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“…that surging social conscience which must in the end redeem Russia”

September 30, 2014

To introduce Vladimir Korolenko (1853-1921) to an American audience in 1907, someone at the magazine Current Opinions wrote:

Its author, Vladimir Korolenko, is the editor of the influential St. Petersburg magazine, the Russkaya [sic] Bogatstvo, and may claim the distinction of having “discovered” Gorky. He is characterized as an exponent of [“]social pity” and is said to “personify more than any one else that surging social conscience which must in the end redeem Russia.” He has been a member of the two Dumas which have been waging war for popular rights. (577)

This led into the story “The Shades” (Тени, 1889-90), translated by Thomas Seltzer (1875-1943). I haven’t been able to find anything about Korolenko being a member of the Duma anywhere else (though I did come across an article about Korolenko opposing the death penalty in The New York Times in 1910).

Restoration of a photograph of Vladimir Galaktionovich Korolenko taken in Nizhny Novgorod in the 1890s

Restoration of a photograph of Vladimir Galaktionovich Korolenko taken in Nizhny Novgorod in the 1890s

Maksim Gor’kii’s memoirs about Lev Tolstoi and Chekhov are famous, and he also wrote about Korolenko. In 1889 Gor’kii went to Nizhny Novgorod and met the already established Korolenko, who became a mentor to him — after he had tried to stop and see Tolstoi on the way, but found that Tolstoi was not at home (541). According to Barry P. Scherr, Gor’kii’s writings about Korolenko weren’t the same kind of memoirs as those about his more famous contemporaries, but something closer to a continuation of Gor’kii’s autobiography, partly because “Korolenko […] has a difficult time making it into this work that is supposedly devoted to him” (541). Another reason is that Gor’kii saw himself as so unlike Tolstoi, Chekhov, and Leonid Andreev that his pieces about them are full of conflict and tension, while Gor’kii and Korolenko had more in common (533-38). Not everything, though:

Korolenko was hardly afraid to express ideas, but his literary works on the whole are less tendentious than many of Gorky’s. Professionally, Gorky was far more engaged with the literary and cultural movements of his day, virtually from the start seeming to seek fame and the role of a public figure. Korolenko, except for a relatively brief St. Petersburg interval that ended in 1900, largely remained outside the mainstream literary centers and avoided the limelight. Following a Far Eastern exile, he lived for eleven years in Nizhny Novgorod and went on to spend the final two decades of his life in Poltava. He typically kept his distance from circles of writers, coming to Petersburg primarily for special events or to attend to editorial matters. Gorky, in contrast, gravitated toward the center. (534)

Before the October Revolution, Gor’kii was part of a group of young radicals who “looked on Korolenko’s work with some suspicion,” finding the older Populist didn’t go far enough in his politics (540). After the revolution, Gor’kii came to value Korolenko’s “quiet voice of a wise man who knows perfectly well that all wisdom is relative and that there is no eternal truth” (540-41). The two had a “spirited correspondence” in 1920-21 about Korolenko’s criticism of, and Gor’kii’s doubts about, the revolution (538). In a way subtle enough to get past the censors, Gor’kii uses his reminiscences about Korolenko to “[underscore] his support for Korolenko’s critiques of the excesses carried out by the new regime” (549).

In Scherr’s telling, Korolenko comes across as an extremely sympathetic figure, who spent his time “defending groups that were persecuted for their beliefs and attacking officials who abused their authority” and was exiled by the tsarist authorities (535); wrote what must have been risky letters to Lunacharskii and other Bolshevik officials criticizing Bolshevik policies and trying to intercede to help victims of Bolshevik persecution (536-37); and at the same time was praised by Gor’kii for “describing life as it is, without the precepts of any ideology, in contrast to those who saw the world through the lens of long-held beliefs” (541).

See Scherr’s “Reshaping the Past: Gorky’s Reminiscences of Korolenko,” The Russian Review 73.4 (2014): 532-49 (gated link). Scherr also compared several translations of Oblomov a few years ago.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2014 9:29 am

    He was definitely not a member of the Duma (I’ve just checked the membership lists), nor would one expect him to be, but one also doesn’t expect accuracy about things Russian in English-language periodicals. The mistake may arise from a mangling of something like this: “Длительное пребывание в Петербурге дало … возможность посетить заседание первой Государствен­ной думы, посвященное вопросу о смертной казни.”

    • September 30, 2014 9:35 am

      Thanks! I thought it must be something like that, and/or confusion with another Korolenko who was a member (if there was one).

      • September 30, 2014 10:16 am

        Nope, no Korolenkos in the first two Dumas, anyway.

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