It is said that when Tolstoy sent, anonymously, his first novel Childhood (1852) ― written during the Caucasus War and under the influence of Rousseau, Dickens and Sterne ― to The Contemporary magazine, his editor changed the title to History of My Childhood and that this change greatly angered the Russian writer. Later, Tolstoy recognized that his book indeed recounted his own experiences and those lived by his relatives.
However surprising, Tolstoy was in fact the first major Russian author to combine autobiography with fiction in his depiction of his early years.
A long list of writers of all styles, including Gorky, Belyi, Kataev, Bunin, Marina Tsvetaeva and Nabokov, to name just a few, subsequently recalled and wrote about their childhoods following Tolstoy’s literary technique and his mythology of childhood in their autobiographies.
The child depicted by Tolstoy has much in common with the child described by Rousseau. Life in the city leaves only negative images in the boy’s consciousness. It is the countryside that remains in his soul and thus his memories and memoirs. His relation with nature plays an essential role in the idea that childhood innocence is a paradise lost. “Happy, happy unforgettable time of childhood! How can one not love, not cherish its memories?” wrote Tolstoy.
Aleksey Peshok, the character of Maxim Gorky’s ‘My Childhood’ (1913-1914), the first part of an autobiographical trilogy, doesn’t live in a Tolstoyan paradise. His infancy is deeply troubled by a virulent argument between the boy’s uncles over their patrimony, the harsh beatings meted out by his grandfather and the complex and difficult life of his own mother, all elements in a brutalizing environment that might have destroyed the boy’s spirit had it not been for the influence of his grandmother, a compassionate woman who cared for the unfortunate and had a great fondness for folk-tales and literature generally.
During Stalin’s reign, literature about childhood was used as a means to propagate socialism and its ideals. One of the most accomplished prose writers of this era was Valentin Kataev. In his writing, the narrative became epic and the transformation of the fairy tale hero from immature child to adult is part of the process of socialization and integration into the collective. Kataev’s ‘Son of the Regiment’ (1945), the story of an orphan boy adopted by an artillery regiment during the war, was an immense success, almost immediately made into a film.
Before and later, other authors, like Bunin in The Life of Arseniev (1930) and Nabokov in Speak Memory (1966), wrote about their childhood from exile. For both, infancy belonged to a pre-Bolshevik chapter where they lived as privileged children, a golden time stolen by the Russian Revolution of 1917. In his autobiography, Nabokov recounts that he learned English before Russian. The Nabokovs were an aristocratic Russian family with European tastes, keen on English goods like Pears soap, Golden Syrup, bath salts and puzzles, products they would buy at the famous English Shop on Nevsky Avenue in St. Petersburg where they lived.
In our own times, Russian literature about childhood has largely taken a new somber tone. In his hugely successful, autobiographical ‘Bury Me Behind the Baseboard’ (first published in a magazine in 1996, then in book form in 2003, then filmed in 2009), Pavel Sanaev recounts the agonizing years of terror of a boy wrested away from his mother and brought up by a fierce tyrannical grandmother.
The myth of childhood in Russian culture in the 21st century indeed has little if anything to do with paradise or with politics, if we think, in addition, of the terrifying images of fictional childhood portrayed by bestseller Anna Starobinets in An Awkward Age (published in 2005). For her – often dubbed the ‘Queen of Horror’ – Russian children, like many children in the world, live in the hostile environment of big cities, in conflict with their parents, often separated, and struggling for fictitious lands in which they can escape reality. A far cry from Tolstoy indeed!
This article was published in RBTH http://rbth.com/arts/2015/06/01/from_tolstoy_to_the_queen_of_horror_childhood_in_russian_literature_46529.html