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Nicholas J. L. Luker

Alexander Kuprin

Alexander Kuprin
This monograph in the Twayne series surveys the varied life and work of Kuprin, who with Chekhov and Gorky was one of the best-known Russian prose writers of the early 1900s. Beside his contemporaries he has received scant critical attention, and within the limits imposed by the series, this study with its bibliography aims to redress the balance.
Boston, G K Hall, USA 1978


  1. About the Author
  2. Preface
  3. Chronology
  4. Biography and Literary Beginnings
  5. Kiev Years
  6. Petersburg
  7. The Duel
  8. 1905 and After
  9. War and Revolution
  10. The Twilight Years
  11. Epilogue
  12. Notes and References
  13. Selected Bibliography

War and Revolution

I "Black Lightning" and "Anathema"

Much of Kuprin's work between 1912 and the outbreak of the First World War is inferior. Inconsequential in its subjects, it simply restates themes from his earlier writing. Several tales of these years turn on his memories of the past - "Travka" ("Little Grass," 1912), "V medvezh'em uglu" ("In a God-Forsaken Place"), and "A White Lie" (1914). Others are humorous pieces of an anecdotal kind, such as "Svetlyi konets" ("A Bright End,"1913) and "Vinnaia bochka" ("The Wine Barrel," 1914). Perhaps most successful are his animal tales for children, among them "Medvedi" ("The Bears," 1912), "Ezh" ("The Hedgehog," 1913), and "Brikki" ("Bricky," 1914). However, three works of this time are sufficiently significant to deserve special mention. While the tales "Black Lightning" and "Anathema" continue the theme of protest found in earlier works, the travel sketches The Cole d'Aznr show Kuprin's abiding thirst for new experience.

"Chernaia molniia" ("Black Lightning," 1912) is a powerful indictment of provincial inertia reminiscent of "Small Fry." The work falls into three distinct sections. Its introductory- pages describe a northern town so remote that even the worst traveling circuses pass it by. Moribund and undistinguished, it is a cultural and spiritual vacuum, cut off from the world by mud in summer and snow in winter. The center of the tale is a satirical portrayal of the local "intelligentsia," who epitomize the philistinism of provin- cial life. Sunk in mediocrity and pettiness, they are interested in nothing, and their vegetative existence is enlivened only by drink, cards, and gossip. The third part of the story examines a progres- (*138)sive character whose passionate ideals show up the spiritual bankruptcy of his fellow provincials. For the solitary forester Turchenko, the forest is his consuming love. Like Astrov in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, his fanatical devotion to his ideal has earned him the reputation of a crank. To him the forest is one of man's most precious resources, and properly utilized it can transform the face of Russia. But he must struggle constantly against the apathy of the authorities and the greed of the peasants, who plunder the forest at will. The lethargy of provincial life is to blame, he believes, for in its stagnation it holds nothing dear. "All around is triviality," he tells the narrator, "all have grown short of intellect, feeling, even simple human words... " (V, 372).

The significance of the work's title only becomes clear toward the end. The image of black lightning is taken from Gorky's prose poem "The Song of the Stormy Petrel" (1901), which hailed the petrel as the herald of the tempest, a symbolic allusion to the coming revolutionary storm. During the social evening at the center of Kuprin's tale, the Justice of the Peace ridicules Gorky's words "The petrel flies like black lightning" as sheer nonsense. But as his later account to the narrator reveals, Turchenko has actually seen black lightning with his own eyes, a blinding flash accompanied by a clap of thunder that flung him to the ground. The symbolism of Kuprin's lightning as a destructive revolutionary force that will confound those who have no faith in it. is made clearer by Turchenko's words at the close, when he says provincial life is a fetid swamp, and the flash of black lightning upon it is long overdue.

"Anathema" is a much denser work, in which Kuprin aims his protest at the hypocrisy of the Church. Understandably, Tolstoy is the moving force of the tale. His story "Kazaki" ("The Cossacks") was Kuprin's favorite work, one he read dozens of times. "Here it is," he wrote of the tale in 1910, "true beauty, precision, grandeur, humor, spirit, radiance."1 Two years earlier he had voiced his indignation at the hypocrisy of Tolstoy's eighty-year jubilee in 1908. "What kind of a jubilee is it for a writer." he wrote, "in a country where he is excommunicated from the Church and where ... from the pulpit vulgar oaths are heaped upon him!"2 The strange sight of a volume of Tolstoy in the house of the archdeacon of Gatchina provided the stimulus for Kuprin's tale.

The life-affirming power of "The Cossacks" is responsible for the spiritual transformation of Father Olympus and his decision to leave the Church. His triple reading of it has convinced him that he (*139) should have been "a hunter, warrior, fisherman, or ploughman, but never an ecclesiastic" (V, 456). When instructed to anathematize Tolstoy from his pulpit, he remembers the insistent words of the tale "God has created everything for man's joy" (V, 460), and feels he cannot curse a man whose writing has made him weep with gladness. So he booms out the blessing "Long life!" and the choir joyfully takes up his words, filling the church with sound.

The tale is a subtle blend of humor, irony, and straightforward description that shows Kuprin's versatility at its best. His changes of key skillfully bring the drama of the work to a jubilant crescendo as Olympus refuses to execrate Tolstoy. The humor of the opening scene, when the priest tries his voice, gives way to the solemnity of the Creed and the categorical curses. But from the moment Olympus is asked to anathematize Tolstoy. Kuprin begins to interweave in his hero's mind passages from "The Cossacks" with the order of service, in a bizarre verbal duel ending with the victory of Tolstoy. Olympus's exit from the cathedral is a moment of supreme majesty. Removing his vestments and kissing his stole in farewell, he walks through the church, "towering head and shoulders above the people, ... and the congregation ... parted before him, forming a wide path" (V, 461-62). The closing lines achieve the symmetry of which Kuprin was so fond, as in a brief scene balancing the beginning of the tale, Olympus is confronted by his anonymous, nagging wife. But filled with the strength of self-awareness Tolstoy's tale has given him. he challenges her angrily and for the first time in her life she falls timidly silent, while her husband walks on, "immensely huge, dark, and majestic, like a monument" (V, 462). Polished, compact, subtly charged with emotion, "Anathema" is one of Kuprin's best tales.

II The Cote d'Azur

Kuprin's visit to the South of France between April and July 1912 gave rise to Lazurnye berega (The Cote d'Azur), a cycle of travel impressions. Begun in May of 1912. the twenty sketches were completed in 1913 after his return to Russia. This first journey abroad took him briefly to many places in southern Europe. Passing through Austria and Switzerland, he stayed in Nice and Marseille before visiting Genoa, Venice, Livorno, and Corsica. Highly varied in content, the sketches range from his directions for tourists abroad (I) and an open air performance of Bizet's Carmen in (* 140) Frejus (IX), to a description of the Corsican town of Bastia (XIV), and the elusiveness of the Russian consul in Marseille (XIX).

But it was not Kuprin's aim to offer a Baedeker-like account of the places he visited. Indeed, as his words in sketch XVI suggest, such traditional guides provide no information on the things that interest him most: "... I am attracted neither by museums, galleries, ... nor theatres, but three places always draw me irresistibly: a little bar, ... a big harbor, and in the heat of the day a cool, old, half-dark church when there is no one there..." (VI. 68). Though his words should not be taken literally (the sketch "Venice" voices his wonder at the beauty of St. Mark's), their essence is true. What most interests him is the everyday life of ordinary folk and the atmosphere of their environment. Only through close contact with them, he believes, can one come to know the temperament of a foreign people. Such contact was soon achieved, as the correspondent of the Petersburg Birzhevye vedomosti (Stock-Exchange Gazette) wrote while Kuprin was in Nice: "he has quickly got on friendly terms with local fishermen, syndicates of cabbies, drivers, and workmen of various kinds... ." Of his visit to Marseille Kuprin himself said: "What interested me most was to come in contact with the street.... I would spend whole days .... among all those porters, vendors, sailors, and workmen of every kind, and their womenfolk."4

On the other hand, Kuprin was revolted by the tinsel artificiality of the Riviera, with its sordid diversions, its venality and hypocrisy. Nice he describes as "a vast human misunderstanding" (VI, 13), a sprawling international hotel built by snobbish Englishmen, aping Russians, rich Americans, and obsequious French. Monte Carlo fares no better under his pen. A den of gamblers and thieves, it poisons the whole Cote d'Azur. On closer inspection, Kuprin continues in disgust, it seems to the visitor that he is in "some place infected with plague and stricken by an epidemic" (VI, 21). But Marseille evokes his passionate admiration, and to it he devotes four sketches (XV-XVIII), describing the city, the port, the old town, and the Chateau d'If. "I must say," he writes in the first, "never in my life have I seen a more original, lively, and colorful town, that is magnificent and dirty, furiously boiling and quiet, and terribly expensive and cheap at the same time" (VI, 65). But the port of Marseille fascinates him most, and in a detailed sketch that is both documentary and lyrical he speaks of its myriad cargoes, alluring smells, and vessels from all corners of the globe. Venice too (*141) intrigues him, but this closing sketch is tinged with sadness at an exquisite but dead city of quiet canals and coffinlike gondolas. "Beautiful Venice." he writes, "recalls a vast graveyard with dead, uninhabited houses ... and old churches visited by no one but idle travelers" (VI, 85). Never does Kuprin forget he is a Russian, and he thinks sadly that here abroad people are more free than they are at home. In Marseille on Bastille Day he feels like an uninvited guest at another's feast and reflects on Russia, whose people have no day to commemorate their past. Yet he longs to return to Russia, despite all her faults. His proud nationalism leads him to an oversimplification in his impressions of foreign lands and people. "Apart from the dear, hospitable, ... cheerful Italians," he concludes summarily, "all Europeans are slaves to habitual gestures, niggardly, cruel,... devout when necessary, and patriotic when it pays..." (VI, 11). Based on a stay abroad of less than four months, and most of that spent on the untypical French Riviera, the remark reveals as much about Kuprin as about the Europeans to whom it refers.

While in Nice Kuprin received an invitation from Gorky to visit him on Capri. He mentions the occasion in sketch XII, speaking of Gorky as "a certain famous Russian writer ... whose bright, pure soul I deeply respect" (VI, 48). Gorky's gesture was apparently an attempt to restore relations between the two men, which had cooled since 1905. But eager as Kuprin was at the prospect, the meeting was not to be. He was delayed by a seamen's strike and when the journey became possible, found himself without money. He was saddened by his failure to reach Capri, and on returning to Russia told a reporter it would have been "a great joy to see Gorky," who had invited him with "such a kind, friendly letter."5

III The War Years: Patriotism and Satire

The outbreak of the First World War awoke the ardent patriot in Kuprin. In a series of articles and interviews he condemned the Germans as barbarians bent on the annihilation of Russia. "Against us come hordes of savage, uncivilized Huns," he wrote, "who will burn and destroy everything in their path and who must themselves be utterly destroyed." Horrified by the suffering inflicted on defenseless civilians, he saw in these henchmen of Prussian militarism sadistic madmen intoxicated with the blood of innocents. It (* 142) was the duty of every Russian, he believed, to fight the foe in a war in which Russia was fulfilling God's will. The war with Germany was a war to end wars, a holy crusade by the Russian people to bring liberation to the world and death to war itself.

For all his nationalistic fervor, in no work of these years does Kuprin give a detailed picture of either fighting or military events. The reason was simple. "I do not consider it possible." he explained to a reporter, "to write war stories without having been at the front.... I have not been in war, and so the psychology of fighting soldiers is totally alien to me... ." Moreover, he openly despised writers who wrote pompously about the war without ever hearing the sound of gunfire. To describe war correctly, he believed, a writer must experience it at first hand, as Tolstoy had.

His first work to reflect the war, however briefly, is the lyrical "Sny" ("Dreams") of October 1914. Discussing various kinds of dreams, Kuprin focuses on the familiar illusion of flying in dreams, and sees in it proof that long ago man's ancestors really did fly. The thought leads him to the bizarre conclusion that the brotherhood of man can only be achieved through "the great art of flying, with its pure, blissful joys and its great freedom" (VI, 145). Though now "the wings of mankind's finest, eternal dream beat convulsively in blood and fire." Kuprin asserts that one day man will fly again, for "he has come into the world for boundless freedom, creation, and happiness." How that freedom allegorized by flight will emerge from the holocaust of war is unclear. The story "Sad prechistoi devy" ("The Garden of the Most Pure Virgin," 1915) gives a clearer picture of Kuprin's view of the horrors of war. Like the apocryphal tale "Dva sviatitelia" ("The Two Saints") of the same year, it is a popularization of biblical legend. As the Virgin Mary walks through her wondrous garden, she has dread visions of earthly slaughter: "... mountains of corpses ... bleeding wounds, battlefields dark with flocks of carrion crows" (VI, 442). The sins of men have enveloped the earth in a bloody conflagration, and such is God's wrath that even the flowers in the Virgin's paradise garden are filled with bloody dew. Though vivid and powerful, "The Garden" suffers from the same excessive sentimentality found in Kuprin's earlier apocryphal tales and legends.

More effective are his satires on civilians in the rear engaged in speculation and embezzlement. While Russia runs with blood, these despicable creatures safely amass their fortunes. Such are the (* 143) heroes of the tales "Goga Veselov" and "Kantalupy" ("The Cantaloups") of 1916. both set in Petrograd. The first takes the form of a dream in which the narrator hears the success story of his friend Veselov, once a profligate and now a millionaire. Veselov has used his post in the investigation department to blackmail wealthy people whose compromising letters he secretly opens. He has no qualms in justifying his dishonesty: what is the good, he asks, of living one's whole life honorably only to die like a pig at the end of it? If others spend their lives in enjoyment, why should he not do the same? "Veselov" is a bright tale whose only weakness is that its later pages are encumbered with details of blackmail techniques.

"The Cantaloups" is more polished. Its satire on corrupt bureaucracy was so biting that Kuprin gave it the subtitle "Perhaps a fiction" in an effort to outwit the severe censorship of the war years. Its hero Bakulin, chief clerk in the department of supply, purchase, and transport, takes enormous bribes from the dubious businessmen who visit his office. In a short time he has many possessions, including two townhouses and a dacha. This unctuous hypocrite resembles Nasedkin of "A Quiet Life" as he feigns indignation at an awkwardly proffered bribe - "What? A bribe? Who for? Me? At a time like this?" (VII, 86) - or bemoans the fate of "poor, long-suffering Russia gasping in the clutches of bribetakers, embezzlers, ... and scoundrels" (VII. 88). The loving father of his family. Bakulin finds respite from the pressures of daily extortion in the quiet cultivation of his melons with his seductive sister-in-law. Kuprin's irony is at its most acid in the closing scene. Kneeling in prayer before the icon of Si. Nicholas. Bakulin says that all the money he has taken is only for his family and that all his acquisitions are in his wife's name. While others spend to excess, his only amusement is growing melons. If he can amass a million, he will resign his job, devote his life to good works, and perhaps build a church. But here Kuprin informs us that Bakulin has already made well over two million, and that not long before he promised to stop at two hundred thousand. In a final thrust of supreme irony Kuprin shows his hero sound asleep under the gaze of St. Nicholas, "who once interceded for the thief who had stolen a crust of bread for his starving family" (VI, 89). Satire is the essence of "Papasha" ("Daddy") too, written in 1915. Though Kuprin subtitled the tale "a fable," it was banned and not published till 1916. It is a humorous expose of the sham liberalism professed by high officials. When a general becomes (*144) head of a government department, he benevolently allows his subordinates unheard-of freedom in the execution of their duties. But one day he is struck on the head by a bust of Montesquieu and is transformed into a tyrant who rages at his staff. Intriguingly, Kuprin leaves his reader in doubt as to when the general was mad - before or after his collision with Montesquieu.

In the tale "Grunya" (1916) Kuprin's satire is aimed at falsity in literature. Its hero Gushchin is a successful but ignorant writer, totally divorced from reality and unable to perceive in the life around him the significant details so essential to true art. Like many writers, he sees in war only splendid heroics and melodramatic cliches. After hearing an officer's laconic account of an attack, he concludes condescendingly that the soldier is no artist, since "he remembers only trivia and hasn't grasped the essentials" (VII, 65), a view that is clearly false. Gushchin's paltriness as a human being is emphasized by his terror when faced by Grunya's huge peasant uncle, the epitome of the common folk he affects to know so well. Also indicative of Kuprin's concern at the lamentable condition of writing during the war is the short tale "Interv'iu" ("The Interview," 1916). Describing the visit paid by a correspondent to a playwright, it offers a light-hearted parody of newspaper articles that bear no relation to what was said in the interview from which they derive. Other tales of the war years are based on people of Kuprin's acquaintance or on personal experience. While "Lyutsiya" ("Lucia," 1916) draws on events of circus life in Kiev in the 1890s, "Gogol'-mogol' " ("Egg Flip." 1915) tells of Shaliapin's first stage appearance, his energy and his talent. "Gad" ("A Vile Creature." 1915) is built around a confession heard by the narrator and recalls "Off the Street." Set in Kiev in 1893, it describes the misadventures of a provincial fortuneteller and includes facts from Kuprin's biography. Several other works are more closely autobiographical. "The Buried Infants" (1915) reflects his stay in Polesye, while "Fiaiki" ("The Violets," 1915) recalls his first love as a cadet. Akin to it is "Khrabrye begletsy" ("The Gallant Fugitives," 1917), which draws upon his years in the Razumovsky boarding school. Tinged though they are with sentimentality, such tales are sincere in their nostalgia for vanished youth. The same can be said of the sensitive stories about birds and animals that also belong to these years. The lyricism of "Skvortsy" ("Starlings," 1916) and the humor of "Kozlinaia zhizn' " ("A Goat's Life," 1917) stand (*145) beside the seriousness of "Mysli Sapsana II" ("The Thoughts of Sapsan II," 1917). in which through a dog Kuprin makes telling observations on people and life.

IV Political Ambivalence

The revolution of February 1917 found Kuprin in Helsinki, where he had gone on medical advice. Returning to Gatchina, he expressed his enthusiasm at the collapse of tsarism in a series of articles in several papers. In May he became an editor of the Socialist Revolutionary paper Svobodnaia Rossiya (Free Russia), contributing to it a regular feuilleton entitled Pestraia kniga (The Motley Book), before moving in August to the paper Vol'nost (Freedom). In addition, for much of 1917 he contributed to Petro- gradskii listok (The Petrograd Leaflet). But the political persuasion of the papers in which he was published between the revolutions of 1917 in no way reflected his own views. Diversity and even confusion characterize his writing of these months. While welcoming the freedom brought by the February Revolution, he foresaw the excesses that further upheaval might bring and feared lest Russia plunge into an orgy of bloodshed. His journalistic activities left him little time for fiction, and in the interval between the revolutions of 1917 he published only two new works - the sketch "Liudi-ptitsy" ("Bird Men") and the tale "Sashka and Yashka," both of which deal with aviation and contain only a distant reflection of war.

The October Revolution did little to clarify Kuprin's political position. In the articles he contributed to various papers till mid-1918 - including Petrogradskoe ekho (Petrograd Echo), Vechernee slovo (Evening Word), and Zaria (Dawn) - his attitude to the new regime remained ambivalent. He recognized the historical significance of the Bolshevik Revolution and admired Lenin as "an absolutely honest and courageous man."8 Denouncing the assassination of a prominent Bolshevik in July 1918, he wrote: "Bol- shevism constitutes a great, pure, disinterested doctrine that is inevitable for mankind."9 Yet elsewhere he argued that the Bolsheviks threatened Russian culture, and that their insufficient knowledge of the country had brought suffering to her people. In June of 1918, Kuprin was even arrested for a short time for an article in the paper Molva (Rumor) critical of the regime.1 His political ambivalence emerges in two tales of March 1918. "The Caterpillar" is a retrospective work that not only marks the first anniversary of the (* 146) February Revolution but also returns to 1905, praising the heroism of women revolutionaries and revealing the role one of them played in rescuing sailors from the Ochakov. But "Gatchinskii prizrak" ("The Ghost of Gatchina") is an anti-Bolshevik tale of the horror of civil war and the tyranny of Russia's new masters. '' However, late 1918 saw an apparent rapprochement between Kuprin and the new regime, when he drew up elaborate plans for Zemlia (Land), a paper designed specially for the peasantry. His program expressed his intention to assist the government in the radical transformation of rural life along lines not conflicting with the principles of communism. Most ambitious in its aims, Land was to cover everything from methods of soil improvement and crop rotation to mechanization and the provision of works of literature for the rural reader. But though supported by Gorky and approved by Lenin himself at a meeting with Kuprin on December 25, 1918, the project was never realized.12 His renewed association with Gorky involved Kuprin in the Vsemirnaia literatura (World Literature) publishing house founded by Gorky in 1918. At Gorky's request, Kuprin wrote a preface for a Russian edition of Dumas pere and early in 1919 translated Schiller's Don Carlos.13 Like Land, however, neither actually appeared. Apart from this. Kuprin produced little new work in the months before his emigration. While 1918 saw the apocryphal tale "Pegie loshadi" ("Skewbald Horses") and the historical piece "Tsarskii pisar' " ("The Tsar's Clerk"), 1919 saw only "Volshebnyi kaver" ("The Magic Carpet"), probably his last work before his departure.

Despite what his Land project suggests, Kuprin was never firmly pro-Bolshevik after 1917, and it is doubtful whether the revolution made him any more of a political animal than he had been before it.'4 His continuing political stance is best described by his assertion after the October Revolution: "I have never belonged to any party, belong to none now, and never shall."15 The result of circumstance rather than conviction, his emigration did not indicate any fundamental change in his essentially apolitical position.

  • 1 Letter to Batiushkov of October 8. 1910, from Odessa, in Kuprin о literature, p. 235.
  • 2 Volkov,p. 318.
  • 3 Kuleshov,p.431.
  • 4 Ibid, p. 432.
  • 5 Ibid, p. 438. For the text of Gorky's letter see Berkov, pp. 100-101.
  • 6 Kuleshov, p. 456.
  • 7 Afanas'ev, p. 150.
  • 8 Kuleshov, p. 478.
  • 9 Afanas'ev, p. 156.
  • 10 The episode is described in Kuprin's tale "Shestoe chuvstvo" ("Sixth Sense"), in Zhaneta (Paris. 1934), pp. 75-108. The work contains unflattering references to the Bolsheviks and criticizes them for causing a revolution in wartime, calling it "a crime before the homeland" (p. 100).
  • 11 See A.I. Kuprin, Elan': Rasskazy (Belgrade, 1929), pp. 125-32.
  • 12 For details of Land and Kuprin's meeting with Lenin, see Kuleshov, pp. 482-84.
  • 13 For an account of and excerpts from both, see P. Shirmakov, "Novye stranitsy rukopisei," Neva, 9 (1970), pp. 181-89.
  • 14 In his sketch "Nemnozhko Finlandii" ("A Little of Finland." 1908), Kuprin wrote: "Politics are completely alien to me, and I would never wish to play the role of a forecaster or organizer of the destinies of peoples" (V, 64).
  • 15 Kuprin о literature, p. 20.

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