Published:  01:08 AM, 11 July 2019

Voicing against autocracy in Russian literature

Voicing against autocracy in Russian literature

With a population of nearly 150 million and over one hundred languages spoken throughout the Federation, Russia does not inherit an ancient cultural heritage as a result of frequent instabilities in the course of its history. When Mongols from the eastern frontiers of European Russia invaded the Russian territories in 1237, they totally disrupted the economic, political and cultural growth of Russia and formed their own state, calling it the Golden Horde.

But at the last decade of the 14th century, when Mamai Khan of the Golden Horde attacked Moscow, he was overpowered by Grand Duke Dmitry and the united force of the Russians had revolted against Mamai Khan's invasion and it was a lesson that cannot be forgotten easily.

 Autocracy in Russia established rapidly when the Grand Dukes of Muscovy became the sovereign ruler of Russia and had to face a hard time with hereditary landowners and some of the princes who had earlier been independent. Grand Duke Ivan IV subdued the rebellious princes and boyars and eventually became the absolute ruler of the Russian state.

 Tsar (also spelled czar, or tzar) is a title used to designate East and South Slavic monarchs or supreme rulers of Eastern Europe, originally Bulgarian monarchs from the 10th century onwards. In 1547, Ivan IV was titled the tsar and autocracy in Russia officially began. In the 16th century, monarchies were the tradition of the world over with such rulers as Queen Elizabeth I in England, Akbar the Great in India and Ivan the Terrible in Russia. These monarchies did not allow any dissent.

Almost a hundred years after, Germany and England, Russia had their first printing press in 1564. Even the practice of literature did not grow up as poor smallholder or agricultural laborer of low social status were not only tortured and made to work throughout the day, but also not allowed to speak in their native language. In that circumstance, it was not easy to cultivate their minds on literature when all the Ukranian and Byelorussian books were destroyed even.

But, differently in the early 18th century, when Peter I became the tsar, a large number of books in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, history, etc. were printed. Like the emergence of such great scientists as Isaac Newton in England, a remarkable scientist Mikhail Lomonosov was born in Russia, too, in 1711.

He made impressive contributions in the fields of chemistry, physics, astronomy, and engineering. He researched into remote parts of Russia and made a lasting contribution to the expansion of education in the country. 

He also wrote the first grammar of the Russian language and was one of the pioneers behind the establishment of the first Russian universities at Moscow in 1711. His motto for the university was: "Most honored in this university is the student who has learned most; whose son he is, is of no importance." Another great scientist in the 18th century Russia was Ivan Polzunov, was the son of a soldier, though was not much educated, he tried to lighten the labor of the mining work with his inventions.

A new spirit was instilled in the entire world in the 19th century, which was remarkable not only for Russia but also for England, Germany and India. It permeated every walk of life-politics, literature, religion et al.

William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Charles Lamb, Thomas Carlyle, Tennyson, Browning, Mathew Arnold and a host of other men of letters dominated the English section.

America had Thoreau, Emerson, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman. Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Nietzsche, dominated the German literary landscape and in India, Ram Mohun Roy, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Bhaartendu Harishchandra, Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.

Concurrently, Russia also produced such eminent litterateurs as Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol, Feodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev, and Leo Tolstoy. Pushkin condemned autocratic rule of the tsar in his poems and eventually, he was exiled for some time from St. Petersburg for his political and athletic writings.

His freedom-loving poems could not be printed; they were copied and circulated secretly. Some of his poems are Ruslan and Lyudmila (1820), The Prisoner of the Caucuses (1821), The Gypsies Man (1827), Poltava (1829) and The Bronze Horseman. His greatest work Eugenii Onegin (823-31) is a novel in verse. 

Another detractor of the tsar was Mikhail Lermontov, who accused the tsar and his countries of killing Pushkin in his famous poem, The Poet's Death. He called them the hangmen of freedom. Descendent from the 17th-century Scottish mercenary, Lermontov was an army officer. He loved the Russian people passionately and vociferously spoke and wrote against serfdom.

Strongly influenced by Byron, he mostly wrote his lyrical and narrative poetry on the themes of disillusionment, rebellion, and personal freedom. His best known political works are, The Angel and The Sail (1832), The Death of a Poet and The Song of the Merchant Kalashnikov (1837), The Demon (1839), Mtsyri (1840). His novel, A Hero of our Times (1840), is his prose masterpiece. 

Nikolai Gogol was a salient writer who effectively portrayed the hardship of the people in Russia under serfdom. His works show an interesting mixture of humor, fantasy, and horror. He was influenced by Hoffman, the German Romantic writer and music critic. His influence is traceable on Dostoevsky. Some of his works are, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikauka (1831-32), The nose (1835), The Greatcoat (1842), The Inspector General (1836), etc.

Feodor Dostoevsky will always be remembered for his revolutionary writing in nineteenth-century Russia. For his alleged anti-establishment activities, he was imprisoned and exiled in Siberia. He wrote about his experience in Memories from the House of the Dead (1861-62). His works are marked with the deep analysis of characters, delineation of abnormal psychology, and the humor of the absurd.

In his socio-religious themes, he reflects his own mystical view of Russian Christianity as an antidote to rationalism and socialism. Some of his novels are Poor People (1846), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1866) and The Devils (1871).  

When the poet Ivan Turgenev became a novelist and started discussing the social and political problems of nineteenth-century Russia in his novels, his writing style slightly changed. He was more of a 'Western' in spirit than the other contemporary Russian writers of the century, assumingly because of his stay in Western European countries.

Taras Shevchenko was a Ukrainian poet, who was a serf himself. He bitterly exposed the miseries of the serfdom and cruelties of the tsar. In his poems, written in the Ukrainian language, he inspired the people to demolish slavery by starting a bloody war against the tsar and the landowners. The tsar ordered for the arrest of Shevchenko. he was then conscripted to the army and sent to a little garrison. He was also ordered not to write and draw, however, he continued to write secretly.

Literature has appeared as an effective medium to know all these Russian genius writers. It was not only about aesthetic, moral and spiritual values and beliefs; literature was also their philosophy, the way they held the perception of life. They were always the voice of common people who were neglected and tortured. They had to suffer a lot as a result of their works. 

Problems happened when Russian writers penned something disparaging for the rulers and about their dislikes, they were either forced to stop it or even sent to jail. Some stories were concluded with a sad full-stop, containing a death penalty and even were execution like Alexander Pushkin. All these ferociously taken discussions in that autocracy are enough to make my title appropriate.

However, there were childbirth, childhood, death, first love, marriage, happiness, loneliness, betrayal, poverty, wealth, war and peace as the common theme of literature in the era. Therefore, the acceptance of Russian writers and the popularity of their works are still a remarkable success for the country. Specifically, in the 19th-century, the way they dealt with the openness, uprightness, and accuracy, for this, their works are still read with such pleasure and fascination.


The writer is an English language teacher at Bangladesh International Tutorial (BIT)

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