Mikhail Prishvin Essay - Critical Essays

Prishvin, Mikhail


Mikhail Prishvin 1873-1954

(Full name Mikhail Mikhailovich Prishvin) Russian essayist, short story writer, novelist, agronomist, naturalist, and ethnographer.

Prishvin is primarily known as a nature writer whose works evoke in realistic, lyrical detail the birds, animals, and plants of the Russian countryside, and its people, folklore, and language. While his career spanned several decades of a tumultuous period in Russian history, his writings remained largely unaffected by the revolutionary politics of Bolshevism or the socialist realism of Stalinist Russia. Instead, his sketches, short stories, and novels chronicle the life of the common people and their relationship to nature, treating in symbolic fashion universal themes of good and evil and the place of human beings in the cosmos. Although Prishvin's work influenced subsequent Russian artists, it has not been widely studied in Russia or abroad.

Biographical Information

Prishvin was born on an estate near Elets in Oryol province, the son of a well-to-do merchant who provided him with an upper-class education at Elets High School and Riga Polytechnicum. While at Riga, which he attended from 1893-1897, Prishvin's education was interrupted when he was jailed for his support of Marxist doctrines, a common occurrence among students of that era. He finished school at Leipzig University in Germany, where he graduated with a degree in agronomy. By 1904, Prishvin had returned to Russia to work in his chosen field. It was during this time that he began to write stories and sketches for children, and developed an interest in folk speech. In 1905, he was advised by an acquaintance to study folklore in northern Russia, and his first collection of sketches describing animal life and nature, V Kraiu Nepugannykh Ptits (In the Land of Unfrightened Birds), was written on this trip. Published in 1907, the sketches were well received, and Prishvin was invited to join a circle of writers that included the symbolist poet and novelist Alexei Remizov, whose neorealist work influenced his own. Prishvin continued to travel throughout Russia as a naturalist, hunter, and writer, recording people's stories and describing the beauties of the countryside. Although he wrote a number of other works before the revolution of 1917, including Za Volshebnym Kolobkom (The Bun), a folk tale with autobiographical detail, and Adam and Eve, a sketch based on the biblical story, he first attained prominence with the publication of his folkloric, autobiographical novels Kurymushka and its continuation published in serial form, Kashcheeva Tsep' (The Chain of Kashchey,). Prishvin's reputation grew steadily during the 1930s and 1940s with such works as Crane's Birthplace, sketches depicting unfulfilled love, Zhen'-shen', Koren'zhizni (Jen Sheng: The Root of Life,), a novel describing a man's search for a legendary Chinese plant, and Lesnaya Kapel' (Drops from the Forest), a series of lyrical prose poems on nature. By the 1950s, he had achieved widespread popularity and literary influence in his country, despite remaining outside mainstream Soviet politics. He died in Moscow on 16 January 1954.

Major Works

Prishvin's major works evolved from the lyrical sketch form, a type of poetic, philosophical essay that he developed in such early works as In the Land of Unfrightened Birds and The Bun. Using realistic, colorful detail and folklore motifs, these works explore such themes as the loss of childhood innocence, the nature of good and evil, unfulfilled love, the healing powers of work and creativity, and humans's link with nature. Mikhail Alpatov, nicknamed Kurymushka ("Little Rabbit"), a man of the common people, is the hero of Prishvin's first novel, through whom he gives a fictionalized account of his own early life and initiation into the sometimes frightening world of adults. Alpatov's story continues in The Chain of Kaschey, a cycle of ten tales that describe the young man's encounters with the evils of poverty, injustice, and greed. Such characters from Russian folklore as the wizard Kaschey, who enslaves humans in his chains of evil, and the fairy-tale maiden Marya Morevna, who must be rescued from Kaschey, symbolize for Alpatov the state of contemporary society. As had Prishvin, Alpatov tries and rejects a totally political solution to these universal problems. Later, after losing his first great love, he finds solace and hope in the creative forces of life and in such important but mundane work as draining swamps for the Russian people. In Crane's Birthplace, a cycle of sketches, Prishvin expands on this theme of lost love, and through a depiction of life in the country, delineates his philosophy of the place of humans in the cosmos.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, critics deemed Prishvin the best writer on nature to emerge from prerevolutionary and Soviet Russia, citing the abundance of natural detail in his works. Later critics acknowledged the influence on subsequent Russian artists of his simple, concrete language and syntax derived from folk speech, his origination of the lyrical sketch form, and his cosmic themes. While Prishvin is relatively unknown today, the critic Marc Slonim states that the writer's "whole outlook is so very Russian, his stories and fairy tales are so akin to folklore, his descriptions convey so strongly the smell of Russian fields and forests, and he gives his reader such a perfect image of the country's vastness and its inexhaustible vitality, that he must be ranked as high as & Remizov and be considered a worthy follower of Tolstoy."

Principal Works

V Kraiu Nepugannykh Ptits [In the Land of Unfrightened Birds] (sketches) 1907

Za Volshebnym Kolobkom [The Bun] (folk tale) 1908

Adam and Eve (sketch) 1909

Kurymushka (novel) 1924

The Springs of Berendey (short stories) 1925

Kashcheeva Tsep' [The Chain of Kashchey] (novel) 1930*

Crane's Birthplace (sketches) 1932

Zhen'-shen', Koren' zhizni [Jen Sheng: The Root of Life] (novel) 1932

Facelia (sketches) 1940

Undressed Spring (sketches) 1940

Lesnaya Kape'' [Drops from the Forest] (prose poems) 1943

Collected Works. 6 vols. (sketches, novels, short stories, folk tales) 1956-57

*First published in serial form, 1923-1928.


Vera Alexandrova (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Mikhail Prishvin (1873-1954)," in A History of Soviet Literature: 1917-1964, From Gorky to Solzhenitsyn, translated by Mirra Ginsburg, Anchor Books, 1964, pp. 222-35.

[In the following essay, which was first published in Russian in 1963, Alexandrova offers an overview of Prishvin's life and works.]

Among the writers of the older generation who had won their literary fame before the revolution of 1917, but had later become an organic part of Soviet literature, we must name, first and foremost, the late Mikhail Prishvin.

In his autobiography, written for the anthology Writers (edited by V. Lidin, Moscow, 1928), Prishvin relates only a few basic facts about his life:

Out of my childhood, adolescence, and early youth I fashioned a tale which I have not yet altogether finished living, and which gives me great joy. The title of this autobiographical tale is Kurymushka. It would be tedious now to talk again about that period. My youth was revolutionary—the customary youth of the Russian intellectual. I belonged to the circle of the archaic Bolshevik, the well-known Vassily Danilovich Ulrikh. After serving a prison term in Riga, I went to Leipzig, where I studied agronomy at the university. Returning to Russia, I engaged in agronomic work for a year and a half. The special literature in this field still retains from that period [1904] a bulky work on Potatoes in Field and Garden Culture and several pamphlets and articles. At the same time I devoted myself to the study of folk speech. In 1905 I abandoned forever the profession of an agronomist and went north, where I wrote the book In the Land of the Unfrightened Birds.

In this autobiographical sketch Prishvin does not speak of his first story, "Sashok," published in a children's magazine, Rodnik, in 1906. We might also have omitted to mention it if the writer had not used its plot again in the story "At the Burnt Stump," which appeared in the magazine Apollon in 1910. Later the same plot—about the hunter and dreamer Gusyok—was developed for a third time in the opening part of the long autobiographical epic The Chain of Kashchey, which began to appear in print in 1923.

Prishvin's first story, "Sashok," went unnoticed by the critics. The writer won recognition only after the publication of his book of sketches In the Land of the Unfrightened Birds (1906). This book has its own curious history. When he was still working as an agronomist, Prishvin began to write stories and sketches for children. Soon afterward he went to live in Petersburg. Here he met the future academician and ethnographer. N. Onchukov, who advised him to go north to study and record folklore. Prishvin went to Vyg Lake, in the province of Arkhangelsk. When he returned, he brought with him the manuscript of the book of sketches. The book was not merely noticed; it produced a great impression.

Soon afterward the writer Alexey Remizov brought Prishvin into a circle of young decadent writers, who influenced him to some extent. Inwardly, however, they remained alien to him. Among the writers who exerted a lasting influence on him, he mentions only Lermontov, Tyutchev, Aksakov, and Lev Tolstoy.

Prishvin's second book, The Bun, utilizes for its plot the famous Russian folk tale about a bun (Kolobok). Out of a handful of flour, an old woman bakes a bun and puts it on the window sill. The bun jumps down from the window, rolls across the house and into the street, and begins to wander over the world, becoming a symbol of free and footloose wandering. Prishvin's bun encounters on its way many other folk-tale characters—Marya Morevna, Kashchey the Deathless, Baba-Yaga. The Bun begins in the spirit of a fairy tale; written on two levels—fairy tale and autobiography—it is imbued with fine lyricism. In this book Prishvin introduces himself for the first time as a lyrical hero. His goal is to realize his dreams of a new, happy, and beautiful world, where the childhood vision may be reborn within the hero himself in all its unspoiled freshness and integrity. And foremost among Prishvin's dreams is the desire for freedom of thought and for creative freedom.

It was of this book that Alexander Blok said that it was not poetry, but added a moment later: "No, it is poetry, and something else as well." Prishvin refers to this comment in his essay "Baring the Method," in the book Crane Homeland. After long reflection on the meaning of Blok's "something," Prishvin came to the conclusion that a sketch or an essay always contains two elements: the writer begins with direct observation of people and nature; some of this he succeeds in condensing into poetic images, the rest is presented as direct material, inter-woven with his comments and ideas. Prishvin started out on his literary path by combining elements of the folk tale with original philosophic lyricism. Such a synthesis of two entirely different genres in the essay had never been attempted in Russian literature before.

Among the works published by Prishvin before the revolution of 1917, one must name Adam and Eve (1909), The Black Arab (1910), At the Walls of the Unseen City (1907), Nikon Starokolenny (1907), and The Beast of Krutoyarsk (1907).

In contrast to other writers, who are loath to offer autobiographical data, Prishvin willingly and even joyously talks about his life. In addition to the brief essay written for the anthology Writers, we know of four other autobiographical sketches, each of them containing pages of in-comparable freshness and perfection. In "The Hunt after Happiness," (included in the book Crane Homeland), the writer tells of the mistake he had made shortly before the revolution in building a house on the plot of land he had inherited from his mother. In the eyes of the peasants Prishvin was a pomeshchik, a "landowner." After the revolution, for a time, they did not molest the writer, respecting his mother's memory. Later, however, "strangers" arrived from "other parts," and soon Prishvin received an official order to vacate the premises. At the meeting which passed the resolution to evict him, a friend of the writer attempted to intervene in his behalf: "One day we may raise a monument to him, as we did to Pushkin." But others cried: "There you are! That's why we should throw him out now, so that we wouldn't have to bother raising monuments afterward."

In his essay "Baring the Method," Prishvin tells in detail how he arrived at his own literary genre and how it was, generally, that he chose such a "slow road to literature, through ethnography, by horsecart, as it were":

I came to literature at an age when a man no longer has any need to strike a pose, and without any thought of gaining a position in society.… I began to write in the era of superfluous people, of Chekhov characters. The absence of a way of life in which an artist's personality develops thoughtlessly, like a flower, was about to condemn me also to impotent meditation about the problem of moral reconciliation of life with one's childhood vision.…

Prishvin first described how he overcame this "impotent meditation" in his Adam and Eve (1909), in which he made use of the Biblical legend of the two Adams. According to this legend, the second Adam came into the world long after the first had sinned and suffered exile from Paradise, after he had multiplied, and his children had populated the earth. This second Adam became the Landless Adam; he took up the work of cultivating a narrow strip of land. The ocherk or "sketch" form developed by Prishvin was just such a "narrow strip of land." And one of the most characteristic qualities of his sketch is its rich suggestiveness, its wealth of "subtextual" content.

The introductory chapter of Prishvin's autobiographical prose epic The Chain of Kashchey sheds a good deal of light on Prishvin, the writer. In this chapter—"The Rabbit"—Prishvin describes a walk he took one autumn day, which led him past the country house where he had spent his childhood. As he looked at the house and the surrounding landscape, Prishvin was struck by the picture of "triple dying": everything around seemed to be dying—the house, the day, and the year, with its golden falling leaves. And in the midst of this, at the end of a long avenue strewn with maple leaves, on the ivied terrace, sat a rabbit. At first the presence of this rabbit seemed to the writer almost a deliberate mockery. He was at that time struggling with the idea of a novel in which he hoped to describe the house and the years of his youth spent in it. Many of the pictures were already formed in his mind, but he still had no central hero. And he asked himself: "Can it be that my beloved native land will not provide me with a hero? I thought of the many remarkable men born on this land. There, not too far away, lay the fields once plowed by Tolstoy; here were the woods where Turgenev had hunted; here Gogol had come to seek advice from the extraordinary old monk Amvrosy. How many great men had sprung from this black-earth region, but they seemed, indeed, to have come and gone like spirits, while the land was left all the poorer—exhausted, gutted with clay ravines, covered with dwellings unworthy of man, resembling heaps of manure."

It occurred to the writer that some little old peasant, who had done nothing in his lifetime beyond the humble planting of orchards in the ravines to hold down the soil, was perhaps a worthier hero for his novel than many of the great men who had left this land. Presently another idea came to Prishvin: it was not necessary to have a hero; the novel could do very well without him—"he can simply come out, like the rabbit, to sit for a few moments on the terrace, and the most grandiose events will follow."

When he reached this conclusion, Prishvin ceased to torment himself and began to write a story, told in the first person by his alter ego, Alpatov, whose childhood nickname was Kurymushka, a local expression meaning "Little Rabbit." Kurymushka was first published as a children's book. At the same time Prishvin began his major novel, The Chain of Kashchey, the separate parts of which he called "links."

The Chain of Kashchey was conceived as a cycle of povesti or "tales," linked by the events in the life of his principal character, Mikhail Alpatov, beginning with the period of Czar Alexander II and ending with the overthrow of Nicholas II. In a certain sense The Chain is a parallel to Gorky's Klim Samgin, and it helps us, to some extent, to see where Gorky had sinned in his work against the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia.

Prishvin is right, of course, in saying that The Chain of Kashchey grew out of sketches and essays. It is reminiscent of an antique patch-quilt, in which a multitude of pieces are sewn into one large fabric. It is not by chance that the narrative abounds in lyrical digressions addressed to the contemporary reader. Each digression is rich in allusions, which heighten the modern reader's interest in the tale of the distant past. Thus, in "The Green Door" (the sixth link), the author says that, in the days of Alpatov's youth, "there was a law for men of conscience in our land, which...

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Marc Slonim (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Mikhail Prishvin: The Nature Lover," in Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1964, pp. 105-11.

[In the following essay, Slonim discusses Prishvin's treatment of nature in his works.]

The main slogan of the industrial revolution promoted in Russia by the Communists was "the conquest of nature by man." The Party, repeating the statement of Bazarov, the nihilist hero of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, that "nature is not a temple but a workshop, and man is a toiler in it," hailed the struggle against elemental forces, and saw mankind's historical aim as changing and shaping the face of the created world according to...

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Ray J. Parrott, Jr. (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Questions of Art, Fate, and Genre in Mikhail Prishvin," in Slavic Review, Vol. 36, No. 3, September, 1977, pp. 465-74.

[In the following essay, Parrott describes Prishvin's use of various traditional Russian literary genres as sources for the new literary forms embodied in his works.]

It is customary in Soviet criticism of Mikhail Mikhailovich Prishvin (1873-1954) to speak of the unique blend of fact and fantasy, of science and art in his work. In fact, this view is not restricted to Soviet discussions of the writer's art. It is a reasonable view, if cautiously considered as no more than a convenient generality. Something of the same generalizing nature...

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Further Reading


"Flower Deer." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1796 (4 July 1936): 557.

Plot summary of Jen Sheng emphasizing its mysticism.

Huxley, Julian S. Foreword to Jen Sheng: The Root of Life, by Mikhail Prishvin, translated by George Walton and Philip Gibbons, pp. v-vii. 1936. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, Inc., 1973.

Appreciation of Jen Sheng.

Parrot, Ray J., Jr. "Evolution of a Critical Response: Mixail Prisvin." Russian Language Journal 31, No. 109 (Spring 1977): 101-23.

Comprehensive survey of Soviet critical reception of Prishvin's works.


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