Gavrila Romanovich Derzhavin

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Derzhavin, Gavrila Romanovich


Born July 3 (14), 1743, in the village of Karmachi or Sokury, in present-day Laishevo Raion, Tatar ASSR; died July 8 (20), 1816, in the village of Zvanka, present-day Novgorod Oblast. Russian poet.

Derzhavin was born into a noble family of modest means. He attended Kazan Gymnasium (1759-62), and beginning in 1762 he served as a soldier in the Preobrazhenskii Regiment, which took part in the palace revolution that resulted in the accession of Catherine II to the throne. Ten years later Derzhavin was promoted, and as an officer he participated in the suppression of the Pugachev Rebellion. He served briefly in the Senate, where he became convinced that he could “not get along where they do not love justice.”

Derzhavin was rewarded by Catherine II for composing the “Ode to Felicia” (1782), which was addressed to her. In 1784 he was made governor of Olonets and later of Tambov Province (1785-88). As Catherine’s private secretary (1791-93), Derzhavin displeased the empress and was dismissed from her personal service. In 1794 he was appointed president of the Collegium of Commerce, and from 1802-03 he was minister of justice. He retired in 1803.

Derzhavin’s works were first published in 1773. At first, he wrote his odes in the tradition of Lomonosov. However, he proceeded to develop his own poetic style, which found brilliant expression in such poems as “Ode on the Death of Prince Meshcherskii” (1779), “Ode to Felicia” and “God” (1784), “The Vision of Murza” (1789; published in 1791), and “The Waterfall” (1791-94; published in 1798). In addition to works praising the monarch and the military leaders, Derzhavin wrote odes portraying unworthy magnates and the morals of court society and expressing intimate lyric motifs. Often , he combined elements of the ode and the satire in the same poem. The poet angrily criticized social vices (“To Potentates and Judges,” 1780-87, and “The Magnate,” 1774-94, published in 1798). Pushkin characterized Derzhavin’s poetry thus: “Derzhavin, scourge of magnates, at the sound of the dread lyre, their haughty idols did expose” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 2, 1956, p. 124).

Derzhavin’s philosophical lyrics express the tragic antithesis between life and death (“Where board with viands was, there coffin stands,” from the “Ode on the Death of Prince Meshcherskii”). They show a keen perception of the greatness and at the same time the insignificance of man (“I am tsar, I am slave, I am worm, I am god,” in the ode “God”), and they express a feeling of the instability of human fortunes (“The Waterfall”). Derzhavin sought a way out of these contradictions in religion (for example, the ode “God”). In the 1790’s Anacreontic lyrics prevailed in his work, and in the latter years of his life he turned to dramatic composition.

In 1811, Derzhavin joined the literary society called the Society of the Lovers of the Russian Word. He gave his support to the literary “old believers” and conservatives, but at the same time he looked with favor on Zhukovskii and “took notice” of the young Pushkin. Derzhavin’s artistic method is marked by concrete imagery, abundant personal biographical motifs, and fluid forms, but at the same time, his works reveal the didacticism and allegorism typical of classicism. His poetic language is rich in attributives conveying nuances of color, and it is saturated with phonetic effects. Derzhavin introduced lifelike, colloquial speech into the language of poetry.


Sochineniia, vols. 1-9. Explanatory notes by la. K. Grot. St. Petersburg, 1864-83.
Stikhotvoreniia. Edited with commentary by G. Gukovskii, introductory article by I. A. Vinogradov. Leningrad, 1933.
Stikhotvoreniia. Introductory article and textual preparation by V. P. Druzin. Moscow, 1963.


Belinskii, V. G. “Sochineniia Derzhavina.” Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 6. Moscow, 1955.
Blagoi, D. D. Derzhavin. Moscow, 1944.
Zapadov, A. V. Masterstvo Derzhavina. Moscow, 1958.
Serman, I. Z. Derzhavin. Leningrad, 1967.
Istoriia russkoi literatury XVIII v: Bibliograficheskii ukazatel’. Leningrad, 1968.


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