Nineteenth Century Russian Realism

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 (1825–1855). It was the literary critic Vissarion Grigoryevich Belinsky (1811–1848) who heralded the reforms: he called upon writers to realistically approach the country’s 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 writer’s 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 Belinsky’s 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 Bielinski’s 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 Gogol’s 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 Belinsky’s 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 Bielinski’s life-work: Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky (1828–1889) and Nikolay Aleksandrovich Dobrolyubov (1836–1861).

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 Hegel’s philosophy but on the radical militant materialism of Ludwig Feuerbach. This stemmed from the conflict from Bielinkski and Herzen’s 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 Feuerbach’s mechanistic materialism. Also they were engaged in a bitter struggle against the “aesthetistic” critics of their time, who advocated ‘art for art’s 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 Turgenev’s 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.

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