Mikhail Prishvin Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mikhail Prishvin 1873-1954

(Full name Mikhail Mikhailovich Prishvin) Russian essayist, short story writer, novelist, agronomist, naturalist, and ethnographer.

Prishvin is primarily known as a nature writer whose works evoke in realistic, lyrical detail the birds, animals, and plants of the Russian countryside, and its people, folklore, and language. While his career spanned several decades of a tumultuous period in Russian history, his writings remained largely unaffected by the revolutionary politics of Bolshevism or the socialist realism of Stalinist Russia. Instead, his sketches, short stories, and novels chronicle the life of the common people and their relationship to nature, treating in symbolic fashion universal themes of good and evil and the place of human beings in the cosmos. Although Prishvin's work influenced subsequent Russian artists, it has not been widely studied in Russia or abroad.

Biographical Information

Prishvin was born on an estate near Elets in Oryol province, the son of a well-to-do merchant who provided him with an upper-class education at Elets High School and Riga Polytechnicum. While at Riga, which he attended from 1893-1897, Prishvin's education was interrupted when he was jailed for his support of Marxist doctrines, a common occurrence among students of that era. He finished school at Leipzig University in Germany, where he graduated with a degree in agronomy. By 1904, Prishvin had returned to Russia to work in his chosen field. It was during this time that he began to write stories and sketches for children, and developed an interest in folk speech. In 1905, he was advised by an acquaintance to study folklore in northern Russia, and his first collection of sketches describing animal life and nature, V Kraiu Nepugannykh Ptits (In the Land of Unfrightened Birds), was written on this trip. Published in 1907, the sketches were well received, and Prishvin was invited to join a circle of writers that included the symbolist poet and novelist Alexei Remizov, whose neorealist work influenced his own. Prishvin continued to travel throughout Russia as a naturalist, hunter, and writer, recording people's stories and describing the beauties of the countryside. Although he wrote a number of other works before the revolution of 1917, including Za Volshebnym Kolobkom (The Bun), a folk tale with autobiographical detail, and Adam and Eve, a sketch based on the biblical story, he first attained prominence with the publication of his folkloric, autobiographical novels Kurymushka and its continuation published in serial form, Kashcheeva Tsep' (The Chain of Kashchey,). Prishvin's reputation grew steadily during the 1930s and 1940s with such works as Crane's Birthplace, sketches depicting unfulfilled love, Zhen'-shen', Koren'zhizni (Jen Sheng: The Root of Life,), a novel describing a man's search for a legendary Chinese plant, and Lesnaya Kapel' (Drops from the Forest), a series of lyrical prose poems on nature. By the 1950s, he had achieved widespread popularity and literary influence in his country, despite remaining outside mainstream Soviet politics. He died in Moscow on 16 January 1954.

Major Works

Prishvin's major works evolved from the lyrical sketch form, a type of poetic, philosophical essay that he developed in such early works as In the Land of Unfrightened Birds and The Bun. Using realistic, colorful detail and folklore motifs, these works explore such themes as the loss of childhood innocence, the nature of good and evil, unfulfilled love, the healing powers of work and creativity, and humans's link with nature. Mikhail Alpatov, nicknamed Kurymushka ("Little Rabbit"), a man of the common people, is the hero of Prishvin's first novel, through whom he gives a fictionalized account of his own early life and initiation into the sometimes frightening world of adults. Alpatov's story continues in The Chain of Kaschey, a cycle of ten tales that describe the young man's encounters with the evils of poverty, injustice, and greed. Such characters from Russian folklore as the wizard Kaschey, who enslaves humans in his chains of evil, and the fairy-tale maiden Marya Morevna, who must be rescued from Kaschey, symbolize for Alpatov the state of contemporary society. As had Prishvin, Alpatov tries and rejects a totally political solution to these universal problems. Later, after losing his first great love, he finds solace and hope in the creative forces of life and in such important but mundane work as draining swamps for the Russian people. In Crane's Birthplace, a cycle of sketches, Prishvin expands on this theme of lost love, and through a depiction of life in the country, delineates his philosophy of the place of humans in the cosmos.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, critics deemed Prishvin the best writer on nature to emerge from prerevolutionary and Soviet Russia, citing the abundance of natural detail in his works. Later critics acknowledged the influence on subsequent Russian artists of his simple, concrete language and syntax derived from folk speech, his origination of the lyrical sketch form, and his cosmic themes. While Prishvin is relatively unknown today, the critic Marc Slonim states that the writer's "whole outlook is so very Russian, his stories and fairy tales are so akin to folklore, his descriptions convey so strongly the smell of Russian fields and forests, and he gives his reader such a perfect image of the country's vastness and its inexhaustible vitality, that he must be ranked as high as & Remizov and be considered a worthy follower of Tolstoy."