Obituary: Leonid Leonov
Wednesday 10 August 1994
LEONID LEONOV was the patriarch of contemporary Russian literature and his death at the age of 95 years brings to a close the epoch of Soviet letters.
Leonov was born in Moscow in the last year of the 19th century, the son of a minor poet, Maxim Leonov, who was connected with revolutionaries and exiled to the northern city of Arkhangelsk. Political opposition and revolutionary activity at that time did not carry any social stigma, and Leonid, though the son of a political exile, studied at a Moscow high school, living with the family of his grandfather, a local trader. Solid pre-Revolutionary education and a respect for the classical Russian language always remained with him, marking him out among the less lucky representatives of the succeeding generations.
Leonov's first short stories were published in 1915 in Arkhangelsk newspapers. During the Civil War, he was called up and for two years served in the Red Army, first as a soldier, but soon as a journalist on one of the military newspapers. The experience of the war marked him forever, and in all his works one finds dramatic collisions and the acknowledgement of the force of instinct and subconsciousness in human behaviour.
Leonov came to public notice through such early works as Buryga and Tuatamur in the early 1920s. He became a well-known member of a very talented group of so-called 'fellow travellers', who were not so much promoted as tolerated by the Communist regime. Writers of the order of Isaak Babel, Boris Pil'niak and Yevgeny Zamiatin belonged to this tendency, which with great success applied the modernist stylistical achievements of Andrei Bely and Aleksei Remizov to the description of the stormy and often unbelievable revolutionary reality. But while his colleagues disappeared in the Gulag or exile, Leonov not only survived but became a pillar of the establishment and was showered with honours.
Leonov's literary reputation was established in the late 1920s with the novels Barsuki ('Badgers', 1924), and Vor ('The Thief', 1927). Both dealt with deep social and psychological collisions. The first deals with the anti-Communist partisans among the peasantry, the second describes a former Communist hero of the Civil War, who during the time of the Nep capitalist revival loses his moral bearings and slides into the criminal world. At that time Leonov was hailed as a writer in the mould of Dostoevsky, an overstatement in a period which liked to make them. In 1929 Leonov became the president of the Russian Union of Writers. After that, when in the 1930s Stalin's dictatorship put its iron grip on the life of the country, and especially on the intellectuals, Leonov started to write about the fulfilment of five-year plans and such topics, which were guaranteed to give excellent dividends in prizes and positions. However his novel Sot, on these unpromising subjects, has at least the redeeming feature of showing a genuine clash of the relentless industrialisation drive with the eternal order of nature. Another similar experiment, the play Polovchanskie sady ('Polovchansk gardens', 1938), was meant to be a socialist realist answer to the tragedy of Chekhov's Cherry Orchard and has since sunk into well-earned oblivion.
From the middle Thirties Leonov belonged to the leadership of the new Soviet Union of Writers. While never conspicuous in the many shameful campaigns of hounding independent-minded writers perpetrated by the union over many decades - indeed he was known to condemn these outrages in private - Leonov also avoided any public protests.
During the Second World War Leonov's play Nashestvie ('The Invasion') caught the patriotic mood of the moment and became very popular. However it was only in 1964, long after the war, that the author could publish his original version, where the main hero is a former Gulag inmate, released and sent to the front. While realistic enough for the 1940s - ie Marshall Rokossovsky, one of the outstanding Soviet commanders of the Second World War had just such a fate - this could not be stated in public during the Stalin years. He published a long novel about the war, Russkiy Les ('Russian forest', 1953), which received the Lenin Prize (formerly Stalin Prize) in 1957. Almost the main preoccupation of Leonid Leonov during his later years was to restore his previously censored works, hailed at the time as masterpieces, to their original condition. His masterpiece of the 1920s, Vor, which brought him fame, was published in his new version only in 1959. In 1938 Leonov had started to write the novel Evgenia Ivanovna, treating another subject taboo in the Soviet Union, namely the Russian emigration to the West, which comprised a large proportion of the intelligentsia of the country, but was able to publish it only in 1963. In fact, his own career could have easily become the subject of his Dostoevskian, tragic psychological novels.
However, though he managed to survive the dark ages, his efforts of restoring his work was hampered by age, and it is generally acknowledged that in later years his creative abilities drastically declined, so that he was much more revered than read. He will probably be remembered first and foremost as a writer of the 1920s. He will also keep his place in Russian literary history as the only writer whose active career spanned the whole period from the crash of the Russian double-headed eagle in 1917 to its reappearance in the 1990s. In his 95 years Leonov survived wars, terror, obscurantism, fanaticism and savage censorship. But whether the four Orders of Lenin, which this former friend and colleague of Babel and Pilniak received for the compromises which he had to make during the long night of Stalinism, were worth it all, remains doubtful.
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