Nekrasov's literary career began with a series of prose pot-boilers, written while he was starving in St. Petersburg. He had come to this city as a boy of seventeen in 1838, to follow the military profession. Against the will of his father, a brute of an hobereau, the young man preferred the university to the army, and was forthwith thrown on his own resources. A penniless hack, he became before long a popular poet and the thriving publisher of the two greatest radical monthlies in Russia.
As a child he had heard the bitter songs of the Volga barge-towers. In the capital he had lived with filth and famine. He introduced these elements into his work. Yet though he suffered with the people in his poems, he enjoyed his prosperity, in spite of ethical scruples.
His work is marked by a strong social and civic preoccupation. He declared that this interest interfered with his poetry. As a matter of fact, his "Muse of Vengeance and Wrath" was an uncertain creature. He threw untransmuted into his poetry the raw stuff of satire and feuilleton, of parody and pamphlet. At his best he can move the reader with his stinging pity and his passionate self-scorn. He is perhaps chiefly remembered by his epic: "Who Lives Happily in Russia?", which holds in its vast frame the very essence of the misery and the thwarted vigor of the Russian peasant.