Taking a literary tour through 19th-century Russia

By Stan Walens

In the decades from 1848-1914, Russia underwent one of the greatest social upheavals in human history. What had been for 1,500 years a medieval farming society based on serfdom and slave labor—with powerful nobles acting as warlords constantly threatening a weak central government—rapidly transformed into a modernized society, with over 35,000 miles of railroads, suburbs centered around large cities, and the largest steel production facilities in the world. Yet these enormous changes also created a new society in which poverty was widespread for all but a few obscenely wealthy, corruption was rampant, and hopelessness was common. Russia became a cauldron, boiling with suppressed rage, a perfect breeding ground for political extremism and the underpinnings of revolution.

During this time of immense social turmoil, three Russian authors stand out as the key moral and political voices of their era: Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoievski, and Lev “Leo” Tolstoy. Learn a few facts and discover how these three authors came to be celebrated as three of the best writers of their time.

  1. Born into a wealthy family, Ivan Turgenev inherited his family’s vast estates and thousands of serfs. Yet he was a political progressive whose first book, "Notes of a Hunter," was as influential in the ending of serfdom in Russia as "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" was to putting an end to slavery in the United States. Fathers and Sons, one of the first novels to depict a vast family saga and the ideological clash of generations, provided the model for many other historic sagas, from "Gone with the Wind," to "Doctor Zhivago," to "Dynasty."

  2. Unlike his fellow writers, Dostoievski and Tolstoy, who saw Russia’s salvation as coming from its deeply-rooted Orthodox spirituality, Turgenev saw Russia’s future as lying in the adoption of Western European principles of social reform. Frustrated by criticisms of his work by critics who found his progressivism anti-Russian, and frightened of persecution by the secret police, he moved to Paris, where he began a decades-long affair with the beautiful and intelligent Pauline Viardot, the most famous opera singer of the time. The two of them counted among their colleagues and friends nearly every famous artist, musician and author of the 19th Century, from Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt to Gustave Flaubert and Henry James.

  3. Russia has a long history of persecuting writers and artists, and during the tumultuous 1840s and 1850s, when violent revolution was sweeping across Europe, Tsar Nicholas I had thousands of artists arrested, exiled or executed. In 1849, Dostoievski was part of a group called the "Petrashevsky Circle" that was discovered and disbanded by the government. After eight months in prison, Dostoievski was sentenced to death, but just moments before being shot found out that his sentence had been commuted to four more years in prison plus four years in the Siberian army. The mock execution and subsequent “show of mercy” was staged by the Czar merely to impress people with his benevolence.

  4. The novels of the great 19th Century Russian authors are rich with psychological insight and an awareness of the complexity of the human psyche. Sigmund Freud considered Fyodor Dostoievski’s "The Brothers Karamazov" to be one of the “greatest artistic achievements of all time” and held it in equal esteem with Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" and Sophocles’ "Oedipus Rex" ("Dostoevsky and Parricide," 1928). In addition, four of Dostoievski’s works are on the 100 Best Novels list, including "Crime and Punishment," "The Possessed," "The Idiot" and "The Brothers Karamazov."

  5. Throughout his life, Leo Tolstoy was profoundly influenced by the political and religious thinkers of his time. After finishing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy turned increasingly towards a life of simplicity and self-denial. He adopted a philosophy—whose ancient origins Tolstoy found in the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha, but whose modern origins can be traced to the works of Thoreau—that all social change should be achieved with nonviolent resistance to the State, whose power he considered to be immoral. Tolstoy’s writing on religion and nonviolence has had profound impact on the last century of world history, influencing leaders as diverse as Mohandas Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Join instructor Peter Clark in one of his latest course offerings and enjoy some of the most unforgettable and beautiful characters in fiction while learning about the fascinating lives and personalities of some of the world’s greatest authors.

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