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Ivan (Andreyevich) Krylov (1769-1844)


Russian writer of fables in the tradition of Aesop and La Fontaine. Krylov satirized social and individual faults in the guise of beasts, producing 203 fables in nine books. They are still an integral part of Russian primary and secondary education. Krylov was in his country one of the great representatives of the Age of Reason. His writings appeared in a period marked by increasingly repressive rule in Russia.

Heaven save you from a foolish friend;
The too officious fool is worse than any foe.

(from 'Hermit and Bear' in Fables, 1809)

Ivan Andreyevich Krylov was born in a provincial town near St. Petersburg into an impoverished family, at the very bottom of the noble class. His father, who was an army captain in the bureaucracy, died when Krylov was ten. At an early age Krylov played the violin and composed poetry. He performed in innumerable family concerts, in quartets with the best virtuosi of the day, and as a soloist.

Krylov had little formal education in his childhood; except for a large box full of book, his father had left the family virtually penniless. Krylov's mother, who was described as "a simple-minded woman, who had received scarcely any education," did her best to obtain a good education for her son. From his father's traveling library Krylov read the French writers Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, Molière and Jean Racine. His literary talents impressed a professional writer, who had him tutored alongside his own children.  Eventually Krylov became one of the most cultured persons of his time, who had a good command of the major European languages. At the age of fifty he mastered classical Greek.

As many other young men of the noble class, Krylov entered the imperial civil service. In 1782 he was transferred from Tver to St. Petersburg. Between the years 1782 and 1793 he wrote several comic operas, including Cofeinitsa, about a gypsy who reads the future in coffee grounds. Following the death of his mother in 1788, Krylov gave up his employment in the public service, and devoted himself to literature.

In St. Petersburg, Krylov became the center of a small intellectual circle. From 1789 to 1793 he edited with Nikolai I. Novikov and Alexander N. Radishchev a satirical magazine Pochva dukhov, which published social commentary in the guise of letters written by figures from the underworld and soon had troubles with the censor. Krylov's own contributions include 'Kaib, An Oriental Tale,' which denounced the czarist autocracy, and the 'Eulogy to the Memory of My Grandfather', a satire in the spirit of Enlightenment. However, later in life he criticized Voltairianism, the ideas of Encyclopedists, and opposed Alexander I's liberal reforms. Some of his negative views of the development of the Enlightenment derived from Napoleon's Invasion of Russia and its aftermath.

Krylov faced political persecution from the repressive government of Catherine the Great and he left St. Petersburg c.1797. From the mid-1790s to 1802 Krylov virtually disappeared from the literary scene. He travelled widely and experienced some hard periods, which made him more reluctant to express his opinions openly. Only two plays, the comedy The Pie and a mock tragedy Trumpf can be dated from this period. During this self-imposed exile he taught children in the household of Prince Sergei Galitsin of Riga on the Latvian coast south of Finland. In 1801-02 he served as a governor's secretary.

After 1801 Krylov lived in Moscow for five years and then returned to St. Petersburg. In 1806 he wrote two successful plays, The Fashion Shop and A Lesson to the Daughters. Krylov comedies attacked Gallomania and cosmopolitanism, and praised Russia way of life. In the story 'Leaves and Roots' the Leaves fail to appreciate the Roots, because they do not understand their dependance upon the sources of their being.

In 1805 Krylov began to translate the fables of Jean de La Fontaine, but he soon found that he could write fables of his own with a sharper edge and keener social commentary. He had become associated with the cultural circle of A.N. Olenin, which advocated the creation of national literature. Krylov published his first collection of fables in 1809, devoting himself entirely to that genre. After Krylov's books attracted the attention of the imperial family, he gained with Olenin's assistance a post in the St. Petersburg public library. Krylov worked there as a librarian  for 29 years, until he retired with the rank of general. When Alexander I promised to support Krylov if he wrote "well", he did not write anything after 'The Cat and the Nightingale,' directed against censorship, 'The Grandee,' about St. Peter and a Persian satrap, and 'The Elderly Lion' (1825), in which a lion is too old to defend himself.

Between the years 1824 and 1826 Krylov did not compose any poems, Though he produced 203 fables (in nine books) during his lifetime, he was commonly called the laziest man in Russia. His fables, which were considered great entertainment for both children and adults, became especially popular among the common people. Krylov often dealt with human follies, but also social defects, and current events. Many of Krylov's aphorisms have remained a part of everyday Russian speech. Krylov died in St. Petersburg on November 21, 1844. He never married. His statue, built in 1855, is situated in the Summer Gardens.

Some of Krylov's writings were not published until 1860s, among them the satire 'Multi-colored sheep' about Alexander I's policies. In it The Lion doesn't tolerate multi-colored sheep, but as a merciful ruler of animals it cannot destroy them directly. It asks the advice of the Fox, who says that it should hire a wolf as their shepherd. The result is that after some time the multi-colored sheep disappear completely, and number of the others too. The rest of the animals explain this to themselves that the Lion is good but the Wolf is a bad robber. The play Trumpf, an attack on the regime of Paul I, was published in 1871.

Among Krylov's friends were Ivan Gnedich, translator of Iliad, and Aleksandr Pushkin, whose first line in Evgenii Onegin is a reworking of a line from Krylov. In the last decades of his life, Krylov was a loved figure of St. Petersburg's artistic circles. However, the canonized image of a wise and kindly 'Grandpapa Krylov' is far from the unsentimental message of his works, his social criticism and bitter view of human nature: "The weak against the strong. Is always in the wrong." Krylov also satirized other writers, including Ekaterina Sumarokova (1746-97), the first Russian woman poet to publish. Krylos mocked her in the play Prokazniki (1788) as "Mrs Chatterbox".

Krylov's animal fables blend naturalistic characterization of the animal with an allegorical portrayal of basic human types. His miniature dramas capture problematic situations common to all people such as relations between people of the different caste and class. Krylov's epigrams often lashed corruption and incompetence. Some of his tales dealt with the Napoleonic wars, such as 'Wolf in dog kennel' and 'Friendship of dogs' Bonaparte was of course the wolf. In the latter two dogs decide to be friends and help each other but they break all promises immediately when a bone is thrown between them. Krylov referred in the tale to the peace negotiations of the Vienna Congress of 1815.

For further reading: Ivan Krylov, ed. by Nicholas P. Vaslef (1973); Ivan Krylov by Nikolay Stepanov (1974); I.A. Krylov: Poeziia narodnoi mudrosti by V. Arkhipov (1974); Krylov fabuliste by Maurice Colin (1975); Zhizn' Ivana Krylova by A. Gordin (1985); Poet i mudrets by V.I. Korovin (1996); Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed. by Neil Cornwell (1998) - Suom.: Krylovilta on suomennettu satuvalikoima Eläintarinoita (1974), toinen painos nimellä Krylovin faabeleita (1979).

Selected works:

  • Cofeinitsa, 1782 [The Fortune-Teller]
  • Filomena, 1786
  • Amerikancy, 1788
  • Prokazniki, 1788 [The Mischief-Makers]
  • Trumf / Podshchipa, 1799
  • Modnaia lavka, 1807 [The Fashion Shop]
  • Urok dochkam, 1807 [A Lesson for Daughters]
  • Basni, 1809 [Fables]
  • Novyia basni, 1811
  • Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 1847 (3 vols.)
  • Krilof and his Fables, 1869 (translated by C. Fillingham Coxwell)
  • Krilof and His Fables, 1883 (4th edition, translated by W.R.S. Ralston)
  • Polnoe sobranie basen I. A. Krylova, 1900
  • Kriloff's Fables, 1920 (translated by C. Fillingham Coxwell)
  • Krylov's Fables, 1926 (translated by Bernard Pares; US title: The Russian Fables of Ivan Krylov)
  • Russian Fables of Ivan Krylov, 1942 (verse translation by Bernard Pares)
  • Basni, 1944 (illustrated by A. Sapozhnikova)
  • Basni, 1951 (illustrated by A. Lapteva)
  • Sochineniia, 1955 (2 vols.)
  • Basni, 1962 (5th ed.)
  • Fifteen Fables of Krylov, 1965 (translated by Guy Daniels, illustrated by David Pascal)
  • Sochineniia, 1969 (2 vols.)  
  • 'Eulogy to the Memory of My Grandfather,' 1971 (in Satire Newsletter, 9)
  • Basni, 1979 (illustrated by M. Skobeleva)
  • Krylov's Birds and Beasts, 1990 (translated by E.E. Ralphs)
  • Polnoe sobranie dramaticheskikh sochinenii, 2001 (ed. by L.N. Kiseleva)

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