The Social and Political Climate of Andreyev’s World

 

This is a very, very basic summary of the world in which Andreyev lived; it is not intended to be comprehensive, as entire tomes have been written on these subjects. Rather, this is simply to give the reader a glimpse into Andreyev’s social and political surroundings.

 

Russia had been operating on a landowners-and-serfs society until the serfs were emancipated in the 1860s. The government was autocratic (ruled by a tsar), and had long been ruled by a mere handful of family dynasties. Once the serfs were set free, people began questioning the need for an autocratic rule, which persisted for several decades. After the disastrous Russo-Japanese war of 1904, national sentiment ran very much against the autocracy; finally, in 1905, then-tsar Nicholas II signed a decree establishing a constitution for Russia and establishing a democratically elected parliament, called the Duma. Over the next decade, this system wavered and finally collapsed, when the Bolsheviks (Marxists in Russia who supported Lenin and his brand of Communism – opposite them, and opposing Lenin because they deemed him too radical, were the Mensheviks) staged a coup of the tsar’s palace and effectively ousted the government. This happened in 1917, two years before Andreyev died.

 

Andreyev was looked upon with favor by the Russian intelligentsia (writers and critics who were seen as ‘elevated’ above common folk). Most of them supported the Bolsheviks, but most of them were also deeply conflicted by their personal desire to move art forward and have it undergo its own sort of revolution. They constantly asked the questions “Where are we from? Who are we? Where are we going?” – not just in reference to themselves as artists, but to Russia as a country. To them, art and Russia were inextricably intertwined; to advance one was to advance the other, and if one moved forward without the other, chaos ensued. Several writers – and painters, and musicians, and thinkers – left Russia during and after the revolution for various reasons, one of which may have been that they felt they could not handle the enormous change sweeping through Russia at the time.

 

Andreyev was one such writer. In 1906 he declared himself free of all political affiliation, wishing to distance himself from the restraint he felt in aligning with a particular side. He was admired for this, which is why so many were shocked when he turned to conservatism after the 1905 Revolution, severing his ties with a revolutionary group started by his close friend Maksim Gorky. When the Bolsheviks assumed control of the government in 1917, his conservatism deepened even further. Disgusted with the turn of events in Russia, he left for Finland, saying that it was “no longer possible” for him to stay in his homeland. (It was his vitriolic anti-Bolshevism that later caused him to fall out of favor with Soviet critics in the 1920s and 1930s) Interestingly, Gorky was put in charge of the Ministry of Culture in 1918, and made one of his tasks the employment and housing of the Russian intelligentsia. He wanted them to flourish, so he did his best to create spaces and institutions that would support them, including publishing houses, one of which made available A Book About Leonid Andreyev. (When he heard of Andreyev’s death, Gorky was inconsolable, in tears saying that Andreyev was his only true friend!)

 

Andreyev was never censored, nor did he feel the fear of being censored or threatened by the government. Rather, his relation to the intelligentsia seems to be one of reluctant acceptance and then rejection, clearly marking his desire to forge his own intellectual path as an artist. His long history of mental illness may explain his sudden shift to conservatism, but it can be said with confidence that if Andreyev was ever truly happy, the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 erased any trace of that happiness. He lived out his life in Finland mostly alone and disillusioned, feeling betrayed by his government and unable – and possibly unwilling – to see how even his own friends were working to effect changes that might have buoyed his spirits.

 

 

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Leonid Andreyev: A Biography

Leonid Nikolaevich Andreyev (1871-1919) was born in the Oryol province of Russia, which is about 200 miles southwest of Moscow. In 1917 he moved to Finland, where he finished out his days mostly alone.

Andreyev had a difficult childhood during which he attempted suicide three times; his father was an alcoholic, which he unfortunately inherited. Initially trained as a lawyer, he turned to writing when that career failed, having had moderate success as a moonlighting poet.  His first few works were prose; he achieved some notoriety, but was seen as controversial for writing about human perversions, suffering, and generally seedy subjects. According to the critic Hugh McLean, an “interest in all kinds of ugliness and abnormality, in the weakness and dimness of reason, in the power and destructiveness of death” pervades not only his early prose works but also his later dramatic works.

In 1908 Andreyev started writing mostly plays; HE falls under the umbrella of his allegorical/symbolic/rhetorical plays; in it, the circus symbolizes life and the reader finds murder, love gone wrong, suicide, and “other such Andreyevian traits” (according to the critic Victor Terras).

Andreyev by philosophy was a nihilist and a pessimist, especially after his beloved first wife died in 1906, but he was also a man of “theatricality and poise” – panache, if you will. He was good-looking, and liked to dress as a Renaissance painter; he had a weakness for fine, luxurious things, which he desired greatly, having come from a poor background in which none of life’s grander things were immediately obtainable. The money he earned from writing allowed him to pursue this fast lifestyle, but it also fueled his morbid writing; in so much consumption he saw people spiraling towards death, not living more life, though he tended toward the melodramatic with no actual experience in melodramatic affairs in his own life. He was still very popular for his time – on par with another great Russian dramatist, Anton Chekhov – and was regarded as one of the intelligentsia’s favorites.

During Andreyev’s lifetime, he was diagnosed with and treated for acute neurasthenia, which by modern terms would be associated with depression, fatigue, and/or anxiety.  The critic Frederick White looked at Andreyev’s diaries to see how he portrayed his mental illness; for a long time before diagnosis he had no name for his condition, and thought his depression was the result of personal problems but suspected that there was something more severe going on behind his sustained periods of melancholy. White’s thesis is that “Andreyev’s reading of Schopenhauer, his drinking, and his desperate desire to find love were in reaction to his mental illness, not the cause of it as is often argued.” White contends that this is important because Andreyev’s illness both informed and influenced his perception and depiction of reality. (White doesn’t name HE as a work dealing directly with mental illness; this essay concentrates on the first set of diaries Andreyev kept until 1909. There is another set of diaries that he kept from then until his death in 1919, but White does not examine those in his work.)

Early on in the diaries, Andreyev refers to fits in which he contemplated suicide; he writes that he was bothered at that point by the seeming meaninglessness of life, and that he was left feeling as if he had a double. White in a lengthy footnote notes the presence of both an internal and external “I” in Andreyev’s diaries, which White traces to Golyadkin, the protagonist in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story “The Double” (in which a man projects a doppelganger of himself into the world).

To “attempt to reconcile these fits, Andreyev turned to the philosophy of Pessimism, identifying his double as a pessimist and thoughts of suicide as pessimistic.” Philosophical Pessimism is based mostly on Schopenhauer’s idea that we humans don’t control our lives, and that we are all driven by Will; our wants are never fulfilled, so we are always suffering from frustration and “a sense of deficiency”. Thus, life is tragic and full of misery and pain. Evenually, Idea triumphs over Will, but the more knowledge we have, the greater our capacity for pain; never attaining true happiness, we will all collectively commit suicide at some point. This is how Andreyev framed his illness experience and rationalized his episodes of depression, and how he came to conclude that suicide was his only way out.

Andreyev experienced several bouts of drunken depression when he and his first wife fought constantly for most of the year 1890; he attempted suicide a few times and was subsequently hospitalized. As the 1890s wore on, he continually expressed the idea that he had some sort of “internal defect” that he sought to cure not through suicide but in some other manner – but, what exactly that manner was, he did not know. Eventually, Andreyev came to realize that his romantic relationships were not causing his depression, but that in fact the depression was underlying and the relationships were the exacerbators thereof; he chose women to “stabilize” his mental condition and believed that love could cure his condition, which White attributes to his close relationship with his mother, who lived with him almost his entire life.

Here are a few images from Andreyev’s life depicting his family.

Andreyev (right) with his brother Andrei and his mother, staging a mock coronation.

Mock Coronation With Family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Self-portrait for an article about his paintings in January 1912 issue of The Sun of Russia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Andreyev and his second wife, Anna, in the garden of his home in Finland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Andreyev’s three sons with his wife, Anna: Vera, Savva, and Valentin, on the island of Koivisto, 1913.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Andreyev and some of his revolutionary writer-friends who called themselves “the Wednesday Circle”, in 1902. Standing: Skitalets (Stepan Petrov), Maksim Gorky. Seated (L-R): Andreyev, Fyodor Shalyapin, Ivan Bunin, Nikolai Teleshev, Evgeny Chirikov.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Andreyev on his deathbed in Finland, September 1919.