Russian literature around 1900

The fate of realism. Attempts at renewal

‘Living classic writers of realism’

In the last decade of the nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth century realism was still the main movement in Russian literature. In the works of the ‘living classic writers of realism’ Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov and Vladimir Korolenko, whom all Russia read, society developed according to democratic ideals. They described an existing ordering of life, and had complete faith in the creativity of man and in social justice. Although their works were highly personal, these authors also dealt with common themes which were vitally important to each of them: the relationship between the people and the intelligentsia, the place of the intelligentsia in the revolution, and the responsibility of art for what happened in the world.

Lev Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) wrote his most important works in the period between two crucial events in Russian history, the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and the revolution of 1904-1907. They also formed a turning point in the writer’s worldview. ‘With me it went like this: life in our circles – the rich, the learned – began not only to be distasteful, but to lose all meaning,’ said Tolstoy, ‘[...] the deeds of the working people, who create life, for me were the unshakeable pillars of existence.’ In the 1880s and 1890s Tolstoy wrote the novel Resurrection, the stories Strider: The story of a horse, The death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kreutzer Sonata, and the play The fruits of enlightenment.


Realism around the turn of the century, which arose from a natural urge towards renewal, was clearly reflected in the work of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). Tolstoy emphasised that Chekhov ‘created new, entirely new, forms of writing’, and demonstrated convincingly that he could not be compared to Turgenev, Dostoevsky or himself. His themes were the – not immediately visible – changes in people’s thinking and emotional state, in the manner in which they judged the world and themselves. Chekhov added profound social-philosophical passages to his images, which always remained concrete, everyday, and credible. The artist raised questions about lifestyles in all their forms: social, moral, everyday (see An everyday story, The duel, Ward 6, The man in a case, The peasants, In the ravine, The lady with lapdog). Chekhov is perhaps seen at his most innovative in his plays, which were to have a huge influence on Russian and European theatre (Ivanov, The seagull, Uncle Vanya, The cherry orchard).

The Sreda and Znanie writers

Aleksandr Koeprin

In the second half of the 1890s realistic writers came together in the Sreda (The Middle) literary circle. A little later Znaniye (Knowledge) came into existence around this circle. It was a publisher of democratic allegiance with Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) at the head. The most important realist writers of Sreda and Znanie were Alexander Kuprin (1870-1937; Moloch, Olesya, The duel, The garnet bracelet); Ivan Bunin (1870-1953; verse and stories, the novellas The village, Dry valley, The gentleman from San Francisco); Vikenti Veresaev (1867-1945; No exit, At the bend, For life) and Gorky himself. His work was not only ‘Znaniye literature’ but also part of general Russian and world culture. In his pre-revolutionary period, beginning with Makar Chudra, Gorky’s work developed from romantic, folklorist heroic tales (The old woman Izegril) and ‘pauper stories’ (People of the past, Chelkosh) into technically brilliant, socially critical, revolutionary stories and novels such as Foma Gordeev and The mother and plays like The lower depths, Summerfolk, Barbarians, The Philistines and Enemies.

The neorealists

In 1910 the ‘trap of realism’, as critics termed it, fell out of favour with a new generation of writers. They are generally known as ‘neorealists’. Many of them were later in the vanguard of Soviet literature: Alexey Tolstoy, Mikhail Privshin, Konstantin Trenyov, Sergey Sergeev-Tsensky.

The new rural poetry of the 1910s

After 1910 a new generation of poets from rural backgrounds began to be heard. Among them were Nikolay Klyuev, whose poetry featured patriarchal peasants with their naive, religious mysticism, and Sergey Klychkov, the poet of ‘people’s’ works that were influenced in part by Alexander Blok and the Symbolists. The career of Sergei Esenin (1895-1925) began at this time. In his work the rural theme grew into the theme of the Fatherland, of national fates, of the village, in short, the theme of Russia.

Modernism. Modernist movements 1890-1910

While realism made its appearance in literature, there was also a group of writers who rebelled against the positivism of the nineteenth century. These rebels were Symbolists and Acmeists, that is, the literary avant-garde.


Dmitri Merezjkovski

The philosophy and aesthetic of Russian Symbolism took shape in publications by Nikolay Minsky, Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Artemy Volynsky. In the literature a distinction is normally made between the ‘older’ and the ‘younger’ Symbolists. The older generation included the poets Konstantin Balmont, Fyodor Sologub and Alexander Dobrolyubov. A special place is occupied by Dmitry Merezhkovsky (1866-1941), Symbolist poet, prose writer, philosopher and theoretician (he wrote the poetry volume Symbols, the essay On the causes of the decline and on the new trends in contemporary Russian literature, and the trilogy Christ and the Anti-Christ). The natural leader of the movement was Valeri Bryusov (1873-1924), the most eminent Moscow Symbolist, theorist and poet, editor of the central Symbolist journal Vesy (The balance). He published the poetry collections Russian Symbolists, Me eum esse / This am I, / Tertia Vigila / The Third Wake, stories and novellas, and the novel The Fiery Angel.

Aleksandr Blok

In the first decade of the twentieth century a new generation of ‘young’ Symbolists entered the literary arena: Vyacheslav Ivanov, Andrey Bely, Alexander Blok and Sergey Solovyov. They wanted to put an end to the individualism and subjectivism of their ‘elders’ and address the fundamental problems of the modern age. The leading figure was Alexander Blok (1880-1921), whose work is of immense value. In 1916 the poet himself identified three main phases in his career. The first was that of the mystic ‘thesis’, the second that of the sceptical ‘anti-thesis’, and the third that of the ‘synthesis’, with a central place for his poems about Russia. Blok saw his work as a ‘lyrical trilogy’, a series of stories over the path of the I from initial harmony with the world, via the chaos and tragedy of the collision with cruel reality, to a heroic battle for the liberation of Beauty and the creation of a New Life. Blok’s best known works before 1916 are the poetry volumes and verse cycles: Verses about the beautiful lady, Crossroads, Unexpected joy, A mask of snow, Death dances and Fatherland, the lyrical trilogy The fairground booth, The king on the square and The unknown woman and the poems Song of fate and Retribution.

The crisis of Symbolism. Acmeism

In the 1910s Symbolism underwent a crisis as a literary and artistic genre. Among the poets who wanted to free poetry from ‘the fog of Symbolism’ and wanted it to face real life the Poets Guild (Tsekh poetov, 1911) came into existence; it was led by Nikolay Gumilyov and Sergey Gorodetsky. The members were mainly young: Mikhail Kuzmin, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Vladislav Khodasevich, Georgy Adamovich and Georgy Ivanov. They were the pride of the ‘Silver Age’ of Russian poetry and culture. The name they themselves gave to the aesthetic that brought them together was ‘Acmeism’, after the Greek acme (culminating point, summit, peak). This name embodied the wish to reach new artistic high points. The irrational must be driven out, and poetry freed from vague mysticism. To achieve that, the visible, tangible and audible world must be expressed in words as exactly as possible in markedly material themes and images. Acmeism brought forth two extremely important Russian poets: Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) and Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938). Despite the Acmeist wish to take reality ‘as a whole, with all the beauty and ugliness that goes with it’, Akhmatova’s lyricism is full of drama, vulnerability, loss of harmony in daily life and an approaching catastrophe. The poems in her first collections – Evening, Rosary, White Flock – are primarily love poems. They differ from other, socially indifferent Acmeist poetry through the main theme of her later work, which can already be glimpsed: the Fatherland, the special, intimate sense of high-grade patriotism.

Mandelstam joined the Acmeists because he was attracted by the ‘superb lucidity’ and ‘eternalness’ of their images. In his works from the 1910s, collected in Stone, the poet uses the image of the stone from which as an architect he creates buildings, his poems. Mandelstam expresses his wish to exchange the tragic storms of the age for the timeless, for the civilisations and cultures of earlier centuries. That brought him close to Nikolay Gumilyov.

The literary avant-garde

At the same time as Acmeism, numerous other avant-garde literary groups sprang into existence, including Egofuturism and Futurism.

Igor Severjanin

In its ideas and artistic programme, Egofuturism stands more or less between Acmeism and Futurism. Its most outspoken representative was Igor Severyanin (1887-1941). He often attuned his poems (in the collections The kettle, The golden lyre and Pineapple in champagne) to the taste of the aestheticised bourgeois audience, leading a life of decadence.

Futurism was closely linked to the Futurist movement in painting, which is often apparent from the absence of a real theme. The most important exponent of this movement was probably the group Gilea (the Cubo-Futurists, among them David and Nikolay Burlyuk, Velimir Khlebnikov, Alexey Kruchonych, Vladimir Mayakovsky). Two other groups were Mezzanine of Poetry, led by Vadim Shershenevich, and Central Figure, of which Sergey Bobrov, Nikolay Aseev and Boris Pasternak were members.

Of the excellent poets of the beginning of the twentieth century who did not belong to a particular group or movement at the very least mention must be made of Marina Tsvetaeva and Maximilian Voloshin.

The Russian theatre around 1900

In the second half of the nineteenth century the Russian theatre underwent a radical renewal which had a great influence on the later history of the Russian, but also European and even world, theatre.

The principal nineteenth-century theatres were the Alexandra Theatre in St Petersburg and the Maly (Little) Theatre in Moscow. The imperial theatres had a monopoly on public performances in the capitals. Progressive figures in the theatre world tried in various ways to stay away from the imperial theatres, but this monopoly was not abolished until 1882. This was seen as the ‘emancipation’ of the theatre. The greatest landmark in the development of the Russian theatre was the work of the leading reformer Konstantin Sergeevich Stanislavsky (1863-1938). In 1898 he and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko founded the Moscow Art Theatre, which marked a crucial phase in theatre realism and played an important role in the wider recognition of innovative theatre, free of state interference. The performances of the actors (who formed a close-knit group, aiming at joint interpretation of the play), the decors, the light and the sound formed a single artistic entity. Stanislavsky’s own roles were distinguished by their artistic perfection and psychological interpretations worked out to the last detail. The Moscow Art Theatre marked a new phase in the development of world theatre: director’s theatre.

In its first period (1898-1905) the Moscow Art Theatre offered modern dramaturgy. The chief events were the productions of plays by Chekhov, Gorky, Leo Tolstoy, Gerhard Hauptmann and Henrik Ibsen.

Alexandra Theater in St.-Petersburg

In the theatre world of St Petersburg the founding of the Komissarzhevskaya Theatre was a milestone. Vera Fyodorovna Komissarzhevskaya (1864-1910) had been an actress at the Alexandra Theatre from 1896. In 1904 she left the ‘state theatre’ and opened her own theatre, which represented the voice of the Russian democratic intelligentsia. The repertoire: The Seagull by Chekhov, Without a dowry by Alexey Ostrovsky and A doll’s house by Ibsen. In these plays the tremendous talent and remarkable temperament of Komissarzhevskaya herself as a performer of realistic, psychological theatre were magnificent.

The foundations of the new theatre, with its modern decors and acting style, were rooted in the work of the director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940). For Meyerhold the complete artistic independence of the director was a prerequisite: he made his own version and did not let himself by confined by the author’s intentions. With Meyerhold the decors had a vital role. They were there to make the scene look true to life, but also to embody the central idea of the play symbolically. Meyerhold first tried to realise his experimental productions at the Komissarzhevskaya Theatre, but there were differences of opinion and in 1907 he left. He was invited to work at the Alexandra Theatre. The 1908 production of The masquerade by Mikhail Lermontov was an unforgettable event for the theatre and for the art of St Petersburg in general. It was a joint production by Meyerhold and the artist Alexander Golovin. At the same time he directed cabaret, variety and study pieces. Meyerhold’s principal source of inspiration was the Italian Commedia dell’Arte and other grotesque forms of theatre, of which he was very fond.

Another theatre reformer was the founder of the Moscow Kammeny Theatre (1914), Alexander Yakovlevich Tairov (1885-1950). His ideal was ‘synthetic theatre’, consisting mainly of romantic plays and tragedies. To give form to his ideas about pure theatre he took a close interest in the training of virtuoso actors. An important role was reserved for the artist Alexandra Exter, who was responsible for many of Tairov’s decors. They were made in accordance with the ‘ultra-modern’ movements in art. The Cubo-Futurist production of Thamira Kythared by Innokenty Annensky and Salome by Oscar Wilde marked the first steps towards decors that were simultaneously spatial, artistic and architectural. At the beginning of the twentieth century the intelligentsia thought a great deal about the role of theatre in Russia’s social and cultural life. In 1903 the Union of Theatre and Music Writers was founded, and in 1906 the General Russian Union of Theatre Workers, as part of the Russian Theatre Society.

Vsevolod Meyerhold

Tot de toneelhervormers moet ook de oprichter van het Moskouse Kamenny Theater (1914) worden gerekend, Aleksandr Jakovlevitsj Tairov (1885-1950). Zijn ideaal was ‘synthetisch theater’, met hoofdzakelijk romantische stukken en tragedies op het repertoire. Om zijn ideeën over zuivere toneelkunst uit de dragen, richtte hij zich vooral op de vorming van virtuoze acteurs. Een belangrijke rol was weggelegd voor de kunstenares Aleksandra Ekster, die verantwoordelijk was voor vele van Tairovs decors. Ze waren gemaakt volgens de ‘ultramoderne’ stromingen in de beeldende kunst. De kubofuturistische opvoering van Thamira de citerspeelster van Innokenti Annenski en Salome van Oscar Wilde toonden de eerste aanzetten tot een decorbouw die tegelijkertijd ruimtelijk, schilderkunstig en architecturaal was.

In het begin van de twintigste eeuw dacht de intelligentsia veel na over de rol van het theater in het sociaal-culturele leven in Rusland. In 1903 ontstond de Unie van Theater- en Muziekschrijvers, en in 1906 de Algeheel Russische Unie van Toneelwerkers als deel van de Russische Theater Maatschappij.