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Prominent Russians: Denis Fonvizin

April 3, 1745 – December 1, 1792
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Denis Fonvizin, often referred to as the “Russian Molière,” was the first truly original Russian dramatist of the 18th century. He was born into a noble family in Moscow on 3 April 1744 or 1745. The confusion in year results from the inscription on the writer's grave-stone in the Alexandro-Nevsky Lavra in St.-Petersburg: "Born 3 April 1745, died 1 December 1792, lived 48 years, seven months, 28 days." The apparent mistake in the inscription has been interpreted in various ways, but 1745 is the most likely year of his birth.

The family, although thoroughly Russianized, had an ancestor of German or Swedish origin, known as Von Visin – a prisoner captured in one of Ivan the Terrible’s Livonian campaigns in the 16th century.

Fonvisin's father, a strict disciplinarian with only an elementary education but a great deal of common sense, instructed him in the basics of the Russian language, providing tutors in other fields. In 1756, Denis and his brother, Pavel, were enrolled in the gymnasium at Moscow University, established the year before.

Although he complained of the teaching personnel, some of whom were addicted to booze and a loose lifestyle, Denis, nevertheless, admitted that he acquired a lot from the institution where he studied with diligence and was among the best pupils. In 1760 he entered the university, in the department of philosophy, where he remained until 1762.

That same year, when Catherine II became empress, he joined the Imperial Guard, only to find that a military career held no appeal for him. Soon he entered the civil service, first as an interpreter at the Kollegium (ministry) of Foreign Affairs and then as secretary to the cabinet-minister Ivan Elagin.

Fonvisin's literary career began in the early 1760s with the translation from French and German of works by some European enlighteners. These included Moralizing Fables (1761) by Danish playwright Barin Ludvig Holberg, Voltaire’s tragedy Alzira, or the Americans (1762) and the treatise Short Story about Liberty of the French Nobility and Benefit of the Tiers Etat (1764 - 1766) by an unknown author. In 1764 he started writing his own original works, including Korion which was performed at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg the same year and the poem Message to my Servants Shumilov, Vanka and Petrushka.

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After moving to St. Petersburg in 1762, he befriended Ivan Dmitrievsky, a prominent actor, and began translating and adapting foreign plays for him. His wit and his knowledge of French and German classics made him well received in the enlightened circles at the court of Catherine II. In 1769 he was appointed secretary to Vice-Chancellor Nikita Panin (1718 - 1783), Catherine II's top diplomatic advisor and a mentor of her son, Pavel Petrovich (who later was enthroned as Emperor Paul I).

Panin was a liberal and an advocate of constitutionalism, with whom Fonvisin shared a hatred of favoritism and the belief that "fundamental laws" were indispensable in Russia. During the 1760s, Panin patronized a group of idealistic young writers, among whom, besides Fonvisin, were the poets Alexander Sumarokov and Hippolyt Bogdanovich.

Fonvizin may well have been the most articulate spokesman of the program for which this liberal party stood. By that time, his enlightened stance had been fully formed: he supported universal schooling, gradual abolition of serfdom and constitutional monarchy as the ideal political system.

Meanwhile, literature (especially playwriting) was becoming the primary cause of his life. In 1766 his play The Brigadier, created a sensation when it was read in the presence of Catherine II. A salon comedy, The Brigadier attacked the nobility's corruption and ignorance, condemned the notion that rank at the Russian court was a sure sign of virtue in the person occupying it, and travestied the “Westernized” provincial parvenus whom Panin so disdained. It also mocked the Russian gentry's "gallomania" (i.e. fashion of aping French manners and speech — or rather of aping them incorrectly).

Without French rules for behavior "we wouldn't know how to dance, how to enter a room, how to bow, how to perfume ourselves, how to put a hat on, and, when excited, how to express our passions and the state of our heart,” one of the characters of the play admits. After reading the play, Panin wrote to Fonvizin: "I see that you know our customs well, because the wife of your general is completely familiar to us. No one among us can deny having a grandmother or an aunt of the sort. You have written our first comedy of manners." In spite of its success, The Brigadier was not published until 1786.

In recognition of his service to the government, in 1773 the Empress presented Fonvizin with a large estate in the province of Vitebsk, inhabited by 1180 serfs. The following year he married a widow, Catherine Khlopova (née Rogovikova). During the Pugachev rebellion in 1774, Fonvisin, at the request of Panin drew up a plan for a constitutional government in Russia but it was permanently shelved by the Empress as she was becoming increasingly wary of allowing limitations on her prerogative powers.

In 1777 - 1778 Fonvizin visited France; in "Travel Letters" (published in the 19th century) he appraised French society on the eve of the Revolution, finding French theatre and love of country admirable but nearly everything else deplorable. The French, he found, were sycophantic, hypocritical, oversexed, and unjustified in their immense pride.

Their cities were filthy, noisy, stinking and overflowing with beggars. Injustice reigned as all French people had "been made to be either a tyrant or a victim." Fonvizin had choice words for other cultures and populations as well, including Poles, Germans, Jews and Italians. "The floors are of stone and filthy," he wrote from Florence, "the linens are abominable; the bread of the sort eaten in Russia by the poor; their clean water is slops for us."

Thus, the genre of travel notes served as a means of making a statement on Russian identity and emerging national consciousness. Russia, traditionally observed by Western European travelers, had now become the observer of the West.

In the “Letters” he presented a scathingly sarcastic, critical view of Western Europe, portraying it roughly in the same manner as Western Europeans portrayed Eastern Europe: backward, uncivilized, and semi-barbaric. Despite his upbringing, education and career being the product of Western-style reform, Fonvizin’s criticism of Western Europe juxtaposed the shortcomings of Europe with Russia, vehemently claiming the superiority of Russia in terms of civility, morality, culture and education.

Fonvizin's approach demonstrates that both the traveler and his readers boast a level of cultural sophistication far superior to that of the average foreigner. On the contrary, “uncorrupted” Russia, Fonvizin believed, had the advantage of being "backward" and could thus foresee a future superior to that of "enlightened" France.

His traveler often engages in conversations that humorously pit the voice of reason (embodied in the traveler) against the stupidity represented by his foreign interlocutors. In these epistolary scenarios, the foreigners reveal startling depths of ignorance and failing, for example, to understand the basic facts about Russian culture: "Many are hearing for the first time that there is a Russia in the world and that we speak a particular language distinct from theirs.” In these letters, Fonvizin’s sarcastic wit and sharp tongue seem extremely biting and humorous.

Fonvizin s criticisms of Europe have helped to widely establish his reputation with foreign critics and readers as a "chauvinist and xenophobe"; his letters have been described as a primary document in the continuing love-hate relationship between Russian intellectuals and the West.

Nonetheless, Fonvizin is not wholly negative in his commentaries on foreign cultures, but remarks on positive elements as well. "It's necessary to do justice," he wrote from Aachen, "notwithstanding unspeakable moral corruption, there does exist in the French a kindness of heart."

His letters also contained serious criticisms of Russia as he described the shortcomings of France as worse than Russia's, similar to Russia's, or common to humankind in general. "People are everywhere people," he concluded, "a really clever and worthy man is everywhere rare."

In 1781 Fonvizin finished his masterpiece - a comedy entitled Nedorosl (“The Minor” or "Young Oaf"; staged in 1782, published in 1783). Nedorosl is considered the first truly Russian play, and a landmark of Russian literature. It was also a heavily didactic work, aimed at preaching Panin’s party program.

It deals with a gentry’s family so ignorant and brutish that they survive only through the industriousness of their ill-treated serfs. In the comedy Fonvizin, seeing the root of all Russian troubles in serfdom, derides the system of noble education and upbringing and showed the negative influence of serfdom on personality.

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Nedorosl contains an array of vivid characters illustrating the dull existence of the Prostakovs’ (the Simpletons’) family with its ridiculous customs. The plot centers on the tyrannical mother’s attempts to educate her spoiled and loutish son and to marry him to an heiress. The characters were portrayed with a realism unknown at the time, and the play is still performed in Russian theatres to this date.

In the positive character of the comedy, Starodum (“Mr. Oldwise”), who was most likely inspired by Fonvisin’s father, the contemporaries saw the archetype of an educated Russian humanist, patriot and fighter against serfdom and despotism. The play condemns domestic tyranny and false education, while also touching upon broader social issues such as serfdom.

The boy's name - Mitrofanushka - has become a synonym for a dolt or fool. The mother is obsessed with her son (that he gets enough to eat and will marry an heiress), her brother resembles a pig more than a man (as his name, Skotinin, “Mr. Beast”, suggests), her husband behaves sheepishly, the nurse spoils the boy, and the boy - wildly selfish and stupid – occasionally beats her. The play's basic action revolves around the conflict between the coarse bestiality of the Prostakovs on the one hand and lofty morality of Starodum and his associates on the other.

At first, the performance was forbidden by the censors and it took a lot of Count Panin’s efforts to remove this ban; finally, the play was staged on September 24, 1782. At the performance at Kniper's Theater in St. Petersburg with Dmitrievsky as Starodum the audience signaled its appreciation by flinging purses onto the stage. According to a legend, after reading Nedorosl, Catherine's minion Grigoriy Potemkin told the author, "Denis, either die or stop writing! This play alone has immortalized your name."

The comedy exerted significant influence on the development of Russian realist theatre, in particular on the works of Ivan Krylov, Aleksander Griboyedov, Nikolay Gogol and Aleksandr Ostrovsky. Fonvizin's lively, expressive style paved the way in many aspects for Aleksandr Pushkin, who always referred to him with great respect and warmth. In Evgeniy Onegin (1833) Pushkin praised Fonvizin as a master of satire and "a friend of freedom."

In 1782 Panin had a stroke and summoned Fonvizin to write a series of papers comprising his political testament. He instructed the dramatist to deliver the testament, containing a blunt denunciation of absolute power, to Catherine II’s heir after Panin's death. However, when Panin died the next year, Catherine impounded all his papers (which were only released from archives in 1905) and dismissed Fonvizin.

The first of these papers is a treatise called Discourse on Permanent State Laws, a searing indictment of Catherine's court and government, in place of which Panin wished Pavel to institute a government not of men, but of law and virtue.

Fonvizin boldly depicted the despotic nature of the Russian state: Russia is a country “where the arbitrary rule of one man is the highest law”; “there is a state, but no fatherland; there are subjects, but no citizens”; “the human faces of the peasants are the only thing that distinguishes them from cattle”; the throne is dependent on a “band of rioters”; “men are owned by men; and almost everyone is both tyrant and victim.” The testament advised the emperor-to-be to shun favoritism and tyrannical rule and create inalterable laws that would bring social harmony and stability.

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In 1783, after his patron’s death, Fonvizin resigned, deciding to fully devote himself to literary activities. That year he published a number of satirical pamphlets: Experience of a Russian citizen, belonging to some class, Narration of a sham deaf and dumb person, Comprehensive Court Grammar and also "Some questions, which could excite special attention of clever and fair people," to which Catherine II herself responded with irritation.

Further attempts by Fonvizin to publish anything were blocked by the Empress: in 1788 he was not allowed to issue five volumes of collected works in the magazine Friend of Fair People, or Starodum (a satire General Court Grammar intended for the magazine was later distributed in manuscripts). Fonvizin managed only to publish (anonymously and beyond the borders of the Russian Empire) the narration Kalisphen (1786).

Denis Fonvizin made an important contribution to 18th century debates on the status and role of the Russian nobility in the context of changes in the balance between the nobility’s obligations to the state and the privileges it enjoyed. Aware of western debates on the subject, Fonvizin approved of engagement by the nobility in commerce and preferred personal merit to heredity as a criterion for ennoblement and retention of noble status.

He used his conception of nobility (which was bolstered by the notions of virtue and honor) to perpetuate a sense of public duty among the educated Russian elite. Fonvizin made it plain that the privileges of nobility entailed the duty to use one's talents patriotically and conscientiously in the cause of the fatherland and society.

The last eight years of Fonvizin's life were marked by increasing debilitation. Shortly after his return to Russia from Italy (via Vienna and Carlsbad where he and his wife consulted doctors and took the waters) in 1784, he suffered a stroke that completely paralyzed his right side and affected his tongue; his last journey abroad was to spas in Austria and Kurland in search of an effective therapy.

Material considerations prevented Fonvizin from undertaking longer foreign tours during his final years, but in terms of the actual ban on publication of his works he was adamant about the need to leave Russia, even if just over the border to Kurland. Fonvizin died on December 1, 1792 in St. Petersburg. Death prevented Fonvizin from finishing his comedy The Choice of a Family Tutor and his memoirs Confession of My Deeds and Plans (published in 1830).

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