Fonvizin, Denis

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Fonvizin, Denis Ivanovich


Born Apr. 3 (14), 1744 or 1745, in Moscow; died Dec. 1 (12), 1792, in St. Petersburg. Russian writer.

Fonvizin was from a wealthy family of the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry). From 1755 to 1762 he studied at a Gymnasium that was under the auspices of Moscow University. In 1762 he became a translator in the Collegium of Foreign Affairs and moved to St. Petersburg. From 1763 to 1769 he served as secretary to the cabinet minister I. P. Elagin.

During the 1760’s, Fonvizin formulated his humanist views: he advocated universal education and favored a gradual emancipation of the peasants as their level of education rose. His ideal political system was an enlightened monarchy.

Fonvizin translated (1761) the Moralistic Fables by the Danish humanist L. Holberg from German. He also translated (1762) Voltaire’s tragedy Alzire, or the Americans (1764–66) and Voltaire’s treatise Discourse on the Freedom of the French Aristocracy and the Value of the Third Estate. At this time, Fonvizin wrote his first original works, A Letter to My Servants Shumilov, Van’ka, and Petrushka (published 1769) and the didactic comedy of manners The Brigadier General (1768–69, published 1792–95).

In 1769, Fonvizin became the secretary to the head of the Collegium of Foreign Affairs, N. I. Panin. Both opposed the government of Catherine II, attacked favoritism, and believed that Russia needed “fundamental laws.” In 1777–78, Fonvizin visited France; his letters to Panin became the Notes of a First Journey (published in the 19th century), which vividly depicted the pre-revolutionary crisis in France.

In 1781, Fonvizin wrote his most important work, the comedy The Minor (staged 1782, published 1783). It depicted the absurd life of the Prostakov family of landowners as an outgrowth of serfdom and showed how serfdom negatively influenced the development of the personality. The hero, Starodum, was the first portrayal of an enlightened Russian humanist, patriot, and opponent of serfdom and despotism. Fonvizin’s comedy strongly influenced the Russian realist theater, particularly the plays of I. A. Krylov, A. S. Griboedov, N. V. Gogol, and A. N. Ostrovsky.

In 1782, Fonvizin retired to devote himself to literature. The following year he published the satires “A Register of Russian Social Classes,” “The Tale of a Supposed Deaf-Mute,” and “Several Questions That Could Arouse Particular Attention Among Intelligent and Honest People,” all of which evoked annoyed responses from Catherine II. Fonvizin’s later attempts to publish his works were suppressed by Catherine. In 1788 he was forbidden to publish a five-volume collection of his works and the journal A Friend of Honest People, or Starodum. One of the satires written for the journal, “A Universal Courtiers’ Grammar,” circulated in manuscript. Fonvizin was able to publish (anonymously) only the novella Callisthenes (1786).

Late in life, Fonvizin was seriously ill. In 1789 he began work on A Candid Confession of My Deeds and Thoughts (unfinished; published 1830). A draft of the comedy The Choice of a Tutor was probably written in 1790.

Fonvizin was one of the most prominent representatives of Russian humanist realism, the author of the first authentically Russian comedy, and, in Pushkin’s words, “a friend of freedom.”


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.