The Russian Review/Volume 1/February 1916/Aspects of Russian Literature I

Aspects of Russian Literature.

By Louis S. Friedland.


There is a peculiar restlessness that is expressed in Russian literature, as if the writers were men embarked upon a great search whose end is never in sight. And indeed, these men refuse to see final limits, for they know, as yet, little of attainment. You will not find in the literature of this country of the endless plain, a cheerful sense of accomplishment, a great joy in achievement. Theirs are not the doubts and the questionings of the English writers of the closing years of the last century. For they know that a goal exists, and that they must go on in their great spiritual search over the endless plain of Life. Things seen, are real to them, but those unseen have the true reality which they seek, and which they know exists. And in the effort to attain at the final meanings in life, they journey over its wide realm, beckoned on by the never-failing hope of some day apprehending what this life is.

But they are conscious, too, of the fact that they will never attain to the secret unless they can fathom the nature of man in his inmost self. For to them man is the enigma that must be solved,—man as he really is, not what he romantically pretends to be, or, in the spirit of renunciation, says he is. They wish to discover man as he actually is, in his true essence, not as he appears to be, shorn of power and true "selfness" by as yet unconquered forces, and hemmed in by laws and social structures that only partly reveal him.

Here, then, we are dealing with a literature that exists for social service,—with man, and not society, as the object to be served. So that Russian literature is social in a peculiar sense. It has been said that the Russian looks to literature for solutions to "the accursed problems of life."

To answer this urgent demand, a literature needs to be closely linked to life and reality. In the literature of Russia this union is close and indissoluble. We cannot attain a true understanding of the one, without knowing something of the other, of the realities, political and racial, that moulded it. Instinctively, Russian writers know that the meaning of life is involved in life itself; and he who would comprehend their treatment of life's problems, must not separate the literature from the milieu in which it lives and has its being.

To a large extent, Russian literature has been moulded by the political conditions of the country. For a long time its inspiring motive was antagonism toward the official institutions. The writers had a definite reality to grapple with. For them, as for men everywhere, the fullest liberty was found only in the unreal realm of hidden thoughts and dreams and aspirations. But when the effort began to give these thoughts reality, it ushered in a time of tremendous struggle that absorbed all the energies of the nation. Here and there you hear voices counseling submission as the inevitable and natural solidifying power of the nation. But the greater number beat their heads in vain against that iron wall. It is this thought that a Russian poet expresses:

"The writer—if he is a wave
Of the ocean which we call Russia,
Can but awaken to rebellion
When the ocean itself rebels.
The writer — if he is a nerve
Of that great body which is the people,
Can but feel the wound
When liberty is stricken."

What underlying motifs are we to expect of a literature so conditioned? First of all, we shall find a severe, often rigorous attitude toward the social problems of life. There is little "Art of Art's sake." This formula of a day comes into its own only in the most recent works, for in Russia the divorce of art from life can come about only as a temporary escape from the grimness of reality. In a literature fundamentally social, like that of Russia, man is viewed as a human being,—a being responsible to his own conscience for all his actions; so that the great writers of Russia see life as a moral problem, a problem of good and evil, whose ultimate solution lies in the triumph of the former. It is on a great spiritual search that the masters of the literature have embarked, and they are conscious of this. Hence, much of their writing is didactic. Thus the poet Nekrasov says of himself: "I have been inspired to sing thy sufferings, my people, so wondrous in thy patience! I have been called to cast at least a ray of light upon the path on which God leads thee." Even the supreme artist among them, Turgeniev, knew of a condition, a foe to his people's happiness, that he had to fight. "In my thoughts this enemy had a definite shape and bore a definite name: the enemy was serfdom."

This abolitionist idea was like a ferment that worked through the length and breadth of the literature. The antagonism to serfdom was only an expression of the all-embracing idea of struggling for the liberation of the individual. It must be noted, however, that literature was not really the first expression of this desire for individuality. We find it earlier in the free communities established as a reaction against the rigorous officialdom.

The first phase of nineteenth century literature may be summed up as the period of Romanticism. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, and for some decades after, literature was produced by members of the nobility. Such were the great poets, Pushkin and Lermontov. These two felt only imperfectly the great social forces that determined the course of later Russian literature, but already they give expression to some consciousness of Russian unity. They are, above all, romanticists, both depicting, at least in their earlier works, characters of the Byronic type,—brooding, disenchanted men, who have compressed all their life in a decade of years. Having failed to find happiness in life, they seek it vainly in solitude. These romantic heroes, in their aristocratic aloofness, are foreign to the social spirit of Russian literature.

The later heroes of Pushkin and Lermontov are endowed with a trait that has been considered distinctively Russian: over-development of the sensibilities and the mental powers at the expense of the will. To realize their ideas was impossible, to give themselves to some practical task was hopeless, in view of the political situation. Not being able to have what they wished, they talked their ideals to death. This mixture of cul- ture and of deficient will-power was characteristic of the Russian "intellectual", so that we find many variants of the will-less intellectual in the literature of the nineteenth century. Later, the two novelists, Gontcharov and Turgeniev, attempted to find the hero whose soul would be a balanced harmony between intellect and will; but the Russian society of that day did not enable them to find the necessary prototypes.

In the literature of the second period, the 30's and 40's, authorship was still limited to the nobility. But now, new ideas enter, and Russian literature becomes a great purposeful force. Before taking up the writings of this era (which will be done in the next article), we must consider how the change came about.

A Russian critic has described the psychology of his people as an "agricultural" one, that of "the man who walks behind the plow." The exclusive social structure for the first half of the century was that of the landowner and the peasant,—on the one hand, a great, leisurely, patriarchal class,—on the other, the serfs, the masses, "the mysterious strangers in literature toward whom all were striving and whom none understood." Many Russians who sought to isolate what was distinctively Russian in the social system, found in the agrarian community the real unit of the social structure. These men felt that the true germ of Russian society was the "agricultural" or "rural" commune,—and that the hope of Russia lay, not in the civilization and arts of the West, but in the purification and strengthening of the rural communities. To accomplish this, it was first of all necessary to abolish serfdom, and so there was unfurled the banner of the "Peasant,"—not by the peasant, but by members of the nobility, in his name. And a period of vicarious salvation of the masses set in.

This movement for the reforming of the "rural" communities had far-reaching effects. To begin with, it divided the thinking men of Russia into two opposing factions, which, like all opposing forces, merged into each other at many points. The two rival camps were the Slavophiles and the Westernizers. The desire to westernize Russia was not a new one, and its main aims need no comment. The leaders of this faction accepted, as their philosophic basis, the negative side of Hegel's teachings,—especially his denial of traditional religion and his idea of constant development and change in Nature.

As it happened, the Slavophiles, though they strove to be purely Russian, followed the Westernizers in basing their views upon Hegel. They adapted, for home consumption, perhaps the central idea of the philosopher's views on history. It was the doctrine of a super-race and a super-nation, a glorification of nationalism, and it apealed strongly to the defenders of the Slavic idea. Hegel taught a new metamorphosis in man's conception of the divinity: the Supreme Reason. This Supreme Reason was something integral, unitary, and endowed with one almighty passion: to know himself. The spirit of Super-Reason led a wandering life, and when it lived with a people, that people was a living one. Chaldea, Babylon, China, India,—each had, at some time of the world's history, been the dwelling-place of Reason pure and unadulterated,—and thus it had gone on, from East to West, leaving behind it a trail of national corpses. It had never reached the Slavic race, but had attained its highest wisdom in Germany. And so the Slavophiles wished to import it.

It is clear that the Slavophilism was an expression of race consciousness, and of a growing sense of national unity. The Slavophiles felt that the Russian people, hence the Slavic race, is predestined to play an important role in the history of the world. The influence of this idea was tremendous. On the one hand, it found expression in "official" aspirations for Slavic ascendency. On the other, it influenced revolutionary thought, and sought to liberate Russia from officialdom.

We must note how the Slavophile movement is connected with the attempt to find, in the national social structure, that unit which differentiated Russia from the countries of West Europe. It was felt that Russia was destined to be the great hope of the world largely because it was running a different historical course from that of other nations. And the differentiating factor was the "rural" community. The cry was for Russia to purge its social system of the conditions that prevented a return to the communal mode of life. By far the saddest of these conditions was serfdom. The abolition of serfdom meant the emancipation of an enslaved people. Liberate the serfs, re-establish a free people under the old, simple form of Russian communal life,—and the problems of the country will be settled for all time. And so the watchword of the literature of the 30's and 40's became, Abolition, the People, Simplification,—words that threatened the end of the land-owning nobility,—the master-class. The "Tragedy of the Master-Class" is the fitting title given to the literature of this period.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.

The author died in 1955, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.