Why Russian Literature?

Russian literature of the Golden Age – all those countless stories written in the 19th century by Russian writers – is fascinating and complicated at the same time. Highly intellectual and sophisticated, it was never meant for everyone and it was never meant for entertainment only. Quite on the contrary, literature in the 19th century Russia became a platform and a means of communication between the best minds in the country – and their collective body of texts is exceptional for several reasons.

The first and probably the most important among them is a deeply philosophical nature of Russian literature of that period. To understand this phenomenon one needs to remember how many philosophers lived and worked in France or in neighbouring Germany in the 19th century. In Russia, however, there were none – because all of them were writers. In fact, Russian literature of the Golden Age is a combination of both literature and philosophy in the same texts. The best example of it is Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky whose novels are full of profound philosophical questions about life, death, religion, will, freedom, personal responsibility, and so much more. Dostoevsky’s texts are complex and dark, and not for everyone. Yet, to those who read them, they bring pure intellectual pleasure.

Why, however, did Dostoevsky choose to write fiction and not philosophical treatises? One could argue that the explanation lies in a position of literature in the 19th century Russia: at that time and in that country, nothing was considered as prestigious and honourable as to be a poet or a writer. This is why, almost inevitably, all intellectuals – philosophers, journalists, critics, even politicians – ended up writing literature. This is how literature gradually became a national asset, and not just an entertainment.

The second future that makes Russian literature of the Golden Age so special is its acute social criticism. Thus, the texts – whether Gogol’s novels from the first half of the century, or those of Goncharov’s or Dostoevsky’s from the second half – are highly reflexive, sharp, sometimes sarcastic and even ruthlessly painful when it comes to Russian reality. Historically speaking, Russian thinkers never had a possibility to speak openly and freely. The tsar’s censorship in Russia has always been there for them and has never faded, and literature was a means to bypass it although a lot of writers of the Golden Age were sent in exile anyway. Yet, they left a legacy of criticism which is stunningly accurate today – for instance, Gogol’s Overcoat might have been written yesterday, and not in 1842. As a result, this literature tells a story of the whole country, and there is no better way to learn about Russia than through the works of its writers.

At the same time, Russian literature of that period asserts universal human values – truth, justice, love, compassion, kindness. The best characters in the novels are kind and good hearted, tolerant and full of forgiveness. Even in the darkest of Dostoevsky’s novels, in the world of poverty and prostitution, robbery and murders, kindness is the light that eventually leads characters to some sort of hope. Not everything ends well, not everyone can be happy. Yet, Russian literature of the Golden Age leaves a powerful message of what is right and what is wrong, and how difficult it is, to be a decent human being. However outdated might be the settings of ball dances in winter palaces, the system of values in these texts is as much relevant today as it was then. Among others, it reminds us, who we, as humanity, are, and where we come from.

However, far from being moralistic, Russian literature of the Golden Age is actually a pleasure to read. It is written in a beautiful literary language and is engaging and captivating, starting from Pushkin’s half-fairy tales, half-novels and all the way to Chekhov’s short stories. The writers of that period managed to recreate what they have seen around them, and their literary worlds are complex and vivid. In our crazy times, it might be beneficial to escape in a novel which offers such a different world as, for example, snowy Orenburg fort in Siberia (Captain’s Daughter), lavish Saint Petersburg (Anna Karenina), or Russian countryside (Oblomov).

The Golden Age spanned a whole century and, of course, another feature of this period is its immense diversity. The beginning of the century – novels of Pushkin, poems of Lermontov, theatre play of Griboyedov – is full of duels, ball dances, and romance. In a way, it reminds us of the 18th century which is about to fade. And in fact, already the next generation of writers were reflexive and even socially-oriented: Herzen, with his “Russian socialism”, early Gogol with his sarcasm and social satire, Goncharov and Ostrovsky with their realism. In the last part of the century this tradition continued through philosophy and realism of Dostoevsky, as well as Chekhov. Tolstoy chose another pass: the War and Peace tells a story of events that happened before and after the Napoleon’s war. In other words, the Golden Age offers a variety of texts for different tastes and needs – and the readers will always find there what they like.

Finally, when speaking about the Golden Age of Russian literature, one very special writer must be mentioned separately. Anton Chekhov – the one who concludes the century – didn’t live enough to write what he could. Yet, his literary legacy – countless short-stories, dozens of theatre plays, letters, and diaries – are painfully full of light and sadness, kindness, compassion and hope. This is the writer who speaks to and about Russian soul as no one else. The writer who managed to reach such level of humanity that a century later, his words bring tears to reader’s eyes and clarity, even serenity, to readers’ minds. And perhaps, this is exactly what makes the Golden Age literature so exceptional: it leads its readers to something better than they are, educates, comforts, and reassures.