Born 21 June 1910 in the village of Zagorye, Smolensk district. His father was a literate blacksmith who scraped together enough money to buy a small plot of swampy land, which the family proudly worked.
As a youth, Travdovsky was active in his village Komsomol. In 1924 he began sending off to local newspapers poems about Komsomol activities and various local abuses. His first publication came in 1925 when the paper "Smolensk Village" printed the poem New Hut ("Novaya Izba"). Three years later, when he was 18, Tvardovsky gathered up all his poetry and went to Smolensk to visit the poet Mikhail Isakovsky. This first meeting was the start of a life-long friendship. Tvardovsky had only the incomplete education which a village school could offer. He and other young poets in Smolensk at that time were all in the same boat. As Tvardovsky later wrote:
Superficial reading and some small knowledge about the "little secrets" of the trade inspired in us dangerous illusions.These illusions led the poet to undertake a trip to Moscow. A few of his works appeared in the journal October, but he had difficulty finding work. So Tvardovsky returned to Smolensk in the winter of 1930 and entered the Pedogogical Institute, where he became a star pupil.
During this time, collectivization was going on. Tvardovsky was also working as a reporter and often visited kolkhozes, so he was aware of the suffering. He also felt it personally, since his father was deported as a kulak. Nonetheless, Tvardovsky firmly believed that the changes were necessary. He achieved a success with the printing in "Molodaya Gvardia" of his longer poem The Path to Socialism ("Put' k Sotsializmu"), about life on a kolkhoz. Despite the critical approval the piece received at the time, Tvardovsky later criticized his own work:
It was riding without holding the reins, loss of the rhythmic discipline of poetry; more simply stated, it wasn't poetry.Tvardovsky considered his second major work, Vstupleniye ("Introduction") (1932), also to be a disappointment. Success and national acclaim finally came to him in 1936 with publication of Strana Muraviya ("The Land of Muraviya"), the tale of a Don Quixote-like muzhik who, not wanting to join the kolkhoz, wanders across the nation searching for a kolkhozless area. He, of course, finds no such area and, in the end, realizes that the only happy life is on the kolkhoz and returns home. For this work, Tvardovsky was awarded his first Stalin Prize in 1941.
In 1936, Tvardovsky again moves to Moscow--this time as a recognized poet--and enrolls in the Moscow Institute of History, Philosophy, and Literature. In 1939, he graduates and publishes a collection of lyric poems, Selskaya Khonika ("Village Chronicle"). He is also called up into the army. He participates in the Red Army advance into western Belorussia, in the Finnish War, and, of course, the Great Patriotic War. It was during the Finnish War that Tvardovsky, writing for the paper Na Strazhe Rodiny, created the character of Vasya Tyorkin for a humor column. The peasant-soldier was very popular with the real soldiers reading the paper, and he eventually was reworked into the hero of Vasili Tyorkin. Of the poem, Tvardovsky said:
It was my lyric, my social commentary, song and sermon, anecdote and embellishment, heartfelt conversation, and reaction to events."Vasili Tyorkin" was perhaps the most popular work of literature among Soviet soldiers during the Great Patriotic War. Appearing in installments between 1942 and 1945, it presented a new folk hero who was everything a Soviet soldier could ever hope to be--clever, witty, inventive, thoughtful, resourceful, dependable, courageous, loveable, fun-loving, and calm under fire. Vasili Tryokin fought Nazis hand-to-hand, was wounded several times, slogged through marshes, swam a freezing river to rescue his comrades, shot down a plane with his rifle, settled arguments, made with the wisecracks and could play a mean accordion. So true and human was Tvardovsky's creation that most Soviet soldiers came to believe that Tyorkin was a real person; many even (mistakenly) remembered seeing him in their units. This work won Tvardovsky his second Stalin Prize in 1946. Surprisingly, praise for this work also came from the staunch anti-Communist Ivan Bunin, who said:
This book is truly unique. What freedom of expression, what accuracy and precision in every detail, what a wonderful soldiers' language--not a hitch, not a single false or vulgar word.And renegade A. Solzhenitsyn noted:
...soldiers at the front knew to a man the difference between Tyorkin, which rang so miraculously true, and all other wartime books.The sadness and sorrow of war is expressed in Tvardovsky's 1946 poem Dom u Dorogi ("House by the Road"), which describes life in Russia under Nazi occupation. For this, Tvardovsky won yet another Stalin Prize in 1947. In 1946 he also composed a requiem for the fallen heros, Ya Ubit Podo Rzhevom.
In 1961 he won a Lenin Prize for Za Daliu--Dal' ("Distance Beyond Distance"), a contemplative work presented as a journey across Siberia. In it, the narrator meets a friend returning from a labor camp. Stalinism is condemned as a deviation from Leninism.
In 1954 Tvardovsky began work on Tyorkin Na Tom Svete ("Tyorkin in the Other World"), a type of parody-continuation of the original Tyorkin tale, in which the hero visits hell and finds there a distorted view of Soviet life. The work was not completed until 1963. It was published, but not viewed favorably by government and Party officials.