Yuri Olesha 1899-1960
(Also transliterated as Yuri Olyesha, Iurii Karlovich Olesha, Jurij Oleša, and Iurii Olesha) Russian fiction writer, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of Olesha's works from 1977 to 2001. For discussion of Olesha's career prior to 1977, see CLC, Volume 8.
Olesha's social satires and short stories exhibit imagination and intelligence. After an initial period of favor with the post-Revolutionary Stalinist government in the former Soviet Union, he was eventually declared a danger to the state and was arrested and forced to do hard labor. He has been praised by critics, however, for his distinctive literary style and particularly for introducing the element of slapstick into Russian literature. Olesha is best-known for his novel Zavist' (1927; Envy,) a parody of life under Stalinism.
Olesha was born on March 3, 1899, in Elisavetgrad (now Kirovograd), Ukraine, Russia. His early career was as a journalist for a railway newspaper, Gudok. After the Russian Revolution, Olesha at first found favor with the government of Josef Stalin. His novel Envy was a humorous look at the existing order. However, Olesha was eventually arrested as an enemy of the state after Tri tolstyaka (1928; The Three Fat Men), another novel of social criticism and a number of short stories and works in other genres were published. As a result, most of his serious literary output ended by the mid-1930s. After this time he produced theatrical adaptations of novels and children's puppet plays but never again returned to his place of literary prominence. He did, however, deliver a notable speech on artistic individualism at the First Soviet Writers' Congress in 1934. He died in Moscow, U.S.S.R., on May 10, 1960, at a time when critics were just beginning to rediscover his work.
Olesha's first novel, Envy, parodied the Stalinist regime, presenting a world devoid of human feelings, but with a comic touch reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin films. Another social critique was his novel The Three Fat Men, a fairy-tale version of the Russian Revolution. During the 1930s Olesha also produced a number of short stories. A play, Spisok blagodeianii (1931; A List of Assets), concerned an actress who becomes disillusioned with the decadence of the West. In spite of Olesha's forays into anti-Westernism, however, his work was mostly suppressed by the government. A 1934 screenplay, Strogii iunosha (translates as A Strict Young Man), was banned. After this time he was reduced to adapting novels for the stage and producing children's puppet plays. Posthumous publication of his short stories, new editions of his novels, and a volume of his reminiscences and correspondence, Ni dnia bez strochki (1965; No Day Without a Line), helped to bring Olesha's work back to public attention.
Olesha's Envy was initially praised by Soviet critics as a condemnation of bourgeois mentality. In time, however, Olesha's novels and stories were criticized as too “naturalist,” “formalist,” or “cosmopolitan”—in sum, as inimical to the collective ideals of the Soviet system. Following the death of Stalin in 1953, some of Olesha's works were gradually resurrected, albeit with caveats by establishment critics that he did not really mean some of his implied criticisms of the existing order. After Olesha's works began to be more available in the West in the 1960s and 1970s, modern critics approached his works in a variety of ways. Some praised his imagery and style while noting his ambivalence toward the ideals of Communism. Some compared him with other authors of his time, such as Marcel Proust, T. S. Eliot, and H. G. Wells. Others engaged in structural or semiotic analyses, commented on his cinematic techniques, or dwelled on his aesthetic principles. The sheer variety and the increasing volume of Olesha criticism bear witness to his growing importance as a subtle and creative spokesman for the embattled artist in a repressive society.