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.