Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41) is regarded at the great poet of Russian nationalism. He also wrote short novels such as A Hero in Our Time, The Demon and The Novice. A Hero in Our Time is a short novel set in the Caucasus about a cynical antihero, Pechorin.

In 1840 Lermontov wrote:
Wild are the tribes that in those gorges dwell'
Freedom their god is, war their law...
To strike a foreman there, is never ill,
Friendship is true—revenge us truer still;
There good for good is paid, and blood
And hate, like love, is boundless as the flood.

Lermontov was the son of Scottish mercenaries. He was banished twice from St. Petersburg on duel-related charged and was forced to participate in a military campaign in the Caucasus. He was killed in a duel in the Caucasus resort town of Pyatigorsk after making a joke about the clothes of one Major Martynov, the son of a French ambassador. Lermontov fired first and shot into the air. The major returned the gesture by shooting Lermontov in the heart. Lermontov was killed by the same gun that killed Pushkin.

Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) is a great Russian writer known for his comic fantasies and satires on the Russian bureaucracy and Christian extremism. Regarded as the "father of modern Russian realism," he was one of the first to write about the common people and criticize the government. [Source: James Wood, the New Yorker, August 17, 1998]

Gogol aimed to make literature a relevant moral and social force capable of changing society. He once wrote literature should show both the "ridiculous side of customs and vices and the highly touching qualities of human virtues and lofty sentiments." The tragedy of the "little man," subjectivism and understanding the meaning of life were themes repeated in his work.

Gogol liked to party and play practical jokes. One of his greatest joys was playing card he invented and changong the rules in his favor in the middle of the game. He sometimes use aliases when he traveled and was obsessed with uncooked macaroni and cheese, a dish he often made for guests.

Gogol often wore a tall black hat and took great delight describing clothes in his books. In one story he wrote, a woman as "a pale yellow hat as light as a pastry." In another he described the sleeves of woman's dress as "two airborne balloons, so that the lady would suddenly rise into the air if that man were not holding her."

Gogol's Life

Gogol was born on March 31, 1809 in Mirsgorod, a village in the Ukraine. He was the third of 12 children (and the first of 5 who survived) born into a family of non-gentry that came into some wealth and land in the 1760s by falsifing documents to say the were members of the aristocracy.

At school Gogol demonstrated a talent for writing and acting. When he was 19 he moved to St. Petersburg, determined to make a name for himself. His early years there were marked by frustration and unhappiness. He worked as a civil servant and wrote in free time. His earliest works made it clear the author missed Ukrainian food.

In 1834, at the age of 25, Gogol talked with his way into a professors job at St. Petersburg University. He taught world history, and his lectures were famous for their irreverence and humor. His early lectures were normal enough but later he refused to dates and skipped most of his geography lectures. After a while he stopped lecturing all together, sometimes with a bandage wrapped around his chin, pretending he had a toothache.

Gogol earned some attention with his writing with the publication of Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka (1831-32), a two volume collection of stories. This was followed by Arabesque and Mirogordo, books of essays and stories. Mirogordo included an early version of Taras Bulba, a short historical novel.

In 1836, amidst controversy surrounding his play The Inspector General, Gogol left St. Petersburg, and began traveling around Europe to places like Baden-Baden, Paris, Rome and Jerusalem. He traveled most of his life.

Gogol became a devout Orthodox Christian when he was in his late thirties. A follower of the manipulative priest Father Konstantine, he renounced literature and food, burned the second part of Dead Souls and eventually starved himself to death. After becoming an intense Christian, Gogol's works became more semantic and didactic and conservative. He wrote in defense of the nobility and serfdom and alienated his liberal supporters. Gogol withdrew into himself after returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He died on March 4, 1852, exhausted after a long period of fasting and praying.

Gogol's Writing

James Wood wrote in the New Yorker, "Gogol's best works are unsolemn and speedy. They are also a reminder that fiction at times be happily entrepreneurial. Frequently Gogol has a single flashing idea, and hotly syndicates it in scene after scene." Gogol was obsessed with social rank. In his early works he pokes fun a do-gooders, nationalists and bureaucrats.

Scholars have had difficulty categorizing Gogol. Some describe him as radical realists. Other have called him a proto-modernist, a surrealist, a fantasist and a game player. Gogol often wrote about the Cossacks. Some works were was inspired by Russian puppetry. Others were anti-Semitic.

Gogol’s most well known work is the 19th century classic Dead Souls. Other works include The Greatest (1842), a famous story, Ukrainian Tales, and Petersburg Tales. The Inspector General is regarded as the first major Russian play. A satire about village corruption, it revolves around a traveler who tells his friend to precede him to a town and tell the people he in an appointed official. Both men are treated like kings. The story was based on a practical joke that Pushkin played. The Fairy of Madness is about man who thinks he is the King of Spain.

Dead Souls

Dead Souls is a novel and parody about social advancement. The main character, Chichikov, achieves status and wealth by purchasing "dead souls" (the names of serfs who have died) from other landowners. The landowners have to pay taxes on serfs even if they are dead until a new census is taken thus the deal alleviates them of their tax burden while making Chichikov wealthy by owning lots of serfs. As the story develops it becomes clear that Chichikov is the devil as his goal is to acquire souls for hell.

In one of the more ironic episodes a landowner catches on to Chichikov's plan and complains that he is paying to little for the deal souls, and then launches into an argument in which it is clear he cares more for the dead serfs than he did for the live ones. Gogol destroyed the second part of Dead Souls because by the time he began working on it he regarded it as writing an un-Christian endeavor.

The story is based on fact. In tsarist times landowners often bought serfs from one another and did sell the names of dead serfs. In the Russian empire before their emancipation in 1861, serfs were considered the property of a landowner, and could be bought, sold or mortgaged. The word "soul" was used to count serfs, such as "eight souls of serfs" and so on.

Dead Souls was first published in 1842. Gogol wrote much of it in the Antico Caffé Greco on Via Condotti in Rome in the late 1830s. He finished and published the first part shortly before he became a religious nut. It was originally conceived as a three-volume morality play inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy.

The Nose and The Overcoat

Gogol's short story The Nose was about a nose that detaches itself from the face of a military officer named Kovalev who puts a handkerchief over his face and chases his nose though the streets of St. Petersburg. The nose is thrown into the Neva River after its is discovered by a man on a slice of bread and then transform itself into a man, a state councilor whose rank is higher than Kovalev.

The Nose anticipated Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Kovalev chases the man-nose into a cathedral and confronts it. The state councilor refuses to talk to Kovalev, accusing him of not knowing his place. Kovalev in turn accuses the nose of not knowing its place and thinking too much of its self. The story ends with the nose reattaching itself to Kovalev's face, who regains the social position he had lost because of his deformity.

The Overcoat, another Gogol story, is about a reclusive clerk who finds happiness in a plan to purchase a fine new coat. The main character, Gogol wrote "not very remarkable clerk, one might say, short, somewhat pockmarked, even with a somewhat nearsighted look, slightly bald in front, with wrinkles on both cheeks and a complexion that is known as hemorrhoidal...As for his rank (for with us rank must be announced first of all, he was what is known as an internal titular councillor, at whom, as if known, all sorts of writer have abundantly sneered and jeered, having the praiseworthy, custom of exerting themselves against those who can't bite."

"Many a time in his life he shuddered," Gogol wrote in The Overcoat, "to see how much inhumanity there is in man, how much savage coarseness is concealed in refined, cultivated manners."


Ivan Sergeevich Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) is regarded as one of the greatest Russian novelists. He was the first Russian writer to find a large audience on the West and was the subject of in depth studies and essays by Henry James and a biography by V.S. Prichett.

Turgenev was born on November 8, 1818 in central Russia into a well-to-do landowning family. His mother was "notoriously tyrannical." Turgenev studied with tutors and learned French, German, English and aristocratic Russian. The peasant Russian that is used so effectively in his novels was first learned from his servants. Later he attended universities in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Berlin.

Turgenev's mother wanted her son to be a civil servant. Turgenev had other ideas. He wanted to write and pour his energy into liberal causes. His progressive ideas, especially in regards to the poor treatment of serfs, resulted in his exile to his family estate for two years. After that he moved to Paris. He wrote most of his novels abroad and was greatly respected by Western writers such as Henry James.

Turgenev never married. He carried on a not-so-secret affair with a Spanish diva in his mansion at Baden Baden Germany. The novel Smoke is set in Baden Baden. The only time he returned to Russia was a visitor. When he died in 1883, his remains were taken from Paris to Russia.

Turgenev's Writing

Turgenev wrote extensively about Russian society, particularly the nobility, intellectuals and serfs but was a strong believer in the merits of Western culture. He once argued that Pushkin was not the same the stature of a Shakespeare or Goethe.

The historian Priscilla Roosevelt wrote Turgenev wrote stories that "subtly showed serfs were human beings with rich emotional and spiritual life, and that many landowners were unthinkingly, unbelievable inhumane." Turgenev's A Sportsman's Sketches (1850) was his first major work. It described many examples of the poor treatment of serfs he witnessed on his family estate. The book is regarded by some as a masterpiece. It helped make Russians aware ofthe suffering of serfs.

Turgenev most well known novel Father and Sons (1862) is a powerful work that examined the conflict between conservative noblemen and their radical children. The hero, a young doctor named Bazarov, is a "nihilist," a term Turgenev coined. The work was so vehemently criticized in Russia that Turgenev vowed to spend his life in exile. Bazarov became of symbol of the antitsar, nihilist movement.

Other important Turgenev works include Diary of a Superfluous Man (1850), Rudin (1855), A Nobleman’s Nest (1858), On the Eve (1860), First Love (1860), Smoke (1867), King Lear of the Steppes (1870), Spring Waters (1870) and Virgin Soil (1877).

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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