Aleksandr Kuprin - Biography

Aleksandr Kuprin was born on 26 August 1870 in the provincial town of Narovchat, in Penza Province in southern Russia. The only son to survive in a family otherwise made up of girls, he became his mother’s favorite. His mother, Liubov' Kuprina, a strong-willed and somewhat authoritarian woman, was undividedly honored with the title of “supreme creature” by her son. Even at the age of sixty, Kuprin still spoke of his mother with awe and piety. A descendant of a princely Tatar family, the Kulunchakovs, she was proud of her ancestry and instilled like-minded feelings in her son; not surprisingly, one of the persisting themes in his art was the fate of the Tatars. He also very much appreciated his mother’s sense of expression. “How many times would I steal from her, weaving her words and expressions into my own stories,” he wrote. His father, Ivan Kuprin, a clerk for the arbitrator in Narovchat, died of cholera n 1871, at the age of thirty-seven when Aleksandr was barely a year old, and the impoverished Kuprin family was forced to move to the Widows' Home in Moscow in 1874.

In 1876, at the age of six, young Kuprin entered the Razumovsky Pension for orphans of the gentry. He then resumed his education in the Second Moscow Military High School (known as Cadet Corps), which he entered in 1881, and completed his studies seven years later at the Alexander Military Academy.

Reflecting on his cadet childhood, Kuprin saw the general environment of military schools as dreadful. Taught to perceive themselves as superior to civilians, the boys at military schools were however denied any chance for a creative outlet. At the age of ten, the boy was confronted with the raging injustice, encouraged at military schools. Notions of nobility and justice, introduced by his mother, conflicted with the triumph of mindless power over weakness, propelled by the military disciplinarians. The teachers were rigid and physical punishment was common; the most serious crimes were grounds for suspension in the isolation room.

Still, the harsh conditions of the cadet corps developed in Kuprin a craving for writing poetry. When he started writing at the age of ten, he was lucky to secure the backing of an unusually sympathetic and intelligent teacher, Tsukhanov, who helped young Kuprin enhance his literary skills. During his years at school Kuprin wrote approximately thirty poems – of patriotic, satirical, and lyrical character. In 1889, at the age of nineteen, Kuprin published his first serious literary work, a short story entitled "The Final Premiere" in the Moscow “Russian Satirical Paper.” Kuprin based the story on a real incident involving an actress whose unrequited love forced her to commit suicide during a performance. "The Final Premiere" caused a scandal when school officials learned about it as cadets were not permitted to publish unapproved pieces. Kuprin's unauthorized publication cost him several days in the guardroom for unsuitable behavior. The memory of this furor stayed with him and inspired later works, including his long, autobiographical novel “Junkers,” written in 1928-1932 and published in 1933.

Upon his graduation from the military academy in 1890 with the rank of sub lieutenant, Kuprin joined the infantry in Proskurov, near Zhitomir, in southwest Ukraine.

He deeply loathed serving in the military and was constantly possessed by the idea of resignation. The only thing that shelved his decision to quit was a serious relationship with a girl. As a provincial minor officer, Kuprin wasn’t much of a catch for a husband, but the girl’s father promised to go ahead with the marriage if Kuprin entered the Academy of the General Staff. In the fall of 1893, he traveled to St. Petersburg to pass the entrance exams, but it never happened, as Kuprin was almost immediately summoned back to the regiment. He was punished for a row he’d had with a local policeman on his way to St. Petersburg, which ended when Kuprin tossed the aforementioned policeman in the Dnieper River.

Robust as a boy, Kuprin was also strong as an adult. Very emotional and impulsive, he was normally kind and charming, but could become dangerously reckless when put out of temper. This emotional instability played against him many times and hindered his career. One of the bitterest examples dates back to 1908, when Kuprin was almost elected an honored member of the Academy of Sciences but as Ivan Bunin, Kuprin’s friend and an outstanding writer, recalled: the academy did not accept him because its members were afraid he might abuse his privileges when under the influence of alcohol. During his military service in Ukraine, Kuprin started to publish in local Kiev newspapers both as a journalist and as a writer, gradually developing his style and the scope of his themes. He wrote several stories about the human psyche, among them "Psyche" (1892), “On a Moonlit Night” (1893), and "In the Dark” (1893). His frequent but irregular literary experience soon resulted in two collections entitled “Kiev Types” and “Miniatures.”

His work for the Kiev newspapers, writing for the casualties and humor section was a school of writing for Kuprin and he maintained his love for journalism throughout his life.

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