The Golden Age
In the early 19th century, Tsar Alexander I (1717-1825) introduced various reforms, including in the areas of governance, education, science and the serf system. The censorship became less severe, it was the start of the Golden Age of Russian literature. It started with the still very popular poet Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837). Elsewhere in this part of the site you can read much more about Pushkin, to whom Bulgakov refers several times in The Master and Margarita. The great control of form and style and the technical mastery of verses by Pushkin inspired a whole pleiad of young talented contemporaries.
A good friend of Pushkin was the fable writer Ivan Andreevich Krylov (1769-1844). His 200 fables initially relied strongly on Aesopos (620 BC-564 BC) and Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695), but later he found his own way by not only writing about human weaknesses, but also about social evils in Russian society. Krylov's statue is situated at the Patriarch's Ponds in Moscow. In 2002, some controversy arose around the ponds because the statue was removed to be replaced by a monument to Mikhail Bulgakov and The Master and Margarita. Those plans were changed, however, and Krylov is looking proudly over the ponds again.
Pushkin was a great admirer of his contemporary Aleksandr Sergeevich Griboedov (1795-1829). He was best known for his play Woe from Wit, the first real masterpiece of the Russian theater, and still one of the most performed plays in Russia. Griboedov was a valued diplomat and played an important role in the relationship between Russia and Persia, but that did not prevent Woe from Wit was initially subject to censorship in 1923. In The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov showed homage to Griboedov by naming the Writers' House to him.
Lermontov and Belinsky
When Tsar Alexander I suddenly died in 1825, his succession by Nicholas I (1796-1855) went quite troublesome. The arrival of the new Tsar was the immediate cause for the Decembrist revolt, the first attempt to overthrow the Tsarist autocracy of the Russian Empire. The wave of revolutions in 1848 in Europe caused great commotion in Russian government circles. Although everything was quiet in Russia, Nicholas I took strict measures fearing that the revolution might spread to his own country. The censorship was tightened again and the importation of foreign books and magazines propagating liberal or socialist ideas, was almost impossible. The Tsar crearted the Third Division, some kind of secret police which funtioned until the October Revolution of 1917.
All this could not prevent though that the Russian literature had its first period of prosperity. After the death of Pushkin, Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov (1814-1841) became the most important Russian poet, but when the latter also died, the focus shifted from poetry to prose. An important role was played by literary critic and publicist Vissarion Grigoryevich Belinsky (1811-1848). This son of a country doctor was expelled from the Moscow University because of his political ideas. Unlike his contemporaries Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen (1812-1870), known as the father of Russian socialism, and Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin (1814-1876), the founder of anarchism, he was an autodidact and he had few privileges. But he was the spiritual father of the Russian intelligentsia, and had an influence which lasted until the Russian Revolution. The first Bolsheviks even considered him as a kind of literary church father.
In 1842, Belinsky supported Nikolay Vasilievich Gogol (1809-1852) to get his novel Dead Souls published, and to republish his theatre play Revizor. Both works were satires on the political corruption in Russia. Previously, between 1835 and 1842, Gogol had already written his famous Petersburg Tales, a series of short stories with gems like Nevsky Prospekt, Diary of a Madman, The Nose, The Portrait, and The Overcoat.
In 1846, Vissarion Belinsky was also involved in the publication of Poor Folk, the first novel written by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881). When Tsar Aleksandr II (1818-1881) ascended the throne in 1855, the political climate in Russia was much calmer, and Dostoevsky became one of the most famous writers of this period with his novels Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869) and The Brothers Karamazov (1881).
Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) became also known outside the borders of the Russian Empire with his novels War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1873-1877). Tolstoy produced other writings of Christian ethical and moral nature, and sided with the common people, the weak and the oppressed. He was not strictly a revolutionary who, for example, called farmers for a violent overthrow of government. He called for passive resistance. After the turn of the century he had correspondence with a young Indian, who was strongly influenced by his ideas. His name was Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948). Tolstoy's ideas had a major influence on Gandhi, particularly in the area of violence.
Another influential writer of the Golden Age was Ivan SergeevichTurgenev (1818-1883) with the novels The Eagle Nest (1858), which was translated into English as A Nest of Gentlefolk (Coulson), A House of Gentlefolk (Garnett) and Home of the Gentry (Freeborn), and also with the novels Nakanune (On the eve - 1860) and Fathers and Sons (1862).
Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov (1812-1891) became known for his second novel Oblomov (1859).
At the end of the 19th century, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) wrote many short stories which are among the best of world literature - think of The Lady with the Dog (1899) - and unforgettable plays as The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1897), Three Sisters (1900) and The Cherry Orchard (1904).