Vassili Rozanov Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Vassili Rozanov 1856-1919

Russian essayist, philosopher, and literary critic.

Rozanov was one of the most controversial figures in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Russian letters. Famous for his seemingly contradictory opinions, which he published in journals of both the extreme right and the extreme left, Rozanov introduced into Russian literature a style of writing that was characterized by stream-of-consciousness aphorisms and often shocking observations about religion, family, and sexuality. Officially banned in Russia during the Soviet era, Rozanov's works were not republished until the late 1980s. Nevertheless, they were studied widely by intellectuals and are credited with influencing many modern Russian writers.

Biographical Information

Rozanov was born in Vetluga, Kostroma Province, in 1856. His father died when Rozanov was five years old, and he and his siblings were raised by their mother, who spent most of her time working to support them. Nonetheless, the family lived in poverty, and the Rozanov children performed difficult labor around the house and yard. Consequently, Rozanov became extremely lonely and alienated, which later exercised a strong influence on his writings. Rozanov graduated from the Historical-Philological faculty of Moscow University in 1882. He taught at secondary schools in the Russian provinces until 1893, when he entered the St. Petersburg civil service. In school Rozanov had developed a fascination with the Russian writer Feodor Dostoevsky; in 1880 he married Dostoevsky's former mistress, Appolinaria Suslova. The couple remained together for six years. Despite the tempestuous nature of their relationship, Suslova refused to grant Rozanov a divorce. He spent the rest of his life in a common-law marriage with Varvara Rudneva. For years, Rozanov wrote for publications of radically different political angles: the ultraconservative Novoe vremya and the liberal Russkoe slovo. Rozanov supported many conservative government policies before the Russian Revolution, but he was still considered a blasphemer and pornographer. After the Revolution, Bolshevik leaders banned his works altogether, and he died in extreme poverty.

Major Works

While Rozanov first garnered critical recognition with his long essay O ponimanii (On Understanding; 1886), his Legenda o Velikon inkvizitore F. M. Dostoevskogo: Opyt kriticheskogo kommentariia (Dostoevsky and the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor; 1894) provided a radical interpretation of Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov that led to a widespread reevaluation of the philosophical presence throughout Dostoevsky's literary canon. Rozanov's other major works include Liudi lunnogo sveta: Metafizika khristianstva (People of the Moonlight: Metaphysics of Christianity; 1911), in which Rozanov openly discussed the topic of homosexuality and what he considered the homoerotic aspects of the Christian religion. A major point of Rozanov's thinking concerns human sexuality and his assertion that it should be considered natural and positive rather than proscribed by superficial codes of morality. Similarly, Rozanov believed that religious conventions such as vows of chastity and fasting violated fundamental human nature. Three of Rozanov's most influential works are Uedinennoe (Solitaria; 1912), Opavshie list'ya (Fallen Leaves; 1913), and Opavshie list'ia: Korob vtoroi (Fallen Leaves: Second Basket; 1915). All are written in a disjointed, aphoristic, and at times poetic style and address a variety of topics, but they are usually classified as confessional literature because they are composed largely of Rozanov's personal observations. Rozanov's last work, Apokalipsis nashego vremeni (The Apocalypse of Our Times; 1917-1918), is an extended, and again aphoristic, meditation on the Russian Revolution and what Rozanov saw as its eventual tragic consequences.

Critical Reception

Critics have pointed out that Rozanov erroneously assumed in Dostoevsky and the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor that Dostoevsky shared the ideas of his character Ivan Karamazov; the work is nonetheless regarded as seminal to further studies on Dostoevsky. Rozanov's volumes of aphorisms, coupled with his repeated attacks on Christianity, have often been compared with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche; in fact, he has been called the Russian Nietzsche. Although Rozanov's works were officially banned after the Revolution, and were unavailable in new editions until the late twentieth century, Russian intellectuals continued to study them, and they influenced much of Russian literature and thought in the twentieth century, particularly that of the symbolists.