Alexander Kuprin (1870-1938), an iconic Russian writer, who was also a pilot, journalist, actor, circus worker and adventurer. Kuprin is best known for The Duel, a novel, conceived in his second year in the army, and commenting on the “horror and tedium of army life”. He is considered one of the last proponents of the great tradition of Russian critical realism. Like most Russian patriots of the time, Kuprin did not “welcome” Bolsheviks and probably remained an anti-Communist throughout his life. In June 1918, Kuprin was arrested for a short time for an article in the paper Molva (Rumor) critical of the regime, resulting in Kuprin’s exile in 1919 – for him a difficult and tragic time. Following this tragic ordeal, very ill when, in 1937, one year before his death, he returned to the USSR.
Varlam Shalamov was a Russian writer and poet. He was born in 1907 in Vologda, to an Orthodox priest and a housewife. In 1922 he went to Moscow and began working there in a factory. He then began studying law at the University of Moscow and joined a Trotskyite group. In 1929, after publishing a leaflet criticizing Stalin, he was accused of subversive activity and sent to two years of hard labor in the Ural Mountains. He returned to Moscow in 1932 and started publishing his literary works and write for newspapers. In 1937, he was again arrested for publicly supporting author Ivan Bunin. He was sent to the camps on the Kolyma River in Siberia for 17 years to hard labor. In 1946, after he deteriorated into a critical condition, he succeeded with a friend’s help in finding the role of a helper in the hospital and thus managed to survive. He was released from the Gulag in the 1950s and allowed to publish some of his poetry. Parts from his main work Kolyma Notebooks began to appear in the underground in the mid-1960s and were also published outside the Soviet Union. In 1970, ill, broken and completely dependent on the Soviet Writers Association, he was made to publish a letter in which he denied his works published abroad. In 1978, his famous book Kolima Tales was published in England – 103 brief sketches, vignettes, and short stories chronicles the degradation and dehumanization of prison-camp life. The stories were banned in the Soviet Union until 1988. Collections of his poetry and prose were published in various languages after his death.
Nikolay Alekseyevich Nekrasov was a Russian poet, writer, critic, journalist and publisher. He was born in 1821 in Nemirov, Ukrain. Nekrasov studied at St. Petersburg University, but his father’s refusal to help him forced him into literary and theatrical work at an early age. His first book of poetry was published in 1840. Nekrasov’s work centred on the theme of compassion for the sufferings of the peasantry. He also sought to express the racy charm and vitality of peasant life in his adaptations of folk songs and poems for children. An able businessman, he published and edited literary miscellanies and in 1846 bought from Pyotr Pletnev the magazine Sovremennik (“The Contemporary”), which had declined after the death of its founder, Aleksandr Pushkin. Nekrasov managed to transform it into a major literary journal, despite constant harassment by the censors. Both Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy published their early works in Sovremennik, but after 1856, influenced by its subeditor, Nikolay Chernyshevski, it began to develop into an organ of militant radicalism. It was suppressed in 1866, after the first attempt to assassinate Alexander II. In 1868 Nekrasok took over Otechestvenniye zapiski (“Notes of the Fatherland”), remaining its editor and publisher until his death. Nekrasov had published numerous of poetry collections, one play and one unfinished novel. He died in Saint Petersburg in 1878.
Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov (1895-1831) was one of the greatest Russian authors of the 19th century. Most of his fame is about the short stories and novels he wrote. Very few had placed him on a high level in his life. It should be noted that Lev Tolstoy was among those few. True recognition Laskov won only after his death. His unobtrusive religiosity, as well as his outstanding interest in people living in the world of faith, did not contribute to his popularity. Leskov made use of an exceptional Russian language, which deviates sharply from literary norms. He generously used a unique vocabulary derived from colloquial language and in the confusion of words characteristic of such speech. Only at the beginning of the 20th century, when language play, interest in linguistic exoticism and dialects became a literary norm, the attitude towards Leskov was changed. One of the most influential writers of the time, Maxim Gorky, declared that he was a student of Leskov and that he was one of the classic Russian writers – alongside Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Leskov was born in the village of Grochovo, not far from Oryol, where his father worked as a clerk in a criminal court. Leskov’s father, the son of a priest, had attended a seminary for priests and was familiar with the doctrine of the Orthodox faith, but refused to become a priest. Leskov’s mother came from a non-wealthy family of nobility. Leskov’s family led a traditional lifestyle, typical of the Russian middle class in the province. The family was surrounded by church priests and meticulously observed all the ecclesiastical rituals. As a child, Leskov learned the doctrine of Christian faith under the guidance of a priest. In the course of his life, Leskov had many connections around the church. As a writer, he turned repeatedly in his work to describe the lives and ways of Russian clergymen. In 1848, after his father’s death, Leskov left his high school and was accepted to work in the criminal court office where his father worked before him. A year later, he moved to Kiev and was hired at the local branch of the Ministry of Finance. During his life in Kiev Leskov read, learned the Polish language and the Ukrainian language and visited as a free student in a wide range of subjects at the University of Kiev. In 1857 he left the civil service for good and was hired by a company owned by his uncle. During almost four years of Leskov’s work in the company, he has traveled extensively in Russia’s provincial cities. In 1861 he left the company and came to Petersburg to dedicate himself to a writer’s career. In his first years in Petersburg, Leskov wrote and published articles, but gradually he left journalism and went on to write stories and novels of a purely literary nature. In 1864 he began serializing the novel “No Place” in which he denounced the nihilistic spirits of some of the Russian revolutionaries, although he expressed support for progressive social reforms. Following the publication of the novel, Leskov lost the support of the left-wing circles of the Russian intelligentsia, which accused him of collaborating with the secret police. As a result, some of the works of that period were not published at the time, including his masterpiece, the novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”. Despite his loyalty to traditional Russian Christianity, in the 1880s, he began to criticize and blame it with excessive conservatism, nationalism, and too close relations with the state. Because of Leskov’s criticism of religion and the regime, he was fired from his job at the Russian Ministry of Education, but was regained the support of the liberal and revolutionary circles of Russian society. Leskov was married twice. From his second wife he divorced in 1877 and continued to raise his son Andrei alone. He died in St. Petersburg in 1895.
Leonid Andreyev was a Russian author and playwright. He was born on 1871 in the provincial town of Oryol. After his father’s death in 1889, he had to provide for his mother and younger siblings. While pursuing a career in law, Andreyev tried his hand as a police-court reporter and found this line of work much more engaging. In 1898 his first short story, a Dickensian Christmas story titled “Bargamot and Garaska,” was published in Kuryer newspaper, marking the beginning of his quick ascension to literary fame. Less than ten years later, in 1907, he would be dubbed “Russia’s foremost man of letters – except for Tolstoy, of course.” His body of work includes two novels, five novellas, and a number of short stories and plays. Andreyev’s style defies easy labeling. During his lifetime he was ranked among realists, then symbolists, sometimes romanticists and even pulp fiction writers. Naturally inclined to the fantastic and grotesque, Andreyev went through a shift toward realism due to his longtime friendship with Maxim Gorky, Russia’s leading social-realist writer of the time. However, even his down-to-earth stories hint at another, darker reality which exists beyond everyday experiences. Leonid Andreyev’s life was filled with extravagancies: he had five children with two wives; was considered a handsome and flamboyant man, and had over 100 colored photographs of himself. He also had his portraits made by Russia’s premier painters of the time. As he grew rich, he designed a grand villa for his family, which would eventually be built in Finland, due to Andreyev’s grave disappointment of the Russian Revolution in February 1917. In 1918, he moved to Finland to spend the rest of his life in poverty and misery, struggling to draw the world’s attention to the outcome of the Bolshevik revolution. He died of a heart failure in 1919, most likely as a result of stress and anguish. His last major work was Satan’s Diary, an account of the Devil’s misfortunes in the treacherous world of humans. It is little wonder that Andreyev’s works were hardly known during the Soviet period. It was only in the late 1980s that Leonid Andreyev returned as a full value classic. His popularity has been growing steadily ever since.
Mikhail Zoshchenko was a soviet writer. He was born in Poltava, Ukraine, on 1895. He studied law at the University of Petersburg but did not graduate. During the First World War Zoshchenko served in the Russian Army. A supporter of the October Revolution, Zoshchenko joined the Red Army and fought against the Whites in the Civil War. In 1922, Zoshchenko joined “The Serapion Brothers,” a literary group which its activity was inspired by the work of Yevgeni Zamyatin. The group took its name from the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann by the same name, which describes an individualist who vows to devote himself to free, imaginative, and nonconformist art. Zoshchenko’s early stories deal with his experiences in the First World War and the Russian Civil War. He gradually developed a new style that relied heavily on humor. Zoshchenko’s works of satire were popular with the Russian people and he was one of the country’s most widely read writers in the 1920s. Although Zoshchenko never directly attacked the Soviet regime, he was not afraid to highlight the problems of bureaucracy, corruption, poor housing, and food shortages. During the 1930s, Zoshchenko came under increasing pressure to conform to the idea of socialist realism. He was forced to join the soviet writers’ expedition to the White Sea Canal’s building site and take part in a book glorifying the gulag prisoners and their work. From then on, he focused mainly on writing children’s books. He got into more and more troubles with the Soviet authorities. His autobiography, Before Sunrise, was banned in 1943 and three years later he was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union. In the seven years to follow, he made his living as a translator and a shoemaker. After Stalin’s death, attempts were made to clear his name, and finally, he was re-accepted to the union. Mikhail Zoshchenko died from a heart condition in Leningrad in 1958. A film about his work was produced in 1975. In 1988, his apartment was turned into a museum. A collection of his complete works was published in seven volumes in Russian in 2008.
“To define his tendency in a word, I would say that Chekhov was the poet of helplessness.” This is how Russian existentialist philosopher Lev Shestov has put it into words. Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in the Southwest of Russia in 1860. As a young man he was accepted to medical school, and published humorous sketches in newspapers in order to support his family financially. Writing his first short stories on middle-class and lower-class people of Russia, he situated them in everyday-life incidents. “I learned to write concisely on long events,” Chekhov said once.
Anatoly Vasilievich Kuznetsov was a Soviet Russian writer. He was born in 1929 in the Kurenivka suburb of Kiev, next to Babi Yar. In his youth, he studied ballet at the Kiev National Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet, and it was during that period that he joined the Komsomol – the party’s youth organization. Later on, he left the theater and tore up his Komsomol membership card. In 1955, he joined the Communist Party and began studying literature at the Moscow Gorky Literary Institute. He graduated in 1960, joined the USSR Union of Writers, and began publishing short stories and novellas. His first novella, Sequel to a Legend, was received with critical acclaim and even translated into many languages. Kuznetsov’s writing was highly critical of the Soviet regime and its violation of individual rights. The war had greatly influenced his writing, and his most famous book is the documentary novel Babi Yar, which deals with the massacre of the Jews by the Nazis at the site, and with the atrocities of the Stalinist rule. At fourteen, he began documenting the events and testimonies he had heard about the Babi Yar massacre in a notebook, and the novel is based upon them. It was first published in the journal Yunost in 1966, in an abbreviated and censored form. In 1969, Kuznetsov fled to the West and lived in London until he died from heart failure in 1979. The full version of Babi Yar was published in Russia only after the collapse of the Communist regime.
Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) was a Russian writer, poet, and playwright who composed short stories, poems, epigrams, plays, and children’s books. Kharms’ biography may actually seem like one of his stories; rather absurd and filled with terror. In the brief thirty-six years of his life, he was persecuted by the Soviet government and his adult works barely saw publication. His greatness and significance were only discovered in the 1960s, two decades after his death. Kharms was born under the name Daniil Yuvatchov. He invented the assumed name Kharms while still at school after he toyed with various options: Charms (“charm”); Harm (“harm”); Chardam, etc. Kharms’ father was a revolutionary who was imprisoned by the authorities. Upon his release, he became a devout Christian who dedicated his life to writing his literary memoirs. He didn’t understand his son’s work or consider it to be literature. Kharms developed as a writer and poet through the second decade of the 20th century. He was influenced by Khlebnikov and Truphanov and was among the founders of a group of avant-garde subversive poets called OBERIU (Union of Real Art). In 1930, an article was published in the youth magazine “Smena” naming the group members literary hooligans and accusing them of being enemies of the working class. In 1931, some members of the group were imprisoned, among them Kharms, who was sent to spend a year in Kursk. After his imprisonment, Kharms was no longer able to get his adult works published and was, therefore, forced to focus on children’s magazines only. Nevertheless, he continued writing seven hours a day, although he knew he would never manage to get the works published in his lifetime. With the discovery of his works, in the 60s and 70s, the voice of the Russian absurd had emerged (Kharms was active at the same time as Beckett and Ionesco) and since then was considered one of the genre’s founders. It seems that this literary genre was perfect for describing the hardships and senseless day-to-day life in Communist Russia; few writers equal Kharms’ ability to describe the chasm in Russian society and its disintegration or possess his talent for depicting the relationships between people as a sequence of follies lacking meaning and context. Toward the end of the 1930s, Kharms stopped publishing children’s literature almost entirely and he and his wife were on the brink of starvation. In 1941, he was arrested again after supposedly speaking out against the conscription to WWII. To avoid death sentence, Kharms feigned madness and, as a result, died of starvation in a psychiatric asylum in 1942.
Sigizmund Dominikovich Krzhizhanovsky (1887-1950) was a Russian short-story writer who described himself as being “known for being unknown,” and most of his writings were published posthumously. He was born in Kiev to a Polish family in 1887. In university, he studied law. In 1912, at the age of twenty-five, he traveled through Europe, visiting Paris, Heidelberg, and Milan. In 1922, at thirty-five, he left Kiev for Moscow, where he lived for the rest of his life. In Moscow, Krzhizhanovsky wrote articles and gave lectures, in particular at Alexander Tairov’s Drama Studio. He also worked as a consultant to Tairov’s Chamber Theater. Meanwhile, he wrote novellas and stories, which were never published – either due to economic problems (bankrupt publishers) or political problems (Soviet censors). Twenty years passed in this way until, in 1941, with Krzhizhanovsky now fifty-four, a collection of stories was finally scheduled for publication – but then the Second World War intervened, preventing even that collection from appearing. In May 1950 he suffered a stroke and lost the use of speech. He died at the end of the year but the place where he was buried is not known. His works – almost all of them unpublished – were stored by his lifelong companion, Anna Bovshek, in her apartment: in her clothes chest, under some brocade. In 1976 the scholar Vadim Perelmuter discovered Krzhizhanovsky’s archive and in 1989, he published one of his short stories. Only Between 2001 and 2008, Perelmuter finally edited a five-volume edition of Krzhizhanovsky’s works. Krzhizhanovsky emerged from obscurity as a remarkable Soviet writer, who polished his prose to the verge of poetry. His short parables, written with an abundance of poetic detail and wonderful fertility of invention are sometimes compared to the fictions of Jorge Luis Borges.
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