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An Arts Revolution: From Russia With Love

Hope Jennings-Grounds delves into 19th century Russian literature and theatre sparked by revolutionary ideas

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Image Credit: Left - Gogol, Right - Turgenev. Tretyakov Gallery

After Peter the Great’s extensive reforming of Russia in the early 18th century,along with the other dramatic social and cultural changes, came an influx of literature and arts. Shortly after this, in the 19th century Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev entered theatre and literature history. Both of them were successful writers of their time during the swift 'Westernisation' of Russia, born not long before another celebrated writer Chekov and famous theatre practitioner, Stanislavski.

Gogol and Turgenev were both recognised as great novelists and playwrights, however despite both being born into the same moment of Russian history, they were recognised as such for very different reasons, both of them influencing different strands of literature across many different countries. To be able to write in Russia at the time, both Gogol and Turgenev needed to be aware of certain sensitive subjects to avoid getting into trouble for what they were writing. Art had to be a lot more careful at the time than it does now and writers had to be a lot more cautious about what they were putting on stage and into the literary world.

Turgenev was known for his realistic narratives and being able to offer the readers an often relatable setting and characters that seemed convincingly genuine. Gogol’s writing was in fact quite different from Turgenev, offering more abstract writing, especially within his short stories. However, some academics state that despite the madness he often depicts, his literature can often be relatable due to him dealing with universal truths.It’s suggested he wrote in such a way that he presents stories in which the only differences between the story setting and where we live are aesthetics. Readers could easily feel just how his characters felt.

Turgenev’s work on the other hand is distinguished from other writers of his time by its concern for artistic value and elegant story-telling. Turgenev did engage with the politics and history of his time, writing about Russian peasantry and the Russian intelligentsia that were at the time moving Russia into a new age. He was concerned about what the future held,but because of his time studying at the University of Berlin between 1838 and 1841, he believed in Western superiority and therefore supported the Westernisation of Russia.

He travelled a lot in his life and swore to spend as much time abroad as he would at home. As well as spending time in Germany, he spent time in England and France,which was where he wrote the play that was the main reason he became known in Engand: A Month in the Country. The play was set in a country estate in the 1840s and presents a story of romantic rivalry between two women. Love was a theme that often came up in his fiction, which could be due to the fact that he never actually got married himself,although he did have a daughter. Turgenev developed his writing throughout his career and when he looked back at A Month in the Country, he decided he actually disliked the play and claimed that it was for that reason he had stopped writing plays and instead focused on his other writing. Rumours and thoughts about him weren’t always positive.When he was 19 he travelled on a steamboat which caught fire and after he reacted in a way which was considered cowardly; this story followed him wherever he went. While travelling with Turgenev in Paris Tolstoy, another Russian writer, is documented to have once written 'Turgenev is a bore', and later in 1861 their friendship became so bad that Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to a duel, although he later apologised.

Gogol had an incredibly religious up-bringing and took less of an educational route than Turgenev,searching for artistic success when he was only 19 in St Petersburg. Research states that when he arrived there, his hopes were shattered because all he could find was 'a graveyard of dreams'.Despite this,he stayed in the town that later became “the cockpit” for the Russian Revolution. Because of his disappointment in seemingly not being able to have the literary career he had hoped for, he decided to enter a government ministry. Here, it is said he hated the work and despised all of his co-workers. Gogol then went on to release a book of short stories called Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka which gained him critical acclaim and led the famous poet Pushkin to take him under his wing.

It was after this that Gogol wrote one of his most famous pieces, a satirical play called The Government Inspector. The play is about a corrupt group of officials who are misled into thinking a man is a government inspector.The tsar of the time, Nicholas I, was present when the production was first staged, which was an incredibly brave decision on Gogol’s part as the tsar was known for his own tyrannical nature and Gogol had attempted to hide his negative opinions on his regime. After the play, Nicholas I was meant to have said 'Hmm, what a play! Gets at everyone, and most of all at me!' After this Gogol fled the country and lived most of the rest of his life in Rome, only returning back to Russia on rare occasions.

When the play was first being put on,Gogol read out how he wanted to play to be performed to his actors,but he did it in such away that they couldn’t recreate it - Gogol saw the performance as flat and not right, however audiences loved it.

His work, Dead Souls, was going to be the first part in a trilogy documenting Chichikov’s fall and redemption. However,halfway through writing the second part Gogol started to lose his mind. This was followed by him having a nervous breakdown,developing depression, hypochondria and manic religious fervor. Seeking help, he spoke to a priest who told him to burn the sequels to Dead Souls. After this he decided to fast for Maslenitsa, a feast before Orthodox Lent, but the strain on his body was too much. Despite this, he would only allow doctors to give him water with a few drops of wine and would refuse any sort of food he was offered despite the fact he was growing very thin and unwell. Eventually, his bowels failed him and he died as a result of starving himself so dramatically for so long. The effect of starving himself was even worse due to his usual eating habits. Rumours suggest Gogol had always been concerned that he would be buried alive - he is claimed to have wanted an air hole in his coffin and a bell in case such a thing were to happen. Eating had always been a difficult thing for Gogol. There are several accounts of him writing to people in relation to his struggles which he detailed quite carefully.He was sure something wasn’t right with him,which was something he claimed French doc-tors had confirmed for him. Despite this, it’s documented that he had a love for rich dairy products and when travelling would even make his own butter out of cream he would find at the top of milk bottles. This is supported by evidence that his favourite drink was rum mixed with boiled goat’s milk which he jokingly called 'Gogol-mogol.' His sister Elizaveta documented that Gogol had a sweet tooth and would do things such as finishing a whole jar of jam with a spoon. He would make jokes about demonstrating different ways to eat jam and before long it would all be gone.

Ivan Zolotaryov reported that Gogol had an immense appetite and when they would dine together in Italy, he would very often eat a large meal and then shortly afterwards order himself another full dinner.

So, it could be said that his rich taste in food and beverages could have worked against any health issues he did have.He claimed that the illness exhausted him and meant that he often would struggle to get his work done. However, when he could get work done, often his stomach illness and love for food would be written into his stories - characters would often suffer from indigestion or eating and snacking would be commonly found within his texts such as in one of his short stories Old World Landowners.

Turgenev wrote an obituary for Gogol intended for publication in the St Petersburg Gazette in which he wrote 'Gogol is dead!...What Russian heart is not shaken by those three words? ... He is gone, that man whom we now have the right (the bitter right, given to us by death) to call great.' However,the censor of St Petersburg did not approve it and banned the publication. Moscow censorship did allow it so it then went on to be published there. However, the censorship was then dismissed, leaving Turgenev responsible.This led to him being imprisoned for a month and then to be exiled to his country home for around two years.

Both writers lived very different lives and experienced different aspects of the same time in history. Although they both wrote about the time they lived in and the politics they experienced, their different writing styles reveal different aspects, thoughts and approaches to the remodelling of Russia and the leadership it followed at that time.

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