BORN: 1899, Moscow, Russia
DIED: 1994, Moscow, Russia
GENRE: Fiction, drama, nonfiction
The Thief (1931)
The Golden Coach (1947)
The Russian Forest (1953)
Polia Vikrova (1960)
The Escape of Mr. McKinley (1975)
Leonid Leonov. © Mary Evans Picture Library / The Image Works
Leonid Leonov was a prolific novelist, playwright, and essayist. He was also a philosophical writer who has justifiably been called one of the most idiosyncratic talents of modern Russian literature. Leonov’s works are often said to defy the categorization that typically defines literatures of the Soviet period, and are acknowledged for their insightful depiction of the Russian character. For this reason his works have been compared to those of Russian masters Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, and Ivan Turgenev.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Anti-Czarism in the Blood. Leonid Leonov was born in Moscow on May 31, 1899. His father was a poet and journalist who was arrested for anti-czarist activities and later exiled to Archangel, where he published a news-paper. Educated in Moscow, Leonov later worked for his father’s newspaper as a theater critic and proofreader.
During the Russian civil war Leonov served in the Red Army, primarily as a war correspondent. The Russian civil war had followed hard upon the heels of the Revolution of 1917; in the latter, separated into two phases (a February Revolution and an October Revolution) both nationalist and socialist forces around Russia rose up against and overthrew the dictatorial regime of Czar Nicholas II. The Russian Civil War itself was a result of conflict between the Red (socialist) Army and the White (nationalist and traditionalist) forces, with the socialists—the Bolsheviks—gaining victory in 1923. Leonov edited the newspaper of the Fifteenth Inzenskaia Division in 1920 and worked for the newspaper of the Moscow Military District from 1921 to 1922. It was also in 1922 that Leonov published his first short story, ‘‘Buryga,’’ in the journal Shipovnik. Al’manakh 1.
A Red Journalist Turns to Fiction. After his demobilization, Leonov published a short-story collection, but his first real success came in 1924 with the publication of his novel The Badgers. The novel’s title derives from a group of anti-Soviet brigands who called themselves ‘‘the Badgers,’’ and is the story of Semen and Pavel Rakhleev, two teenage brothers from the countryside who are brought to Moscow to earn their living. The story takes place before and after the October Revolution and provides a rich panoramic view of Russia in the 1910s and early 1920s. Semen gets drafted, fights in World War I, and eventually returns a deserter, while Pavel, after remaining out of sight for a long time, becomes a Communist. The fact that the brothers end up on opposite sides of the civil war reflects the deep fissures that the revolutionary period caused among Russians.
Leonov made a name for himself as well as a huge impact on the further development of Soviet literature with the novel. The Badgers was then adapted by Leonov into a play of the same title; it premiered in 1927 at the Vakhtangov Theater in Moscow, which had a company of artists who had gained a nationwide reputation for their bold yet entertaining experimentalism.
Political Success Gives Way to Suppression. Leonov followed up The Badgers with an even more critically acclaimed book, The Thief (1927), the novel that for many years served as his central work and remained his own favorite almost until the end of his life. The subsequent success of The Thief brought him a measure of political as well as artistic success: ‘‘He had arrived,’’ as R. D. B. Thomson observed, and was soon elected to the governing board of the Union of Soviet Writers.
Prior to the 1930s, writers in the Soviet Union were not heavily restricted. With the emergence of socialist realism, however—and specifically with the 1932 publication of Joseph Stalin’s infamous directive, ‘‘On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations’’— Soviet writers suffered more intense scrutiny. Socialist realism was an art theory based partially on Marxist philosophy and partially on Soviet politics: It called for the didactic use of literature, art, and music to develop social consciousness in the evolving socialist state, and was a key tool during the beginning of the Stalinist purges. These developments had dramatic implications for Leonov’s career. Leonov’s fifth novel, Road to the Ocean (1935), was almost immediately suppressed and from the mid- 1930s through the 1940s his works came under official attack. No new editions of his novels were issued until 1947, and his play The Snowstorm (1939) was suppressed in 1940 during rehearsals for its Moscow premiere.
World War II: Dramatic Renewal and Political Rehabilitation. World War II—or ‘‘the Great Patriotic War,’’ as it was called in the Soviet Union—gave Leonov a chance to ‘‘rehabilitate’’ himself in the eyes of Soviet officialdom. He wrote two successful war dramas, The Invasion (1942), for which he won the Stalin Prize, and Lenushka (1943). As reflected by their many productions, both of these plays were popular with Soviet viewers and won high praise from Soviet and Allied critics alike.
Except for the novella The Taking of Velikoshumsk (1944), Leonov did not publish any new extended prose works until 1953—the year of Stalin’s death. He instead devoted his efforts during this period to dramas. Beginning in 1946, Leonov also served as a Deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, a post he kept for twenty-four years, until 1970.
A Series of Final Triumphs. After two decades of literary obscurity, Leonov published his last major novel, Russian Forest (1953), which scholar Reinhard Lauer called ‘‘the most significant work to be published in those years in Russia.’’ A substantially revised version of The Thief was issued in 1959, and in 1963 Leonov published Evgenia Ivanovna, a novel that he had begun writing in the mid-1930s. Leonov also wrote criticism and essays and published two fragments of an untitled novel-in-progress during the 1970s and 1980s. He even adapted one of his own stories for the science fiction film The Escape of Mr. McKinley (1975). He died in Moscow in 1994.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Leonov's famous contemporaries include:
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986): A French author and metaphysical philosopher who laid the foundations for early feminism with her writing.
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956): A German playwright, stage director, and poet who is credited, among many things, with epic theater.
M. C. Escher (1898-1972): A Dutch graphic artist who is world-renowned for his woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints that trick the eye, seem to defy logic or physics, and feature explorations of topics including infinity and the impossible.
Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970): A French general and statesman who led the Free French Forces during World War II, and founder and first president of the French Fifth Republic.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008): A Soviet novelist famous for his lengthy imprisonment and exile at the hands of the Soviet government due to his "anti-Soviet" views.
Works in Literary Context
Fairy Tale and Philosophy Influences. Early stories by Leonov feature unusual stylistic daring and originality in their usage of skaz, a technique of narrative that derives from Russian oral folklore. Leonov’s skaz pieces, such as his 1922 story ‘‘Buryga,’’ for instance, reveal the influence of Nikolai Leskov—often called ‘‘the most Russian of all Russian writers.’’ Some early stories by Leonov betray, rather intentionally, the influence of writers other than Leskov. Shades of Dostoyevsky appear in ‘‘The End of a Petty Man’’ (1924), with Leonov’s tendency toward the philosophical. E. T. A. Hoffmann’s stories also have a bearing on ‘‘Valya’s Doll’’ (1923), and the impact of Boris Andreevich Pil’niak is evident in ‘‘Egorushka’s Demise’’ (1924).
Ornamentalism and the Mystical. What unites these stories is their stylistic ‘‘ornamentalism’’—a kind of overuse of decoration, or ornaments, in prose. What also connects them is a tendency toward the spheres of the mysterious and the mystical. A third kind of connection between Leonov’s writings can be found in the inspiration he found in oral narration, which has a tradition in Russia both of being very ornamental at times and of negotiating the boundaries of the mystical. In The Breakthrough at Petrushikha (1923), for instance, a history of a village and its community, there is a fairy-tale rhythm that sometimes ends in near rhyme—seamlessly integrated in the prose, such as in ‘‘the moon is in the window, Yegory is on the horse’’ and other phrases.
The Individual’s Place in Society. Added to this extensive use of figurative language (such as metaphors and similes) is Leonov’s use of stream-of-consciousness narrative techniques and complex symbolism to support his philosophical concepts. Underlying his great novels, for example, is the image of the beehive as a model of an ideal social organism—a helpful community, benevolent, productive, and harmonious.
Such techniques support the themes important to Leonov throughout his writing career—in general, themes of individual morality, happiness, and purity, and the relation of the individual to society. Leonov is particularly known for works in which he explored political and social issues in postrevolutionary Soviet society. The central theme in his works is the conflict between the demands of society and the needs of the individual. In his writings about the revolution, he often focused on marginalized participants who did not fully understand what was occurring. The Badgers, for instance, set in the early 1920s, centers on a group of peasants in the remote Russian countryside who reject the Soviet government and engage in guerrilla warfare against Soviet officials and the Red Army. Leonov used this story to address the conflict between the urban proletariat and the peasantry. In keeping with the tenets of socialist realism, however, such themes soon had to be abandoned, and Leonov’s orientation toward the mystical, too, became suspect. Instead, he was urged by some to emulate the work of artists such as writer Maxim Gorky or painter Fyodor Pavlovich Reshetnikov, both of whom were seen as providing positive examples of socialist realism in practice.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Known for their psychological and philosophical complexity, Leonov's works address such themes as the conflict between the individual and society, the moral dilemmas associated with revolutionary upheaval, and the antagonism between urban and rural cultures. Here are a few works by writers who concerned themselves with similar themes of social, political, and individual conflict:
Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), a novel by Alan Paton. In this acclaimed work, South African apartheid is encroaching—against the social protests of select individuals and subcultures.
Freedom Songs (1991), a historical novel by Yvette Moore. In this novel for young adults, the author explores the life of one family living in the early 1960s and the impact the civil rights movement has on that family.
Maus (1977), a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. In this unusual and provocative treatment of the Holocaust, the Jewish people are portrayed as mice and the Nazis are depicted as cats.
Things Fall Apart (1959), a novel by Chinua Achebe. This novel explores the story of colonialism and its invasive and destructive impact on Nigerian tribal culture.
The U.S.A. Trilogy (1938), a trilogy by John Dos Passos. In this collection of three novels, the author uses innovative techniques to explore the development of America in the 1900s, 1910s, and 1920s—including close inspections of the treatment of immigrants, urban plight, and workers' unions.
Works in Critical Context
At only twenty-three years of age, Leonov enjoyed the mixed blessing of having been officially declared a ‘‘living classic’’ in the presence of Joseph Stalin himself. This honor vested upon him by his fatherly friend, Maxim Gorky, saved his life and career in an era of ruthlessness and violence. Moreover, when Stalin designated Leonov as a ‘‘rightful heir to Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Gogol,’’ much interest was generated in Communist officialdom. Leonov cunningly employed this title to protect himself, his family, his religious faith, and his art.
Using his status as a recognized ‘‘classic,’’ Leonov consciously built his body of works and his public literary persona according to the conventions of the classics of Russian literature. At a certain point in Leonov’s career this goal of image building, reinforced by numerous articles on his work, seems to have gained priority over being popular and known to common readers. As a result, beginning in the 1960s Leonov was respected and read by sections of the Russian intelligentsia but hardly ever loved—not even during the period when he was fighting for a popular cause, the rescue of the Russian Forest. Yet several of his works remain important in their representation of a culture and a historical period for Russian literature—including such early novels as The Badgers.
The Badgers (1924). The Badgers displays expertise in the usage of language and a psychological depth unprecedented in Soviet literature, such that even readers critical or suspicious of Leonov had to concede that he had written a masterpiece. With regard to this and all of Leonov’s works, however, commentators have noted that they are sometimes overwritten. Another concern among Leonov’s critics has been his likeness to Dostoyevsky. Many have noted extensive similarities between the works of the two novelists; however, while some have argued that Leonov was deeply concerned with moral, philosophical, and psychological problems, others have insisted that he was not at all motivated by the intense concern with ethics, morality, and religion that characterized Dostoevsky’s writings. Vera Alexandrova, for instance, has questioned ‘‘the view of some Russian critics abroad that, were Leonov free in his creative work, he would have become a ‘Soviet Dostoyevsky.’’’
Truly in Opposition? Critics have also questioned whether Leonov was simply stubborn and arrogant or truly a writer who opposed the government and managed to escape severe repression. Remarking on the ‘‘seeming conventionality’’ of Leonov’s career, R. D. B. Thomson has argued that ‘‘of all the Soviet writers, Leonid Leonov is the most individual. His elaborate style, his highly personal thought and imagery, his characteristic range of heroes, and above all the acute conflicts on which his works are built ... distinguish his books from those of his compatriots and contemporaries.’’
Once a darling of both Soviet and Western literary historians and critics—who likened Leonov to William Faulkner—he is rarely mentioned in critical discourse today and read even less frequently. A closer, unbiased look at Leonov’s work in its evolution, however, reveals a mastery of language matched by few authors of any nation.
Responses to Literature
1. In some early versions of his most popular novels, Leonov elicits sympathy for his main characters; in other versions he strips the protagonist of his favorable qualities. Consider the novels The Badgers and The Thief and describe the theme of honor among thieves. In each work, is the theme helpful in bringing sympathy or contempt for the protagonists?
2. Communist conservatives attacked Leonov’s fiction. Look into one or more of his works and find out why they did so. To assist you in making sense of the criticisms, find examples from Leonid’s text that skewer Russian ideological failings.
3. The Russian civil war lasted from 1918 to 1923 and involved ‘‘Red’’ Soviet forces, who gained decisive power in the October 1917 Revolution, fighting ‘‘White’’ Russian anti-Communist insurgents. Research the Russian civil war further to discover how it impacted civilians. How is this impact reflected in Leonov’s work?
4. Works like Road to the Ocean are distinguished by the stream-of-consciousness technique Leonov used to describe the characters and delve into numerous philosophical debates. His narrations are done through the ongoing thought processes of characters. Find examples of stream-of-consciousness writing in Leonov and in Virginia Woolf, Jamaica Kincaid, Henry James, James Joyce, or others, and then try imitating this style. Can you turn ordinary observation into interesting interior monologue?
Alexandrova, Vera. A History of Soviet Literature. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963.
Lauer, Reinhard. History of Russian Literature. Munich: C. H. Beck, 2000.
Shepherd, David. Beyond Metafiction: Self-Consciousness in Soviet Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press / New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Thomson, Boris. The Art of Compromise: The Life and Work of Leonid Leonov. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.
________. Lot's Wife and the Venus of Milo: Conflicting Attitudes to the Cultural Heritage in Modern Russia. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Muchnic, Helen. ‘‘Leonid Leonov.’’ Russian Review, 18, no. 1 (1959): 35-53.
Internet Movie Database. Leonid Leonov. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0503088/.