Russian Customs
July 21, 2016
Times The Moscow

What's Russia's Silver Age?

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2 years, 3 months ago Times The Moscow

The period after Russia’s Golden Age, of course. Sorry, Russian lit joke. To understand what the Silver Age of Russian literature is, first you have to know about the Golden Age. That’s easy: the 19th century in Russian literature began with Alexander Pushkin and then continued on with more great writers doing brilliant and innovative work per square centimeter than anywhere else on earth. Really. Alexander Pushkin was both a poet and prose writer who is credited with not only consolidating the Russian literary language, but creating a literature that was genuinely and originally Russian after a century or so of Frenchified Russian prose and poetry. Other poets of the Golden Age include Mikhail Lermontov (who also wrote prose), Nikolai Nekrasov, Alexei Tolstoy, Fyodor Tyutchev and Afanasy Fet. On the prose front, the 19th century gave us such brilliant writers as Nikolai Gogol, Nikolai Leskov, and Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, who were also renowned for their humor and comic view of Russian life. If you want to understand scams and bureaucratic misuse of power, pick up some Gogol. If you want to make fun of contemporary morals — or lack thereof — read Saltykov-Shchedrin. Barely does a day go by without one of your friends quoting one of them. And don’t forget Ivan Turgenev and Ivan Goncharov, whose character Oblomov barely got out of bed and came to characterize all that was wrong — and some that was right — with the 19th century Russian landowning class. And then came the grand masters: Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose works took Europe by storm and transformed the European novel, an influence that can still be felt today. After them, Anton Chekhov, whose plays and short stories revolutionized drama and modern prose. And don’t forget non-fiction writers like Vissarion Belinsky and Alexander Herzen, who set the standard for literary criticism and memoirs, respectively. So now you know why that era in literature was golden. But at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, literature — and especially poetry — once again reached new peaks of mastery and innovation. To distinguish this flourishing of artistic talent from the previous generations, the term Silver Age was coined. The great poets of this era are the quartet of Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak. Most generations have just one or two great poets; Russia had four. But that wasn’t all. Other great poets of the Silver Age included Alexander Blok, Sergei Yesenin, Valery Bryusov, Konstantin Balmont, Mikhail Kuzmin, Igor Severyanin, Sasha Chorny, Nikolai Gumilyov, Maximilian Voloshin, and Innokenty Annensky. A decade or so later, avant-garde poets appeared on the scene: Velimir Khlebnikov, David Burlyuk, Alexei Kruchyonykh and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Prose writers in this period include Daniil Kharms, Ivan Bunin, Leonid Andreyev, Teffi, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Andrei Bely, Alexander Kuprin, and Fyodor Sologub. The Silver Age writers differed in style and subject matter from their 19th century predecessors, reflecting perhaps the social, economic and political upheavals around them. If the Golden Age writers were largely proponents of realism (of various sorts), the Silver Age writers were symbolists, Acmeists, futurists and absurdists, as if realism could not be used to describe the reality of pre- and post-Revolutionary Russia. Who could believe it? That’s the quick version of a century and a half of literary history, enough to be able to follow a debate around the water cooler or over cocktails. And if you were wondering: Is there a Bronze Age of Russian literature? Not yet. We’re still waiting.