Moroz krasny-nos, 1863 (Red-Nosed Frost, 1929)
Komu na Rusi zhit’khorosho?, wr. 1863-1878, pb. 1879 (Who Can Be Happy and Free in Russia?, 1917)
“Russkie zhenshchiny,” 1872-1873
Poslednie pesni, 1877
Poems by Nicholas Nekrassov, 1929
Nikolai Nekrasov (nyih-KRA-suhf) was born in 1821 and grew up on the country estate of his father, a notoriously tyrannical landowner in the government of Yaroslav. When Nikolai was seventeen his father sent him to a St. Petersburg military academy, but once in the city the youth enrolled in the university instead. When his father learned of this move, he refused to support him in any way; consequently, Nekrasov was for a time on the verge of starvation. Before long he was forced to give up university work and sustain himself through odd jobs and hack writing. His first collection of poems was published in 1840; a complete failure, it was severely criticized by well-established critics. Apparently Nekrasov was not discouraged, for he entered the publishing field and by hard work and determination acquired his own publishing house in 1845. In 1846 he bought The Contemporary, which, under his editorship, became the leading literary journal in Russia. Nekrasov began again to publish his own poetry, now enthusiastically praised.
In 1854 Nekrasov wrote “Vlas,” a poem narrating the life of a repentant sinner who begins collecting money for churches. In 1863 he published Red-Nosed Frost, a long poem on the beauty of winter that presented an idealized picture of Russian peasant women and the harsh life they were forced to lead. In his work Nekrasov repeatedly showed a passionate sympathy for peasants and their suffering, which he communicated through the use of folk themes and styles. He became known as a “realistic” and “civic” poet. In another poem, “Russkie zhenshchiny” (Russian women), he again praised the strength of the wife who would follow her husband into exile, not yielding to pain or exhaustion.
Nekrasov’s masterpiece, Who Can Be Happy and Free in Russia?, is a long satirical poem depicting the miserable life of the peasants. The work often dwells on details of peasant fortitude and virtue, and because of this quality it is optimistic in its total effect. It is somewhat disconcerting to note that the sympathy and praise Nekrasov showed for the poor and outcast in his work was in contrast to his personal life: He spent his large income on gambling, lavish parties, and expensive mistresses.
In The Contemporary, Nekrasov also published works by Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoevski. Later the famous critics Dobrolyubov and Chernishevsky worked on his staff. Nekrasov, who was politically a radical, had endless problems with the censors, and in 1866, after an attempt on the life of Czar Alexander II, The Contemporary was suppressed. In 1868 Nekrasov, together with the writer Saltykov, took over the radical review The Fatherland Notes; he remained the publisher and editor until his death from cancer in 1878.