Vasily Rozanov - Biography

Vassily Vassilievich ROZANOV (20. 04. 1856, Vetluga — 23. 01. 1919, Sergiev Posad Monastery) — is one of the most original, important and yet under-studied turn-of-the-century Russian thinkers. Born into the family of a middle-ranking clerk, he was only five years old when his father died. He was brought up by his mother, nee Shishkina, who had a strong impact on Rozanov's personality. Rozanov's preoccupation with issues of gender and sexuality can be considered to be a result of his mother's extraordinary (for the time) second marriage to a man some fifteen years her junior. In his later years Rozanov considered this age difference to have mystical significance. When he was young, he duplicated the pattern established by his mother in his own personal life. As a student at Moscow University he married a woman who was twenty-four years older than him. This woman was Appolinaria Suslova, the former mistress of Fedor Dostoevsky and one of the first emancipated and sexually liberated women of the generation of the 1860s. She was as sadistic to young Rozanov as she was to Dostoevsky. Although Rozanov and Suslova stopped living together in 1887, she refused to give him a divorce — a state which lasted until her death in 1918. This well calculated strategy cast a dark shadow over Rozanov's personal life; he had to marry his second wife, Varvara Butiagina, in secret, and this marriage, deemed illicit under Church Laws, caused his pious wife a lot of suffering. Their marriage, which lasted until Rozanov's death, caused further inconvenience for the new Rozanov family as their much loved children were considered illegitimate by the Russian Orthodox church. Rozanov's rebellion against the Christian church and the asceticism of Christianity can be seen to have originated in these aspects of his personal life.

In 1882 Rozanov graduated from Moscow University with a degree in history and philology and he started teaching at schools in various Russian provincial towns. His first work was a voluminous tract 'On Understanding' (1886), written in the tradition of academic writing. The work was not a success, and in later years Rozanov commented that had this work been a success he would have become just an ordinary 'philosopher'. Rozanov valued involvement in every day realia and disliked any form of abstract thinking or activities divorced from the physical and emotional needs of human beings. Rozanov's philosophical tract had few readers, but the influential literary critic Nikolay Strakhov noticed this work and reviewed it favorably. It was Strakhov who helped Rozanov to leave the provinces, after finding him a job in the capital city of St. Petersburg. Once he was liberated from the constraints of his provincial existence and the boredom of his teaching job in a school in Elets Rozanov found his true and unique voice and style. This new voice had nothing in common with the impersonal academic narrative of his philosophical opus — rather it was orientated towards more intimate and subjective conversations based on personal human experience. Zinaida Gippius, one of the major Silver Age personalities, in later years described Rozanov's style as a mode of narrative which is impossible to re-narrate. Rozanov's language and technique were the expression of his mind and body imbued with all the subjectivity of experience, and it is probably this subjectivity which made the otherwise very eloquent Gippius feel inadequate in the role of interpreter of Rozanov's prose. Gippius was well aware of the fact that, unlike her and Dmitry Merezhkovsky, who divided the world into the spheres of 'reality and realiora', or super reality, Rozanov drew no distinction between the two. While the Merezhkovskys had an urge to abandon their earthly bodies in their quest for the celestial incorporeality, Rozanov saw in this body the very embodiment of divine will and incarnation.

Although Rozanov was considered to be a highly idiosyncratic personality by his fellow philosophers and writers, he was nevertheless the typical representative of the Russian Silver Age culture. He was also a product of the European fin-de-siecle culture with its preoccupation with questions of human sexuality vis-a-vis biological science and metaphysics. Rozanov's preoccupation with issues relating to sex took place at a time that was characterized by Michel Foucault as rich in discourses on sexuality. Rozanov himself dubbed his own writing as a 'mission of sex', a term which can be interpreted as a polemical statement reflecting the passionate attitude which typified all intellectual activists of his time, whether they were revolutionaries, creative artists or truth seekers of various denominations.

As a man of deeds, Rozanov admired creative energy and despised passivity and inertia. When the Russian Empire came to an end in 1917, Rozanov blamed its collapse on the laziness of the Russian aristocracy and the ruling classes. He also accused Russia's most important cultural institution, nineteenth-century Russian literature, of fostering wrong ideals amongst the Russian people. In his last work, 'The Apocalypse of Our Times' (1918, 1919) he accused such writers as Ivan Goncharov and Ivan Turgenev of teaching Russian readers to limit their interests to the sphere of romantic and unrequited love, instead of giving practical advice and instruction as to how to be proactive, hard working and positive. He equally attacked writers of the critical tradition, such as Nikolai Gogol and the revolutionary democrat Nikolai Chernyshevsky, for teaching Russians how to ridicule and destroy Government and society while neglecting to instruct on how to rebuild and improve society. This work was one of the last expressions of Rozanov's belief in the importance of being involved in everyday life, a belief linked to his love of things physical and corporeal. Rozanov did not privilege the life of the spirit over the life of the body, and in his work systematically destroyed such hierarchies as imposed by the Christian church and Christian thinkers. ...

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