Vassili Rozanov Essay - Critical Essays

Rozanov, Vassili


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.

Principal Works

O ponimanii [On Understanding] (nonfiction) 1886

Legenda o Velikon inkvizitore F. M. Dostoevskogo: Opyt kriticheskogo kommentariia [F. M. Dostoevsky's Legend of the Grand Inquisitor: An Attempt at a Critical Commentary] (nonfiction) 1894; published as Dostoevsky and the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, translated by Spencer E. Roberts, 1972

Literaturnye ocherki [Literary Sketches] (nonfiction) 1899

Religiia i kul'tura [Religion and Culture] (nonfiction) 1899

Priroda i istoriia [Nature and History] (nonfiction) 1900

V mire neiasnogo i nereshennogo [In the Realm of the Unclear and the Undetermined] (nonfiction) 1901

Semeinyi vopros v Rossii [The Family Question in Russia] (nonfiction) 1903

Okolo tserkovnykh sten [By the Church Walls] (nonfiction) 1906

Russkaia tserkov' i drugie stat'i [The Russian Church and Other Essays] (essays) 1906

Ital'ianskie vpechatleniia [Italian Impressions] (nonfiction) 1909

Kogda nachal'stvo ushlo … [When the Bosses Are Gone … ] (nonfiction) 1910

Liudi lunnogo sveta: Metafizika khristianstva [People of the Moonlight: Metaphysics of Christianity] (nonfiction) 1911; revised and expanded edition, 1913

Temnyi lik: Metafizika khristianstva [The Dark Face: Metaphysics of Christianity] (nonfiction) 1911

Uedinennoe (essays) 1912; published as Solitaria, 1927

Literaturnye izgnanniki [Literary Exiles] (nonfiction) 1913

Opavshie list'ia (nonfiction) 1913; published as Fallen Leaves, translated by S. S. Koteliansky, 1929

Sredi khudozhnikov [Among Artists] (nonfiction) 1914

Opavshie list'ia, korob vtoroi [Fallen Leaves, Second Basket] (nonfiction) 1915

Apokalipsis nashego vremeni [The Apocalypse of Our Time] (nonfiction) 1917-1918

Essays in Russian Literature, The Conservative View: Leontiev, Rozanov, Shestov [edited, translated, and with an introduction by Spencer E. Roberts] (essays) 1968

The Apocalypse of Our Time, and Other Writings [edited and with an introduction by Robert Payne and Nikita Romanoff] (nonfiction) 1977

Four Faces of Rozanov: Christianity, Sex, Jews, and the Russian Revolution [translated and with an introduction by Spencer E. Roberts] (nonfiction) 1978


D. H. Lawrence (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: “On Dostoievsky and Rozanov,” in Russian Literature and Modern English Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Donald Davie, The University of Chicago Press, 1965, pp. 99-103.

[In the following review of Solitaria, originally published in 1936, Lawrence finds Rozanov's “Russianizing” tiresome, but admits the his work shows promise.]

We are told on the wrapper of this book [Solitaria] that Prince Mirsky considered Rozanov “one of the greatest Russians of modern times. … Rozanov is the greatest revelation of the Russian mind yet to be shown to the West.”

We become diffident, confronted with these superlatives. And when we have read E. Gollerbach's long “Critico-Biographical Study,” forty-three pages, we are more suspicious still, in spite of the occasionally profound and striking quotations from Solitaria and from the same author's Fallen Leaves. But there we are; we've got another of these morbidly introspective Russians, morbidly wallowing in adoration of Jesus, then getting up and spitting in His beard, or in His back hair, at least; characters such as Dostoievsky [have] familiarized us with, and of whom we are tired. Of these self-divided, gamin-religious Russians who are so absorbedly concerned with their own dirty linen and their own piebald souls we have had a little more than enough. The contradictions in them are not so very mysterious, or edifying, after all. They have a spurting, gamin hatred of civilization, of Europe, of Christianity, of governments, and of everything else, in their moments of energy; and in their inevitable relapses into weakness, they make the inevitable recantation; they whine, they humiliate themselves, they seek unspeakable humiliation for themselves, and call it Christ-like, and then with the left hand commit some dirty little crime or meanness, and call it the mysterious complexity of the human soul. It's all masturbation, half-baked, and one gets tired of it. One gets tired of being told that Dostoievsky's Legend of the Grand Inquisitor “is the most profound declaration which ever was made about man and life.” As far as I'm concerned, in proportion as a man gets more profoundly and personally interested in himself, so does my interest in him wane. The more Dostoievsky gets worked up about the tragic nature of the human soul, the more I lose interest. I have read the Grand Inquisitor three times, and never can remember what it's really about. This I make as a confession, not as a vaunt. It always seems to me, as the Germans say, mehr Schrei wie Wert.

And in Rozanov one fears one has got a pup out of the Dostoievsky kennel. Solitaria is a sort of philosophical work, about a hundred pages, of a kind not uncommon in Russia, consisting in fragmentary jottings of thoughts which occurred to the author, mostly during the years 1910 and 1911, apparently, and scribbled down where they came, in a cab, in the train, in the w.c., on the sole of a bathing-slipper. But the thought that came in a cab might just as well have come in the w.c. or “examining my coins,” so what's the odds? If Rozanov wanted to give the physical context to the thought, he'd have to create the scene. “In a cab,” or “examining my coins” means nothing.

Then we get a whole lot of bits, some of them interesting, some not; many of them to be classified under the heading of: To Jesus or not to Jesus! if we may profanely parody Hamlet's To be or not to be. But it is the Russian's own parody. Then you get a lot of self-conscious personal bits: “The only masculine thing about you—is your trousers”: which was said to Rozanov by a girl: though, as it isn't particularly true, there was no point in his repeating it. However, he has that “self-probing” nature we have become acquainted with. “Teaching is form, and I am formless. In teaching there must be order and a system, and I am systemless and even disorderly. There is duty—and to me any duty at the bottom of my heart always seemed comical, and on any duty, at the bottom of my heart, I always wanted to play a trick (except tragic duty). …”

Here we have the pup of the Dostoievsky kennel, a so-called nihilist: in reality, a Mary-Mary-quite-contrary. It is largely tiresome contrariness, even if it is spontaneous and not self-induced.

And, of course, in Mary-Mary-quite-contrary we have the ever-recurrent whimper: I want to be good! I am good: Oh, I am so good, I'm better than anybody! I...

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V. V. Zenkovskii (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: “V. V. Rosanov and V. F. Ehrn,” in Russian Thinkers and Europe, translated by Galia S. Bodde, American Council of Learned Societies, 1953, pp. 136-53.

[In the following essay, Zenkovskii examines the work of Rozanov and V. F. Ehrn in the development of modern Russian culture.]

The problem of European culture has maintained its vital significance during the entire period following the Crimean War, from 1855 to 1925. This has not only been due to the realization of the cultural and political interdependence of Russia and Europe, which has more than once assumed an extremely critical form; nor has it only been caused by the profound faith of an entire social...

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Renato Poggioli (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: “On the Works and Thoughts of Vasili Rozanov,” in The Phoenix and the Spider: A Book of Essays About Some Russian Writers and Their View of the Self, Harvard University Press, 1957, pp. 158-207.

[In the following essay, Poggioli provides a personal and professional account of Rozanov's life and work.]


The students of Vasili Rozanov have concentrated their attention on his strange biography and morbid psychology, on the novelty in form and content of his literary work, on the most picturesque and suggestive intuitions of his asystematic philosophy, on his contradictory political opinions and social views, finally, and most...

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George F. Putnam (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “Vasilii V. Rozanov: Sex, Marriage and Christianity,” in Canadian Slavic Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall, 1971, pp. 301-26.

[In the following essay, Putnam examines the liberalizing effects of Rozanov's thought on Russian society.]


Some of the major cultural issues of Russia and the West in the twentieth century received striking, thought-provoking formulation in the writings of Vasilii Rozanov (1856-1919). Certain central components of modern civilization, such as rationalism, institutionalized Christianity, repressive sex attitudes and the nuclear family, often questioned by isolated individuals and “Bohemians”, have...

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Heinrich A. Stammler (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Conservatism and Dissent: V. V. Rozanov's Political Philosophy,” in The Russian Review, Vol. 32, No. 3, July, 1973, pp. 241-53.

[In the following essay, Stammler examines Rozanov's constantly evolving concept of politics.]

Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as Vasily Rozanov's political philosophy if by philosophy we understand a closely reasoned, tightly knit, logically consistent system of thought. In these terms Rozanov was not a philosopher at all. In fact, after the failure of his first ambitious philosophic venture entitled About Understanding,1 which was a theory of the knowability of things, and after the premature death of...

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Heinrich A. Stammler (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Vasily Rozanov as a Philosopher,” in Modern Age, Vol. 28, Nos. 2-3, Spring-Summer, 1984, pp. 143-51.

[In the following essay, Stammler explores Rozanov's philosophy, finding that he fit into no definable category as a thinker.]

During his lifetime Vasily Vasilievich Rozanov (1856-1919) was one of the most controversial, most admired, and most reviled Russian authors of modern times. He stood in the crossfire of all the big guns of opinion in his time, from right to left, from religious to resolutely secular, from Christian and Orthodox to neo-pagan and cosmic-vitalistic. He has also been considered, appreciated, and analyzed as one of the outstanding...

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Anna Lisa Crone (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Rozanov and Autobiography: The Case of Vasily Vasilievich,” in Autobiographical Statements in Twentieth-Century Russian Literature, edited by Jane Gary Harris, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 36-51.

[In the following essay, Crone argues that Rozanov created a fictional self in his autobiographical writings, which serve to help him articulate thoughts and opinions on a wide variety of topics.]


In a recent discussion of modern autobiography Paul de Man wrote: “Empirically as well as theoretically, autobiography lends itself poorly to generic definition; each specific instance seems...

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Laura Engelstein (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Sex and the Anti-Semite: Vasilii Rozanov's Patriarchal Eroticism,” in The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-de-Siecle Russia, Cornell University Press, 1992, pp. 299-333.

[In the following essay, Engelstein explores Rozanov's anti-Semitism, which was manifested in his stereotyping of Jews as possessing great sexual prowess.]

Along with the evils of urban life and the possibility of proletarian aggression, Jews had figured throughout the nineteenth century as prime culprits in the symbolic drama of imagined national peril. They were construed as the opposite of the peasant: alien and cosmopolitan rather than native and rooted in the...

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Arseni Gulyga (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The ‘Anguish of Being Russian’: A Note on the Life and Works of Vassili Rozanov,” translated by Arch Tait, in Glas: New Russian Writing, No. 6, 1993, pp. 184-200.

[In the following essay, Gulyga examines contradictions in Rozanov's life and character, noting that such dualities are common to Russians.]

In April 1912 Maxim Gorky wrote to Vassili Rozanov:

I returned from deeply provincial Paris, where everyone poses as the life and soul of the party, to find your Solitary Jottings on my desk. I read it and I re-read it, and was filled, my dear Rozanov, with deep melancholy and anguish for us Russians. I don't...

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Stephen C. Hutchings (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Breaking the Circle of the Self-Domestication, Alienation, and the Question of Discourse Type in Rozanov's Late Writings,” in Slavic Review, Vol. 52, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 67-86.

[In the following essay, Hutchings examines the problem of discourse and genre in Rozanov's later writings.]

It is often the mark of a writer's sophistication and innovative powers that certain of his/her key works present difficulties in the area of genre. Pushkin's Evgenii Onegin, Dostoevskii's Diary of a Writer, Tolstoi's War and Peace and Belyi's Kotik Letaev serve as instructive examples from Russian literature. To this list one could certainly...

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Dmitry Khanin (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Beauty and the Beast: Vasilii Rozanov's Aesthetic and Moral Ideal,” in The Russian Review, Vol. 57, No. 1, January, 1998, pp. 72-86.

[In the following essay, Khanin argues that both Rozanov's moral and aesthetic ideals are rooted in “altruistic empathy” rather than a sense of moral duty.]

My ideal is tranquility, nobility, purity. How far away I am from it.

Vasilii Rozanov, Opavshie list'ia (1913)

Of what use is a philosopher who doesn't hurt anybody's feelings?


Vasilii Rozanov (1856-1919), a philosopher-turned-journalist and a proto-existentialist writer, is frequently...

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Further Reading


Gollerbach, E. “V. V. Rozanov: A Critico-Biographical Study.” In Solitaria, by V. V. Rozanov, pp. 3-43. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979.

Overview of Rozanov's life and career, quoting extensively from his works.


Lavrin, Janko. “Sex and Eros (On Rozanov, Weininger, and D. H. Lawrence).” In Aspects of Modernism from Wilde to Pirandello, pp. 141-59. London: Stanley Nott, 1935.

Argues that the erotic elements in the work of D. H. Lawrence can best be approached and understood through the “passionate metaphysical propensities” of Rozanov and Otto...

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