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Alexander Sumarokov – a Russian phenomenon


The 19th century was the peak in the development of Russian literature, which undoubtedly forms a sig­nificant part of the treasure-house of world culture. But it was in the 18th century that the foundations for Russian literature as a world phenomenon were laid in post-Petrine Russia.

Among the numerous Russian 18th century authors, the largest number of firsts belongs to Alexander Sumarokov, whose 285th birthday we are marking these days.

Alexander Sumarokov was born to an old Russian gentry family in 1717. Although most reference books name St. Petersburg as his birthplace, he was actually born on Finnish territory, not far from the town of Lappeenranta. His childhood years coincided with the time when Peter the Great was concluding reforms and successfully ended the war with Sweden. Alexander’s father had commanded a Russian brigade in the war. Russia became a European power. But the most important changes in the sphere of literature were still in the future.

Among Peter the Great’s reforms was the introduction of compulsory service for the gentry. However, after the Emperor’s death, the position of the gentry began to change during the reign of Anne, daughter ot Peter the Great’s half-brother. In 1731 a cadet corps (military school) was set up in St. Petersburg. Thus, when the time came for Alexander Sumarokov to serve in 1732, instead of starting in the ranks, he went straight to the elite school in St. Petersburg. Earlier, in 1730 there was an important moment in Russian history when it seemed possible for a while that the power of the autocracy could be limited. All hopes however, where dashed when Anne abolished the Supreme Secret Council and introduced the absolute rule of her favorites. Meanwhile, studying at the cadet school, the future officer Sumarokov turned his thoughts to entirely different spheres. There was an amateur theater at the cadet corps at the time Sumarokov began to write love verses, hand-written copies of which circulated among the cadets.

Alter Sumarokov graduated from the cadet corps, he was appointed aide-de-camps to Vice Chancel-lor Count Golovkin: then, at the end of 1741. after Elizabeth ascended the throne, he became aide-de-camp to Count Razumovsky, the empress’s favorite. Sumarokov’s successful career did not prevent him from continuing his literary work. The young officer attended all the performances by foreign theatrical companies and dreamed of founding a modem literature in Russia that would achieve the level of the leading literary countries in the West. If, however. Sumarokov was popular among many readers, his contemporary Mikhailo Lomonosov. who was to become a prominent Russian scientist and author, was not impressed Favoring civic themes in poetry Lomonosov disapproved of what he saw as Sumarokov’s frivolity. Sumarokov did not approve of Lomonosov’s “high style,” preferring to keep the language of his lyrical verses and fables close to spoken Russian.

The controversy between Sumarokov and Lomonosov is regarded as an important event in the rise of

Russian Classicism. In his Criticism of an Ode and Letter on Poetry Writing addressed to Lomonosov.

Sumarokov laid down the main principles of different genres of classicism, which was the prevailing esthetic movement in European literature, particularly in France.

Classicism involved strict separation of genres clear composition and use of the style and aesthetic principles of ancient Greek and Roman classical an and literature. Of course. Sumarokov was under strong influence of Western literature, particularly French poets Racine and Voltaire. However. Sumarokov’s works acquired independent value with time. In his tragedies, the writer dealt with such problems as relations between the individual and society, the struggle between passion and duty. In his comedies, Sumarokov poked fun at the backward gentry: in his fables he exposed bribery, corruption, and bureaucratic oppression.

In the 1740s to 1770s, Sumarokov achieved five firsts. In 1747 he published the first Russian play, becoming Russia’s first playwright. In 1756 he became the director of Russia’s first professional theater, which mostly performed his tragedies and comedies. In 1759. Sumarokov began to edit Russia’s first literary journal, Industrious Bee. In 1763, having published his Parables, he became Russia’s first fable writer. And finally, he was the author of Russia’s first opera.

Sumarokov’s contribution to the founding and further development of Russia’s first professional theater was outstanding. He combined the duties of director, stage manager, playwright, and tutor of actors. The theater was chronically short of funds, and Sumarokov often spent his own money on the theater’s needs.

Nevertheless, Sumarokov was disliked by many officials, and finally, in 1761, he was forced to leave the theater he had founded virtually singlehanded and loved so much. He was so angry he vowed never to write a play again in his life. Fortunately, he broke the vow very soon.

Sumarokov soon became the chief contributor to Industrious Bee. In particular, he published translations of Voltaire and Jonathan Swift. In the mid-1770s Sumarokov wrote a series of satirical comedies.

Earlier, in 1769, Sumarokov had moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow Here he wrote the play for which he was perhaps best known, False Demetrius This tragedy was based on historical events of the early 17th century.