© 2021, by M. Keith Booker
The efforts of Catherine the Great to drag eighteenth-century Russia into the Enlightenment were largely unsuccessful, and the Russian Empire entered the nineteenth century still essentially in a feudal condition, with almost all political power held by the aristocracy and with the Russian Orthodox Church holding very much the same kind of religious power that the Catholic Church had held in medieval Western Europe. Meanwhile, every attempt at liberalization in Russia (such as during the reign of Tsar Alexander II from 1855 to 1881) seemed to be followed by a wave of conservative reaction. Thus, the reforms of Alexander II (which included freeing the serfs in 1861) led to his assassination and to reactionary rule by his son, Alexander II (tsar from 1881 until his death in 1894), and his grandson, Nicholas II (tsar from 1894 until he was overthrown by the Russian Revolution of 1917).
The Russian Revolution, like the French Revolution, was almost inevitable given the mismatch between the antiquated political and economic system of tsarist Russia and the new ideas that were seeping into Russia from the West. In the case of Russia, literature played a particularly major role in the promulgation of these ideas in Russia, often subtly conveying the bourgeois ideology of Western capitalism even in texts that were ostensibly opposed to such ideas—just as the texts of reactionary thinkers such as Balzac and (to some extent) Flaubert were nevertheless shot through with liberal bourgeois ideas. In Russia, this phenomenon can be most clearly seen in the progress of the nineteenth-century novel, a form so thoroughly energized by bourgeois ideology that it carried that ideology into Russia, even when Russian novelists themselves resisted it.
One can see this phenomenon early on in the work of a novelist such as Alexander Pushkin (1799–1838), a member of the Russian nobility who wrote mostly poetry and drama but who is probably best remembered for his lone novel, Eugene Onegin, serialized between 1825 and 1832. Pushkin’s attempts to resist the ideological power of the Western novel can be seen in the fact that this novel is written entirely in verse, thus linking it to older and more traditional literary forms. And yet the power of the novel form comes through, and Eugene Onegin clearly qualifies as a novel, focusing on a single protagonist who acts as the key agent of a plot that unfolds in a rational world that obeys well-defined logical principles.
Still, as a verse novel, Eugene Onegin is such an unusual artifact that it exercised relatively little direct influence on subsequent Russian novelists. Indeed, it is conventional to see the real founder of the Russian novel, and of Russian realism, as Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852), even though Gogol was a conservative religious thinker who ostensibly resisted the influence of the West. This inclination can be seen in the prominent presence of the surreal and the supernatural in his works. Yet no less a figure than Georg Lukács, who did so much to develop our understanding of the relationship between the realist novel and bourgeois ideology—and whose work helped establish the reputation of Balzac as the greatest realist novelist and Walter Scott as the founder of the subgenre of the historical novel—finds similar energies in the work of Gogol. In particular, Lukács is a great admirer of Gogol’s ability to capture the essence of history in his writing. Focusing especially on the long historical story Taras Bulba (1835, revised and expanded in 1842, based on a variety of materials from eighteenth-century Russian history), Lukács finds that this story of the beginning of the disintegration of traditional (pre-capitalist) Cossack society in Russia “is more national, more unified and more epic in character than even the stories of Scott” (Historical 74). For Lukács, Gogol parlays an understanding of the historical necessity of the downfall of Cossack society into a tale of “almost Homeric, national-epic breadth of theme whose possibilities Gogol as a really great artist is able fully to utilize” (74).
For Lukács, Gogol (despite his reputation as a Slavophile and supporter of traditional Russian society) understands that traditional Russian society stands in the way of an historical process of modernization that it cannot ultimately hope to resist, placing him in very much the same position as Balzac, except for the fact that Balzac’s France is already much farther along the historical timeline of capitalist modernization than is Gogol’s Russia. Indeed, while Gogol’s vision of Russian history was rather idealized, he interestingly viewed much of this history from afar, spending much of his adult life in Western Europe, amid precisely the historical processes that Balzac was describing in his fiction. As Elizabeth Cheresh Allen has noted, Gogol seems to have viewed “the reigning tsarist political system as a divinely ordained institution with no conceivable alternative” (305). Still, Allen goes on, this personal conservatism did not prevent Gogol’s works from having what was in fact a “socially and politically progressive, even subversive, effect” (306).
Gogol’s novel Dead Souls (1842) was more influential than Taras Bulba on later Russian writers, and is indeed generally considered his masterwork, though short stories such as “The Nose” (1836) and “The Overcoat” (1842) are also classics and have been seen as important forerunners of the work of such modern writers as Franz Kafka. Dead Souls again shows a conflict between Gogol’s aims and the nature of the novel. For example, it seems to have been intended by Gogol as a moralizing tale, yet the story often descends into hilarious farce. Indeed, the great Russian theorist of the novel Mikhail Bakhtin has seen Dead Souls as a key example of the way in which the inclinations of the novel as a genre can often overcome the inclinations of individual authors (28).
For Bakhtin, incidentally, this is not a shortcoming, but a virtue, an idea that Bakhtin would apply most influentially to the work of the great Russian realist novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881). Bakhtin grants that Dostoevsky was a right-wing religious conservative who saw Western ideas as a form of contamination of Russian purity. But he also notes that purity is anathema to the novel as a form and that Dostoevsky, perhaps more than any other novelist, writes in a way that is in tune with the inclinations of his genre rather than his own personal inclinations. Thus, while Bakhtin grants that Dostoevsky’s personal philosophy was thoroughly “monological” (i.e., believing that there is only one way of viewing the world and thinking about things), Bakhtin’s theory of the novel focuses on the novel as the most “dialogical” of all genres, that is, as the genre that is most open to entertaining competing points of view simultaneously, placing them in dialogue with one another.
In magisterial realist novels such as Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Dostoevsky produced some of the crowning achievements of nineteenth-century realism, while at the same time anticipating such later developments as existentialism. In so doing, he joined Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), author of such masterpieces of realism as War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1878), as the two most important figures in nineteenth-century Russian literature. In our course, we will read Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864), a shorter work that is less representative of realism in general but one that brings very clearly into focus the issues related to the impact of Western secularist modernization that were so important to Dostoevsky’s work in general.
Allen, Elizabeth Cheresh. “Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol.” Encyclopedia of Literature and Politics. Ed. M. Keith Booker. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. 305–6.
Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah Mitchell and Stanley Mitchell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.