January 01, 2019

Grampa Krylov

Grampa Krylov
Portait of the poet Ivan Andreyevich Krylov (Johann Leberecht Eggink, 1832)

Ivan Andreyevich Krylov is truly a people’s poet, better known in Russia even than Pushkin. It would be hard to find a Russian unable to come up with three or four quotes from his fables. Despite his fame, however, no one is quite sure when he was born, yet early in life he made himself the stuff of legend. The memoirs of his contemporaries abound with stories about Krylov, many of which revolve around his notorious laziness, slovenliness, and passion for food (see Cuisine, page 62).

When Ivan was a child, his father was posted at the Yaitsk military base (in what is now northwestern Kazakhstan) during the 1773 Pugachev uprising. Ivan and his mother stayed in the nearby city of Orenburg, which wound up being besieged by rebel forces.  (When Pushkin was working on his History of Pugachev, he used Krylov as a source.)

The Krylov family was poor, and after his father’s death in 1778, the future poet struggled to establish himself. While working as a low-level clerk in Tver, he lived in the home of the renowned architect and Enlightenment thinker, Nikolai Lvov, and was occasionally called on to act as servant. In 1782 he left for St. Petersburg, where he lived in the Lvovs’ Petersburg residence for a year before he found himself a position as a clerk, and later as a secretary in the city’s treasury. This job enabled him to send for his mother and young brother. After his mother’s death in 1786, he took care of his brother for many years.

During his first years in St. Petersburg, Krylov wrote comic operas and tragedies and was admitted to the capital’s theatrical and literary circles, taking part in literary polemics. Beginning in 1787 he served in the government’s mining office, but disputes with his powerful boss, General Pyotr Alexandrovich Soimonov (who held a Class 4 rank while the provincial secretary was a lowly Class 12 on the Table of Ranks), compelled him to leave government service for several years.

Almost entirely self-taught, Krylov spoke French and German, later adding Italian. Despite having a reputation as a lazy person, in old age he taught himself Ancient Greek and took lessons in English. He also drew and played the violin – all without any formal education.

In 1788, Krylov began playing a central role in the journals Morning Hours («Утренние часы») and Mail for Spirits («Почта духов»), where he published satirical poetry and prose. In 1792 he launched his own journal, The Spectator («Зритель»), and the following year began putting out The St. Petersburg Mercury («Санкт-Петербургский Меркурий»). Harassment by the police put an end to Krylov’s career as a journalist, but he still strove to spread enlightenment, believing that reason could transform the world and that the writer’s job was to awaken the capacity for reason residing in all people.

In France, the 1793 guillotining of the king and Jacobin terror frightened Catherine II into cracking down on freedom of expression. According to some contemporaries, the empress spoke personally with Krylov about his journal, and the October issue of The St. Petersburg Mercury proved to be the last to be published under his editorship.

The following year, Krylov took up residence in Moscow, where he made a living playing cards, something that led him to be banned from Russia’s two capitals in 1795. He took refuge on the estate of Count Tatishchev. When his hosts were away, he let his hair, fingernails, and toenails grow, and he walked around naked in warm weather. When asked for an explanation upon the Tatishchevs’ unexpected return, Krylov replied: “I wanted to find out what it was like for Adam.” This experiment was Krylov’s way of bidding farewell to a central Enlightenment idea: that it is possible to free people’s natural, unspoiled nature from the crust of civilization.

In 1797 Krylov became personal secretary to Prince Sergei Fyodorovich Golitsyn (one of Catherine’s generals) and taught his young sons Russian. By now, Krylov’s views had undergone a decisive turnaround: having lost his faith in reason, the poet became convinced that the world could never be fixed, because evil was rooted in human nature. This way of thinking explains the ambiguous lessons imparted in the fables he began writing: underlying their obvious and elementary moral there always lurked another meaning. His “The Crow and the Fox,” for example, illustrates the power of flattery, while “The Dragonfly and the Ant” conveys the pessimistic message that nobody will help you in a time of need.

Krylov now used caustic irony against the pretense that literacy and philosophy could ameliorate human lives. Common sense – however crude, however naive – would always prevail, as in the fable of “The Gardener and the Philosopher.”

In the late 1790s, Krylov wrote a “mock tragedy” to be performed in the Golitsyn home – Trumf, or Podshchipa, which was a parody of classical tragedy. The play poked fun at Paul I’s knightly ideals and the sentimental motifs pervading European literature at the time. It was banned and wound up circulating in eighteenth-century samizdat until finally being published in Russia in 1871.

It was in 1806 that Krylov began to write fables. He showed the first two to the renowned poet and fabulist Ivan Dmitriev. “This is your true calling,” Dmitriev told him. Krylov’s first collection of fables came out in 1809 and was enthusiastically received by readers and critics alike. Henceforth, Krylov began releasing an almost continuous stream of the rhyming stories. In total, he produced nine books comprising more than 200 fables. Tens of thousands of copies of each book were published, an astounding number for the time.

Pyotr Pletnyov, author of an account of Krylov’s life that came out soon after the poet’s death, described the impression Krylov made on him the first time he heard him read his fables.

Nobody was better than he at reading in a way that endowed the odd charm of his fables such delight, expressiveness, and variety of performance. He wasn’t reading, he was truly telling a story, without the slightest strain on the force of his voice, without ever resorting to the artificial drawing out of sounds or showy intonations. Krylov was a little over forty. But because of his excessive girth and his negligence in all matters, he seemed much older.

In 1806, Krylov settled in St. Petersburg and wrote for the theater, producing the comedies The Fashionable Shop and A Lesson for the Daughters, which at first seemed to mock the mania for French fashion, but were in fact more profound: Krylov was making fun of timeless human frailties. It was not that he wanted to edify his audiences or readers: his fables simply illustrated how the world was and would always be. The author rehearsed the actors himself. The plays were wildly successful.

Meanwhile, back in government service, he was working at the imperial mint under the supervision of his patron, the renowned historian and artist Alexei Olenin. When Olenin was appointed director of the St. Petersburg Public Library in 1812, Krylov went there with him, first as assistant to the librarian, and then (in 1816) as librarian.

His contemporaries believed that virtually all of Krylov’s fables were based on specific events, most of which are now forgotten. One possible exception is the 1812 fable, “The Wolf in the Kennel,” a fable General Kutuzov read to his officers after the Battle of Krasny against retreating French soldiers. The fables have a life of their own, and they are understandable, despite their ambiguities. Their naive, didactic lessons are immediately evident, but rather than a poetic illustration of an elementary moral, they are complex works of art with multiple layers of meaning.

Krylov avoided explicitly expressing his opinions, so we will never know for sure where he stood on certain issues. For example, some of his fables were published in Decembrist almanacs and collections, and he was greatly respected within the secret society. On December 14, 1825, the day of the Decembrist uprising, the poet spent half the day on Senate Square among the crowd of spectators. When asked why he went to see the rebels, he replied: “I wanted to take a look at the mutineers’ mugs.” His 1826 fable, “The Horse and the Rider,” which seemed to suggest that the people were incapable of making proper use of freedom, also seems to hint at conservatism.

Krylov rarely spoke of himself or his early years. His memoirs of contemporaries cover only the final decades of his life. They mostly tell us about the superficial aspects of his life – of his views or emotions, there is barely a hint. “In daily life and behavior, Ivan Andreyevich was extremely cordial, pleasantly talkative, but rarely sincere and only with his closest, most tried-and-true friends,” wrote Mikhail Lobanov, academician and author of one of the first biographical sketches of Krylov. The poet left no autobiography, no confessional letters, no direct commentaries on the people or events of the first third of the nineteenth century. When he was sent a biography to be included in a dictionary of notable people, he refused to change or add anything. “Let them write of me what they please,” he replied to requests by acquaintances.

And they did. Here is an anecdote recorded by Pushkin:

Above the couch where Krylov usually sat hung a large painting in a heavy frame. Someone pointed out to him that the nail on which it hung was not sturdy and that the painting could come loose and kill him. “No,” Krylov replied, “the angle of the frame would undoubtedly have to describe an oblique line and miss my head.”

Just as Krylov’s stories had an oblique way of making their point. And here is a story told by Alexandra Karatygina:

I remember how Alexei Nikolayevich Olenin’s sons outfitted I.A. Krylov for court, as Empress Maria Fyodorovna wished to see him. Ivan Andreyevich, as his contemporaries well knew, was a terrible slob. He was washed, coiffed, and having been dressed in a new uniform of the imperial Public Library, was brought to show Ye. M. Olenina. He took a seat with us in the parlor, and when it came time to go, we suddenly remembered his three-cornered hat and had trouble finding it. Finally, Ivan Andreyevich got up to help us look. We were horrified to see that on the seat from which he had risen there was some sort of pancake from which a thoroughly crumpled plume protruded. Alas, this was the hat, and for a half hour it had been resting under his corpulent person! You can only imagine how much effort went into giving it a passably decent appearance.

Memoirs about Krylov include more than anecdotes: many express bafflement over his laziness and the value he placed on peace and quiet above all else, but also how enthusiastically he accepted invitations, went to the theater, his club, literary salons, or to visit friends. At social gatherings he usually looked sleepy, like an enormous “drowsy lion,” as Varvara Olenina, Alexei Olenin’s oldest daughter, wrote. But this appears to have been a way of protecting himself from the curiosity people felt toward him: “He was private, especially if he noticed that others were looking at him,” according to Olenina.

The poet Pyotr Vyazemsky, who was not fond of Krylov, preferring the sentimental poet Ivan Dmitriev, wrote:

Krylov was far from the carefree and ingenuous La Fontaine he is reputed to be here, absentminded to the point of childishness. He was somewhat, if I may say, slovenly, but in all things and at all times he was what you might call crafty. And he made out marvelously because he was exceptionally smart. He was clever and calculating in how he handled his entire life and, ultimately, his talents.

What Krylov had to say about his contemporaries was always witty – sometimes blatantly caustic, sometimes hidden behind a jocular apologue (the old word for fables). An article by Vyazemsky describes the following incident:

Before it had become famous, Pushkin read his Godunov at Alexei Perovsky’s. Krylov was among the audience. After the reading concluded, I was standing next to Krylov when Pushkin walked up and, laughing good-naturedly, said “Admit it, Ivan Andreyevich. you didn’t like my tragedy, and in your opinion, it isn’t good.” “What do you mean, not good?” he replied. “I’ll tell you a little story: A preacher once delivered a sermon singing the praises of God’s world and saying that everything had been created in such a way that it would have been impossible to create anything better. After the sermon, a hunchback walked up to him with two round humps, one in front, one in the rear. ‘Aren’t you ashamed,’ he chided him, ‘to mock me and to contend in my presence that everything in God’s creation is good, everything is wonderful? Look at me.’ ‘What of it?’ the preacher countered. ‘For a hunchback, you’re very good.’” Pushkin burst out laughing and hugged Krylov.

Krylov’s contemporaries often wrote of his attitude toward royal personages. At times it was hard to separate the writer’s dutiful affection from irony, naiveté from cunning. In 1870, an illustrative anecdote was published in the magazine Russia in the Old Days («Русская старина»):

One summer the emperor’s family was residing at the Anichkov Palace. Krylov, as is well known, lived in the building of the Imperial Public Library, where he held the position of librarian. Once the late sovereign [Nicholas I] encountered Krylov on Nevsky.

“Ah, Ivan Andreyevich, how are things going? It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen one another.”

“Quite a while, your Majesty,” the fabulist replied, “Yet we seem to be neighbors.”

In 1838, Krylov’s seventieth birthday was marked with a grand celebration – the first time any writer had been given such an honor in Russia. The occasion also commemorated fifty years since Krylov first made his mark in literature. Pyotr Pletnyov left an account of the festivities:

On February 2, 1838, Krylov was going to turn exactly 70 years old. It had been a bit more than a year since the fiftieth anniversary of the appearance of his Filomely, but this was being remembered only in the context of his approaching birthday. All the writers were in a state of excitement, happy to have a chance to celebrate the anniversary of the famous Russian fabulist.

After a report on the matter to the imperial sovereign, the minister of public education conveyed that it pleased his majesty to consent to the overall desire. A committee was formed from among the poet’s closest friends to arrange for the holiday. With Olenin as chairman, there were: Zhukovsky, Prince Vyazemsky, Pletnyov, Karlgof, and Prince Odoyevsky. They proposed that a dinner be held on Krylov’s birthday in the hall of the Assembly of the Nobility, which was in the home of Madame Engelgardt.

Approximately 300 people attended. In St. Petersburg, there was not a single talent, no matter what sort of art had brought them fame, that did not hasten to join in the celebration, to which all of Russia felt a kinship. Before the dinner, Pletnyov and Karlgof went to fetch Krylov. He could not have failed to hear rumors of the festivities being prepared, but he did not know anything definite. In any event, the deputation found him already dressed. […] When they arrived at the Assembly, Olenin greeted Krylov: “Ivan Andreyevich! The Russian writers of our northern capital, artists, and lovers of our native literature, have gathered on your birthday to unanimously celebrate fifty years of your success in the field of Russian literature. Accept on this occasion our sincere congratulations and unfeigned desire that you will grace our Russian literature with your renowned, beneficial, and enjoyable works for many years to come.” […]

The dinner began. The guests were arranged so that they could all see the object of their common affection. Across from him, at the other side of the hall, there was a table beautifully illuminated and decorated with flowers where there stood a bust of Krylov topped by a crown of laurels, along with all the various editions of his works that could be assembled at the time. Women who had wanted to be present for the festivities were seated in the choir balcony. Krylov sat between Olenin and the minister of education. The seats to either side were taken by various ministers who were honoring the birthday of this people’s writer by their presence. […] The minister of education proposed a toast to Ivan Andreyevich Krylov’s health and said to him: “To the health of Ivan Andreyevich Krylov – may his literary career, which has always been, in spirit, of the people, remain forever pure in its moral orientation, an example for growing talents, encouragement for contemporaries, and a joyous memory for posterity! I consider the day on which I had the honor of being among you, ladies and gentlemen, an instrument of the imperial sovereign’s most gracious attention to our unforgettable Krylov and, at this festival of Russian literature, a representative of his sovereign benevolence toward its works and successes, to be one of the pleasantest days of my life.” Right after his remarks, Petrov recited lines by Prince Vyazemsky that were composed for the occasion. […] It was specifically then, in the lines by P.A. Vyazemsky written for the occasion that the phrase “Grandfather Krylov” was first heard.

By now, almost two centuries have passed. Has anything changed? Here is what today’s schoolchildren, for whom the name Krylov is familiar from an early age, are writing:

The morals of his fables are relevant to this day;

Eternal problems and vices are spelled out in a humorous, “childish” form;

A “satirical love” for the motherland;

A sweet “grandfather”;

Timely topics behind a mask of good-natured lethargy;

He wrote edifying works showing the reader simple rules of life;

The morals are accessible to anyone;

Controversy and playfulness.

And finally and probably most importantly: Krylov is “What you remember on the subconscious level.” And first and foremost on that subconscious level is the grandfather who told us about the Crow and the Fox and a multitude of other make-believe animals. Insightful and calculating, ironic and cunning – that is not the Krylov that lingers in our subconscious.

Today Grandfather Krylov sits by Moscow’s Patriarch Ponds, benevolently observing the little children frolicking around him. He is surrounded by sculptures depicting characters from his fables: the Elephant and the Pug, the Monkey, and a giant Bear, among others. It is ironic (but isn’t Krylov all about irony?) that his statue stands in a spot that is now associated with a completely different writer and with absolutely different characters. Patriarch Ponds is where the opening scene of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita takes place, where the devil first appeared in Moscow.

Krylov died of pneumonia on November 9, 1844. In 1855, Russia’s first monument in the capital to a writer, a statue of him by Pyotr Klodt, was erected in St. Petersburg’s Summer Garden. To mark the occasion, the poet Pyotr Shumakher wrote the following epigram:

Лукавый дедушка с гранитной высоты
Глядит, как резвятся вокруг него ребята,
И думает себе: «О милые ребята,
Какие ж, выросши, вы будете скоты!»

Sly grandad observes from his perch made of stone
The frolicking children all laughing in glee
With fabulist’s wisdom, he thinks tenderly,
Dear children, what scoundrels you’ll be when you’re grown.

Krylov Monument

The monument to Krylov in St. Petersburg (Alex Florstein Fedorov / CC)

The End. Or just the beginning?

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