-1846) – which is a critical depiction of the 19th-century Russian society. Herzen wrote essays and completed an autobiography “My Past and Thoughts” (1870) which can be recommended to those who like this genre. In 1834, Herzen was arrested for singing songs “uncomplimentary to the tsar” and spent six years in exile.
Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852)
Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol was a playwright and novelist, most famous for his grotesque and surreal, satirical works such as short stories “”The Nose” (1836) and “”The Overcoat” (1842), a uniquely original horror story “”The Viy” (1835), and a satirical socio-political novel “Dead Souls” (1842). Gogol greatly influenced Russian writers after him, with many critics praising his diverse talent and acute political satire. However, later in life, Gogol became highly religious. The mysticism that accompanied his last years, resulted in a legend saying that the writer was buried alive, while being deeply asleep. After Gogol’s reburial in Moscow, horror stories circulated of his corpse being on one side and his coffin being scratched from inside, ostensibly by the writer slowly dying long after the initial burial. However terrifying, that was later proved to be not true.
Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873)
Like many writers before him, Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev was both a diplomat and a poet. Born to a noble Russian family, Tyutchev left after him some 200 lyric pieces – both original works and translations. Being a truly Golden Age poet, in his poems Tyutchev praised the life and sympathized with a human being, abandoned and lonely in the world of suffering. His most prominent works, however, are lyrical love poems dedicated to passion.
Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883)
Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev was well-known and loved already during his lifetime. His most famous literary works are a collection of short stories “A Sportsman’s Sketches” (1852), novels “Rudin” (1856), “A Nest of the Gentry” (1859), “On the Eve” (1860), “Fathers and Sons” (1862). These and other his novels about love and passion are vibrant, captivating and powerful, and are perfect for someone who has never read anything from the Golden Age of Russian Literature. Turgenev himself lived a life reminiscent of his novels: he was deeply in love with a French singer Pauline Viardot and for many years lived with her and her husband in a closed, secret relationship, scandalous at that time. Nobody knows all the truth about this relationship – and, perhaps, nobody should know it.
Ivan Goncharov (1812-1891)
Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov was a statesman and a novelist, well-known for his works “A Common Story” (1847), “Oblomov” (1859), and “The Precipice” (1869). All these works are a portrayal of a contemporary to the writer Russian society – sometimes satirical, sometimes sad, but deeply and uniquely thoughtful. He was inspired by Gogol and followed his steps in his literary works. Interestingly enough, Goncharov also served as a censor in the Saint Petersburg censorship committee. Both Dostoevsky and Chekhov praised the writer’s satirical style.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky is the major name of Russian literature. However it must be noted that his works are completely different from those of Pushkin or Turgenev and might be difficult for someone who is not used to reading large, complex, dark and philosophical texts. In fact, Dostoevsky’s literary legacy is too complicated and inaccessible for the majority of Russian readers, too. It is the best example of literature and philosophy merging in one, with such topics as religion, responsibility, life and death, fate, freedom, evil and punishment, love and passion being the core of Dostoevsky’s novels. Most prominent of his works are exactly such novels: “Crime and Punishment” (1866), “The Idiot” (1869), “Demons” (1872), and “The Brothers Karamazov” (1880). Dostoevsky himself knew the dark side of life all too well: he lived in constant poverty, experienced arrests and exiles and even came close to a near-death experience during “a mock execution” for his political activity.
Alexander Ostrovsky (1823-1886)
Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky was a playwright who left 47 original plays still staging in Russian theatres. Ostrovsky’s works are mostly realistic dramas, so universal and acute that they are perfectly relevant even 130 years after his death. Among them the most prominent are “It’s a Family Affair-We’ll Settle It Ourselves” (1860), “The Poor Bride” (1952), “Stay in Your Own Sled” (1852), “The Storm” (1859). Much as Turgenev, Ostrovsky had an unconventional private life, scandalous for the 19th century: the playwright lived with a woman from a law-class named Agafya Ivanovna, to marriage with whom his family strongly objected. Nevertheless, the civic partnership turned out to be happy and lasting, and they lived together for 20 years until the death of Agafya.
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy is yet another major name of Russian literature, familiar to many thanks to his novels “War and Peace” (1869) and “Anna Karenina” (1878). The truth is, Tolstoy was born to a noble and rich family and lived a long and privileged life. He had enough time – and used it – to write not two novels, but a little library of twenty-two volumes. Among them are semi-autobiographical trilogy, “Childhood”, “Boyhood”, “Youth” (1852–1856), pacifistic short stories about the Crimean war “Sevastopol Sketches” (1855), novels “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (1886) and “Hadji Murad” (1912), as well as countless essays, plays, short stories, and philosophical articles. Tolstoy and his wife Sophia Andreevna Behrs led a conservative lifestyle and lived in the countryside not far from Moscow and had 13 children together. His beliefs in traditional patriarchal lifestyle later manifested themselves in his novels, including “Anna Karenina”. Some scholars consider Tolstoy’s death in 1910 to be the symbolic end of the Golden Age of Russian literature.
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)
If Pushkin and Lermontov were to be seen as youthful courage and passion of Russian literature, Turgenev as love, Dostoevsky as wisdom, and Tolstoy as moral, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov would be rightfully named its soul and heart. A playwright and short-story writer, Chekhov left countless short stories – vivid, honest, painfully direct and touching, funny and sad at the same time. And, of course, he wrote dozens of plays which became a foundation for a new modernist European theatre. Among the most prominent plays of Chekhov are “The Seagull” (1896), “Uncle Vanya” (1898), “Three Sisters” (1900), and “The Cherry Orchard” (1903). Being a medical doctor by training and profession, in 1890 Chekhov traveled to the penal colony on Russian Sakhalin Island north of Japan and lived there for three months, interviewing convicts and settlers for a census. Human sufferings that he encountered while on Sakhalin, Chekhov described in his only full-scale book – a collection of travel notes called “Sakhalin Island” (1891-1893). Chekhov himself suffered from tuberculosis most of his life and tragically died in 1904 at the age of just 44. Since then, no one in Russian literature managed to rise to his level of humanity and compassion.