On two literary movements

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As it has been poorly studied worldwide, the fact that Russian literary movements as sentimentalism and realism played a crucial role in the liberation of Russian peasants is less likely to appear
in researches. What I observed by exploring these literary movements and their representatives is the huge contribution of both movements, with the prevailing role of realism, to the reflection of
social concerns of peasants in the Tsarist Russia. Comparing these two movements and their merits, it becomes obvious for me that the literary movement as Russian realism better reflected and
represented the Russian peasant than sentimentalism did. Owing to this fact, I aimed this study to find out the reason of the imbalance in reflectivity and contributive powers of Russian
sentimentalism and realism. Considering all the above-mentioned, I am going to elaborate on and analyze the general understanding of the condition of Russian peasants, their depiction and
comparison in two literary works of two different literary movements.

Submitted: June 21, 2016

A A A | A A A

Submitted: June 21, 2016



Tokay Ahmadov 

Bachelor degree in Public Affairs, ADA University


Ahmadov, T. (2015). The emerged imbalance in reflectivity of two literary movements. Retrieved from www.booksie.com

The emerged imbalance in reflectivity of two literary movements

The concept of the peasantry first appears in the Middle Ages as the reference to the people of the lowest social class. Moreover, already by the 15th century, the understanding of a typical peasant was widely spread both in European and Asian states. However, because of the sluggish development process of the social order in Russia, the early historical period of the Russian peasantry starts only from the 15th century till 1861, when the Tsarist Russia was reformed, and the serfdom was officially abolished. After abolishing the serfdom in Russia, it was recognized that for 5 centuries the Russian public underwent uncompensated and intolerable toil, sufferings and tortures by the Tsarist Russia. Yet, despite having totally separated but vitally connected two social classes as nobility and peasantry, the second one was sympathized and discoursed already by the 18th century in the Tsarist Russia (Tretyakova, 2012, p. 45). Having only one way of attempting to sympathize and liberate peasants as depicting them in the literary environment, Russian noblemen used to portray peasants in their literary works. Considering the theme of the liberation of the Russian peasant by the literary approaches, it is observed that only representatives of two Russian literary movements as sentimentalism and realism aspired to comprehensively depict the Russian peasantry (SCSA – “Abiturient”, 2012, p. 63). Yet, it is necessary to note that Russian sentimentalism consisted of describing only sentimental aspects of peasantry as tragic love stories, ruined feelings and relationships of peasants. However, Russian realism, aspiring to liberate Russian peasants, depicted the harsh living conditions of wretched peasants, their deep concerns and the tortures of the Tsarist regime over them. Considering that imbalance in reflectivity of two movements, it becomes reasonable to recognize the prevailing role of Russian realism in better depiction of the Russian peasant.

The fact that Russian literary movements as sentimentalism and realism played a crucial role for the liberation of Russian peasant is less likely to appear in researches, because it has been poorly studied worldwide. What I observed by exploring these literary movements and their representatives is the huge contribution of both movements, with the prevailing role of realism, to the reflection of social concerns of peasants in the Tsarist Russia (Tretyakova, 2012, p. 687). Comparing these two movements and their merits, it becomes obvious for me that the literary movement as Russian realism better reflected and represented the Russian peasant than sentimentalism did. Owing to this fact, I aimed this study to find out the reason of the imbalance in reflectivity and contributive powers of Russian sentimentalism and realism. Considering all the above-mentioned, I am going to elaborate on and analyze the general understanding of the condition of Russian peasants, their depiction and comparison in two literary works of two different literary movements. For this analysis of the peasant depiction and its comparison, I have selected two literary works such as the story “Poor Liza” by the founder of sentimentalism Karamzin and the great work of realism – “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy. Moreover, because it would be very useful to understand Russian sentimentalism and realism separately, there will be outlined a comparison of these two literary movements and a comparison of related to them two literary works. 

Starting from the 19th till the midst of 20th centuries, the theme of the poor and wretched village and its habitants was identical to the topic of the life of the entire Russian public. That is, the concepts of "peasant" and "folk" were perceived as identical, and to write about the miserable fate of the peasant in Russian literature meant to talk about the fate of the entire Russian people. Adhering to the sequential emergence of the Russian literary movements, it is needed to elaborate on Russian sentimentalism first. Sentimentalism (from French sentiment – feeling) was Russian literary movement which was well spread in the second half of the 19th century in the Tsarist Russia. Being ideologically different from the ruling and established ideology of the Russian governance, Russian sentimentalism contrasted the Tsarist immoral urban life with purely spiritual, moral and natural peasant life (Tretyakova, 2012, p. 687). Tretyakova argues that created by sentimentalists the preachy and emotional environment and the ultimate moral used to incite readers to think about people of other social classes (p. 687). Moreover, the famous representatives of Russian sentimentalism as Radischev, Karamzin and Jukovsky assumed that the degree of sensitivity determines the human dignity and the importance of all his actions (SCSA – “Abiturient”, 2012, p. 62). Thus, it is accurate to consider that Russian sentimentalism prioritized human spirit, emotions and morality over prudent, rational and factual approach to social problems.

The peculiar to Russian sentimentalism aspect as a rich spiritual world of the common Russian people is considered to be the major discovery and conquest of this literary movement. By the establishment of Russian sentimentalism in the Tsarist Russia, the depiction of the merging of nature with human, where the second aspires to find inner peace, became the priority in the whole Russian literature (SCSA – “Abiturient”, 2012, p. 63). Moreover, the most elaborated and developed aspect for Russian sentimentalists, specifically for N. M. Karamzin, was physiology of emotions, which in turn was considered as a determinant and major objective of Russian sentimentalism as the promotion of a highly spiritualized vision of human nature (Sobol, 2006, p. 14). According to Sobol (2006), the founder of Russian sentimentalism N. M. Karamzin describing the spiritual world of the Russian peasant, considered it even as “the great soul of the world” (p. 5). That is, for Karamzin, and surely for all Russian sentimentalists, the aspects as feelings, emotions and thoughts of peasants were prior to any other discourses generated by scholars and writers.

Russia, being the absolutist and tsarist empire, had its own canons and regulations on literature, its style and development. Russian sentimentalism, breaking the literary regulations set by the Tsarist Russia, played an important role in the democratization of the literary language by converting it into the spoken language (SCSA – “Abiturient”, 2012, p. 63). Besides the literary style of writing and its linguistic aspects, the protagonists of the literary works were significantly changed. Changing an absolutist protagonist of initial literary works into a common man, Russian sentimentalism, for the first time in Russian literature, introduced the idea of democratization to the world literature. Moreover, the inner world of the protagonists, who were basically from the lowest social class, was enriched by the ability to emphasize and sensitively respond to what is happening around him/her (SCSA – “Abiturient”, 2012, p. 64). Considering the attempts of Russian sentimentalism to democratize literature, it is necessary to note the point that the peak of democratized Russian sentimental literature became the story “Poor Liza” written in 1792 by N. M. Karamzin (Tretyakova, 2012, p. 688).

By the beginning of the 19th century, there appeared other Russian literary movements, namely, romanticism and realism. While realism covered the longest period among all literary movements in Russian literature and introduced real and hard-bitten protagonists of everyday life, the switch to romanticism was very short, and romantic dreamers were quickly ousted. Realism (from Latin realis - real, valid and genuine) was a literary movement characterized by the critical and truthful picture of the contemporary for the Tsarist Russia social life in the common people and typical circumstances. The desire to be faithful to the reality of life and to study it before writing a literary work gave high artistic veracity to realists and their works (SCSA – “Abiturient”, 2012, p. 70). According to the SCSA – “Abiturient” (2012), the burning and actual for the Tsarist Russia issues of urban slums, poor villages, powerlessness of a “little man” and the lawlessness of people in power were comprehensively elaborated and criticized only by realists (p. 69). Furthermore, Tretyakova (2012) also argues that only Russian realists depicted the objective image of human life in all its manifestations (p. 691). Thus, due to the accurate depiction of human life and disagreeable picture of common Russian people and their living conditions, Russian realism was considered to be highly critical.

Being spread roughly from 1820th to 1880th, Russian realism covered the largest period of Russian literature and had potentially greater amount of writers to express social concerns of peasants. The powerful stream of life prose with daily and personal motifs gushed into consciousness of the Tsarist Russian society. According to Poggioli (1951), there was not another literary movement, or literature, which had ever produced so many eminent literary figures for a short period of time as Russian realism did (p. 253). Therefore, it is believed that the boundaries of Russian and in turn world literature of the 19th century were widely moved apart. Moreover, Tretyakova (2012) asserts that in the second half of the 19th century, due to the new principle of constructing literary works as prioritizing a moral perspective, human psyche and the exposure of the Tsarist regime, Russian realism took a leading position in the world literary process (p. 691). Adding to the success of Russian realism and its other achievements as the true depiction of typical characters in typical circumstances, condemnation of the Tsarist regime in torturing peasants, showing literary characters in the process of their formation, and the desire to portray protagonists’ history tracking their “greatness and fall”, Russian realism ensures its prevailing role in the world arena.  

Considering the significant relation of Russian sentimentalism and realism to the world literature, it is certain that both literary movements greatly contributed to the formation and development of the understandings of liberation and democratization in the world literature. Owing to the fact that the current study is mainly based on the comparison of the achievements and roles of these two literary movements in the liberation of the Russian peasant, it is aimed to determine the imbalance in reflectivity and strength of Russian sentimentalism and realism. Having the knowledge of the contribution of Russian realism to the peasant issue, it becomes obvious that Russian realism comprehensively depicted harsh living conditions of wretched peasants, their deep concerns and the tortures of the Tsarist regime over them (Tolstoy, 1960, p. 152). Moreover, being more precise and concentrated on real values, concerns and miserable life of the Tsarist Russian people (especially peasants), and condemning the Tsarist regime in the public’s being so wretched, Russian realism overcomes the challenge and gets the privilege. However, Russian sentimentalism’s depiction of only spiritual and moral values of the Russian peasant makes it become insufficient in being prevailing reflective factor of the Russian peasantry.

As it is well known, Russian literature and its literary representatives are very famous and revered in the western world. Yet, having a huge mass of western reviewers, Russian literature, as well as Russian realism and sentimentalism, has been widely criticized and commented. Analyzing critical reviews, the major description of Russian sentimentalism was presented as the Karamzin’s movement which promoted a highly spiritualized vision of human nature. Moreover, it is consistently argued that Russian sentimentalism, which advocated sensitivity as its highest value, was preoccupied not only with its main manifestation as strong emotions, but also with the depiction of close human and land relationships, i.e. the picture of peasant’s being spiritually linked to the land (Sobol, 2006, p. 2). Sobol also asserts that the important aspect for Russian sentimentalism was not only to show the whole range of human emotions and their moral (sometimes social) expectations, but also to determine an organic place for main characters (p. 2). However, considering Russian sentimentalism in the sphere of reflecting problematic peasant issues in the Tsarist Russia, it can be proven that this literary movement loses its veracity and reasonableness. Preferring spirit, emotion and locality of the Russian peasantry in its depiction, Russian sentimentalism ignored finding rational, prudent and real ways to make peasants be heard and liberated (Tegart, 1976, p. 64).  

Descending from two highly emotional and spiritualized literary movements, Russian realism surely included something from sentimentalism and romanticism. Even critics were pleased to note that Russian realism, unlike European, did not glorify only “the seamy side of life”, but also prioritized selective spirituality, morality, and was permeated with faith, hope and charity (Decker, 1937 p. 549). However, it is also believed that Russian realists aspired to overcome the spiritual and emotional borders posited by sentimentalists. Yet, Decker maintains that Russian realists actually violated all established by the Tsarist regime canons of art: the sequence of the story, the balance of nature, restrained mood and isolation in some matters of morality, however, despite these drawbacks, and despite the presence of the content which was always gloomy, miserable and full of extreme poverty, treachery and oppression of weak by the strong, literary works of Russian realism have always been considered the greatest works (p. 548). Besides, according to Poggioli (1951), Russian realism being a strong adherent of naturalism, asserted the absolute right of the artist as the only observer and portrayer of reality (p. 264). Considering such posited idea, it again becomes certain that Russian realism was the strongest reflective factor of the wretched Russian public in the Tsarist Russia.

Since it is already clear and easy to differentiate Russian sentimentalism from Russian realism and their features, strength and weaknesses in the peasant depiction, the literary works are much more needed now for making a final point on these two literary movements. Owing to the fact that the sentimental story “Poor Liza” by N. M. Karamzin and the realist novel “War and Peace” by L. N. Tolstoy are considered to be the best works of their time, the critical analysis of each of them is more prudent and reliable in making a final point on the given literary movements.

Considering the fact that Russian sentimentalism was the first literary movement in Russian literature which attempted to democratize literature and depict peasantry, it can be accepted that exactly Karamzin’s “Poor Liza” is one of the first literary works which reflected the Russian peasantry and its concerns. Reading the story, the depicted sad and tragic love story of a poor peasant girl Liza and rich young nobleman Erast proves that the structure of the world is such that the beauty and fair may not always be rewarded (Tretyakova, 2012, p. 57). Here, for the first time in Russian literature, an ordinary peasant family with high moral features and the infringed by the injustices of the peasant life protagonist are comprehensively depicted (SCSA – “Abiturient”, 2012, p. 147). Moreover, according to SCSA – “Abiturient”, readers were so affected by the story that the hero of the work (a peasant) became the subject of worship, was sympathized as a real person, and her behavior and clothing were imitated by readers who in turn also wanted to get to the places where the hero lived (p. 146). It is also interesting that the story is written in third person, what in turn also made the story become a white crow in Russian literature. Yet, it was recognized that by the image of the narrator (third person), Karamzin depicted an ideal of sensitive people who was fortunate enough to be blessed with a full arsenal of emotional and artistic senses (Hammarberg, 1987, p. 318). It must be paid a tribute that because of all above mentioned, the consideration of “Poor Liza” as the peak of Russian democratized sentimental literature is confirmative and reliable.  

The novel “War and Peace” written in 1869 by Leo Tolstoy, which widely embraced Russian peasant reality and national truthfulness as well as expressed in a deep comprehension the Russian national character through historical events is considered to be the pinnacle of the literary period – “golden age” and the entire Russian literature (SCSA – “Abiturient”, 2012, p. 346). The most important aspect of this novel is that the more a reader reads it, the closer he becomes to the peasant class of the Tsarist Russian times and becomes increasingly concerned about the peasant poverty existed in the 19th century (Tolstoy, 1960, p. 151). Besides, according to Novak (1958), L. N. Tolstoy, in his “War and Peace”, created images of people who were always evaluated in terms of their proximity to the Russian national spirit, ideals and morals (p. 9). That is, besides the depiction of the wretched Russian public in all its manifestations, Leo Tolstoy also depicted people of higher social classes where they were spiritually close to the ordinary Russian people. However, showing the success of the Tsarist Russian troops over Napoleon’s army, it was clarified that not the people of higher classes but the wretched Russian public won the war (Tretyakova, 2012, p. 307). Moreover, describing social conditions in Europe of the midst of the 19th century, Leo Tosltoy, in “War and Peace”, emphasizes that despite the emerged revolutions of liberalization and democratization in Europe, the Tsarist regime continued torturing peasants in Russia and did not let them be liberated.  

Nevertheless, the crucial point here is also the fact that after the wretched Russian public’s winning the war, the discourse of the peasant liberation grew and swiftly developed in the Tsarist Russia. It is believed that this is the Russian generals who saw the high level of living standards of the European public and the rights which it enjoyed in compare to the Russian public at that time, and this is definitely they who brought the reformative movement as “Decembrist revolution” into the Tsarist Russian society. Unfortunately, the revolution failed, and most of its members were imprisoned. However, as the revolutionary moods were rising in Europe, and the modernization was approaching the oppressing regime of the Tsarist Russia, where it got in a need to fulfill new industrial towns, Alexander II signed a manifesto on the abolition of serfdom (1861) which is assumed to be mainly by the reason of fulfilling empty industrial fields of the Tsarist Russian economy with the cheap country people’s labor.

Altogether, having deep and comprehensive knowledge of both literary works separately, the comparative advantage of realistic “War and Peace” in compare with sentimental “Poor Liza” should be ultimately obvious to a reader. That is, with other words, the search for the truth and meaning of life, the depiction of non-stop inner development of a protagonist (commoner), the desire to unravel the tangled “terrible knot of life” and definitely the strict exposure and condemnation of the Russian Tsarist regime because of making the public become wretched, poor and uneducated let the novel “War and Peace” be superior in the peasant depiction discourse. However, being too specific by describing literally only the inner world of a protagonist (commoner) and mainly overlooking the Tsarist regime’s guiltiness in peasants’ being so wretched, poor and uneducated, “Poor Liza” fails to become better reflective literary work. Therefore, considering the fact that the strength of a literary movement in the sphere of the depiction of the Russian peasantry lies in its elaborative literary works, the current comparison of these two literary works again ascertains that Russian realism was a stronger literary movement in the reflection of the Russian peasant.

Owing to the fact that this study was aimed to find out the reason of the imbalance in reflectivity and contributive powers of Russian sentimentalism and realism, it is clarified that the found reason lies in the answers to the questions as what these literary movements and their reflective features are, and how two literary works (“Poor Liza”; “War and Peace”) and their contributions to the Russian peasant liberation solve the arisen dispute. Thus, considering the made research and my preference in this dispute, it is more than clear that Russian sentimentalism with its specific spiritual and emotional approaches to social concerns fails the controversy, whereas Russian realism with its highly rational, pragmatic and factual approaches gets the superiority. Yet, it must be paid a tribute that the overall contribution of these two Russian literary movements to the liberation of the Russian peasantry and its abolishment was very strong and invaluable.


Tretyakova, A. I. (2012). Literature. Baku, Azerbaijan: Apostrophe.

SCSA – “Abiturient”. (2012). Literature. Baku, Azerbaijan: Abiturient.

Sobol, V. (2006). Nerves, Brain, or Heart? The Physiology of Emotions and the Mind-Body Problem in Russian Sentimentalism. Russian Review, 65(1), 1-14. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Poggioli, R. (1951). Realism in Russia. Comparative Literature, 3(3), 253-267. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Tolstoy, A. (1960). Tolstoy and Russian Peasant. Russian Review, 19(2), 150-156. Retrieved from JSTOR.  

Tegart, J. A. (1976). Sentimentalism and Karamzin. Retrieved from UBC library.

Decker, C. (1937). Victorian Comment on Russian Realism. PMLA, 52(2), 542-549. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Hammarberg, G. (1987). Poor Liza, Poor Èrast, Lucky Narrator. The Slavic and East European Journal, 31(3), 305-321. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Novak, D. (1958). An Unpublished Essay on Leo Tolstoy by Peter Kropotkin. Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne des Slavistes, 3, 7-26. Retrieved from JSTOR.

© Copyright 2018 Tokay Ahmadov. All rights reserved.

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