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by Bamber Gascoigne

Ivan (Andreyevich) Krylov (1769-1844)


Russian writer of fables in the tradition of Aesop and La Fontaine. Ivan Krylov satirized social and individual faults in the guise of beasts, producing 203 fables in nine books. They became an integral part of Russian primary and secondary education. Krylov was in his country one of the great representatives of the Age of Reason. His writings appeared in a period marked by increasingly repressive government rule.

Heaven save you from a foolish friend;
The too officious fool is worse than any foe.

(from 'Hermit and Bear' in Fables, 1809)

Ivan Andreyevich Krylov was born in Morcow into an impoverished military family, at the very bottom of the noble class. His father, Andrei Krylov, who was an army captain in the bureaucracy, died when Krylov was ten. During the Pugachev Rebellion the family lived in Orenburg, which was besieged by the rebels. After being defeated in the battle, Yemelyan Pugachev swore to hang Captain Krylov and his family.

At an early age Krylov played the violin and composed poetry. He performed in innumerable family concerts, in quartets with the best virtuosi of the day, and as a soloist. In his childhood, Krylov had little formal education; except for a large box full of book, his father had left the family virtually penniless. Krylov's mother, who was described as "a simple-minded woman, who had received scarcely any education," did her best to obtain a good education for her son.

From his father's traveling library Krylov read the French writers Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, Molière and Jean Racine. His literary talents impressed the local landlord Nikolay Lvov, who had him tutored alongside his own children. Eventually Krylov became one of the most cultured persons of his time, who had a good command of the major European languages. At the age of fifty he mastered classical Greek.

As many other young men of the noble class, Krylov entered the imperial civil service, first with the salary of two roubles (about six shillings) a month. (Madame Krylov paid her servant two roubles a year.) In 1782 Krylov was transferred from Tver to St. Petersburg. Between the years 1782 and 1793 he wrote several comedies and comic operas, including Cofeinitsa, his earliest work, about a gypsy who reads the future in coffee grounds. none of his stage works had any great success. Following the death of his mother in 1788, Krylov gave up his employment in the public service, and devoted himself to literature.

In St. Petersburg, Krylov became the center of a small intellectual circle.  With Nikolai I. Novikov, a publisher and philanthropist, and Alexander N. Radishchev, a senior civil servant, he edited a satirical magazine entitled The Spirits' Mailbox (Pochta dukhov), which published social commentary in the guise of letters written by spirits and other figures from the underworld and soon had troubles with the censor. Krylov's own contributions include 'Kaib, An Oriental Tale' (1792), which denounced the czarist autocracy, and the 'Eulogy to the Memory of My Grandfather' (1792), a satire in the spirit of Enlightenment. However, later in life he criticized Voltairianism, the ideas of Encyclopedists, and opposed Alexander I's liberal reforms. Some of his negative views of the development of the Enlightenment derived from Napoleon's Invasion of Russia and its aftermath.

Krylov faced political persecution from the repressive government of Catherinne II (Catherine the Great). Krylov's printing house – he owned a printing press that occupied a whole room – was searched in 1792 and he was placed under police surveillance. His collaborators Novikov was imprisoned and Radishchev exiled to Siberia. Krylov's writings in the satirical papers Zritel' (the Spectator), and the short-lived Sankt-Peterburgskii Merkurii (Saint Petersburg Mercury) had infuriated the censors. The latter published in 1793 an anonymous satirical poem, 'A Dying Coquette,' which, it has been assumed, was targeted at Catherinne II: ""I wish you would dress me as for a wedding / I pearl-colored satin, / And adorn my pale face with a lace cap. / Give me a bit of red for my cheeks / No need to frighten men even from the grave." If she wished to please men so in death / What sort of woman had she been in life?" (Creating the Empress: Politics and Poetry in the Age of Catherine II by Vera Proskurina, 2011, p. 258) If Krylow was personally interrogated by the empress, as it has been said, he could have vetoed to the fact that the poem refers to Alexander Pope's Of the Knowledge and Characters of Men. (Ibid., 262)

In c.1797 Krylov went into self-imposed exile, virtually disappearing from the literary scene. He travelled widely, led a careless life, but also experienced some hard times, which made him more reluctant to express his opinions openly. Only two plays, the comedy The Pie and a mock tragedy Trumpf can be dated from this period. To earn his living, Krylov taught children in the household of Prince Sergei Golitsyn, arranged musical and theatrical entertainments, and served for a period as Golitsyn's secretary, when he was appointed military governor of Livonia. While in Riga, he gambled a lot.

After 1801 Krylov lived in Moscow for five years and then returned to St. Petersburg. He wrote two successful plays, The Fashion Shop and the one-act comedy A Lesson to the Daughters, which premiered on 18 June, 1807. This work was about two sisters, who fall in love with a French valet disguised as a noble suitor, simply because of his appearance. The message of the play – the seductiveness of outward  appearances, especially of foreign origin – found receptive audiences in the Soviet period, too.

Both as a playwright and fabulist,  Krylov attacked Gallomania and cosmopolitanism, and praised Russia way of life. In the story 'Leaves and Roots' the Leaves fail to appreciate the Roots, because they do not understand their dependance upon the sources of their being. Especially he hated French tutors, who taught  people to "dance, play cards, talk French, and chatter away all the day long." At the end of 'The Cask' he wrote: "If in his young days one of us has ever happened to be steeped in the current of a hurtful teaching, then in all his actions and behaviour afterwards, whatever he may be in words, there will always be perceptile a kind of after-taste of it." (Krilof and His Fables, by W.R.S. Ralston, third edition, 1871, pp. 213-214)

In 1805 Krylov began to translate the fables of Jean de La Fontaine, but he soon found that he could write fables of his own – with a sharper edge and keener social commentary. He had become associated with the cultural circle of A.N. Olenin, which advocated the creation of national literature. Olenin was the director of the Imperial Library from 1811 to 1843, and made it into a central of intellectual activity. Krylov published his first collection of fables (Basni) in 1809, and the second (Novyia basni) two years later. These books brought him tremendous popular success.They also received positive response from the imperial family. Having found his calling in the fable, Krylov devoted himself entirely to this genre.

With Olenin's assistance, Krylov gained in 1812 a comfortable  post in the St. Petersburg public library, where he was noted for his untidiness, worn out clothes,  and indolence. Moreover, he had good appetite and he smoked "from thirty-five to fifty cigars a day." His office was on the second floor of the library. While on duty, he used to lie on a sofa reading novels all day, just to kill time. (Krilof and His Fables, translated by W.R.S. Ralston, 1871, 3rd edition, pp. xxx-xxxiii) Krylov remained as a librarian for 29 years, until he retired with the rank of general. When Alexander I promised to support Krylov if he wrote "well", he did not write anything after 'The Cat and the Nightingale,' directed against censorship, 'The Grandee,' about St. Peter and a Persian satrap, and 'The Elderly Lion' (1825), in which a lion is too old to defend himself.

Although Krylov produced 203 fables (in nine books) during his lifetime, he was commonly called the laziest man in Russia. His fables, which were considered great entertainment for both children and adults, became especially popular among the common people. Krylov often dealt with human follies, but also social defects, and current events.

Many of Krylov's aphorisms have remained a part of everyday Russian speech. Krylov died in St. Petersburg on November 21, 1844. His grave is in the Tikhvin Cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra (Monastery). On his deathbed, he sent to his friend a copy of the last edition of his fables as a farewell gift. His last words were, "Lord, forgive me my trespasses!" Krylov remained a bachelor after he was not able to marry his first love due to financial difficulties. The broze statue of Ivan Krylov, erected in 1855, is situated in the Summer Gardens in St Petersburg.

Some of Krylov's writings were not published until 1860s, among them the satire 'Multi-colored Sheep,' about Alexander I's policies. The Lion doesn't tolerate multi-colored sheeps, but as a merciful ruler of animals it cannot destroy them directly. It asks the advice of the Fox, who says that it should hire a wolf as their shepherd. After some time the sheeps disappear completely. The rest of the animals explain this to themselves that the Lion is good but the Wolf is a bad robber. Trumpf, an attack on the regime of Paul I (1754-1801), passed the censors in 1871.

Krylov's close friends included Ivan Gnedich, translator of Iliad, and Aleksandr Pushkin, whose first line in Evgenii Onegin is a reworking of a line from Krylov. In the last decades of his life, the fabulist was a familiar sight in St. Petersburg's drawing rooms, "where he used to sit for whole evenings without opening his mouth, his little eyes half shut or gazing vacantly, with an air of boredom and indifference to all around." (A History of Russian Literature from Its Beginnings to 1900 by D.S. Mirsky, 1958, p. 70)

The canonized image of a wise and kindly Grandpapa Krylov" is far from the unsentimental message of his storie, his social criticism, and bitter view of human nature: "The weak against the strong. Is always in the wrong." Many of his most poisonous arrows were aimed at the progressive ideas of his time. Krylov also satirized other writers, including Ekaterina Sumarokova (1746-97), the first Russian woman poet to publish. Krylov mocked her in the play Prokazniki (1788) as "Mrs Chatterbox".

Krylov's fables blend naturalistic characterization of the animal with an allegorical portrayal of basic human types. His miniature dramas capture problematic situations common to all of his readers – such as relations between people of the different caste and class. Krylov's epigrams often lashed corruption and incompetence. His judgments were founded on common sense.

An unyielding critic of Gallomania throughout his literary career, Krylov dealt with the Napoleonic Wars in tales such as 'Wolf in Dog Kennel' and 'Friendship of Dogs' – Bonaparte was of course the wolf. In the latter two dogs decide to be friends and help each other but they break all promises immediately when a bone is thrown between them. Krylov referred in the tale to the peace negotiations of the Vienna Congress of 1815. However, his stand toward French influences on Russian culture did not prevent him from translating La Fontaine or modelling A Lesson to the Daughters on Molière's well known comedy, Les précieuses ridicules (1659, Affected Young Ladies).

By the 1840s, Krylov was widely called "the French La Fontaine" even  by those who did not emphasize his indebtedness to the 17th century fabulist and poet. Arguing against this label, Gogol wrote, "He who would call Krylov a fable writer in the sense that La Fontaine . . . was one, would be making a big mistake. . . .  Krylov's fables are a national treasure and constitute the people's own book of wisdom". ('Krylov, La Fontaine, and Aesop' by Leslie O'Bell, in Russian Subjects: Empire, Nation, and the Culture of the Golden Age, edited Monika Greenleaf and Stephen Moeller-Sally, 1998, p. 82) The French already had been introduced to Krylov's work in 1825, when an edition of the fables, with an introduction by M. Lémontey, was published in Paris. "Naturally no Frenchman will dare to place anyone above La Fontaine, but we, I think, may be allowed to prefer Krylov. Both of them will always remain their countrymen's favorites," Pushkin commented the introduction. "La Fontaine and Krylov are representatives of the spirits of the two nations." (Pushkin on Literature, selected, translated, and edited by Tatiana Wolff, 1986, pp. 124-125)

For further reading: 'Krylóv,' in A History of Russian Literature from Its Beginnings to 1900 by D.S. Mirsky (1958); Ivan Krylov, edited by Nicholas P. Vaslef (1973); Ivan Krylov by Nikolay Stepanov (1974); I.A. Krylov: Poeziia narodnoi mudrosti by V. Arkhipov (1974); Krylov fabuliste by Maurice Colin (1975); Zhizn' Ivana Krylova by A. Gordin (1985); Poet i mudrets by V.I. Korovin (1996); 'Krylov, La Fontaine, and Aesop' by Leslie O'Bell, in Russian Subjects: Empire, Nation, and the Culture of the Golden Age, edited by Monika Greenleaf and Stephen Moeller-Sally (1998); 'Krylov, Ivan Andreyevich (1769-1844),' in Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire by Mary Ellen Snodgrass (2010); 'Ridiculung the Monarch,' in Creating the Empress: Politics and Poetry in the Age of Catherine II by Vera Proskurina (2011); Krylov by Ekaterina TSimbaeva (2014); 'Seduction, Subterfuge, Subversion: Krylov's Rewriting of Molière' by D. Briam Kim, in French and Russian in Imperial Russia, edited by Derek Offord, et al. (2015)  - Suom.: by Mary Ellen Snodgrass (2010) - Krylovilta on suomennettu satuvalikoima Eläintarinoita (1974), toinen painos nimellä Krylovin faabeleita (1979).

Selected works:

  • Cofeinitsa, 1782 [The Fortune-Teller]
  • Filomena, 1786
  • Amerikancy, 1788
  • Prokazniki, 1788 [The Mischief-Makers]
  • Trumf / Podshchipa, 1799
  • Modnaia lavka, 1807 [The Fashion Shop]
  • Urok dochkam, 1807 [A Lesson for Daughters]
  • Basni, 1809 [Fables]
  • Novyia basni, 1811
  • Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 1847 (3 vols.)
  • Krilof and his Fables, 1869 (translated by C. Fillingham Coxwell)
  • Krilof and His Fables, 1883 (4th edition, translated by W.R.S. Ralston)
  • Polnoe sobranie basen I. A. Krylova, 1900
  • Kriloff's Fables, 1920 (translated by C. Fillingham Coxwell)
  • Krylov's Fables, 1926 (translated by Bernard Pares; US title: The Russian Fables of Ivan Krylov)
  • Russian Fables of Ivan Krylov, 1942 (verse translation by Bernard Pares)
  • Basni, 1944 (illustrated by A. Sapozhnikova)
  • Basni, 1951 (illustrated by A. Lapteva)
  • Sochineniia, 1955 (2 vols.)
  • Basni, 1962 (5th ed.)
  • Fifteen Fables of Krylov, 1965 (translated by Guy Daniels, illustrated by David Pascal)
  • Sochineniia, 1969 (2 vols.)  
  • 'Eulogy to the Memory of My Grandfather,' 1971 (in Satire Newsletter, 9)
  • Basni, 1979 (illustrated by M. Skobeleva)
  • Krylov's Birds and Beasts, 1990 (translated by E.E. Ralphs)
  • Polnoe sobranie dramaticheskikh sochinenii, 2001 (ed. by L.N. Kiseleva)
  • The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar (and 61 Other Russian Fables) = Liagushki, prosiashchie Tsaria: (i eshchë 61 russkaia basnia), 2010 (text in English and Russian on facing pages; translated by Lydia Razran Stone; illustrated by Katya Korobkina)
  • The Fables of Ivan Krylov, 2017 (translated by Stephen Pimenoff)

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