Written: July 1918 (in Breslau Prison).
First Published: Vladimir Korolenko’s autobiographical novel A History of My Contemporary (pages 11-53). Berlin, 1919. Luxemburg had translated this work from the Russian into German, and wrote the following text as an introduction.
Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.30 No.1, January-February 1969, pp.11-31.
Translated: from the German by Frieda Mattick in New Essays: A Quarterly Devoted to the Study of Modern Society, Winter 1943.
Transcription/Markup: Einde O’Callaghan, Daniel Gaido, & Brian Baggins
Public Domain: Luxemburg Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2005. This work is completely free.
“My soul, of a threefold nationality, has at last found a home – and this above all in the literature of Russia,” Korolenko says in his memoirs. This literature, which to Korolenko was fatherland, home, and nationality, and which he himself adorns, was historically unique.
For centuries, throughout the Middle Ages and down to the last third of the eighteenth century, Russia was enveloped in a crypt-like silence, in darkness and barbarism. She had no cultivated literary language, no scientific literature, no publishing houses, no libraries, no journals, no centers of cultural life. The gulf stream of the Renaissance, which had washed the shores of all other European countries and was responsible for a flowering garden of world literature, the rousing storms of the Reformation, the fiery breath of eighteenth-century philosophy-all this had left Russia untouched. The land of the czars possessed as yet no means for apprehending the light rays of Western culture, no mental soil in which its seeds could take root. The sparse literary monuments of those times, in their outlandish ugliness, appear today like native products of the Solomon Islands or the New Hebrides. Between them and the art of the Western world, there apparently exists no essential relation, no inner connection.
But then something like a miracle took place. After several faltering attempts toward the end of the eighteenth century to create a national consciousness, the Napoleonic wars flashed up like lightning. Russia’s profound humiliation, arousing for the first time in czardom a national consciousness, just as the triumph of the Coalition did later, resulted in drawing the Russian intellectuals toward the West, toward Paris, into the heart of European culture, and bringing them into contact with a new world. Overnight a Russian literature blossomed forth, springing up complete in glistening armor like Minerva from the head of Jupiter; and this literature, combining Italian melody, English virility, and German nobility and profundity, soon overflowed with a treasure of talents, radiant beauty, thought and emotion.
The long dark night, the deathlike silence, had been an illusion. The light rays from the West had remained obscure only as a latent power; the seeds of culture had been waiting to sprout at the appropriate moment. Suddenly, Russian literature stood there, an unmistakable member of the literature of Europe, in whose veins circulated the blood of Dante, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Byron, Lessing, and Goethe. With the leap of a lion it atoned for the neglect of centuries; it stepped into the family circle of world literature as an equal.
The chief characteristic of this sudden emergence of Russian literature is that it was born out of opposition to the Russian regime, out of the spirit of struggle. This feature was obvious throughout the entire nineteenth century. It explains the richness and depth of its spiritual quality, the fullness and originality of its artistic form, above all, its creative and driving social force. Russian literature became, under czarism, a power in public life as in no other country and in no other time. It remained at its post for a century until it was relieved by the material power of the masses, when the word became flesh.
It was this literature which won for that half-Asiatic, despotic state a place in world culture. It broke through the Chinese Wall erected by absolutism and built a bridge to the West. Not only does it appear as a literature that borrows, but also as one that creates; not only is it a pupil, but also a teacher. One has only to mention three names to illustrate this: Tolstoy, Gogol, and Dostoevsky.
In his memoirs, Korolenko characterizes his father, a government official at the time of serfdom in Russia, as a typical representative of the honest people in that generation. Korolenko’s father felt responsible only for his own activities. The gnawing feeling of responsibility for social injustice was strange to him. “God, Czar, and the Law” were beyond all criticism. As a distinct judge he felt called upon only to apply the law with the utmost scrupulousness. “That the law itself may be inefficient is the responsibility of the czar before God. He, the judge, is as little responsible for the law as for the lightning of the high heavens, which sometimes strikes an innocent child ...” To the generation of the eighteen-forties and fifties, social conditions as a whole were fundamental and unshakable. Under the scourge of officialdom, those who served loyally, without opposition, knew they could only bend as under the onslaught of a tornado, hoping and waiting that the evil might pass. ”Yes,” said Korolenko, “that was a view of the world out of a single mold, a kind of imperturbable equilibrium of conscience. Their inner foundations were not undermined by self-analysis; the honest people of that time did not know that deep inner conflict which comes with the feeling of being personally responsible for the whole social order.” It is this kind of view that is supposed to be the true basis of czar and God, and as long as this view remains undisturbed, the power of absolutism is great indeed.
It would be wrong, however, to regard as specifically Russian or as pertaining only to the period of serfdom the state of mind that Korolenko describes. That attitude toward society which enables one to be free of gnawing self-analysis and inner discord and considers “God-willed conditions” as something elemental, accepting the acts of history as a sort of divine fate, is compatible with the most varied political and social systems. In fact it is found even under modern conditions and was especially characteristic of German society throughout the world war.
In Russia, this “imperturbable equilibrium of conscience” had already begun to crumble in the eighteen-six ties among wide circles of the intelligentsia. Korolenko describes in an intuitive manner this spiritual change in Russian society, and shows just how this generation overcame the slave psychology and was seized by the trend of a new time, the predominant characteristic of which was the “gnawing and painful, but creative spirit of social responsibility.”
To have aroused this high sense of citizenship, and to have undermined the deepest psychological roots of absolutism in Russian society, is the great merit of Russian literature. From its first days, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it never denied its social responsibility – never forgot to be socially critical. Ever since its unfolding with Pushkin and Lermontov, its life principle was a struggle against darkness, ignorance, and oppression. With desperate strength it shook the social and political chains, bruised itself sore against them, and paid for the struggle in blood.
In no other country did there exist such a conspicuously early mortality among prominent representatives of literature as in Russia. They died by the dozens in the bloom of their manhood, at the youthful age of twenty-five or twenty-seven, or at the oldest around forty, either on the gallows or as suicides – directly or disguised as duels – some through insanity, others by premature exhaustion. So died the noble poet of liberty, Ryleyev, who in the year 1826 was executed as the leader of the Decembrist uprising. Thus, too, Pushkin and Lermontov, those brilliant creators of Russian poetry – both victims of duels – and their whole prolific circle. So died Belinsky, the founder of literary criticism and proponent of Hegelian philosophy in Russia, as well as Dobrolyubov; and so the excellent and tender poet Kozlov, whose songs grew into Russian folk poetry like wild garden flowers; and the creator of Russian comedy, Griboyedov, as well as his greater successor, Gogol; and in recent times, those sparkling short-story writers, Garshin and Chekhov. Others pined away for decades in penitentiaries, jails, or in exile, like the founder of Russian journalism, Novikov; like the leader of the Decembrists, Bestuzhev; like Prince Odoyevsky, Alexander von Herzen, Dostoevsky, Chernyshevsky, Shevchenko, and Korolenko.
Turgenev relates, incidentally, that the first time he fully enjoyed the song of the lark he was somewhere near Berlin. This casual remark seems very characteristic. Larks warble in Russia no less beautifully than in Germany. The huge Russian empire contains such great and manifold beauties of nature that an impressionable poetic soul finds deep enjoyment at every step. What hindered Turgenev from enjoying the beauty of nature in his own country was just that painful disharmony of social relations, that ever present awareness of responsibility for those outrageous social and political conditions from which he could not rid himself, and which, piercing deeply, did not permit for a moment any indulgence in complete self-oblivion. Only away from Russia, when the thousands of depressing pictures of his homeland were left behind, only in a foreign environment, the orderly exterior and material culture of which had always naively impressed his countrymen, could a Russian poet give himself up to the enjoyment of nature, untroubled and wholeheartedly.
Nothing, of course, could be more erroneous than to picture Russian literature as a tendentious art in a crude sense, nor to think of all Russian poets as revolutionists, or at least as progressives. Patterns such as “revolutionary’ or “progressive” in themselves mean very little in art.
Dostoevsky, especially in his later writings, is an outspoken reactionary, a religious mystic and hater of socialists. His depictions of Russian revolutionaries are malicious caricatures. Tolstoy’s mystic doctrines reflect reactionary tendencies, if not more. But the writings of both have, nevertheless, an inspiring, arousing, and liberating effect upon us. And this is because their starting points are not reactionary, their thoughts and emotions are not governed by the desire to hold on to the status quo, nor are they motivated by social hatred, narrow-mindedness, or caste egotism. On the contrary, theirs is the warmest love for mankind and the deepest response to social injustice. And thus the reactionary Dostoevsky becomes the artistic agent of the “insulted and injured,” as one of his works is called. Only the conclusions drawn by him and Tolstoy, each in his own way, only the way out of the social labyrinth which they believe they have found, leads them into the bypaths of mysticism and asceticism. But with the true artist, the social formula that he recommends is a matter of secondary importance; the source of his art, its animating spirit, is decisive.
Within Russian literature one also finds a tendency which, though on a considerably smaller scale and unlike the deep and world-embracing ideas of a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, propagates more modest ideals, that is, material culture, modern progress, and bourgeois proficiency. Of the older generation the most talented representative of this school is Goncharov, and of the younger one, Chekhov. The latter, in opposition to Tolstoy’s ascetic and moralizing tendency, made the characteristic remark that ̶steam and electricity hold more love for humanity than sexual chastity and vegetarianism.” In its youthful, rousing drive for culture, personal dignity, and initiative, this somewhat sober, “culture-carrying” Russian movement differs from the smug philistinism and banality of the French and German delineators of the juste milieu. Goncharov particularly0 in his book Oblomov, reached such heights in picturing human indolence that the figure he drew earned a place of universal validity in the gallery of great human types.
Finally, there are also representatives of decadence in Russia’s literature. One of the most brilliant talents of the Gorky generation is to be found among them, Leonid Andreyev, whose art emanates a sepulchral air of decay in which all will to live has wilted away. And yet the root and substance of this Russian decadence is diametrically opposed to that of a Baudelaire or a D’Annunzio, where the basis is merely over-saturation with modern culture, where egotism, highly cunning in expression, quite robust in its essence, no longer finds satisfaction in a normal existence and reaches out for poisonous stimuli. With Andreyev hopelessness pours forth from a temperament which, under the onslaught of oppressive social conditions, is overpowered by pain. Like the best of the Russian writers, he has looked deeply into the sufferings of mankind. He lived through the Russo-Japanese war, through the first revolutionary period and the horrors of the counterrevolution from 1907 to 1911. He describes them in such stirring pictures as The Red Laugh, The Seven Who Were Hanged, and many others. And like his Lazarus, having returned from the shores of shadow-land, he cannot overcome the dank odor of the grave; he walks among the living like ”something half-devoured by death.” The origin of this kind of decadence is typically Russian: it is that full measure of social sympathy under which the energy and resistance of the individual break down.
It is just this social sympathy which is responsible for the singularity and artistic splendor of Russian literature. Only one who is himself affected and stirred can affect and stir others. Talent and genius, of course, are in each case a “gift of God.” Great talent alone, however, is not sufficient to make a lasting impression. Who would deny a Monti talent or even genius, though he hailed, in Dantean terza rima, first the assassination by a Roman mob of the ambassador of the French Revolution and then the victories of this same revolution; at one time the Austrians, and later the Directory; now the extravagant Suvarov, then again Napoleon and the Emperor Franz; each time pouring out to the victor the sweetest tones of a nightingale? Who would doubt the great talent of a Saint-Beuve, the creator of the literary essay who, in the course of time, put his brilliant pen to the service of almost every political group of France, demolishing today what he worshiped yesterday and vice versa?
For a lasting effect, for the real education of society, more than talent is needed. What is required is poetic personality, character, individuality, attributes which are anchored deeply in a great and well-rounded view of the world. It is just this view of the world, just this sensitive social consciousness which sharpened so greatly the insight of Russian literature into the social conditions of people and into the psychology of the various characters and types. It is this almost aching sympathy that inspires its descriptions with colors of glowing splendor; it is the restless search, the brooding over the problems of society which enables it to observe artistically the enormity and inner complexity of the social structure and to lay it down in great works of art.
Murder and crimes are committed everywhere and every day. “Barber X murdered and robbed wealthy Mrs. Y. Criminal Court Z condemned him to die.” Everyone has read such announcements of three lines in the morning paper, has gone over them with an indifferent glance in order to look for the latest news from the racetracks or the new theater schedule. Who else is interested in murders besides the police, the public prosecutor, and the statisticians? Mostly writers of detective stories and movies.
The fact that one human being can murder another, that this can happen near us every day, in the midst of our “civilization,” next door to our home, sweet home, moves Dostoyevsky to the very bottom of his soul. As with Hamlet, who through his mother’s crime finds all the bonds of humanity untied and the world out of joint, so it is for Dostoyevsky when he faces the fact that one human being can murder another. He finds no rest, he feels the responsibility for this dreadful-ness weighing upon him, as it does on every one of us. He must elucidate the soul of the murderer, must trace his misery, his afflictions, down to the most hidden folds of his heart. He suffers all his tortures and is blinded by the terrible understanding that the murderer himself is the most unhappy victim of society. With a mighty voice, Dostoyevsky sounds an alarm. He awakens us from the stupid indifference of civilized egotism that delivers the murderer to the police inspector, to the public prosecutor and his henchmen, or to the penitentiary with the hope that thereby we shall all be rid of him. Dostoyevsky forces us to go through all the tortures the murderer goes through and in the end leaves us all crushed. Whoever has experienced his Raskolnikov, or the cross-examination of Dmitri Karamazov the night after the murder of his father, or the Memoirs from a Deathhouse, will never again find his way back to the supporting shell of philistine and self-satisfying egotism. Dostoyevsky’s novels are furious attacks on bourgeois society, in whose face he shouts: The real murderer, the murderer of the human soul, is you!
No one has taken such merciless revenge on society for the crimes committed on the individual, nobody has put society on the rack so cunningly as Dostoevsky. This is his specific talent. But the other leading spirits of Russian literature also perceive the act of murder as an accusation against existing conditions, as a crime committed upon the murderer as a human being, for which we are all responsible – each one of us. That is why the greatest talents again and again return to the subject of crime as if fascinated by it, putting it before our eyes in the highest works of art in order to arouse us from our thoughtless indifference. Tolstoy did it in The Power of Darkness and in Resurrection, Gorky in The Lower Depths and in Three of Them, Korolenko in his story The Rustling of the Woods and in his wonderful Siberian Murderer.
Prostitution is as little specifically Russian as tuberculosis; it is rather the most international institution of social life. But although it plays an almost controlling part in our modern life, officially, in the sense of the conventional lie, it is not approved of as a normal constituent of present-day society. Rather it is treated as the scum of humanity, as something allegedly beyond the pale. Russian literature deals with the prostitute not in the pungent style of the boudoir novel, nor the whining sentimentality of tendentious literature, nor as the mysterious, rapacious vampire as in Wedekind’s Erdgeist. No literature in the world contains descriptions of fiercer realism than the magnificent scene of the orgy in the Brothers Karamazov or in Tolstoy’s Resurrection. In spite of this, the Russian artist, however, does not look at the prostitute as a “lost soul,” but as a human being whose suffering and inner struggles need all his sympathy. He digntles the prostitute and rehabilitates her for the crime that society has committed on her by letting her compete with the purest and loveliest types of womanhood for the heart of the man. He crowns her head with roses and elevates her, as does Mahado his Bajadere from the purgatory of corruption and her own agony to the heights of moral purity and womanly heroism.
Not only the exceptional person and situation that stands out crassly from the gray background of everyday life, but life itself, the average man and his misery, awakens a deep concern in the Russian writer whose senses are strongly aware of social injustice. ”Human happiness,” says Korolenko in one of his stories, “honest human happiness is salubrious and elevating to the soul. And I always believe, you know, that man is rather obliged to be happy.” In another story, called Paradox, a cripple, born without arms, says, “Man is created for happiness, as a bird for flight.” From the mouth of the miserable cripple such a maxim is an obvious ”paradox.” But for thousands and millions of people it is not accidental physical defects which make their “vocation of happiness” seem so paradoxical but the social conditions under which they must exist.
That remark of Korolenko actually contains an important element of social hygiene: happiness makes people spiritually healthy and pure, as sunlight over the open sea effectively disinfects the water. Furthermore, under abnormal social conditions – and all conditions based on social inequality are fundamentally abnormal – most heterogeneous deformations of the soul are apt to be a mass phenomenon. Permanent oppression, insecurity, injustice, poverty, and dependence, as well as that division of labor which leads to one-sided specialization, mold people in a certain manner. And this goes for both the oppressor and the oppressed, the tyrant and the slave, the boaster and the parasite, the ruthless opportunist and the indolent idler, the pedant and the jester – all alike are products and victims of their circumstances.
It is just the peculiar psychological abnormality, the warped development of the human soul under the influence of everyday social conditions, which aroused writers like Gogol, Dostoevsky, Goncharov, Saltykov, Uspensky, Chekhov, and others to descriptions of Balzacian fervor. The tragedy of the triviality of the average man, as described by Tolstoy in his Death of Ivan Ilyich, is unsurpassed in world literature.
There are, for example, those rogues who, without a vocation and unfit to make a normal living, are torn between a parasitic existence and occasional conflicts with the law, forming the scum of bourgeois society for whom the Western world puts up signs, “No beggars, peddlers, or musicians allowed.” For this category – the type of Korolenko’s ex-official Popkov – Russian literature always had a lively and artistic interest and good-natured smile of understanding. With the warm heart of a Dickens, but without his bourgeois sentimentality, Turgenev, Uspensky, Korolenko, and Gorky look upon these “stranded” folk, the criminal as well as the prostitute, with a broad-minded realism, as equals in human society, and achieve, just because of this genial approach, works of a high artistic effect.
Russian literature treats the world of the child with exceptional tenderness and affection, as is shown in Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, in Dostoyevsky’s Karamazov, Goncharov’s Oblomov, Korolenko’s In Bad Company and At Night, and in Gorky’s Three of Them. Zola, in his novel Page d’amour, from the Rougon-Macquart cycle, describes the sufferings of a neglected child. But here the sickly and hypersensitive child, morosely affected by the love affair of an egotistic mother, is only a “means of evidence” in an experimental novel, a subject to illustrate the theory of inheritance.
To the Russian, however, the child and its soul is an independent entity, the object of artistic interest to the same extent as the adult, only more natural, less spoiled and certainly more helplessly exposed to the evils of society. “Whosoever shall offend one of these little ones ... it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck,” and so on. Present society offends millions of those little ones by robbing them of what is most precious and irretrievable, a happy, sorrowless, harmonious childhood.
As a victim of social conditions, a child’s world with its misery and happiness is especially near to the Russian artist’s heart. He does not stoop to the child in the false and playful manner which most adults believe necessary, but treats it with honest and sincere comradeship, yes, even with an inner shyness and respect for the untouched little being.
The manner in which literary satire is expressed is an important indicator of the cultural level of a nation. Here England and Germany represent the two opposing poles in European literature. In tracing the history of satire from Von Hutten to Heinrich Heine, one may also include Grimmelshausen. But in the course of the last three centuries, the connecting links in this chain display a frightful picture of decline. Beginning with the ingenious and rather fantastic Fischart, whose exuberant nature distinctly reveals the influence of the Renaissance, to Mosherosh, and from the latter, who at least dares to pull the bigwig’s whiskers, to that small philistine Rabener – what a decline! Rabener, who gets excited about the people who dare to ridicule princelings, the clergy, and the “upper classes” because a well-behaved satirist should first of all learn to be ”a loyal subject,” exposes the mortal spot of German satire. In England, however, satire has taken an unparalleled upswing since the beginning of the eighteenth century, that is, after the great revolution. Not only has British literature produced a string of such masters as Mandeville, Swift, Sterne, Sir Philip Francis, Byron, and Dickens, among whom Shakespeare, naturally, deserves first place for his Falstaff, but satire has turned from the privilege of the intellectuals into a universally owned property. It has become, so to speak, nationalized. It sparkles in political pamphlets, leaflets, parliamentary speeches, and newspaper articles, as well as in poetry. Satire has become the very life and breath for the Englishman, so much so that even the stories of a Croker, written for the adolescent girl of the upper middle classes, contain the same acid descriptions of English aristocracy as those of Wilde, Shaw, or Galsworthy.
This tendency towards satire has been derived from, and can be explained by, England’s political freedom of long standing. As Russian literature is similar to the English in this respect, it shows that not the constitution of a country, nor its institutions, but the spirit of its literature and the attitude of the leading social circles of society are the determining factors. Since the beginning of modern literature in Russia, satire has been mastered in all its phases and has achieved excellent results in every one of them. Pushkin’s poem Eugene Onegin, Lermontov’s short stories and epigrams, Krylov’s fables, Nekrasov’s poems, and Gogol’s comedies are just so many masterpieces, each in its own way. Nekrasov’s satiric epic Who Can Be Happy and Free in Russia? reveals the delightful vigor and richness of his creations.
In Saltykov-Shchedrin Russian satire has finally produced its own genius who, for a grimmer scourging of despotism and bureaucracy, invented a very peculiar literary style and a unique and untranslatable language of his own and, by so doing, profoundly influenced intellectual development. Thus, with a highly moral pathos, Russian literature combined within itself an artistic comprehension that covers the entire scale of human emotions. It created in the midst of that huge prison, the material poverty of czarism, its own realm of spiritual freedom and an exuberant culture wherein one may breathe and partake of the intellectual and cultural life. It was thus able to become a social power and, by educating generation after generation, to become a real fatherland for the best of men, such as Korolenko.
Korolenko’s nature is truly poetic. Around his cradle gathered the dense fog of superstition. Not the corrupt superstition of modern cosmopolitan decadence as practiced in spiritualism, fortune-telling, and Christian Science, but the naive superstition found in folklore – as pure and spice-scented as the free winds of the Ukrainian plains, and the millions of wild iris, yarrows, and sage that grow luxuriantly among the tall grass. The spooky atmosphere in the servants’ quarters and the nursery of Korolenko’s father’s house reveals distinctly that his cradle stood not far from Gogol’s fairyland, with its elves and witches and its heathen Christmas spook.
Descended at once from Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine, Korolenko has to bear, even as a child, the brunt of the three “nationalisms,” each one expecting him “to hate or persecute someone or other.” He failed these expectations, however, thanks to his healthy common sense. The Polish traditions, with their dying breath of a historically vanquished past, touched him but vaguely. His straightforwardness was repelled by that mixture of clownish tomfoolery and reactionary romanticism of Ukrainian nationalism. The brutal methods used in Russifying the Ukraine served as an effective warning against Russian chauvinism, because the tender boy instinctively felt himself drawn toward the weak and oppressed, not toward the strong and triumphant. And thus, from the conflict of three nationalities that fought in his native land of Volhynia, he made his escape into humanitarianism.
Fatherless at the age of seventeen, depending on nobody but himself, he went to Petersburg where he threw himself into the whirlpool of university life and political activity. After studying for three years at a school of technology, he moved on to the Academy of Agriculture in Moscow. Two years later his plans were crossed by the ”supreme power,” as happened to many others of his generation. Arrested as a spokesman of a student demonstration, Korolenko was expelled from the Academy and exiled to the district of Vologda in the far north of European Russia. When released, he was obliged to reside in Kronstadt, under police parole. Years later he returned to Petersburg and, planning a new life again, learned the cobbler’s trade in order to be closer to the working people and to develop his personality in other directions. In 1879 he was arrested again and was sent even further northeastward, to a hamlet in the district of Vyatka, at the end of the world.
Korolenko took it gracefully. He tried to make the best of it by practicing his newly acquired cobbler’s trade, which helped him to make a living. But not for long. Suddenly, and apparently without reason, he was sent to western Siberia, from there back to Perm, and finally to the remotest spot of far-eastern Siberia.
But even this did not mark the end of his wanderings. After the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, the new czar, Alexander III, ascended the throne. Korolenko, who in the meantime had advanced to the position of railway official, took the obligatory oath to the new government, together with the other employees. But this was declared insufficient. He was requested to pledge the oath again as a private individual and political exile. Like all the other exiles, Korolenko refused to do so and as a result was sent to the ice-wastes of Yakutsk.
There can be no doubt that the whole procedure was only an “empty gesture,” though Korolenko did not try to be demonstrative. Social conditions are not altered directly or materially regardless of whether or not an isolated exile, somewhere in the Siberian taiga near the polar region, swears allegiance to the czar’s government. However, it was the custom in czarist Russia to insist on such empty gestures. And not only in Russia alone. The stubborn Eppur si muove! of a Galileo reminds us of a similar empty gesture, having no other effect than the vengeance of the Holy Inquisition wreaked on a tortured and incarcerated man. And yet for thousands of people who have only the vaguest idea of Copernicus’ theory, the name Galileo is forever identical with this beautiful gesture, and it is absolutely immaterial that it did not happen at all. The very existence of such legends with which men adorn their heroes is proof enough that such “empty gestures” are indispensable in our spiritual realm.
For his refusal to take the oath, Korolenko suffered exile for four years among half-savage nomads at a miserable settlement on the banks of the Aldan, a branch of the river Lena, in the heart of the Siberian wasteland, and under the hardships of subzero weather. But privations, loneliness, all the sinister scenery of the taiga, and isolation from the world of civilization did not change the mental elasticity of Korolenko or his sunny disposition. He eagerly took part in the interests of the Yakuts and shared their destitute life. He worked in the field, cut hay, and milked cows. In winter he made shoes for the natives – and even icons. The exile’s life in Yakutsk, which George Kennan called a period of “being buried alive,” was described by Korolenko without lament or bitterness, but with humor and in pictures of the most tender and poetic beauty. This was the time when his literary talent ripened, and he gathered a rich booty in studying men and nature.
In 1885, after his return from exile, which lasted (with short interruptions) almost ten years, he published a short story, Makar’s Dream, which at once established him among the masters of Russian literature. This first, yet fully matured product of a young talent burst upon the leaden atmosphere of the eighties like the first song of a lark on a gray day in February. In quick succession other sketches and stories followed – Notes of a Siberian Traveler, The Rustling of the Woods, In Pursuit of the Icon, At Night, Yom Kippur, The River Roars, and many others. All of them show the identical characteristics of Korolenko’s creations: enchanting descriptions of nature, lovable simplicity, and a warmhearted interest in the ”humiliated and disinherited.”
Although of a highly critical nature, Korolenko’s writings are by no means polemical, educational, or dogmatic, as is the case with Tolstoy. They reveal simply his love for life and his kind disposition. Aside from being tolerant and good-natured in his conceptions, and apart from his dislike of chauvinism, Korolenko is through and through a Russian poet, and perhaps the most “nationalistic” among the great Russian prose writers. Not only does he love his country, he is in love with it like a young man; he is in love with its nature, with all the intimate charms of this gigantic country, with every sleepy stream and every quiet wood-fringed valley; he is in love with its simple people and their naive piety, their rugged humor and brooding melancholy. He does not feel at home in the city nor in a comfortable train compartment. He hates the haste and rumble of modern civilization; his place is on the open road. To walk briskly with knapsack and hand-cut hiking staff, to give himself entirely to the accidental – following a group of pious pilgrims to a thaumaturgical image of a saint, chatting with fishermen at night by a fire, or mixing with a colorful crowd of peasants, lumbermen, soldiers, and beggars on a little battered steamboat and listening to their conversation – such is the life that suits him best. But unlike Turgenev, the elegant and perfectly groomed aristocrat, he is no silent observer. He finds no difficulty in mingling with people, knowing just what to say to make friends and how to strike the right note.
In this manner he wandered all over Russia. With every step he experienced the wonders of nature, the naive poetry of simplicity, which had also brought smiles to Gogol’s face. Enraptured, he observed the elementary, fatalistic indolence characteristic of the Russian people, which in times of peace seems unceasing and profound, but in stormy times turns into heroism, grandeur, and steel-like power. It was here that Korolenko filled his diary with vivid and colorful impressions which, growing into sketches and novels, were still covered with dew-drops and heavy with the scent of the soil.
One peculiar product of Korolenko’s writings is his Blind Musician. Apparently a purely psychological experiment, it deals with no artistic problem. Being born a cripple may be the cause of many conflicts, but is, in itself, beyond all human interference and beyond guilt or vengeance. In literature as well as in art, physical defects are only casually mentioned, either in a sarcastic manner to make an ugly character more loathsome, as Homer’s Thersites and the stammering judges in the comedies of Molière and Beaumarchais, or with good-natured ridicule as in genre paintings of the Dutch Renaissance, for instance, the sketch of a cripple by Cornelius Dussart.
Not so with Korolenko. The anguish of a man born blind and tormented with an irresistible longing for light is the center of interest.
Korolenko finds a solution, which unexpectedly shows the keynote of his art and which is, incidentally, characteristic of all Russian literature. The blind musician experiences a spiritual rebirth. While detaching himself from the egotism of his own hopeless suffering by making himself the spokesman for the blind and for their physical and mental agonies, he attains his own enlightenment. The climax is the first public concert of the blind man, who surprises his listeners by choosing the well-known songs of the blind minstrels for his improvisations, thus arousing a stirring compassion. Sociality and solidarity with the misery of men mean salvation and enlightenment for the individual as well as for the masses.
The sharply defined line of demarcation between belletristic and journalistic writers, observed nowadays in Western Europe, is not so strictly adhered to in Russia because of the polemical nature of its literature. Both forms of expression are often combined in making pathways for new ideas, as they were in Germany at the time when Lessing guided the people through the medium of theater reviews, drama, philosophical-theological treatises, or essays on esthetics. But whereas it was Lessing’s tragic fate to remain alone and misunderstood all his life, in Russia a great number of outstanding talents in various fields of literature worked successfully as advocates of a liberal view of the world.
Alexander von Herzen, famous as a novelist, was also a gifted journalist. He was able, during the eighteen-fifties and sixties, to arouse the entire intelligentsia of Russia with his Bell, a magazine he published abroad. Possessed with the same fighting spirit and alertness, the old Hegelian Chernyshevsky was equally at home in journalistic polemics, treatises on philosophy and national economy, and political novels. Both Belinsky and Dobrolyubov used literary criticism as an excellent weapon to fight backwardness and to propagate systematically a progressive ideology. They were succeeded by the brilliant Mikhaylovsky, who for several decades governed public opinion and was also influential in Korolenko’ s development. Besides his novels, short stories, and dramas, Tolstoy, too, availed himself of polemical pamphlets and moralizing fairy tales. Korolenko, on his part, constantly exchanged the palette and brush of the artist for the sword of the journalist in order to work directly on social problems of the day.
Some of the features of old czarist Russia were chronic famine, drunkenness, illiteracy, and a deficit in the budget. As a result of the ill-conceived peasant reform introduced after the abolition of serfdom, stifling taxes combined with the utmost backwardness in agricultural practices afflicted the peasants with crop failure regularly during the entire eighth decade. The year 1891 saw the climax: in twenty provinces an exceptionally severe drought was followed by a crop failure resulting in a famine of truly biblical dimensions.
An official inquiry to determine the extent of the losses yielded more than seven hundred answers from all parts of the country, among which was the following description from the pen of a simple parson:
“For the last three years, bad harvests have been sneaking up on us and one misfortune after another plagues the peasants. There is the insect pest. Grasshoppers eat up the grain, worms nibble on it, and bugs do away with the rest. The harvest has been destroyed in the fields and the seeds have been parched in the ground; the barns are empty and there is no bread. The animals groan and collapse, cattle move meekly, and the sheep perish from thirst and want of fodder ... Millions of trees and thousands of farmhouses have be come a prey to flames. A wall of fire and smoke surrounded us ... It is written by the prophet Zephania: ‘I will destroy everything from the face of the earth, saith the Lord, man, cattle, and wild beasts, the birds and the fish.’
“How many of the feathered ones have perished in the forest fires, how many fish in the shallow waters! ... The elk has fled from our woods, the raccoon and the squirrel have died. Heaven has become barren and hard as ore; no dew falls, only drought and fire. The fruit trees have withered away and so also the grass and the flowers. No raspberries ripen any more, there are no blackberries, blueberries, or whortleberries far and wide; bogs and swamps have burned out ... Where are you, green of the forests, oh delicious air, balsam scent of the firs that gave relief to the ailing? All is gone!”
The writer, as an experienced Russian subject, devoutly asked at the end of his letter that he not be held “responsible for the above description.” His apprehension was not unfounded, because a powerful nobility declared the famine, unbelievable as it may seem, to be a malevolent invention of “provocateurs,” and that any sort of help would be superfluous.
In consequence a war flared up between the reactionary groups and the progressive intelligentsia. Russian society was gripped with excitement; writers sounded the alarm. Relief committees were established on a grand scale; doctors, writers, students, teachers, and women of intellectual pursuits rushed by the hundreds into the country to nurse the sick, to set up feeding stations, to distribute seeds, and to organize the purchase of grain at low prices.
All this, however, was not easy. All the disorder, all the time-honored mismanagement of a country ruled by bureaucrats and the army came to the fore. There was rivalry and antagonism between state and county administrations, between government and rural offices, between the village scribes and the peasants. Added to this, the chaos of ideas, demands, and expectations of the peasants themselves, their distrust of city people, the differences existing between the rich kulaks and the impoverished peasants – everything conspired to erect thousands of barriers and obstacles in the way of those who had come to help.
No wonder they were driven to despair. All the numerous local abuses and suppressions with which the daily life of the peasants had been normally confronted, all the absurdities and contradictions of the bureaucracy came to light. The fight against hunger, in itself merely a simple charitable act, changed at once into a struggle against the social and political conditions of the absolutist regime.
Korolenko, like Tolstoy, headed the progressive groups and devoted to this cause not only his writings but his whole personality. In the spring of 1892, he went to a district of the province Nizhni-Novgorod, the wasp’s nest of the reactionary nobility, in order to organize soup kitchens in the stricken villages. Although completely unacquainted with local circumstances, he soon learned every detail and began a tenacious struggle against the thousands of obstacles that barred his way. He spent four months in this area, wandering from one village to another, from one government office to another. After the day’s work, he wrote in his notebooks in old farmhouses far into the night by the dim light of a smoky lamp, and at the same time conducted, in the newspapers of the capital, a vigorous campaign against backwardness. His diary, which became an immortal monument of the czarist regime, presents a gruesome picture of the entire Golgotha of the Russian village with its begging children, silent mothers steeped in misery, wailing old men, sickness and hopelessness.
Famine was followed immediately by the second of the apocalyptic horsemen, the plague. It came from Persia in 1893, covered the lowlands of the Volga and crept up the river, spreading its deadly vapors over starved and paralyzed villages. The new enemy created a peculiar reaction among the representatives of the government which, bordering on the ridiculous, is nevertheless the bitter truth. The governor of Baku fled into the mountains when the plague broke out, the governor of Saratov kept in hiding on a riverboat during the ensuing uprisings. The governor of Astrakhan, however, took the prize: Fearing that ships on their way from Persia and the Caucasus might bring the plague with them, he ordered patrol boats to the Caspian Sea to bar the entrance of the Volga to all water traffic. But he forgot to supply bread and drinking water for those thus quarantined. More than four hundred steamboats and barges were intercepted, and ten thousand people, healthy and sick, were destined to die of hunger, thirst, and the plague. Finally, a boat came down the Volga toward Astrakhan, a messenger of governmental thoughtfulness. The eyes of the dying looked with new hope to the rescue ship. Its cargo was coffins.
The people’s wrath burst forth like a thunderstorm. News about the blockade and the sufferings of the quarantined prisoners swept like fire up the Volga river, followed by the cry of despair that the government was intentionally helping to spread the plague in order to diminish its population. The first victims of the “plague uprising” were the Samaritans, those self-sacrificing men and women who had heroically rushed to the stricken areas to nurse the sick and administer precautions to safeguard the healthy. Hospital barracks went up in flames; doctors and nurses were slain. Afterwards, there was the usual procedure – penalty expeditions, bloodshed, martial law, and executions. In Saratov alone twenty death sentences were pronounced. The beautiful country of the Volga once more was changed into a Dantean Inferno.
To bring sense and enlightenment into this bloody chaos. required a Personality of the highest integrity and a profound understanding of the peasants and their distress. Next to Tolstoy, nobody in Russia was better suited to accomplish the task than Korolenko. One of the first on the spot, he exposed those who were in truth responsible for the uprisings – the government officials. Recording his observations, he once again presented to the public a stirring document, equally great in its historic as well as artistic value – The Cholera Quarantine.
In old Russia, the death penalty for ordinary crimes had long been abolished. Normally, an execution was an honor reserved for political offenses. In the late seventies, however, death penalties were in favor again, especially at the beginning of the terrorist movement. After the assassination of Czar Alexander II, the government did not hesitate to sentence even women to the gallows, as in the case of the famous Sophie Perovskaya, and later Hessa Helfman. These executions were exceptional, but they left a deep impression upon the people. Again, horror swept over the country when four soldiers of the “Penalty Battalion” were executed for murdering their sergeant who had tortured them. Even in the subjugated and depressed atmosphere of these years, public opinion could be shocked by such measures.
This situation changed with the Revolution of 1905. In 1907, after the absolutist powers had regained the upper hand, a bloody revenge set in. Military tribunals convened day and night; the gallows found no rest. The “assassins,” men who had taken part in armed revolts, but especially so-called expropriators – half-grown boys – were executed by the hundreds. It was done in a most haphazard way and with very little observance of the formalities. The hangmen were inexperienced, the ropes defective, the gallows improvised in a most fantastic manner. The counterrevolution indulged in orgies.
It was at this time that Korolenko raised his voice in a strong protest against the triumphant reaction. A series of articles, published in 1909 in pamphlet form with the title An Ordinary Occurrence, is characteristic of him. Like his articles on the famine and the plague, it contains no set phrases, no hollow pathos. Simplicity and a matter-of-factness prevail throughout. Actual reports, letters of the executed, and impressions of prisoners make up this booklet. And yet it is outstanding in its compassion for human suffering and its understanding of the tortured heart. Exposing the crimes of society, which are contained in every death sentence, this little work, full of warmth and highest ethics, became a most stirring accusation.
Tolstoy, then eighty-two years old, wrote to Korolenko, when still strongly impressed by the pamphlet:
”Your work on the death penalty has just been read to me and, though I tried, I could not hold back my tears. I find no words to express my gratitude and love for a work which is equally excellent in expression, thought, and feeling. It must be printed and distributed in millions of copies. No Duma speeches, no dissertations, dramas, or novels could produce such good results as this work.
“It is so very effective because it arouses such intense compassion for the victims of human insanity that one is ready to forgive those victims no matter what they might have done. However, even if one would try, it is not possible to forgive those responsible for such horrors. With amazement we learn of their conceit and self-delusion, of the senselessness of their actions, because you are making it quite clear that all these pitiful cruelties effected only the opposite of what had been intended. Aside from all this, there is one more thought your work had made me strongly aware of – a feeling of pity not only for the murdered but also for those poor, misguided and deceived people, the prison wardens, hangmen, and soldiers, who committed the atrocities without knowing what they were doing.
“There is only one satisfaction to note: that a book like yours will unite a great number of still unaffected and eager people into a group that strives for the highest ideals of virtue and truth, an inspired group which, in spite of its enemies, will shed an ever growing light.”
About fifteen years ago, in 1903, a German daily paper sent out a questionnaire regarding the death penalty to many eminent representatives of the arts and sciences. They were the most brilliant names in literature and jurisprudence, the flower of intelligence in the land of thinkers and poets, and all of them spoke fervently in favor of the death penalty. To any thinking observer this was one of the many symptoms of the things to come in Germany during the world war.
It is one of the features of modern civilization that the mass of people, whenever the shoe pinches for one reason or another, make a scapegoat of members of another race, religion, or color in order to release its pent-up ill temper. It is then able to return refreshed to the regular daily life. It is understood that those best suited to serve as scapegoats are national minorities that have previously been socially neglected and mistreated. And just because of their weakness and the precedent of mistreatment, further cruelties are easily administered without fear of reproach. In the United States it is the Negro who is discriminated against and persecuted. In Western Europe this role has often been forced on the Italian.
It was around the turn of the century, in the proletarian section of Zurich, in Aussersihl, that a pogrom flared up against the Italians in the wake of the murder of a child. In France, the name of the town Aiguesmortes recalls a memorable riot of workers who, embittered by the frugal habits of the Italian migratory workers which led to general wage-cutting, tried to teach them the need for a better standard of living in the style of their ancestor, the Homo hausen of Dordogne. With the outbreak of the world war, traditions of the Neanderthal man unexpectedly became very popular. In the land of thinkers and poets, the “great time” was accompanied by a sudden return to the instincts of the contemporaries of the mammoth, the cave bear, and the wooly rhinoceros.
To be sure, the Russia of the czars was not as yet so highly civilized a state, and the mistreatment of foreigners and other public activities were not expressions of the psyche of the people. It was, rather, the monopoly of the government, fostered and organized at the proper moment by state institutions and encouraged with the help of government vodka.
There was, for example, the famous trial of the “Multan Votiaks” that took place in the nineties. Seven Votiak peasants from the village of Great Multan in the province of Vyatka, half heathens and savages, had been accused of a ritual murder and thrown into jail. This so-called ritual murder trial was, of course, only a small and casual incident of the government policy, which tried to change the depressed mood of the hungry and enslaved masses by offering them a little diversion. But here again, the Russian intelligentsia, with Korolenko in the lead once more, took up the cause of the half-savage Votiaks. Korolenko eagerly threw himself into the fight, unraveling the maze of misunderstandings and deceit. He worked patiently and with an infallible instinct for finding the truth, which reminds one of Jaurès in the Dreyfus case. He mobilized the press and public opinion, obtained a resumption of the trial, and by personally taking over the defense, finally won an acquittal.
In Eastern Europe the subject most preferred for diverting the people’s bad disposition has always been the Jews, and it is questionable whether they have yet played their role to the end. The circumstances under which the last public scandal – the famous Beyliss trial – took place was definitely still in style. This Jewish ritual murder case in 1913 was, so to speak, the last performance of a despotic government on its way out. One could call it the “necklace affair” of the Russian ancien regime. As a belated follow-up to the dark days of the 1907-1911 counterrevolution, and at the same time as a symbolic forerunner of the world war, this ritual murder case of Kishinev immediately became the center of public interest. The progressive intelligentsia in Russia identified itself with the cause of the Jewish butcher from Kishinev. The trial turned into a battlefield between the progressive and the reactionary camps of Russia. The shrewdest lawyers and best journalists gave their services to this cause. Needless to say, Korolenko, too, was one of the leaders of the fight. Thus shortly before the bloody curtain of world war was to be raised, Russian reaction suffered one more crushing moral defeat. Under the onslaught of the oppositional intelligentsia, the murder indictment collapsed. There was revealed also at the same time the whole hypocrisy of the czarist regime, which, already dead and rotten internally, was only waiting for the coup de grace to be administered by the movement for freedom.
During the eighties, after the assassination of Alexander II, a period of paralyzing hopelessness enveloped Russia. The liberal reforms of the sixties with regard to the judiciary and to rural self-administration were everywhere repealed. A deathlike silence prevailed during the reign of Alexander III. Discouraged by both the failure to realize peaceful reforms and the apparent ineffectiveness of the revolutionary movement, the Russian people were completely overcome with depression and resignation.
In this atmosphere of apathy and despondency, the Russian intelligentsia began to develop such metaphysical-mystical tendencies as were represented by Soloviev’s philosophy. Nietzsche’s influence was clearly noticeable. In literature the pessimistic undertones of Garshin’s novels and Nadson’s poetry predominated. Fully in accord with the prevailing spirit was Dostoyevsky’s mysticism, as expressed in The Brothers Karamazov, and also in Tolstoy’s ascetic doctrines. The idea of “nonresistance to evil,” the repudiation of violence in the struggle against powerful reaction, which was now to be opposed by the “purified soul” of the individual, such theories of social passivity became a serious danger for the Russian intelligentsia of the eighties – the more so since it was presented by such captivating means as Tolstoy’s literary genius and moral authority.
Mikhaylovsky, the spiritual leader of the People’s Will organization, directed an extremely angry polemic against Tolstoy. Korolenko, too, came to the fore. He, the tender poet who never could forget an incident of his childhood, be it a rustling forest, a walk in the evening through the quiet fields, or the memory of a landscape in its manifold lights and moods, Korolenko, who fundamentally despised all politics, now raised his voice with determination, preaching aggressive, saber-sharp hatred and belligerent opposition. He replied to Tolstoy’s legends, parables, and stories in the style of the gospel with the Legend of Florus.
The Romans governed Judea with fire and sword, exploiting land and people. The people moaned and bent under the hated yoke. Stirred by the sight of his suffering people, Menachem the Wise, son of Yehuda, appealed to the heroic traditions of their forebears and preached rebellion against the Remans, a “holy war.” But then up spoke the sect of the gentle Sossaians (who, like Tolstoy, repudiated all violence and saw a solution only in the purification of the soul, in isolation and self-denial).
“You are sowing great misery when you call men to battle,” they said to Menachem. “If a city is besieged and shows resistance, the enemy will spare the lives of the humble, but will put to death all those who are defiant. We teach the people to be submissive, so that they may be saved from destruction ... One cannot dry water with water nor quench fire with fire. Therefore, violence will not be overcome with violence, it is evil itself.”
To which Menachem answered unswervingly:
“Violence is neither good nor evil, it is violence. Good or evil is only its application. The violence of the arm is evil when it is lifted to rob or suppress the weak; but if it is lifted for work or in defense of thy neighbor, then violence is welfare. It is true, one does not quench fire with fire nor dry water with water, but stone is shattered with stone and steel must be parried with steel, and violence with violence. Knoweth this: The power of the Remans is the fire but your humbleness is ... wood. And the fire will not stop until it has eaten all the wood.”
The Legend closes with Menachem’s prayer:
“O Adonai, Adonai! Let us never as long as we live fail the holy command: to fight against injustice ... Let us never speak these words: Save yourself and leave the weak to their destiny ... I too believe, O Adonai, that your kingdom will be on earth. Violence and suppression will disappear and the people will gather to celebrate the feast of brotherhood. And never again shall man’s blood be shed by man’s hand.”
Like a refreshing breeze, this defiant creed stormed through the deep fog of indolence and mysticism. Korolenko was ready for the new historic “violence” in Russia which soon was to lift its beneficent arm, the arm to work and fight for liberty.
Maxim Gorky’s My Childhood is in many respects an interesting counterpart to Korolenko’s History of a Contemporary. Artistically, they are poles apart. Korolenko, like his adored Turgenev, has an utterly lyrical nature, is a tender soul, a man of many moods. Gorky, in the Dostoevsky tradition, has a profoundly dramatic view of life; he is a man of concentrated energy and action. Although Korolenko is strongly aware of all the dreadfulness of social life, he has Turgenev’s capacity to present even the cruelest incidents in the mood of an ameliorating perspective, enveloped in the vapors of poetic vision and all charm of natural scenery. For Gorky as well as for Dostoyevsky, even sober everyday events are full of gruesome ghosts and torturing visions, presented in thoughts of merciless pungency, relentless, without perspective, and almost devoid of all natural scenery.
If, according to Ulrici, drama is the poetry of action, the dramatic element is positively evident in Dostoyevsky’s novels. They are bursting with action, experience, and tension to such an extent that their complex and irritating compilations seem at times to crush the epic element of the novel, to break through its boundaries at any moment. After reading with breathless anxiety one or two of his voluminous books, it seems incredible that one has lived through the events of only two or three days. It is equally characteristic of Dostoyevsky’s dramatic aptitude to present both the main problem of the plot and the great conflicts which lead to the climax at the beginning of the novel. The preliminaries of the story, its slow development, the reader does not experience directly. It is left to him to deduce them from the action in retrospect. Gorky, too, even in portraying complete inertia, the bankruptcy of human energy, as he did in The Lower Depths, chooses the drama as his medium and actually succeeds in putting life into the pale countenance of his types.
Korolenko and Gorky not only represent two literary personalities but also two generations of Russian literature and freedom-loving ideology. Korolenko’s interest still centers around the peasant; Gorky, enthusiastic pupil of German scientific socialism, is interested in city proletarians and in their shadows, the lumpenproletariat. Whereas nature is the normal setting for Korolenko’s stories, for Gorky it is the workshop, the garret, and the flophouse.
The key to both artists’ personalities is the fundamental difference in their backgrounds. Korolenko grew up in comfortable, middle-class surroundings. His childhood provided him with the normal feeling that the world and all that is in it is solid and steady, which is so characteristic of all happy children. Gorky, partly rooted in the petty bourgeoisie and partly in the lumpenproletariat, grew up in a truly Dostoyevskian atmosphere of horror, crime, and sudden outbreaks of human passion. As a child, he already behaved like a little hunted wolf baring his sharp teeth to fate. His youth, full of deprivations, insults, and oppression, of uncertainty and abuse, was spent close to the scum of society and embraced all the typical features of the life of the modern proletariat. Only those who have read Gorky’s autobiography are able to conceive fully his amazing rise from the depths of society to the sunny heights of modern education, ingenious artistry, and an outlook on life based on science. The vicissitudes of his life are symbolic of the Russian proletariat as a class, which in the remarkably short time of two decades has also worked its way up from the uncultured, uncouth, and difficult life under the czar through the harsh school of struggles to historical actions. This is surely quite inconceivable to all the culture-philistines who think that proper street illumination, trains that run on time, clean collars, and the industrious clatter of the parliamentary mills stand for political freedom.
The great charm of Korolenko’s poetic writing also constitutes its limitations. He lives wholly in the present, in the happenings, of the moment, in sensual impressions. His stories are like a bouquet of freshly gathered field flowers. But time is hard on their gay colors, their delicate fragrance. The Russia Korolenko describes no longer exists; it is the Russia of yesterday. The tender and poetic mood which envelops his land and his people is gone. A decade and a half ago it made room for the tragic and thunder-laden atmosphere of the Gorkys and their like, the screeching storm birds of the revolution. It was replaced in Korolenko himself by a new belligerency. In him, as in Tolstoy, the social fighter triumphed in the end; the great fellow citizen succeeded the poet and dreamer. When in the eighties Tolstoy began to preach his moral gospel in a new literary form as folklore, Turgenev wrote letters imploring the wise man of Yasnaya Polyana in the name of the fatherland to turn back to the realm of pure art. The friends of Korolenko, too, grieved when he abandoned his fragrant poetry and threw himself eagerly into journalism. But the spirit of Russian literature, the feeling of social responsibility, proved to be stronger in this richly endowed poet than his love for nature, his longing for an unhampered life of wandering, and his poetic desires.
Carried along by the rising revolutionary flood at the turn of the century, the poet in him was slowly silenced while he unsheathed his sword as a fighter for liberty, as the spiritual center of the opposition movement of the Russian intellectuals. The History of a Contemporary, published in his review, The Russian Treasury, is the last product of his genius, only half poetry but wholly the truth, like everything else in Korolenko’s life.
Last updated on: 16.12.2008