Mikhail Artsybashev Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Mikhail Artsybashev was born in Kharkov Province, Russian Empire, in an aristocratic family that was partially of Polish and Tartar origin. He started his higher education in art, with a talent for caricature. He moved to St. Petersburg in 1898 and, after failing to enter the Academy of Fine Arts, abandoned his first vocation and devoted his life to writing.

He published his first works at age sixteen in provincial newspapers. His concentration on the seamy side of life and bold and candid depiction of the social conditions in Russia in the first decades of the twentieth century, especially the decaying morality and the slavery to tradition among the Russian ruling class, brought him both popularity with readers and ostracism by the authorities. His first successful work was a short novel, Smert’ Ivana Lande (1904; Ivan Lande, 1916), but the promising young author became extremely popular after the publication of Sanine, which developed a cultlike following, especially among young readers. For his candor in describing conditions, he was imprisoned briefly by the czarist government in 1912. He moved to Moscow the same year. After the Bolsheviks gained power, Artsybashev again got into trouble. This time he was accused of “immorality” in his works and of unnecessarily dwelling on the seamy side of Russian society, which was acceptable during the czarist era but “slanderous” in the reformist Bolshevik society. He was frequently in trouble with the authorities, so much so that he emigrated to Poland in 1923. Beset by ill health and financial problems, he died in 1927, reluctant to accept help from friends.

In his last years, he edited an anti-Soviet journal, Za svobodu (for freedom), but for all practical purposes, his literary career ended in 1917. His popularity with readers and literary critics waned after his death, and he began to be known as a second-rate writer. However, his significance in Russian literature in the first quarter of the twentieth century was considerable, and for that reason, he cannot be ignored. He was the spokesperson for a disillusioned generation, particularly the intellectuals, during the turmoil that led to a disastrous war in World War I and the ensuing revolution.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Mikhail Petrovich Artsybashev (ur-tsih-BAH-shihf) lived through some of the darkest years that Russia has known. As a writer he was affected by his troubled times and by the literary influence of Fyodor Dostoevski, and he is considered one of the most pessimistic writers of his era.

Artsybashev’s parentage was partially Tartar, and he early demonstrated a rebellious, nihilistic spirit. His early education was in art, and he had achieved some fame as a caricaturist when he turned to writing fiction and drama. Although he did not become recognized as a first-rank writer, his short stories, particularly his first one, “Pasha Tumanov” (1901), were popular. With the publication of his first novel, Sanine, in 1907, he became an overnight international sensation. The revolt against social traditions and the excessively vivid pictures of vice he presented appealed to his unsettled Russian readers, especially to the young people, who formed Sanin cults and organized their defiance of tradition and restraint. Sanine was written when Artsybashev was not yet thirty years of age, but his maturing years brought no relaxation of his frank, brutal, vision. The themes of his second novel, Breaking-Point include death, sexual irregularity, and suicide. The plays War and The Law of the Savage resemble the novels in tone, except that they have the advantage of being more direct in structure.

Artsybashev was imprisoned by the czarist government in 1912. After the revolution of 1917 he was almost equally unpopular with the Bolsheviks, even though he had written scathing stories about imperialistic tyranny. He was often berated for the “immorality” of his works, and in 1923 he left Russia permanently. After his departure his novels were often confiscated and burned, and his popularity declined. Although he never gained critical favor, his work cannot be dismissed. He had a direct style, a good sense of plot, and an attitude toward life which, if not widely accepted, must be understood for literary and historical reasons. As Janko Lavrin has pointed out, Artsybashev spoke for and to a demoralized intellectual and political generation. He died in exile at Warsaw, Poland, in 1927, still advocating his doctrines of individuality and the illusoriness of love.