Leonid Leonov Essay - Critical Essays

Leonov, Leonid


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."

Principal Works

Dereviannaia koroleva (short stories) 1923
Barsuki [The Badgers] (novel) 1924
Rasskazy (short stories) 1926
Gibel' Egorushki (short stories and novellas) 1927
Vor [The Thief] (novel) 1927; revised edition, 1959
Provintsialnaya istoriya [A Provincial Story] (drama) 1928
Untilovsk (drama) 1928
Sot' [Soviet River] (novel) 1929
Sarancha [The Locusts] (novella) 1930; published in journal Turkmenovedenie; also published in journal Krasnaya Nov' as Saranchuki, 1930
Usmirenie badadoshkina [The Taming of Badadoshkin] (drama) 1930
Skutarevski [Skutarevsky] (novel) 1931

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Maxim Gorky (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: A foreword to Soviet River, translated by Ivor Montagu and Sergei Nolbandov, 1932. Reprint by Hyperion Press, 1973, pp. v-vi.

[One of the former Soviet Union's most popular authors, Gorky is considered one of the framers and foremost exponents of Socialist Realism. In the following essay, which was originally published in 1932, Gorky remarks on Leonov's artistic development.]

I am not a critic and I do not feel inclined to 'explain' an artist; I well remember that when critics undertook to 'explain' me, they attributed to me intentions of which I was innocent and deeds I had never done. All that is said below is just a note by an old writer on his young...

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Helen Muchnic (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "Leonid Leonov," in From Gorky to Pasternak: Six Writers in Soviet Russia, 1961. Reprint by Vintage Books, 1966, pp. 276-303.

[A Russian-born American educator and critic, Muchnic has written extensively on Russian literature. In the following excerpt originally published in 1961, she remarks on Leonov's influences and his artistic development.]

In 1932 an article on Leonov in the Soviet Encyclopedia spoke disparagingly of his early work as having been "abstract" in the manner of the Symbolists and influenced by Dostoevsky, and congratulated him on having "surmounted" Dostoevsky. Leonov, then thirty-three years old, had been publishing for about ten years. He...

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Vera Alexandrova (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Leonid Leonov (1899–)," in A History of Soviet Literature: 1917–1964, From Gorky to Solzhenitsyn, translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1963. Reprint by Anchor Books, 1964, pp. 203-21.

[A Russian-born critic, Alexandrova originally published the book from which the following excerpt is taken in 1963. Below, she provides an overview of Leonov's career, focusing on his novels.]

Many young writers begin their literary careers with a work they call a novel. On closer acquaintance it quickly becomes obvious that their book can scarcely be called a novel by the standards normally set for this literary form. "In order to construct a novel," said Chekhov, "it is necessary...

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R. D. B. Thomson (essay date April 1966)

SOURCE: "Leonid Leonov," in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. II, No. 2, April, 1966, pp. 264-73.

[In the essay below, Thomson examines themes of flight, genius, and morality in Leonov's works.]

Leonid Leonov (born 1899), novelist and playwright, might seem to be the most conventional of Soviet writers. He has written a novel about the Civil War (The Badgers, 1924) and another (The Thief, 1925–7) about the NEP period; in the thirties he produced a novel (The River Sot', 1930) about industrialisation, and devoted another (The Road to the Ocean, 1933–5) to the new "positive hero" of socialist realism. The Second World War drew three...

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Leonid Leonov with Roland Opitz (interview date 1972)

SOURCE: An interview, translated by David Marks, in Soviet Literature, No. 10, 1975, pp. 174-82.

[The following interview was conducted in East Germany in 1972 and later published in Sinn und Form and Literaturnaya Rossia. Below, Leonov discusses his writing process and the themes that interest him.]

[Opitz]: Leonid Maximovich, we should like to talk to you about your writing. First of all, may we ask you about the way your novels are conceived. What inspires you to write: experiences or images, ideas or observations?

[Leonov]: I must say that I do not think in political or philosophical categories. I lived in the times I...

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Marc Slonim (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Leonid Leonov: The Psychological Novelist," in Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems 1917–1977, second revised edition, Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 198-212.

[A Russian-born American critic and educator, Slonim wrote extensively on Russian literature. In the following excerpt, he provides an overview of Leonov's works, focusing on psychological themes, and argues that Leonov placated official Soviet tastes to the detriment of his talents.]

In introducing Leonov to the Soviet readers of the 'twenties Gorky called him a disciple of Dostoevsky. What made him say this was not any similarity of ideas—Leonov did not share the political and...

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George Harjan (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Leonov's Early Prose" and "Re-evaluation of Values: Second Version of The Thief and Evgenia Ivanovna," in Leonid Leonov: A Critical Study, Arowhena Publishing Co., 1979, pp. 11-25, 181-90.

[An educator, novelist, and critic, Harjan has written extensively on Russian literature. In the following excerpt, he surveys Leonov's early stories, discusses differences between the first and second versions of The Thief, and remarks on Evgenia Ivanovna.]

Leonov stated that his entrance into literature began with a story called "Buryga" ("Buryga"); most editions of his collected works open with this short story. A great deal of effort has been spent...

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Harold B. Segel (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "The Gathering Clouds: On the Eve of War" and "The War Years," in Twentieth-Century Russian Drama: From Gorky to the Present, Columbia University Press, 1979, pp. 295-304, 305-17.

[An American educator and critic, Segel has written extensively on Russian literature. In the following excerpt, he discusses The Orchards of Polovchansk and The Invasion, two of Leonov's plays.]

International events in the 1930s were followed with intense interest in the Soviet Union. The triumph of fascism in Italy and Germany and the Japanese invasion of China were viewed as ominous developments of profound potential danger to the Soviet state. The defeat of the...

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Leonid Leonov with Alexander Lysov (interview date 26 April 1983 and 20 June 1987)

SOURCE: An interview in Soviet Literature, translated by Evgeni Filippov, No. 5, 1989, pp. 161-65.

[In the following interview, which is based on talks between Leonov and Lysov that took place on April 26, 1983, and June 20, 1987, Leonov remarks on the difficulty of writing and the place of art in the twentieth century.]

Everyone entering Leonov's house leaves the world's mundanities and vanities on the doorstep. The personality of the owner, the feeling of concern he exudes, the time that seems to flow at a different pace in his study lined with books—ancient tomes, "books constantly in use" with worn gilded bindings, and the latest publications and...

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Valentin Kovalyov (essay date November 1986)

SOURCE: "Leonid Leonov's Path," in Soviet Literature, No. 484, November, 1986, pp. 143-49.

[In the essay below, Kovalyov provides a brief overview of Leonov's career and remarks on the themes of his major novels.]

Leonid Leonov is a remarkable writer, a craftsman who has left an important mark in the history of Soviet literature.

The characters he has created (Skutarevsky, Kurilov, Vikhrov, Fyodor Talanov, Vekshin, Evgenia Ivanovna, Gratsiansky, Chikelev) are comparable in stature to the major characters in Russian and world classical literature. They give an idea of this nation and its complex internal development.

Leonid Leonov was...

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The Times, London (obituary date 11 August 1994)

SOURCE: An obituary in The Times, London, August 11, 1994, p. 17.

[In the obituary below, the critic provides an overview of Leonov's career.]

Leonid Leonov, one of the major literary figures of Soviet Russia, received two Stalin Prizes, and was a senior member of the Praesidium of the Union of Soviet Writers. In the 1930s he was a fiction editor of the leading journal Novy Mir. Maxim Gorki spoke of his "strong, clear, juicy prose", and Edmund Wilson wrote that he was possessed of "a literary sophistication very rare in Soviet literature".

But, while widely accepted in the Soviet Union (his books have been published there in editions amounting...

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Further Reading


Gibian, George. "Versions of a Soviet Inferno." In Interval of Freedom: Soviet Literature During the Thaw, 1954–1957, pp. 106-44. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1960.

Discusses Alexander Gratsiansky, the principal antagonist of The Russian Forest, as an example of the negative Soviet character type "closest to the old-fashioned Stalinist villains."

Klimenko, Michael. Review of Literatura i vrem'ja, by Leonid Leonov. Books Abroad 39, No. 3 (Summer 1965): 360-61.

Remarks favorably on Leonov's collection of essays dealing with literary...

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