Nekrasov, Nikolai Alekseevich
Nekrasov, Nikolai Alekseevich
Born Nov. 28 (Dec. 12), 1821, in the village of Nemirov, present-day Vinnitsa Oblast; died Dec. 27, 1877 (Jan. 8, 1878), in St. Petersburg. Russian poet and literary figure.
Nekrasov spent his childhood in the village of Greshnevo (the present-day village of Nekrasovo) near Yaroslavl, on his father’s estate. There he gained first-hand knowledge about the life of the peasants. From 1832 to 1837 he studied at the Yaroslavl Gymnasium. In 1839, Nekrasov applied, without success, for admission to St. Petersburg University; he audited courses there in 1839–40. After his father withdrew all material support, Nekrasov lived the life of a homeless pauper in St. Petersburg. He began publishing poetry in 1838.
In 1840, Nekrasov published a still immature collection of poetry, Dreams and Sounds, which was severely criticized in a review by V. G. Belinskii. Nekrasov himself later destroyed this work. Being of steadfast character, he promised himself that he would not “die in a garret,” and energetically embarked on work in literature and journalism. “It is inconceivable how much I worked,” he later reminisced. Nekrasov wrote short stories, novellas, plays, theater reviews, and feuilletons. His vaudevilles, written under the pen name of N. A. Perepel’skii, were staged at the Aleksandrinskii Theater.
In 1840, Nekrasov became a contributor to the theatrical journal Panteon and in 1841 to the Literaturnaia gazeta (Literary Gazette) and Otechestvennye Zapiski (Fatherland Notes). In 1842–43 he became friendly with Belinskii and his circle. Although he wrote important works during this period, such as the essay “St. Petersburg Corners” (1845), Nekrasov realized that he had to go beyond “hack work.” He experienced a turning point in his career, which he himself interpreted as a “turn toward truth.”
Nekrasov became an adherent of the natural school in Russian literature. His poetry began to deal heavily with social issues, for example, his poems “On the Journey” (1845) and “Fatherland” (1846). In his critiques and reviews and in his editorial undertakings, Nekrasov became Belinskii’s companion in arms, joining the struggle for realism and narodnost’ (close ties with the people) in Russian literature. Nekrasov’s talent as an editor and organizer of the greatest Russian writers became apparent during his coeditorship of the journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary). He managed to preserve the democratic tendency of this journal even during the years of political reaction after 1848. During this time, in collaboration with A. Ia. Panaeva (who later became his wife), Nekrasov published in installments the novels Three Countries of the World (1848–49) and The Dead Lake (1851). In spite of the uneven writing and the touches of melodrama in the chapters written by Panaeva, these novels are permeated by a democratic mood.
During the social ferment of the mid-1850’s, Nekrasov made Sovremennik the organ of N. G. Chernyshevskii and N. A. Dobroliubov. The new collaborators took a firm ideological stand in regard to the drastic exacerbation of class conflicts; this precipitated an ideological split within the editorial office. Nekrasov courageously refused to collaborate with a group of liberal writers, although he was bound to them by ties of old friendship; “all his sympathies were on Chernyshevskii’s side,” pointed out V. I. Lenin (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 22, p. 84). Nekrasov’s energy, editorial experience, tactfulness, and skillful but exhausting struggle with the censor made it possible to publish vivid revolutionary articles and reviews. “Only because his mind was so brilliant, his soul so generous, and his character so firmly intrepid could I write as I did,” reminisced Chernyshevskii (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 15, 1950, p. 793).
At the turn of the 1860’s, Nekrasov’s talent as a people’s poet, satirist, exposer of the ruling circles, and protagonist of the oppressed village attained full maturity. Contact with the ideas of the “new people” in Sovremennik helped determine Nekrasov’s sociopolitical and literary convictions and led him to write outstanding works imbued with revolutionary fervor. His poems of this period include “Poet and Citizen,” “Reflections Before a Mansion Doorway,” “A Song for Eremushka,” “On the Weather,” and “The Weeping of Children.” In 1856, Nekrasov’s collection Poems was published; it was received as a manifesto of progressive Russian literature, openly calling citizens to revolutionary action. During the revolutionary situation in Russia in 1859–61, the village theme became even more accentuated in Nekrasov’s poetry. His verses (“Meditation,” “The Funeral,” “Kalistrat”) and narrative poems, including The Peasant Children (1861), The Peddlers (1861), and Frost the Red-nosed (1863), express a genuine love for the Russian peasant. By this time, Nekrasov’s influence in Russian society had become exceptionally strong, particularly among progressive youth and revolutionary figures, who considered him Russia’s greatest poet.
When the government openly began to persecute revolutionaries in 1866, Sovremennik was “threatened by an inexorable fate.” Nekrasov made a desperate and futile attempt to save the journal and read his verses at a dinner in honor of M. N. Murav’ev. This was a mistake (“a dissonant sound”), which Nekrasov bitterly regretted to the last days of his life. He expressed his regret in an untitled poem written in 1867 (beginning line, “Soon I shall die. A paltry legacy . . . “), in which he exclaimed “Forgive me, oh my fatherland, forgive!”
In 1868, Nekrasov succeeded in taking over Otechestvennye zapiski (Fatherland Notes). In this journal he published several chapters of Who Can Be Happy in Russia?; poems about the Decembrists, including “The Grandfather” (1870) and “Russian Women” (1872–73); and the satire The Contemporaries, 1875–76. These works, which as a result of censorship appeared in print in greatly distorted form, as well as his lyric poetry, reflect the most important trends in Russia in the 1870’s. This was the era of revolutionary narodnichestvo (Populism) and of the “To the People” movement. Nekrasov sought to encourage the revolutionary intelligentsia, whose selflessness he admired and whom he called to perform heroic deeds, as in his “The Sowers” (1876, published 1877).
Nekrasov spent the last years of his life in strenuous creative and social work, while beset with worries about the journal. All this time he was suffering from a grave illness. But even during this period he managed to write his “last songs,” in which with undiminished poetic force he examined the life he had led and wrote about his love for the Russian people and about his “muse” (“The people’s sister—and mine”). Nekrasov’s funeral at the cemetery of the Novodevichii Convent in St. Petersburg assumed the character of a public political demonstration. G. V. Plekhanov spoke on behalf of the Land and Liberty society. In another significant speech, F. M. Dostoevsky ranked Nekrasov as an equal of A. S. Pushkin.
Nekrasov’s poetry, continuing in the tradition of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol, reflected the massive upheavals in the life of the Russian people, who were awakening to fight for their liberation. It is this quality of Nekrasov’s work that earned him his special place among the Russian realist writers of the 19th century. He not only sympathized with the people but he identified himself with peasant Russia: he spoke in its name and in its language. Toward the end of his life, Nekrasov, in his poem “Elegy” (1874), proclaimed, “I have dedicated my lyre to the people.”
The theme of “the people,” the peasants, is reflected in Nekrasov’s poetry by an infinite variety of types and characters that were new in Russian literature. Indeed, this theme is present in all of his work, from his early poems “The Troika” and “Fatherland” to his great epic poems, as well as in his death-bed lyric addresses to the Russian people. No one but Nekrasov could create such cruelly realistic pictures of the poverty and sorrow of the Russian village (“Reflections Before a Mansion Doorway,” “Orina, the Mother of a Soldier,” “A Feast for All”) and no one but he saw so well the positive aspects of peasant life or created so many great, courageous characters (Dar’ia, Matrena, Savelii, Ermil Girin) that represent the hardy Russian peasantry, unbroken by centuries of serfdom. Nekrasov rejected the Narodniks’ (Populists’) false idealization of village life and condemned the long-suffering passivity of most of the peasants (“And would your fate be so much worse if you suffered less?”). The image of strong and suffering Russia is always in the background of Nekrasov’s broad panoramas of village life (“You are squalid and you are abundant; you are strong and you are powerless, Mother Russia!”).
The idea of “the people” and their fate pervaded all of Nekrasov’s writings. In his “The Railroad” (1864), a hymn of victory celebrating the creative force of the people breaks through the gloomy depiction of the perilous labor of the construction workers. Nekrasov’s lyrics are topical and highly dramatic; they are largely devoted to the question of one’s duty to the people, for example, “Knight for an Hour” (1860). In his poetry, themes of love and nature are colored by the personal relation of the poet to society and to the man of action who is motivated by high ideals. Nekrasov’s heroic images of Belinskii, Dobroliubov, and Chernyshevskii are filled with romantic revolutionary enthusiasm.
Nekrasov never ceased to be affected by the tragic fate of Russian women. This theme was expressed both in his lyric poetry and in his narrative poems about women Decembrists, namely, Princess Volkonskaia and Princess Trubetskaia. In these historical poems, events of the past are interpreted from the perspective of the fate of the Russian people and the revolutionary, Narodnik ideals of the 1870’s.
The poem “Who Can Be Happy in Russia?” (1866–76) is Nekrasov’s crowning achievement. It is a veritable poetic encyclopedia of the life of the people during the mid-19th century. The work is written on a grand scale and is remarkable for its keen, sociocritical analysis given from the viewpoint of the peasants. Of particular importance in the poem is the figure of Grisha Dobrosklonov, who embodies the peasant revolutionary, the carrier of the people’s ideal of freedom. Masterfully written and highly innovative, Nekrasov’s poem made extensive use of oral folk poetry. Songs, proverbs, and superstitions, colloquial peasant speech and peasant humor were all united in a single artistic whole.
A tendency toward satire is the most important characteristic of Nekrasov’s work. His early satirical verse exposed loyal officials, bourgeois philanthropists, and high-ranking hypocrites, for example, his “Contemporary Ode” (1845) and “Cradle Song” (1845). Later, Nekrasov wrote devastating satires on the whole political system: serf-owners, liberal public figures, tsarist censorship, and the sham freedom of the press. Such satires include “The Newspaper Office,” “Songs About the Free Word,” and “Court.” Nekrasov later wrote such masterpieces of Russian satire as “Recent Times” (1871) and “Contemporaries” (1875–76). The main characters of the second poem are bourgeois businessmen and bureaucrats, whom Nekrasov depicts in the forceful manner of Saltykov-Shchedrin.
A profoundly patriotic poet, Nekrasov made extensive use of folk language and folklore in his poetry. He freely used prosaisms, various speech styles, and intonations from songs. Nekrasov’s poetry, with its indivisible unity of social concern and high artistic quality, had a beneficial influence on the subsequent development of classical Russian and, later, Soviet poetry.
Many of Nekrasov’s poems became folk songs during his life-time; they are still sung today (“The Peddler’s Box,” “In the High Rye”). Russian composers wrote music to Nekrasov’s texts: M. P. Mussorgsky composed music for “Kalistrat” and “A Song for Eremushka”; C. A. Cui for “The Bridal Couple,” “Match maker and the Groom,” “On Hearing of the Horrors of the War,” and “Katerina”; and S. I. Taneev for “How Strongly Beats the Restless Heart.”
Even before the Revolution, Marxist literary scholars (G. V. Plekhanov and others) began to study Nekrasov’s legacy. After the October Revolution of 1917, much work was done to collect and study his manuscripts and to restore the original texts that had been banned or distorted by tsarist censorship. Soviet Nekrasov specialists are researching and correcting facts about Nekrasov’s life and studying his literary techniques.
There are two literary memorial museums dedicated to Nekrasov: an apartment-museum in Leningrad (opened 1946) and an estate-museum in the village of Karabikha in Yaroslavl Oblast (opened 1947).
WORKSPoln. sobr. soch. i pisem, vols. 1–12. Moscow, 1948–52.
Poln. sobr. stikhotvorenii, vols. 1–3. [Leningrad] 1967.
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–3. Moscow, 1971.
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Literaturnoe nasledstvo, vols. 49–54. Moscow, 1946–49.
Evgen’ev-Maksimov, V. E. Zhizn’ i deiatel’nost’ N. A. Nekrasova, vols. 1–3. Moscow-Leningrad, 1947–52.
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Gin, M. M. Ot fakta k obrazu i siuzhetu: O poezii N. A. Nekrasova. Moscow, 1971.
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V. V. ZHDANOV