Photograph circa 1929
May 31, 1899|
|Died||August 8, 1994
The Russian Forest
Leonid Maximovich Leonov (Russian: Леони́д Макси́мович Лео́нов; May 31 [O.S. May 19] 1899 — 8 August 1994) was a Soviet novelist and playwright. He has been dubbed the 20th-century Dostoyevsky for the deep psychological torment of his prose.
Leonid was born in Moscow in 1899. His father, Maxim Leonov, was a self-educated peasant poet who was at one time the chairman of the Surikov Literary and Musical circle (Surikov was also of peasant origin). Maxim Leonov later joined the Sreda literary group of Moscow, which counted Maxim Gorky, Leonid Andreyev, and Ivan Bunin among its members.
Leonid's earliest memory was of 1905, when Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia was assassinated by the terrorist Kalyayev. In the same year Leonid's father was arrested for two pamphlets that he had published. Leonid was taken twice by his grandmother to visit his father in prison. After serving 20 months, Maxim Leonov was exiled to Arkhangelsk. Leonid visited him there several times, and his impressions and observations were later reflected in many of his works, especially Sot.
He attended the Moscow Third gymnasium from 1910 to 1918. His first poems, reviews, and news reports were published in 1915 in the journal Severnoe Utro. He had intended to study medicine at Moscow State University, but his plans were disrupted by the outbreak of the Russian Civil War.
During the Russian Civil War, he worked as a reporter with the Red Army. He was released from the Red Army in 1921 in order to continue his education. At that time he planned to study painting. Upon returning to Moscow he was unable to find any of his close relatives and acquaintances, but he was eventually accepted into the home of his uncle, a locksmith named Vasilyev. Leonid worked in his uncle's shop voluntarily in order to repay his uncle for taking him in. Later the famous graphic artist Falilyev took an interest in him. Falilyev introduced him to some well-known literary figures and artists of the early 20s, including the publishers Koppleman (of the Shipovnik Publishing House), and Sergey Saposhnikov. After seeing some of his early stories they both offered to publish them. This was the beginning of Leonov's professional literary career. Among his first stories were Buryga and The Wooden Queen (1923).
His first (and perhaps best) novel, The Badgers (1924), employs a fairly conventional style but is filled with peasant speech; it "deals with the impact on the village and the peasantry of the Revolution and symbolically pits brother against brother in the struggle." His dark novel The Thief (1927), set in the criminal underworld of the Russian capital, was warmly welcomed by critics in Russia and abroad, but Brown considers it "spoiled in execution by the self-conscious literary poses of the author and his transparent derivation of himself from the irrationalist Dostoyevsky. Leonov nonetheless performs a shrewd psychological dissection upon his main character, a disillusioned commissar who has become a member of a gang of thieves. He produced a thoroughly reworked version of this novel in 1959."
He married Tatayana Mikhailovna Sabashnikova in 1926; the couple had 2 daughters. He visited Maxim Gorky in Sorrento in 1927. The Moscow Art Theatre under the direction of Constantin Stanislavski staged Leonov's play Untilovsk, which was set in a remote Siberian community. The production opened on 17 February 1928, having given a preview to the theatre's management committee three days earlier. Both the committee and the wider press disapproved of the play's ideological stance; Anatoly Lunacharsky, writing in the Leningrad journal Krasnaia, described it as a step backwards for the theatre.
Soviet River (1930) describes the construction of a paper mill on the banks of a river in the middle of the Siberian forest; Skutarevsky (1932), "probably one of his best works in style and intellectual power, explores the psychological problems of an eminent scientist working in a socialist state and, in what is undoubtedly an autobiographical statement, traces his development from a skeptical critic of the new order into an enthusiastic supporter." In 1934, Leonov helped Maxim Gorky to found the Union of Soviet Writers. The following year, he published a fantasy about the Soviet future, Road to the Ocean, in which the hero, "another embodiment of Leonov, meditates on the suffering he has caused and endured and tries to answer the question whether it was worth while in the total economy of history."
Immediately after the start of World War II, Leonov penned several patriotic plays, which were quickly made into movies and won him the USSR State Prize (1943). His novel The Russian Forest (1953) was acclaimed by the authorities as a model Soviet book on World War II and received the Lenin Prize, but its implication that the Soviet regime had cut down "the symbol of Old Russian culture" caused some nervousness, and Nikita Khrushchev reminded the author that "not all trees are useful ... from time to time the forest must be thinned." In 1945 Leonov served as a correspondent for Pravda at the Nuremberg Trials. He was elected as a Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union in 1950. In 1967, Leonov was named a Hero of Socialist Labour. He was admitted to the Soviet Academy of Sciences five years later. During the last decades of his life, he worked upon the dark nationalistic-religious epic The Pyramid (1994).
Kornei Chukovsky described Leonov as follows in his diary entry for August 21, 1946:
I've been seeing a lot of Leonid Leonov and admire his splendid character. He's a strong man, well armed for life. He visits once or twice a week and talks nonstop, but never brings up his own plans, projects, or triumphs. The Maly is premiering a play of his tomorrow, say, or he had a book come out yesterday—he'll talk for three hours and never breathe a word of it. Not only is there no hint of the braggart in him, he goes on and on about his failures and defeats. He can do anything with his hands: he makes lampshades, tables, and chairs; he molds faces out of clay; he has fashioned a magnificent cigarette lighter out of bronze—he has all kinds of instruments and tools. Watch the way he handles seeds or berries and you know he's got a green thumb. Simple as he looks, he plays his cards close to the chest. He is well-bred and well-organized, oddly lacking in kindness but a throughbred, and he has a poetic nature. In short, he's a typical Russian.
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