Posted by: gdevi | January 22, 2014

Russia in the 19th Century

Isn’t it amazing how once school starts, what you thought of as “being on break,” just vanishes into thin air, like it never was?

Because I taught an overload in the fall, this is my relatively light semester: English Composition, World Lit, and back by popular demand by all students who could not take it in the fall, Nineteenth Century Russian Lit. I think it is because America and Russia have historically been enemies, Russia and Russian Literature are closed books to our students. Actually, Russian literature is so incredibly beautiful, and once you start reading these great writers, it all becomes very clear. I had a wonderful first class today, and I think they are going to do really well.

Here are the notes for Russia in the 19th century that we discussed in class today:

Russia evolved from groups that settled the Northernmost region of Asia between 12 AD-15 AD close to the Arctic Circle. The Principality of Moscovy was settled by an ethnic group closely related to Norsemen, or Nordic seafarers. Russia is believed to be etymologically a cognate of the Norse “rus,” which means “men who row,” or seafarers, river men and boatmen who made their way across the hundreds of rivers that criss-cross the Russian landmass. They rose out from under Mongol domination to create a new empire.

Imperial Russia’s consolidation began in the 17th century with the Romanov dynasty, with Peter the Great finally uniting the area as the Russian empire in the early 18th century. Under Peter 1 (or Peter the Great 1682-1725), the Russian empire stretched from the Black Sea in the West, and the Baltic Sea, to Siberia and the Pacific in the East, bordering the Arctic ocean in the North, between western Europe and the Pacific ocean in the east, and bordered in the south with Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan (Pakistan and India), and the Ural Mountains and Mongolia. The landmass of Russia is 1.8 times that of the United States.

Here is the famous statue of Peter the Great, known as the Bronze Horseman. It is a tourist spot as you can tell from this picture from the web. Our first reading is Pushkin’s poem The Bronze Horseman: A Petersburg Tale.  St. Petersburg is the most westernized city in Russia and its cultural capital. Christened St. Petersburg by Peter the Great, the city underwent several name changes, with its name being changed to Petrograd during WW1, to Leningrad after the Bolshevik Revolution, and reinstated back as St. Petersburg by Gorbachev in 1991 under Perestroika.

Here is a painting of Peter the Great standing at the shore of the Baltic Sea meditating on building his capital city in the domain of this water (Alexandre Benoit 1916). Peter the Great wanted access to western Europe via Sweden and Finland, and thought that building his city on this spot would give him the power over the Swedes that he wanted. In Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman, we read about Peter’s imperial ambitions decimated by the terrifying flood of the Neva River, which wiped out Petersburg. It is a great poem that meditates on the difference between nature’s scale and the human scale.

19th century Imperial and Pre-Revolutionary Russia: timeline, people, places, and events

1801-1825 – Imperial Russia under Tsar Alexander I; Tsar autocratically ruled over nobles who autocratically ruled over landlords/ gentry who ruled over serfs (bonded laborers from the peasant class; almost like slaves without the racial component)

1812 – French emperor Napoleon’s invasion of Russia; Napoleon’s defeat by Tsar Alexander I in 1814.; Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture

Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky – 19th century Russian composer; Eugene Onegin opera


1825-1855 – Death of Tsar Alexander I; Ascension by Tsar Nicholas I; Decembrist revolt of 1825—liberal western-minded nobles, army officers, intellectuals against Nicholas I; uprising violently crushed by Nicholas Ist; persecution of revolutionaries, liberals and west looking intellectuals; Nicholas I put an end to the west-modeled modernization program set in motion by Peter the Great in the 18th century. Russia the most backward and least modernized of European countries in mid nineteenth century.

1855 – Death of Nicholas I; Alexander II succeeds to the throne

Pushkin was a sympathizer of the Decembrist revolt, though not a direct participant.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) concludes with intimations of the Decembrist revolt.

Turgenev was greatly influenced by the Decembrist Revolt and Nihilism.

Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849 for  treason and condemned to public execution. Dostoevsky received a  last minute pardon from Nicholas I, while facing the firing squad, and his sentence commuted to four years hard labor in Siberia.

1861 – Alexander II signs the Emancipation Proclamation (two years before the American proclamation) of Serfs; freed up labor; migration from the country to the city; growth of industries; growth of the middle class; growth matched with uneven and unequal distribution of land between serfs and landlords; moreover, serfs have to pay taxes to work in the fields; worst lands given to the serfs; setting up of village peasant communes or mirs theoretically (but not in practice) with agricultural land to be shared by peasants equally; quiet uprising of the radical elements in Russian society, the Nihilists who deemed all Russian social, political, and philosophical institutions inhuman, tyrannical and corrupt.

Here are three influential figures from the mid-19th century: Mikhail Bakunin, Karl Marx and Vladimir I. Lenin

1867 – Karl Marx, Das Kapital

1881 – Assassination of Tsar Alexander II; ascension of Tsar Alexander III who suppressed all dissent in Russia

1887 – Lenin’s brother hanged by Alexander III

1895-1898- Lenin arrested and exiled

1917- Return of Lenin to Petersburg

1918-Execution of Nicholas  II; Bolshevik Revolution; Lenin and Soviet Union 1922-1991

Here are the authors. Top Row:  Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolay Gogol, Ivan Turgenev

Middle Row: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Count Leo Tolstoy

Bottom Row: Anton Chekhov, Maksim Gorky

Note on Russian and Slavic naming conventions:

Three names – Given name, Patronymic (son of or daughter of–father’s first name), Family Name

Masculine suffix – ov, ovich – “-ovich” or “evich” – “son of”

Feminine suffix – ova, ovna  – “ovna” or “evna” – “daughter of”

Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov – Rodion (given name), Romanovich (son of Romanov), Raskolnikov (family name-masculine) Diminutive- Rodya

Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikova – Avdotya (given name) Romanovna (daughter of Romanov), Raskolnikova (family name – feminine) – Rodya’s sister Dounia

Pulcheria Alexandrovna Raskolnikova – Pulcheria (given name) Alexandrovna (daughter of Alexandrov) Raskolnikova (married name of Rodya’s and Dounia’s mother — Raskolnikov is the Romanov family name she took upon marriage)


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