Mikhail Evgrafovich Saltykov

Saltykov, Mikhail Evgrafovich


(also Mikhail Evgrafovich Saltykov-Shchedrin; real surname Saltykov, pen name N. Shchedrin). Born Jan. 15 (27), 1826, in the village of Spas-Ugol, in what is now Taldom Raion, Moscow Oblast; died Apr. 28 (May 10), 1889, in St. Petersburg. Russian writer.

Saltykov’s father was descended from an old aristocratic family, and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy Moscow merchant. Saltykov spent his childhood years on his father’s country estate. There he witnessed the life of the serfs, which he subsequently described in Old Times in Poshekhon’e. He studied at the Moscow Institute of the Nobility from 1836 to 1838 and at the Alexander (formerly Tsarskoe Selo) Lycée from 1838 to 1844. It was while he was here that he began to write and publish poems. Upon graduating from the lycée, he served in the Ministry of War from 1844 to 1848, During the 1840’s he became acquainted with the Petrashevtsy, an advanced circle of St. Petersburg youth, and entertained a passion for the Utopian socialism of C. Fourier and Saint-Simon.

Saltykov’s first novellas, Contradictions (1847) and A Confused Case (1848), which pointedly depicted social problems in the spirit of the natural school, provoked the displeasure of the authorities. In April 1848, Saltykov was arrested and later banished to serve in Viatka for what Nicholas I called “an injurious mode of thinking and pernicious ambition to spread ideas that have already shaken all of Western Europe, subverted its authorities, and disturbed public peace” (cited by S. Makashin in Saltykov-Shchedrin: Biografiia, vol. 1, 1951, p. 293). In Viatka, Saltykov was appointed senior official for special assignments under the governor, and in 1850 he became a counselor of the provincial administration. Saltykov frequently traveled throughout Viatka and the adjacent provinces on government business and made detailed observations of the life of the peasants and provincial civil servants. The death of Nicholas I and the new government policy adopted after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War (1853–56) brought Saltykov his freedom in late 1855. Returning to St. Petersburg during the resulting social upsurge, he immediately resumed his literary work, which had been interrupted by his nearly eight-year-long “Viatka captivity.” In the article “The Poems of Kol’tsov” (1856), a statement of his views, Saltykov urged writers to promote the social and practical role of literature and engage in the “study” of contemporary life, social issues, and, above all, the basic needs of the people. The article was banned by the censors, but Saltykov expressed the same views in the literary work Provincial Sketches (1856–57). He published the work under the pen name “the court counsellor N. Shchedrin,” which virtually replaced his real name in the minds of his contemporaries. In this, his first book, Saltykov depicted life in Russia during the last years of the serfholding system. His sweeping portrayals were marked by sharp contrasts: intense disapproval of serfdom and the civil service, skepticism for “talented personalities” (his own satirical term for the “superfluous men” of the noble landowning intelligentsia), and love and hope for the people and the peasantry. N. G. Chernyshevskii and N. A. Dobroliubov highly esteemed the “spirit of truth” of this work, powerful in its portrayal of the social milieu and social psychology. The sketches enjoyed enormous success and immediately established Saltykov’s reputation as a writer.

At this time, however, Saltykov had not yet made up his mind to leave state service. Moreover, he believed that the government, having proclaimed a new, liberal policy, was capable of carrying out far-reaching progressive reforms, and he wished to take an active part in their execution. From 1856 to 1858 he served as an official for special assignments in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and helped prepare the Peasant Reform. Between 1858 and 1862 he was vice-governor first in Riazan’ and then in Tver’. As an administrator (the proponents of serfdom nicknamed him “Vice-Robespierre”), Saltykov initiated dozens of court investigations of criminal landowners and dismissed many bribe-takers and thieves from service. In early 1862, probably upon the private suggestion of the authorities, Saltykov went into retirement, ostensibly for reasons of health. His life and service in the provinces provided him with much material for his writing. At the same time, his experience as an official of the province-level administration dispelled his illusions about liberal enlightenment and his faith in the possibility of progressive “public service” while in the employ of the state.

During the years as vice-governor, Saltykov continued to publish short stories, sketches, plays, and dramatic scenes (from 1860, primarily in the journal Sovremennik). Some of these works resembled the Provincial Sketches and with the Sketches made up the Krutogorsk cycle. Others were intended for a cycle about the “dying” and a cycle about the “Glupov inhabitants,” both of which were never completed. The two cycles shared the common idea of the historical doom of the autocratic serfholding system. Most of these sketches and dramatic scenes were published in Innocent Stories (1863) and Satires in Prose (1863).

After leaving state service, Saltykov undertook the publication of his own journal, Russkaia Pravda, which he had conceived with the purpose of uniting “all the forces of progress,” but the government forbade him to publish. After Cherny-shevskii’s arrest and the eight-month suspension of Sovremennik, Saltykov joined the journal’s editorial staff on the invitation of N. A. Nekrasov and worked productively as a writer and editor. His monthly surveys “Our Social Life” remain outstanding landmarks of Russian social commentary and literary criticism of the 1860’s. In 1864, Sovremennik became involved in a dispute with the journal Russkoe slovo and with the pochvennik (“grass roots”) journals Vremia and Epokha, which were published by the Dostoevsky brothers. Saltykov opposed the views of the other editors of Sovremennik; he left its editorial staff and returned to state service. However, he continued to contribute to the journal, mainly as a writer, and to the end of his life honored the traditions of Sovremennik, the traditions of Chernyshevskii and Dobroliubov.

From 1865 to 1868, Saltykov headed the financial boards of Penza, Tula, and Riazan’. He used the observations he made during his last civil service position as a basis for Letters From the Provinces (1869) and, in part, Signs of the Times (1869). As works of literature and social commentary, these books provide a broad panorama of the first decade of postreform Russia.

In 1868, by order of the tsar, Saltykov was permanently retired from state service and barred from holding any future state position. At this time, he accepted Nekrasov’s invitation to join the staff of the reestablished journal Otechestvennye zapiski, intended to replace Sovremennik, which had been shut down in 1866. Saltykov’s 16 years of work on Otechestvennye zapiski, which became the chief literary periodical of Russian democracy of the 1870’s and 1880’s, form the central chapter in Saltykov’s biography. After Nekrasov’s death, Saltykov became head of the journal’s editorial staff.

Saltykov produced his greatest literary achievements in the 1870’s and 1880’s. He wrote The History of a City (1869–70), a bitter, angry book, in which he revealed the “tragic truth of Russian life” to his countrymen. He based the book on his cycles of sketches on “Glupov” and the “Glupov inhabitants” (1861–62) and on Pompadours and Pompadouresses (1863–74). Later, Saltykov wrote Gentlemen of Tashkent (1869–72) and Diary of a Provincial in St. Petersburg (1872), which portrayed the “reign of predation” of the period of Russian speculative promotion. Loyal Talking (1872–76) and The Sanctuary of Mon Repos (1878–79) are classic pictures of the birth of capitalist Russia, the accession of the Kolupaevs and Razuvaevs. The Golovlevs (1875–80) is one of the greatest but gloomiest works of Russian literature. The cycle In the Realm of Moderation and Precision (also published as The Molchalins, 1874–80) profoundly interpreted “Molchalinism,” a reference to a sycophantic character in A. S. Griboedov’s Woe From Wit, under new historical conditions as one of the social and psychological plagues of Russian life.

In 1875–76, Saltykov underwent medical treatment abroad. He again traveled abroad in 1880, 1881, 1883, and 1885. In Abroad (1880–81), he portrayed reactionary bourgeois Europe. In the 1880’s, Saltykov became proficient as a social critic by denouncing political reaction with furious sarcasm in A Modern Idyll (1877–81), Letters to Auntie (1881–82), and Poshekhon’e Tales (1883–84).

In 1884 the government banned publication of Otechestvennye zapiski. Saltykov reacted painfully to the closing of the journal. He was forced to publish in the periodicals of the liberals, the journal Vestnik Evropy and the newspaper Russkie vedomosti, which were alien to him in their orientation. Despite the harsh atmosphere of reaction created by the authorities and despite serious illness in his last years, Saltykov created such masterpieces as Tales (1882–86), which concisely reflected virtually all of the main themes of his work; The Trivialities of Life (1886–87), which treated history profoundly and philosophically; and, finally, his epic panorama of Russia under serfdom, Old Times in Poshekhon’e (1887–89).

Saltykov’s works are imbued with socialist and democratic thoughts and themes of liberation and open struggle against autocracy, serfdom, landowners, and the bourgeoisie. His writings were very important for Russian society. They promoted political awareness and civic protest and enriched Russian literature with their literary quality and significance as social commentary. Saltykov’s works are historically linked with the traditions of progressive Russian writers, such as A. N. Radishchev, V. G. Belinskii, N. V. Gogol, and A. I. Herzen, and with the traditions of the great satirists of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, such as F. Rabelais, M. Cervantes, and J. Swift. Yet his works were a new and profoundly original phenomenon in the art of Russian critical realism.

Saltykov’s method of writing was distinguished by literary “study,” which involved analysis of a character’s social environment rather than individual personality. It also integrated the writer’s aesthetic creed with direct judgments and evaluations. These judgments expressed democratic protest and openly encouraged men to look at the world in a new way—with social truth and justice. Saltykov’s satirical method employed Aesopian language, that is, the combined use of semantics, syntax, and other elements of linguistics to give a double meaning to literary phrases by concealing a second design behind their direct meaning. Saltykov also made use of the art of the grotesque and created literary stereotypes, for example, the “Ivanushkas” (simpletons), the “Glupov inhabitants,” and the “motley people.” At the same time, Saltykov, as a realist, was a master of psychological analysis and truthful characterization. He created a world of real human beings, for example, Iudushka (Little Judas), Derunov, and the gallery of slaves in Old Times in Poshekhon’e. V. I. Lenin often referred to Saltykov’s characters in his social commentary. The traditions of Saltykov were continued by A. P. Chekhov in his use of the themes of the “motley people” and “the trivialities of life” and by M. Gorky in his early satirical articles and the works Tales and The Life of Klim Samgin. Some of Saltykov’s works have been dramatized for the theater and cinema, for example, the film Judas Golovlev (1934).

A memorial museum has been opened in the city of Kirov (1968) in the house where Saltykov lived during his years of exile in Viatka.


Polnoe sobr. soch. ipisem, vols. 1–20. Moscow-Leningrad, 1933–41.
Sobr. soch ipisem v 20 tt., vols. 1–17—. Moscow, 1965–75. (Publication in progress.)


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