Alexander Vasilievich Sukhovo-Kobylin was born in Moscow, Russia, on an estate belonging to his family, on September 17, 1817. His father, Vasily, was a colonel who had fought in the War of 1812 and was a well-read and a religious man. His mother, Marya, from the aristocratic Shepelev family, turned her Moscow home into a salon to which scholars, artists, and writers were drawn. She was a cultivated woman who was particularly interested in French philosophical literature, some of which she translated into Russian. All of her children achieved at least a modest degree of success; Alexander’s older sister Elizaveta was a well-known author in the later 1800’s (writing under the pen name of Evgeniya Tur), and his younger sister was a landscape painter of note.
Sukhovo-Kobylin excelled in philosophical studies at Moscow University, obtaining a gold medal for excellence in 1838. He was especially interested in the study of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, but he dropped his preoccupation with philosophy when he plunged into society life during the late 1830’s and early 1840’s. While on a visit to Paris, Sukhovo-Kobylin met Louise Simon-Dimanche and brought her back to Russia as his mistress. His subsequent passion for Countess Naryshkina altered his relationship with Louise, but before she was able to return to France, she was found brutally murdered on November 9, 1850. It was this murder and Sukhovo-Kobylin’s resultant involvement in the legal machinations of the case that provided him with the impetus to write his three great plays.
Although there were no signs of violence at Simon-Dimanche’s apartment, blood was found on the staircase of the private quarters of the house that Sukhovo-Kobylin shared with his parents, and he was arrested. Four of his house serfs, who had originally claimed to know nothing about the crime, confessed that it was they who had murdered her and cited her difficult personality as the reason for their action, but they retracted this statement after their conviction. According to Nina Brodiansky in a 1946 essay on Sukhovo-Kobylin, Efim Egorov, who was Simon-Dimanche’s coachman and the principal culprit in the affair, claimed that his confession had been obtained by police torture and by a bribe tendered by Sukhovo-Kobylin himself. Sukhovo-Kobylin was arrested for a second time in 1854 and was imprisoned for four months. As a result of family appeals and petitions to the grand duchess and to the new empress, the latter herself intervened. Sukhovo-Kobylin was acquitted of the crime, although many considered him guilty. Because his private papers were almost entirely destroyed in a fire on his estate in 1899, the details will always remain a mystery, and controversy has continued to surround the case.
Sukhovo-Kobylin’s life drastically changed as a result of the murder and the subsequent interminable investigation and harassment, and he withdrew from society to devote himself again to the study of philosophy. His experiences became the material from which he wrote his three plays. In them, he expressed his bitter vision of an evil and corrupt bureaucracy and his belief that an accident of fate can condemn the good while the evil triumph, a dark view of life reminiscent of Gogol.
Sukhovo-Kobylin was married twice, both times to foreigners. His later life was marked by financial difficulties resulting from his having given enormous sums as bribes to secure his freedom. He died in Beaulieu on the French Riviera in 1903 at the age of eighty-five, having finally tasted international recognition when The Death of Tarelkin was performed in French in Paris in 1902.