Leonid Leonov Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leonid Leonov 1899–1994

(Full name Leonid Maximovich Leonov) Russian novelist, dramatist, short story writer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Leonov's career.

A major figure in Soviet literature, Leonov is known for works in which he explored political and social issues in post-revolution Soviet society. 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. Although Leonov supported the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and was committed to Communism throughout his life, he nonetheless openly explored the realities and hardships associated with radical social change. Employing complex symbolism, extensive figurative language, and stream-of-consciousness narrative techniques, Leonov was once described by noted Russian author Maxim Gorky as "a master of his craft" who "deftly [chose] from the inexhaustible riches of our language precisely those words of which the illustrative and musical magic is most convincing, excluding from among them every superfluous element." Leonov's works are acknowledged for their insightful depiction of the Russian character, and for this reason they have been compared to those of Russian masters Fedor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, and Ivan Turgenev.

Biographical Information

Leonov was born in Moscow. His father was a poet and journalist who was arrested for anti-Tsarist activities and later exiled to Archangel, where he published a newspaper. Educated in Moscow, Leonov later worked for his father's newspaper as a theater critic and proofreader. During the Russian Civil War—which lasted from the mid-1910s into the early 1920s and involved "Red" Soviet forces, who gained decisive power in the October 1917 Revolution, fighting off "White" Russian anti-Communist insurgents—Leonov served in the Red Army, primarily as a war correspondent. He edited the newspaper of the Fifteenth Inzenskaia Division in 1920 and worked for the newspaper of the Moscow Military District from 1921 to 1922. After his demobilization, he published a short story collection, Dereviannaia koroleva (1923), but his first real success came in 1924 with the publication of his novel Barsuki (The Badgers). The subsequent success of Vor (1927; The Thief) brought him a measure of political as well as artistic success. "He had arrived," as R. D. B. Thomson has 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, but with the emergence of socialist realism, a Marxist aesthetic theory calling for the didactic use of literature, art, and music to develop social consciousness in the evolving socialist state, and the beginning of the Stalinist purges, Soviet writers suffered more intense scrutiny. These developments had dramatic implications for Leonov's career. Leonov's fifth novel, Doroga na okean (1935; Road to the Ocean), 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 Metel (1939; The Snowstorm) was suppressed in 1940 during rehearsals for its Moscow premiere. Except for the novella Vziatie Velikoshumska (1944; The Taking of Velikoshumsk), Leonov did not publish any new extended prose works until 1953—the year of Stalin's death—when he published Russkii les (The Russian Forest). He instead devoted his efforts during this period to dramas. From 1946 to 1970, Leonov served as a Deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. A substantially revised version of The Thief was issued in 1959, and in 1963 he published Evgenia Ivanovna, a novel which he had begun 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 died in Moscow in 1994.

Major Works

The central theme in Leonov's 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 guerilla warfare against Soviet officials and the Red Army. Leonov used this story to address the conflict between the urban proletariat and the peasantry. The major figures in the novel are brothers: Semyon, who returns to the countryside after a brief stay in Moscow and becomes the leader of the partisans, and Pavel, who remains in Moscow after leaving his home in the village and becomes the commander of a Red Army unit. Pavel is able to explain the complexities of the revolution to his brother and finds a peaceful solution to the conflict. In the words of Valentin Kovalyov, "Pavel distils the features of the hero of the time, a revolutionary, a man of great inner strength and strongly-held convictions." The Thief, a psychological novel set in 1920s Moscow, centers on Vekshin, a Bolshevik and veteran of the Civil War who, confused by the New Economic Policy, decides that his wartime efforts were in vain and becomes a thief in order to subvert what he sees as an economy based on private property and dominated by "enemies of the revolution." Vekshin longs for moral certainty even as he commits immoral acts and eventually realizes the fallacy in his behavior. Much of the story is narrated by Firsov, a participant in the story as well as a writer who is writing a book about the characters in the novel; the story unfolds on two planes—the "real" events and Firsov's literary version. In 1959 Leonov published a revised version of the novel. One of the major differences is Leonov's depiction of Vekshin. In the first version, he elicited Firsov's sympathy, but in the second the protagonist has been stripped of his favorable qualities and, as quoted by Vera Alexandrova from the revised version, "we graphically see the futility of Firsov's attempts … to save the image of Vekshin, which until recently still held his sympathy—even if somewhat shaken—but which is now almost hateful to him." Leonov's next major work was Sot' (1929; Soviet River), an epic, socio-political novel set in a remote northern province where a factory is being built. Concerned with the industrialization of the countryside, the story dramatizes the conflict between the forces of Russia's future, symbolized by the Soviet leaders who are organizing the factory's construction, and those of Russia's antiquity, symbolized by the hermit monks who for centuries have lived in the forest and perpetuated old customs and beliefs. Ultimately, the factory builders succeed in overcoming both the ignorance of the people and the obstacles of nature. Marc Slonim has observed that for Leonov, Soviet River depicts "the blind irrational forces man must control within and outside himself." The action in Road to the Ocean centers on a conspiracy against the government and spans two years, 1933 and 1934. It's multi-leveled plot is interrupted by numerous predictions for the future and flashbacks that range from the Civil War to the 19th century. The novel is also distinguished by the stream-of-consciousness technique Leonov used to describe the characters and by its numerous philosophical debates. The focus of Road to the Ocean, according to R. D. B. Thomson, is the "new 'positive hero' of socialist realism." The principal character is Kurilov—a party official and a man of great moral authority who had fought with the Bolsheviks in the Red Army; approaching death, he reflects on his career and the future and history of the Soviet state. The novel is also notable for its villain, a former White officer named Gleb Protoklitov, who tries desperately to conceal his past. Similar in scope to Road to the Ocean, The Russian Forest focuses on the struggle between two scientists over the best methods of forest management. The hero Vikhrov is honest, patriotic, and views the forest as a source of life, while the villain Gratsiansky embodies deception and death. Commenting on the characters, Slonim has observed that Leonov's in-depth exploration of Gratsiansky "is accompanied by the confrontation of past and present in the light of Russia's historical heritage, by the opposition of the rational and the elemental, of self-centered egotism and creative collectivism—in short by all Leonov's favorite themes." The struggle between the two men is an allegorical one, representing their differences over what they feel would be the best government for Russia. Valentin Kovalyov has observed that the "image of the mighty forest occupying vast spaces of the great country is a symbol of the people, and its inexhaustible strength and vitality."

Critical Reception

Leonov was dedicated to the social and political causes of Communism, which, according to Slonim, "Leonov interpreted … idealistically, not in terms of a doctrine derived from Marx and Lenin but as one of the variations of radical humanism." Kovalyov described Leonov as a man of "passionate civic commitment," and Leonov himself once told Alexander Lysov that he "plants a tree for the sake of future generations with no hope of seeing it bear fruit." Critical discussion of Leonov's works often centers on themes of individual morality, happiness, and purity, and the relation of the individual to society. Commentators have noted that Leonov's villains are often more interesting than his heroes and that his works are sometimes overwritten. One of the most divisive questions among Leonov's critics has been his relationship to Dostoevsky. Many commentators have noted extensive similarities between the works of the two novelists; however, while some scholars 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. 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.'" Critics have also questioned whether Leonov was simply a dogmatist or a truly subversive writer who managed to escape severe repression. Remarking on the "seeming conventionality" of Leonov's career, 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."