Aleksey Pisemsky : biography
Aleksey Feofilaktovich Pisemsky Sovremennik A History of Russian Literature from Its Beginnings to 1900
His first novel Boyarschina (1847, published 1858) was originally forbidden for its unflattering description of the Russian nobility. His principal novels are The Simpleton (1850), One Thousand Souls (1858), which is considered his best work of the kind, and Troubled Seas, which gives a picture of the excited state of Russian society around the year 1862. He also wrote plays, including A Bitter Fate (also translated as "A Hard Lot"), which depicts the dark side of the Russian peasantry. The play has been called the first Russian realistic tragedy; it won the Uvarov Prize of the Russian Academy.
Aleksey Pisemsky was born at his father’s Ramenye estate in the Chukhloma province of Kostroma. His parents were retired colonel Feofilakt Gavrilovich Pisemsky and his wife Yevdokiya Shipova. In his autobiography, he described his family as belonging to the ancient Russian nobility, although his more immediate progenitors were all very poor and unable to read or write. Pisemsky wrote: Aleksey remained the only child in the family, 4 infants dying before his birth and 5 after. Years later he described himself (to which other people attested) as a weak, capricious and whimsical boy who for some reason loved to mock clergymen and suffered from sleepwalking at one time. He remembered his father as a military service man in every sense of the word, strict and duty-bound, almost a purist in his habits, a man of the utmost honesty in terms of money, yet severe and strict. "Some of our serfs were horrified by him, not all of them, though, only those who were foolish and lazy; those who were smart and industrious were favoured by him," he remarked. Pisemsky saw his mother as an altogether different person: nervous, dreamy, astute, eloquent (even though she was not well-educated) and rather sociable. He went further, noting: "Except for those clever eyes of hers, she wasn’t good-looking, and my father had a conversation with me regarding this when I was a student: ‘Tell me Aleksey, why do you think your mother becomes more attractive with age?’ – ‘Because she has a lot of inner beauty which, as years go by, becomes more and more evident’, I answered, and he had to agree with me," Pisemsky wrote. His mother’s cousins were Yury Bartenev, one of the most prominent Russian Freemasons (colonel Marfin in Aleksey’s novel Masons) and Vsevolod Bartenev (Esper Ivanovich in People of the Forties), a Navy officer; both exerted considerable influence upon the boy.
Pisemsky spent the first ten years of his life in the small regional town of Vetluga where his father served as Mayor, appointed by the local Society of Wounded Soldiers. Later he moved with his parents to the countryside. Pisemsky described the years he spent there in Chapter 2 of People of the Forties, an autobiographical novel in which he figured under the name of Pasha. If this semi-fictional memoir is to be believed, he was fond of hunting and horseback-riding as a teenager. The education he was given was scant and cheaply acquired for him: his tutors were a local deacon, a defrocked drunkard, and a strange old man who was known to have toured the area for decades, giving lessons. Aleksey learned reading, writing, arithmetics, Russian and Latin from them. Nobody read to him on a regular basis, so he "started grabbing whatever novels he could find on his father’s shelves". In his autobiography Pisemsky wrote: "Nobody had ever forced me to learn, and I wasn’t an avid learner, but I read a lot and that was my passion: by 14 I consumed, in translation, of course, most of Walter Scott’s novels, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, Faublas, Le Diable boiteux, The Serapion Brethren, a Persian novel called Haggi Baba… As for children’s books, I couldn’t stand them and, as far as I remember now, considered them very silly". Pisemsky wrote rather scornfully of his primary education and regretted failing to learn any languages besides Latin. This early education, he reflected, accounted for some of his problems at the University where he frequently had trouble studying and sometimes forgot what he had been taught. He found in himself, however, a natural predisposition to mathematics, logic and aesthetics.