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Prominent Russians: Fyodor Tyutchev

December 5, 1803 - July 27, 1873
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“I love poetry and my country above all else in the world,” - Fyodor Tyutchev.

Fyodor Tyutchev was a remarkable Russian poet and a career diplomat who devoted thirty-six years of his life to the diplomatic service. He is regarded as one of the three greatest Russian poets of the 19th century.

As a professional diplomat, Tyutchev carried out a number of missions abroad, including diplomatic representations in Munich and Turin. He valued the achievements of Western civilization, but did not think that Russia could follow the same path. To Tyutchev's pen belong poems that have become classics of Russian literature. They are imbued with a love for his Motherland and reflect sincere and selfless patriotism. “I am Russian,” wrote Tyutchev, “Russian by heart and soul, profoundly devoted to my land.”

The role Tyutchev played in the history of Russian culture was not fully appreciated during his lifetime. Few of his contemporaries were able to perceive how powerful his talent was. In his lifetime there were at least three men who realized that Tyutchev was a brilliant poet. They were Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Nekrasov. Tolstoy even put Tyutchev above Pushkin. “Pushkin was broader, of course, but Tyutchev deeper,” Tolstoy said.

Nevertheless Tyutchev won nationwide recognition as a poet, though much in his life and work remains unknown to the general public.

Tyutchev wrote about 300 short poems. His amazingly, sonorous, musical and lyric verse is something every Russian gets to know at an early age. Schoolchildren readily recite the line “I love a rainstorm in early May.” Older lovers of poetry enjoy his lyrical descriptions of Russian landscapes. While politicians and many other people quote his verse, “You cannot understand Russia with your brain, you can only believe in it.”

Life path

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The second son of land-owning parents, Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev was born in the village of Ovstug, about 30 kilometers north of Bryansk in what was then the Oryol Province. The village of Ovstug was located on the banks of the Desna River in a densely wooded part of southwestern Russia. The family spent winters in Moscow. In August 1812 they moved temporarily to Yaroslavl shortly before Napoleon seized the city.

The boy was raised in a household where French was spoken almost exclusively, although serfs, servants, nannies and the local clergy used Russian. This made Tyutchev effectively bilingual. Throughout his life he spoke French. His letters are overwhelmingly in French, as are his articles and a handful of verses. Tyutchev was not an ordinary man. Having fallen in love with literature, he began translating Horace into Russian at the age of twelve and wrote his first poem at sixteen. Those who knew him in his youth noted his quick mind, his remarkable memory, his erudition, and his poetical gift.

In 1812 his education was entrusted to the family teacher, Semyon Raich, a conscientious and gifted student of Classical and Italian literature. Tyutchev attended Moscow University from 1819-1822. Upon graduation, at the age of 19, he entered government service in the Office of Foreign Affairs in St. Petersburg. In the stimulating atmosphere of the big city many would-be-poets made small contributions to Russian letters and played their part in the rapidly developing cultural life. Tyutchev was always the focus of public attention. In 1845 he was referred to as a “society lion.” People said, “Around him you feel that he is not an ordinary mortal, but a man with unusual gifts - a genius.” He was described as a fascinating person and a profound thinker.

Diplomatic missions abroad

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Tyutchev spent one-third of his life abroad. Having lived in Western Europe, Tyutchev could not help thinking about the destiny of Russia and its relationship with the West. He wrote several articles as well as a treatise on the subject. Tyutchev was a true patriot; one can feel it in his verses, articles and letters. Here's what he wrote to his daughter Anna, who was born and raised in Germany, just before she came to Russia for the first time as a 16-year-old girl: “In Russia you will find more love than anywhere else. Then you will be able to perceive the entire greatness of the country, and the goodness of its people; you will be proud and happy that you are Russian.”

It was a rare combination - poet and diplomat, though history had seen outstanding men of letters who engaged in diplomacy like Beaumarchais (a French inventor, poet, diplomat, spy, publisher, arms dealer and revolutionary) and Griboyedov. Tyutchev served in Russian diplomatic missions abroad from 1822 to 1844. But his role in that area was also underestimated. Biographer Vadim Kozhinov says: “I tried to prove that Tyutchev had played a great role in diplomacy. He managed to become the closest associate of and chief adviser to Russia's Foreign Minister Gorchakov. As soon as Gorchakov took office in 1856, he invited Tyutchev to work with him. I have proved that the most important diplomatic decisions made by Gorchakov had been prompted by Tyutchev, including the famous diplomatic victory won after Russia's defeat in the Crimean War in 1856. Under the peace treaty signed in Paris Russia's rights in the Crimea were greatly curtailed, but Gorchakov succeeded in restoring the status quo, and he went down in history for this.”

It should be noted that in one of his articles Tyutchev predicted the Crimean War ten years before it started and even foresaw how it would end. His publications were anonymous. He signed them either with the word “Russian” or with his initials. People only learned about his authorship much later.

Tyutchev was reinstated in government service in 1845 and in 1848 became Senior Censor in the Russian Foreign Office and ultimately a fairly liberal Chairman of the Committee of Foreign  Censorship.

Tyutchev as a “minor” poet

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Once upon returning from a diplomatic mission to Greece in 1833, Tyutchev decided to tidy up his desk. Only one hundred and fifty-two lines of his translations of Goethe remain while the rest were lost. For whatever reason Tyutchev threw out his work. Such an attitude resulted in his being known as a poet of worth among only a handful of close friends and partly explains why he played no direct part in the Golden Age of Russian poetry. His 300 short poems are the only pieces he ever wrote in Russian. Tyutchev regarded his poems as bagatelles, not worthy of study, revision or publication. He generally didn't care to write them down and, if he did, he would often lose the papers they were scribbled on. Nikolay Nekrasov, when listing Russian poets in 1850, praised Tyutchev as one of the most talented among the “minor poets.”

The situation changed slightly in 1836 when, after constant cajoling, Gagarin, one of Tyutchev’s friends, finally persuaded him to send him some lyrics. Gagarin showed them to Vassily Zhukovsky, then to Aleksandr Pushkin, and that same year sixteen “Poems Sent from Germany” appeared in Pushkin's  journal “Sovremennik” (The  Contemporary), under the initials “F.T.”.

 While Tyutchev never ceased writing entirely, there is a hiatus from 1838 to 1847. In 1847 he began composing once more in quantity.

Tyutchev’s private life and “tears” for women

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Tyutchev was offered a post in the Russian delegation in Munich in 1822, thanks to the efforts of his uncle, Count Ostermann-Tolstoy. German writers and philosophers, particularly Schelling, were on good terms with the poet. Schelling referred to Tyutchev as “an excellent and most cultivated man with whom it is always a pleasure to converse.”

In Munich, Tyutchev fell in love with the Bavarian Countess Amalie Lerchenfeld. Tyutchev's poem “Tears” coincides with one of their dates, and is most likely dedicated to Amalie. The published letters and diaries of Count Maximilian Joseph von Lerchenfeld illuminate the first years of Tyutchev’s life as a diplomat in Munich (1822–26), giving details of his frustrated love affair with Amalie that nearly involved a duel with his colleague, Baron Aleksandr von Krüdener on 19 January 1825. After they were both married, Tyutchev and Amalie continued to be friends and frequented the same diplomatic society in Munich. Their last meeting took place on 31 March 1873 when she visited him on his deathbed.

Returning to Munich in 1826, he married Eleonore Peterson  (nee von

Bothmer), a twenty-six year old widow with three children. Together they had three more children. Both were impractical people and experienced financial hardships. Little is documented about his daughter Darya, but Anna and Ekaterina are revealed in the memories of various people as intelligent, energetic and creative women in different ways. Leo Tolstoy himself showed more than a passing affection for Ekaterina. And Anna was Tyutchev's favorite. She married Ivan Aksakov, the poet's first biographer.

Tyutchev traveled through Germany, Austria and Switzerland. He visited Paris and, his duties being far from onerous, enjoyed a full social life. In 1830 he returned for a short while to Russia. A number of poems written during these early years in Europe show the increasing importance of the beauty of western European nature in his life, coupled with a tendency to employ images of bleakness when depicting the eastern  European countryside.

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In May 1838 a fire swept the steamer Nicholas I upon which Tyutchev's wife and family were traveling. It seems that Eleonore (“Nelly”) Tyutcheva, encumbered by three small children and a nanny, showed great courage and was one of the last to leave the ship. The highly-strung woman did not survive the ordeal and died in August of that year - household tensions having  exacerbated  her condition. Bereavement did not stop Tyutchev from traveling to Lake Como (the third largest lake in Italy), at the time visited by members of the Russian Imperial family. In 1839 Tyutchev married Ernestine von Dornberg. They had been lovers for six years and had a child together. “When I cease to be an object of love, I turn into a pitiful creature,” he wrote to his second wife Ernestine. The couple settled in Munich. In 1837, Tyutchev was transferred from Munich to the Russian embassy in Turin. He found his new place of residence uncongenial to his disposition and retired from service to settle in Munich. Tyutchev's decision to take leave of his post  despite his superior's  refusal to approve his request left  him  jobless. 

Ernestine possessed a rather calmer personality, not to mention more  personal  capital, than Eleonore. “The soul and heart of this family was Ernestine Fyodorovna... a poetic and sublime woman in whom the intelligence, the heart and the charm of a woman fused into one harmonious and graceful whole...  Fyodor Ivanovich himself was some kind of visitor in spirit to this household... Life's prose did not exist for him. He divided his life between poetic and political impressions.” - Meshcher, editor of the Grazhdanin (“The Sky Citizen”)

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In 1846 Tyutchev met Elena Denisieva, over twenty years his junior. The ensuing love affair scandalized polite society and caused the partners intense emotional suffering and bitterness. Elena's mother was the principal of the “Smolny Institute,” a girls' school where Darya and Ekaterina were pupils. But nevertheless Tyutchev could not endure life without Denisieva. She bore them three children. Fully aware of all this, Ernestine remained stoically faithful, although once she did suggest they separate for a while. The love affair produced a small body of lyrics rightly considered to be among the finest love poems in Russian. Short, highly lyrical and profound, the Denisieva poems bare the love affair like an open wound.

His personal happiness was marred by several blows. Elena's death from tuberculosis in 1864 shattered him. Family bereavement followed. Two of

Elena's children died, as well as his eldest son Dmitry, his daughter Maria, and his brother. Increasing poor health and anguished thoughts of his own death tormented Tyutchev during his final years. In January 1873 the first of several strokes partly paralyzed him and on 27 July he died.

Once Tyutchev said that what he loved most of all was his Motherland and poetry, but only after his wife. He meant his first wife, but his love for his second spouse was not lesser. He experienced passionate love before his marriage, and his last love was also overwhelming. He adored his women, and could not live without love. Women were fond of him, but he viewed it as a gift of fate, not as something due him. “I know no one less worthy of love than I. That is why I was always amazed at becoming the object of someone's love,” he said.

Tyutchev’s view of Russia grows cold

The Decembrist uprising took place in Imperial Russia on 14 December 1825. Russian army officers led about 3,000 soldiers in a protest against Nicholas I's assumption of the throne after his elder brother Konstantin removed himself from the line of succession. Because these events occurred in December, the rebels were called the Decembrists. The generally non-rebellious Tyutchev produced an interesting work entitled “1825/December 14th” He was in Russia at the time and took the political situation close to heart. The poem reveals his growing impatience with the public conservatism and nationalism he had to witness throughout his life; as well as his view of Russia as a cold, undesirable place, both literally and figuratively. Tyutchev's concern about the dangers of revolution, especially close to Russia's borders, became one of his passions up until his death.

Tyutchev’s political writings answered a different need and were calculatedly produced to make influential people see things from his point of view, not to mention ultimately persuade his former employers to look favorably on him once more and, after his marriage, give him a job. It worked, and after Tyutchev settled in Russia in 1844, he became an increasingly respected government official.

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Although he and his family visited the West several times over the years that followed, Russia had become their permanent home. Several poems written from this point express longing for the blue skies, warmth and light of Western Europe, and on many occasions he refers to Russia in such unflattering terms it is difficult at first to understand his constantly passionate defense of the country.

Tyutchev’s stirring verses still ring true today and probably always will. His inimitable lyrics inspired many equally stirring love songs written by leading Russian composers, including Sergey Rakhmaninov who wrote a beautiful romance based on Tyutchev's famous “Spring Waters” poem.

Written by Tatyana Klevantseva for RT

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