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.