Russian Realist Movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Russian realists helped create the intellectual conditions that directed Russia’s mid-nineteenth century reform movements. Their accurate descriptions of both Russian society and the potential cruelty of human existence filled a generation of social activists with a deep sense of their moral responsibility to work for social, political, and economic equality.

Summary of Event

Mid-nineteenth century Russia witnessed an artistic and literary movement that embraced realism in representation. The members of the Russian intelligentsia who adhered to this approach were the products of a half-century of cultural, political, and social upheaval that shook the very foundation of the Russian nation. At the beginning of the century, Czar Alexander I had flirted with the Enlightenment ideal of liberalism as expressed in the political concepts of constitutional monarchy and the abolition of serfdom. Many of the bright and talented young members of his officer corps believed the adoption of the Enlightenment worldview was the best way to initiate the reforms necessary to modernize Russian society. However, the French Revolution (1789) French Revolution (1789);and Russia[Russia] and the Napoleonic Wars brought twenty-five years of chaos and destruction to most of Europe and created a conservative backlash that was especially strong in Russia’s ruling Romanov dynasty. Russia;realist movement Realist movement, Russian Literature;Russian Philosophy;Russian Russia;literature [kw]Russian Realist Movement (1840’s-1880’s) [kw]Realist Movement, Russian (1840’s-1880’s) [kw]Movement, Russian Realist (1840’s-1880’s) Russia;realist movement Realist movement, Russian Literature;Russian Philosophy;Russian Russia;literature [g]Russia;1840’s-1880’s: Russian Realist Movement[2150] [c]Literature;1840’s-1880’s: Russian Realist Movement[2150] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1840’s-1880’s: Russian Realist Movement[2150] Turgenev, Ivan Dostoevski, Fyodor Herzen, Aleksandr Nicholas I Nicholas I [p]Nicholas I[Nicholas 01];and realist movement[Realist Movement] Alexander I Alexander I [p]Alexander I[Alexander 01];and realist movement[Realist Movement]

After Czar Alexander Alexander I Alexander I [p]Alexander I[Alexander 01];death of died in 1825, Russia experienced a period of political chaos that was precipitated when one of the most respected and powerful Russian military units, the Moscow Regiment, attempted to block the ascension to the throne of Nicholas I. Nicholas I Nicholas I [p]Nicholas I[Nicholas 01];and realist movement[Realist Movement] This so-called Decembrist Revolt was staged in an attempt to establish a constitutional monarchy based upon Enlightenment political doctrines. Nicholas I held fast and struck hard, however, and with most of the Russian military behind him, he crushed the attempted coup d’état. Once his power was secure, the new czar created a governmental model that would dominate the Russian nation until the Revolution of 1917.

The foundation of all of Russian society according to Nicholas rested upon the ideas of orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationalism. The Russian Orthodox Church would form the moral compass of the entire nation, and its strict ethical code was to be reinforced in the curriculum of the Russian educational system, as well as in the art produced by the nation’s intellectual and artistic community. Government censorship Censorship;Russian became commonplace, and freedom of thought was regarded as a revolutionary value. Autocracy became the accepted political philosophy, and it allowed the Romanovs to exercise absolute control over every aspect of the nation’s government.

The czar’s word was law, and any attempt to question the status quo was considered an act of treason. The concept of nationalism was used to create an ethnocentric mind-set that viewed Russian culture as superior to all others, especially to that of Enlightenment-dominated western Europe. This theory of Russian cultural superiority would in time become the intellectual foundation of the Slavophile movement, which was to play a prominent role in much of the art of the Russian realists.

The major international event that helped shape the worldview of the Russian realists was the Crimean War (1853-1856) Crimean War (1853-1856);and Russian realism movement[Russian realism movement] . The war coincided with the rise of realism as a movement, and Russia’s defeat provided an impressive example of the need for widespread reform. The Russian military machine was crushed by an Ottoman, British, and French alliance that exploited and exposed the deep technological, social, and strategic deficiencies of the Russian nation. Russian military technology had fallen behind that of the rest of the major powers of Europe, and this undeniable fact helped shape the opinion of many of the Russian realists that the nation’s salvation was to be found in western European modernism.

The Russian realists’ major goal was to create the intellectual conditions for reform. They believed they could do this by creating works of art, most significantly literature, that reflected every aspect of the human condition. They not only discussed the eternal personal struggle between good and evil but also described how individual moral choices could affect other members of society. They attempted to create a social conscience that would protect and respect the weakest members of Russian society.

These writers believed deeply that every individual had an inalienable dignity that transcended class or any other social distinction. The realists also delved deeply into everyday life and tried to discover the sources of human happiness and despair. They described how the choice of lifestyle could either liberate a person and allow that individual to create a positive legacy or imprison the person in the trap of never-ending self-indulgence.

The realists also stressed the importance of action and the strength of will required to take uncomfortable or dangerous positions against both authority and one’s own class. The need for such strength was often demonstrated by realist portrayals of its antithesis in the figure of the “superfluous man.” Such a character’s moral weakness or lack of personal courage prevented him from engaging in actions that were socially beneficial but personally dangerous or painful. Indeed, many of Russian realist Ivan Turgenev’s Turgenev, Ivan major characters represent the struggle of young, vibrant, aristocratic or bourgeois intellectuals who read, study, and discuss the great social and political problems of the day but are unable to escape the velvet chains of their materialistic lifestyle. These characters’ comfortable lives prevent them from engaging in political and social reform that would make those lives meaningful.

By the late 1840’s, the realists were beginning to divide into two philosophical camps over the question of the importance of Western scientific liberalism. The Westerners were the Russian intellectuals who believed that Russian civilization was a significant part of the European cultural tradition. They believed that Russia’s intellectual development had been damaged and delayed, first by the Byzantine Empire, which had isolated the nation from the advances of the High Middle Ages, then by the Mongols, who had blocked Russian exposure to the secular intellectual rebirth of the European Renaissance.

Like Peter the Great Peter the Great in the eighteenth century, the Westerners preached that Russia needed to open a new “window to the West”; most important, they saw the nation’s strength linked to Western technology. Unlike their predecessors, they also wanted the Russian government to become more democratic both in its distribution of power and through the abolition of serfdom. The most avid proponent of this Western orientation was Aleksandr Herzen Herzen, Aleksandr , who emigrated to Great Britain in the 1850’s and started the revolutionary weekly The Bell, which advocated the radical reform of Russian society based upon Western rational and materialistic philosophies.

The Slavophiles held the opposite view. They believed that Russia’s strength and future could be found only in the strong foundation of its own traditional culture. They regarded Russian Orthodoxy as the true form of Christianity and thought that its position as the “Third Rome” elevated it above all other European religious traditions. The Orthodox Church also provided the spiritual foundation for Russia’s absolute, divine-right monarchy, which the Slavophiles regarded as superior to all other forms of government.

The Slavophilic segment of the intelligentsia thought that these two great metaphysical models Russian Orthodoxy and absolute monarchy surpassed the rationalistic and materialistic liberalism of western Europe, which called for both religious toleration and the separation of church and state. This branch of the Russian realists also believed that the purest and most noble segment of the Russian nation was its patriarchal, agrarian, communal peasant society.

Fyodor Dostoevski’s Dostoevski, Fyodor work can be seen as representative of the Slavophilic worldview: His writing reflected both a deep compassion for the suffering that was so commonplace in the human condition, especially among the serfs, and the belief that God preordained one’s station in life. In his work, orthodoxy and autocracy fused and supported one another, which to Dostoevski reflected the true greatness of the Russian cultural tradition. Instead of radical change, he wanted to reform Russian society through the exercise of Christian virtue, especially charity, and the precept that suffering both cleansed and ennobled the soul. He and other Slavophiles believed that over time the richness of traditional Russian culture would reform the nation and make it a beacon to the rest of Europe.


With the deaths of Dostoevski Dostoevski, Fyodor and Turgenev, Turgenev, Ivan the realist era in Russia came to an end during the 1880’s. The primary reason for the movement’s end was an artistic shift by the next generation of Russian authors. Infused with the reformist spirit of their predecessors and the revolutionary fervor of the period, the work of these young artists focused more on the social message rather than on the artistic style of their prose. Their artistically inferior work reduced the rhetorical power of the novel by the end of the nineteenth century.

The major accomplishment of the Russian realist movement, the abolition of serfdom, also reduced the economic power and security of Russia’s landed gentry. It was this segment of Russian society that had been the most conservative and anti-modernist. As their power declined, the way was opened for a new intellectual class that was far more revolutionary in its orientation. This new intelligentsia grew out of the social, political, and legal reforms of the 1860’s, which increased the number of attorneys, historians, and bureaucrats in the country. It was from the ranks of this new intellectual elite that many of the revolutionaries of the early twentieth century would emerge.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. Ivan Turgenev. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. Collection of essays about Turgenev’s life and work, including comparison of his writing to that of Ernest Hemingway and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and an introduction written by Bloom. One of the titles in the Modern Critical Views series.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kelly, Aileen. Toward Another Shore: Russian Thinkers Between Necessity and Chance. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Contains an excellent account of the philosophical worldview of the Russian realists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leatherbarrow, W. J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Collection of essays interpreting various aspects of Dostoevski’s work, including his relationship to the Russian folk heritage, literature, religion, the family, money, and psychology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ulam, Adam. Russia’s Failed Revolutionaries: From the Decembrists to the Dissidents. New York: Basic Books, 1981. This book is an excellent account of the history of Russian revolutionary movements. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walicki, Andrzej. A History of Russian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Marxism. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993. The best one-volume history of modern Russian thought. Index.

Decembrist Revolt

Second Russo-Turkish War

Dostoevski Is Exiled to Siberia

Crimean War

Courbet Establishes Realist Art Movement

Flaubert Publishes Madame Bovary

Emancipation of Russian Serfs

Naturalist Movement Begins

Bakunin Founds the Social Democratic Alliance

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Alexander I; Fyodor Dostoevski; Aleksandr Herzen; Nicholas I; Ivan Turgenev. Russia;realist movement Realist movement, Russian Literature;Russian Philosophy;Russian Russia;literature

Categories: History