Krylov, Ivan (Writer)

(1768-1844) fabulist, journalist, playwright

Ivan Krylov was born in Moscow to a poor officer who, though informally educated, loved to read. Ivan was nine when his father died, leaving his wife and two sons with little legacy except for a chest full of books. Krylov began working as a copyist to support the family.

At age 14, Krylov moved to St. Petersburg. He worked as a government clerk, explored theatrical and literary circles, and tried his hand at literature. His first important work, the opera Coffee Mill, satirized the hypocrisy of seemingly progressive thinkers. The publisher to whom Krylov brought Coffee Mill praised the work and encouraged the young writer with a considerable sum of money, but refused to publish the opera.

After writing a sequence of scarcely successful tragedies and comedies, Krylov finished a harshly critical comedy called Mischief-Makers. In the main characters of the comedy, Krylov’s contemporaries easily recognized influential figures of the theatrical and literary world, some of whom were Krylov’s patrons or supporters. His benefactors were outraged and the opera was banned.

In 1789 Krylov began a monthly publication called Supernatural Mail. The journal caricatured Russian society in the form of a fantastic correspondence between gnomes and a wizard. Censors soon shut the journal down. In 1790 Krylov decided to devote himself to literary work and retired from his public service.

He then began another project, the Spectator, another journal that did not survive the censors. Its closure was not surprising considering the severely satirical nature of the work, which mercilessly criticized the tendencies of Russian society to imitate the West, to admire all things French, and to neglect the native language and culture. Some of Krylov’s important works of the period include the articles “Speech Made by a Scapegrace in a Gathering of Fools,”"Thoughts of a Fashionable Philosopher,” and a play, Praise to the Science of Killing Time, all of which demonstrate his use of satire to expose social ills.

Krylov’s real fame followed his discovery that his satirical talent could be best expressed in fables. This genre had enjoyed popularity across many cultures and all ages, as evidenced by the fables of Aesop, Phaedrus, the Indian Panchatantra, and the poetess de France. Krylov began in 1805 by translating and publishing two fables by the French poet Jean de la fontaine, which received the critics’ highest praise. In 1809 Krylov published a separate edition of his own fables, which brought him enormous success. The Fables became a classic during his lifetime; the books were sold in huge numbers, and the czar personally asked Krylov to accept the title of Honorary Academician of the Russian Academy.

In his fables, Krylov combines a well-developed skill of observation with his trademark ironic skepticism. His satire did not reproach society for its sins but invited people to see their own shortcomings and laugh at them. The fable Quartet, for example, describes four animals attempting to play a brass quartet without knowing how to play or read music. Though the animals change places, the quality of their music does not improve. “However you seat yourselves, my friends, you are still not good musicians,” the fable concludes. Similarly, A Crow and a Fox describes a vain crow, tricked by the shameless flattery of an artful fox into letting go of a piece of cheese. One of the most famous fables, A Fox and Grapes, tells a story of a fox who fails to get hold of grapes growing too high and mollifies herself by concluding that “the grapes must not be ripe, anyway.”

Krylov was the first to step out of the tradition of using bookish words and poeticisms in the fables. By visiting fairs, markets, and public holidays, he acquired a thorough knowledge of colloquial or everyday language, which he then used in his writing. Sharp, proverbial phrases make his fables catchy and easy to remember. He often minimizes the traditional moral that concludes a fable, or else disposes of it completely. His fables are not dry moralizations but rather picturesque and engaging portrayals of real life. Over time, his fables have become an integral part of Russian literature, contributing through their popularity to conversational phrases in the Russian language and becoming a deeply embedded part of the country’s folklore.

English Versions of Works by Ivan Krylov

15 Fables of Krylov. Translated by Guy Daniels. New York: Macmillan, 1965. Krylov’s Fables. Translated by Ivan Krylov. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1977.

Russian Satiric Comedy: Six Plays. Edited and translated by Laurence Senelick. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1983.

Works about Ivan Krylov

Hamburger, Henri. The Function of the Predicate in the Fables of Krylov. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1981.

Stepanov, Nikolay. Ivan Krylov. New York: Twayne, 1973.

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