The great Russian prose of the mid-nineteenth century and the years following by no means ceased to exist toward the century’s last decade. Tolstoy (1828–1910) and Nikolai Leskov (1831–1895) were still writing, and the talent of Chekhov (1860–1904) was revealing itself more and more clearly. These three names alone were enough to create a real, extensive literature. But alongside this, the very essence of Russian literature at the time, the influence of Western (most of all French) literature, and the general state of fin-de-siécle society, all burst forth in various attempts to search for something new that was still difficult to put into words. With time, this new thing would be identified with modernism, and, more specifically, with symbolism, although it was far from being so well defined in its origins.
In 1892, the twenty-seven-year-old poet Dmitrii Merezhkovsky (1865– 1941) delivered a lecture in Petersburg. The name of the lecture, which would thenceforth for many years be mentioned (indeed, even now it is often mentioned) by everyone who undertook to write about later-nineteenth-century Russian literature and about Russian literature in the first third of the twentieth century, was ‘On the Reasons of the Decline and on New Trends in Contemporary Russian Literature’ (O prichinakh upadka i o novykh techeniiakh sovremennoi russkoi literatury). A printed version of this lecture appeared in 1893, and many researchers take this date as the beginning of the existence of Russian symbolism. But on re-reading this lecture today, one finds it hard to agree with that date.
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