Alexander Ostrovsky

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Alexander Ostrovsky
Alexander Ostrovsky by Vasily Perov.jpg
Portrait of Ostrovsky by Vassily Perov.
Born Александр Николаевич Островский
12 April [O.S. 31 March] 1823
Moscow, Russian Empire
Died 14 June [O.S. 2 June] 1886
Shchelykovo, Kostroma Governorate, Russian Empire
Occupation PlaywrightTranslator
Nationality Russian
Period 19th century
Genre ComedyTragedy
Notable works Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man
The Thunderstorm

Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky (Russian: Алекса́ндр Никола́евич Остро́вский; 12 April [O.S. 31 March] 1823, Moscow, Russian Empire – 14 June [O.S. 2 June] 1886, Shchelykovo, Kostroma, Russian Empire) was a Russian playwright, generally considered the greatest representative of the Russian realistic period.[1] The author of 47 original plays, Ostrovsky "almost single-handedly created a Russian national repertoire."[1] His dramas are among the most widely read and frequently performed stage pieces in Russia.[1]


Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky was born on 12 April 1823, in the Zamoskvorechye region of Moscow, one of four children in the family of Nikolai Fyodorovich Ostrovsky, a lawyer who received a religious education. Apparently, Nikolai's ancestors came from the village Ostrov in the Nerekhta region of Kostroma governorate, hence the surname.[2] According to another theory the Ostrovskys had Polish and Belorussian origins. In the late 19th century all Kostroma archives have perished in fires and this question remained unsettled. Later Nikolai Ostrovsky became a high-ranked state official and as such in 1839 received a nobility title and the corresponding privileges. His first wife and Alexander's mother, Lyubov Ivanovna Savvina, came from a clergyman's family. For some time the family lived in a rented flat in Zamoskvorechye, in the house of deacon Maksimov. Then Nikolai Fyodorovich bought himself a plot of land in Monetchiki and built a house on it. In the early 1826 the family moved there.[3]

Lyubov Ivanovna and Nikolai Fyodorovich's first two children died, Alexander was the third (and the first one to survive), and after him there were six more, of whom three survived: sister Natalya, and brothers Mikhail and Sergey.[4] Alexander played mostly with Natalya and her girl friends who taught him such unmanly things as sewing and knitting. Nanny Avdotya Kutuzova certainly had a role in his upbringing. Ostrovsky insisted it was the fairy tales she told him that formed the foundation for the play Snegurochka.[5] His first tutor was Sergey Gilyarov, a distant relative who appeared in their house in 1829.[6] In 1831 when Ostrovsky was eight his mother died during labour and his father had to bring his children up alone. He saw little of them, spending most of his time in his office, but on the other hand the family's wealth grew. In 1834 he sold the house in Monetchiki and bought two new houses on Zhitnaya street.[7]

In 1836 Nikolai Fyodorovich married Baroness Emilia Andreyevna von Tessin, a noblewoman of Russian and Swedish descent.[note 1] She rearranged the patriarchal ways of their Zamoskvorechye house, making it look more like a nobleman's mansion and provided her stepchildren with high quality education.[8] Emilia Andreyevna had four children of her own (four more died), one of whom, Pyotr Ostrovsky, later became a friend of Alexander. She played the piano, knew several European languages and tried to teach these to her children. It was thanks to her that Ostrovsky learned to read music, and developed a good ear which later helped him in writing down folk songs he heard while travelling.[9]

In 1840 Ostrovsky graduated from the First Moscow Gymnasium and then studied law at the Moscow State University (1840–1843), where liberal views prevailed and many prominent scholars of the time lectured, including professors Pyotr Redkin, Timofei Granovsky and Mikhail Pogodin.[10] As a student Ostrovsky moved with his family to Yauza banks, to one of the houses owned by Ivan Tessin, his step-mother's brother. Nikolai Ostrovsky bought five houses there and built three new ones. It was at this time that Ostrovsky started to write poetry, sketches and occasionally plays (none of the latter survived) and by the end of his second year became a theatre fan, spending many an evening in Moscow's Petrovsky Theatre (as the Moscow Imperial Theatre was then known). Having failed the Roman Law examination in May 1843, Ostrovsky left the University and, on his father's insistence in September of that year joined the Moscow Court of Consciousness as a clerk. In 1845 he was transferred to the Commercial Court where his father once worked and where cases related to bribery and corruption were most common. "If not for such a trouble that I've found myself in, there wouldn't have been A Profitable Position," Ostrovsky later said.[11] In 1851 Ostrovsky decided to devote himself to literature and theatre.[12]

Literary career[edit]

By 1846 Ostrovsky had written numerous sketches and scenes from the Zamoskvorechye merchants community's life and made a draft for the play called The Bankrupt. An extract from this comedy (entitled "Scenes from the comedy The Bankrupt") was published in the No.7, 1847, issue of Moskovsky Gorodskoi Listok (Moscow City Paper)[note 2] as a collaboration with Dmitry Gorev. The latter, a provincial actor and a minor dramatist had co-written just one scene of it. This episode caused serious trouble for Ostrovsky in the early 1860s, with detractors seizing this opportunity to accuse him of laying claims to other people's work. Also in Listok appeared (as unsigned) "Pictures of Moscow Life" and "The Picture of a Family Happiness", two sets of scenes which were later published by Sovremennik (No. 4, 1856) under the title The Family Picture (Semeinaya kartina). Ostrovsky regarded it as his first original work and the starting point of his literary career.[13]

As he saw it 14 February 1847 was the date of Ostrovsky's public debut. It was on this day that he read "The Pictures" in the house of University professor and literary critic Stepan Shevyryov to an audience which included Aleksey Khomyakov and several members of the Listok. The response was positive. Both Shevyryov and Khomyakov congratulated the young author, hailing the emergence of a new major talent in Russian literature.[14] On 27 August 1851, The Picture of Family Happiness (which had been reportedly approved, among others, by Gogol)[15] was banned from being produced on the Imperial theatre stage. "Judging by these scenes what the Moscow merchants only do is cheat people and drink while their wives are cheating on them," censor M. Gedeonov wrote.[16][17]

In the end of 1849 The Bankrupt was finished. Ostrovsky's first audience was his University friend Alexey Pisemsky who greeted it rapturously. Another fan proved to be Prov Sadovsky, who regarded the comedy as a revelation and started to recite it in Moscow literary circles, including that of Countess Rostopchina whose saloon was frequented by young authors like Almazov, Berg, Mei and Edelson, Ostrovsky's friends from his university years. All of them soon accepted Mikhail Pogodin's invitation to join the Moskvityanin magazine and they formed the so-called 'young faction' of its staff. Apollon Grigoriev, the informal leader of the team, also started to actively promote Ostrovsky as a driving force of what he saw as the 'new, authentic Russian literature', stripped of foreign influences.[13]

The so-called "Ostrovsky circle" was a diverse group of people: alongside young literary upstarts like Grigoriev, Almazov and Edelson, it featured a number of non-literary friends (actor Prov Sadovsky, musical scholar Tertiy Fillipov), but also merchant Ivan Shanin, shoe-maker Sergey Volkov, teacher Dyakov and Ioasaf Zheleznov, a Cossack from Ural. All were united by the ideas and the spirit of Russian national revival (narodnost). It was then that Ostrovsky, initially a Westernizer, started to slowly drift towards Slavophilia. The circle enjoyed itself in prolonged drinking sprees, glorified by one of its members, Dyubyuk's famous "drinking anthem" of the time ("The left side, the right side, where is which/ The street, the street, my bro’ you are drunk"). From February 1850 Ostrovsky started to regularly visit Countess Rostopchina's saloon and bring his friends along. There he met for the first time young Ivan Turgenev, the veteran Russian mason, Yury Bartenev, and an eccentric ornithologist Nikolai Severtsov. By this time Ostrovsky lived with Agafia Ivanova, his civil wife, whom he first met and became close to in the late 1840s.[18]


K. Rybakov (as Bolshov) and V. Maksheev (as Rispolozhensky) in Ostrovsky's Family Affair, in Maly theatre, 1892

After a prolonged battle with censors The Bankrupt was finally published in the March issue of Moskvityanin under the new title It's a Family Affair-We'll Settle It Ourselves (Svoi liudi - sochtiomsya!). The play, which strikingly portrayed the rude and ignorant yet smug merchant class, made Ostrovsky instantly famous in Moscow. Soon it was banned from being produced on the Imperial Theatre's stage (to be permitted only ten years later after Alexander II took the throne) and became the reason for Ostrovsky's being placed under secret police surveillance.[8] Ostrovsky tried his hand as a Shakespeare translator, but his 1852 version of The Taming of the Shrew (titled "Ukrosheniye zloi zheny", The Taming of an Evil Wife) was banned as well. Censor Nordstom (who characterised the author as "...already known for his dirty play Family Affair") found more than one hundred "rude" words and phrases in it and declared the translation "true to indecent and totally unacceptable for the Russian theatre spirit of the original." Ostrovsky felt the need for a respite and found it by submerging himself into the daily affairs of the Moskvityanin. He became the editor-in-chief of the magazine, and discovered several new talented critics, notably Pisemsky. Another one, Yegor Driansky, did not succeed in literature, but became a great friend of Ostrovsky's and his family. Ostrovsky's first critical review was that of Evgenya Tur's The Mistake (Oshibka), his second - a sympathetic take on The Muff by Pisemsky. Fourteen more anonymous reviews used to be ascribed to Ostrovsky, but this attribution has since been disproved.[18]

For his second play Ostrovsky used a single act of his early play The Legal Case (Iskovoye proshenye; another act having been used already as a basis for The Picture of Family Happiness) and transformed it into a new play The Young Man's Morning (Utro Molodovo tcheloveka, 1850). Another one, an experimental psychological piece in the style of Alfred de Musset whose works were popular on the Russian stage of the time, The Surprise Case (Neozhidanny sluchai, 1850) was published in the Kometa almanac. Pogodin, apparently, was not impressed and Ivan Panaev from Sovremennik responded with a caustic review, parodying its characters' vapid, insubstantial dialogues.[18] Finally, Ostrovsky's second full-length play, The Poor Bride (Bednaya nevesta), appeared in the #4, 1852 issue of Moskvityanin.[19] Alexey Verstovsky, Maly Theatre's inspector agreed to include it in the repertoire "conditionally", pending the censors’ verdict. It took six months to obtain official permission, but the text appeared to be so mangled by the censors that Ostrovsky lost all interest and asked Verstovsky to delay the production of The Bride and wait for the next play he'd been working on to be ready.[18]

This new play was to be Stay in Your Own Sled (Ne v svoi sani ne sadis', 1852), a melodrama, less daring than Family Affair and not as ambitious as The Poor Bride. Published in Moskvityanin, it became his first play to make it on to the Maly Theatre stage where it premiered early the following year, had great success and was received rapturously even by Ostrovsky's detractors like Vasily Botkin.[13] Lyubov Nikulina-Kositskaya shone, and, according to Lakshin, this was the birth of what would later be called "Ostrovsky’s theatre, the true union of the drama and actors". The play was played 12 times in the same season in the Maly, and as many times in the Bolshoy.[18] In the early February 1853 Ostrovsky went to Saint Petersburg for the first time. There he was received by Alexander Gedeonov, the director of Imperial theatres and became a friend of actor Fyodor Burdin. On 12 February 1853, The Young Man’s Morning was premiered in Petersburg's Circus Theatre and on 19 February Stay in Your Own Sled - in the Alexandrinka. Tsar Nicholas I came to see the performance and appeared to be impressed, mostly by the "edifying" finale. He figured out the play's idea to be that "children should follow their parents' advice, otherwise, everything goes wrong" and, turning to Gedeonov and his own entourage, pronounced: "There haven't been many plays that gave me this much pleasure," adding in French: "Се n'est phis une piece, c'est une lecon" (This is not a play, but a lesson). Next day The Tsar even brought his family to the theatre. Ostrovsky did not find out about this until later: he had to leave the capital hastily before the play's premiere after having received the news of his father's serious illness. By the time he arrived home, Nikolai Fyiodorovich was already dead.[18]

In August 1863 The Poor Bride was performed at the Maly with E. Vasilieva starring as Marya Andreevna, and had immense success. The same month Ostrovsky started to work on his next play Poverty is No Vice and finished it in just two months. The play was quickly issued as a book and taken up by the Maly Theatre for the benefit of Prov Sadovsky. Sadovsky played Lyubim Tortsov, the 'virtuous drunkard' and a 'real' Russian man, as opposed to his rich brother Gordey who dislikes all things Russian and tries to 'be' an Englishman. Poverty is No Vice, reproducing the atmosphere of the old Russian folk carnival, svyatki, lacked the Bankrupt’s social awareness, but highlighted the conflict between the Slavophiles and Westernizers, the latter obviously satirised by the author. It became popular in Moscow and prompted Apollon Grigoriev to write a rapturous review called "Step Aside, There Goes Lyubim Tortsov", but in Saint Petersburg it was criticised by Krayevsky's Otechestvennye zapiski (which referred to Lyubim as a 'drunken lout') and the anonymous reviewer of Sovremennik who happened to be young Chernyshevsky.[18]

Ostrovsky's rise to fame in both major cities was quick, but serious opposition was forming, notably among Moscow actors, including Shchepkin, Lensky, Shumsky and Ivan Samarin. Another influential detractor was poet Shcherbina. "What kind of characters, what sort of language!.. Only in kabaks and indecent houses do people speak and act this way. Some would argue that such things do happen in reality. But we see all kind of things around us, not all of them can be put to stage. This is theatre, after all, not a market-place show or a backyard where one is free to spill garbage out... Oh these young geniuses!", Lensky complained in a letter to a friend. Nevertheless, Maly became the second home to Ostrovsky and he made it a habit to spend entire days and often nights there.[18]


By 1854 Russia was involved in the Crimean War, something which, according to some contemporaries, Turgenev among them, Ostrovsky appeared to be quite indifferent. Ostrovsky gave the impression that he was too involved with his career to pay attention to 'trifles' like wars. In reality, sickened by what he saw as the wave of government-induced 'trumpet' patriotism, he started to avoid high society, feeling the need to examine his 'true Russian roots'. "The cult of simplicity has now become his mania", biographer Lakshin wrote. His plays of the period were devoid of political references; in his 1857-1858 works the war was mentioned fleetingly, twice. Feeling the urge to "poeticize the Moskovian patriarchal ways", he shifted still closer to Slavophiliac doctrine with his next play, Don't Live as You Like (Ne tak zhivi, kak khotshetsa, 1854), portraying Moscow of the 18th century and the Maslenitsa folk carnival, which, full of truly pagan flamboyance, was chosen by the author as a counterpoint to all things pseudo-European, thwarting the development of the true Russian national identity, as he saw it. The play, premiered in Maly on 3 December 1854, with Kornely Poltavtsev as Pyotr, was poorly received. For some, the play was not daring enough, for others still too outspoken. Leo Tolstoy was among those few who liked it.[18] "I was counting upon the new Ostrovsky play to stir up the public in a big way but it did stir only the negativism among critics who, unfortunately, this time proved right. It is sad to see such a talented man as Ostrovsky being so self-indulgent, spreading filth around. Once soap has become his worst enemy one can never approach him with advice, for any criticism he sees as a swipe at his 'simplicity' thing. The worst thing that can happen to an author is when he finds himself among people regarding him a demi-god," Sofia Engelgardt wrote to Druzhinin. One of the reasons for purists' outrage was the fact that (after Sadovsky's Lyubim Tortzov stage shenanigans), actress Nikulina-Kositskaya, playing the distraught Grusha, appeared on stage looking drunk. The play was performed only four times in Moscow and three times in Saint Petersburg's Alexandrinka before being dropped from both theatres' repertoires.[18] Meanwhile, Ostrovsky's quest for 'simplicity' proved to be contagious. Several authors following his steps. "[Russian] authors took their cues from the success of The Sledge and decided it was time to come out all 'natural'. Unfortunately, this naturalism of theirs revolves around the same kind of talk, the same sermyaga coats invading our theatre stage," Verstovsky complained in a letter to Gedeonov in December 1854. That was probably the first time the phrase "sermyaga coat" was applied to Ostrovsky's work, a cliché he was dogged with for the rest of his life.[18]

In February 1855 Tsar Nikolai I died and the word 'thaw', first used by Tyutchev in the political sense, entered the Russian cultural elite's lexicon. Nekrasov's Sovremennik and Herzen's Kolokol were on the rise. Ostrovsky, although indifferent to radical trends, still was full of hope for the better. In December 1855 he finished Hangover at Somebody Else's Feast (V tchyuzhom piru pokhmelye) featuring a noble old teacher Ivanov as the main character. The figure that grabbed everybody's attention, though, was that of Tit Titych, a domineering type for whom Ostrovsky coined the samodur term which instantly became popular. One of the characters, Agrafena Platonovna, provided the definition: "Samodur is the one who listens to nobody no matter how you try to knock it into him and does only what suits him. Stamps a foot: see who I am? Which means all the family and household should drop on their knees or otherwise all the Hell would break loose". "For Ostrovsky the samodur word became what nihilist was for Turgenev or oblomovshchina for Goncharov," biographer Lakshin remarked. The play was premiered in Moscow on 9 January 1856, with Prov Sadovsky as Tit Titych and had great success. Instantly the public recognised a common type of a domestic tyrant whom Ostrovsky was the first to ever show on the Russian theatre stage.[18]

1855 and 1856 were the years when the once famous Ostrovsky's circle disbanded. Tertiy Filippov joined the Slavophiliac’s Russkaya Beseda. Apollon Grigoriev fought for sinking Moskvityanin for a while. Then after its demise, he went to teach in France. In his letters back home he ridiculed the ideas of Russian national integrity of which, until recently, he had been such an ardent proponent. And for Ostrovsky, the new times loomed ahead.[18]

Sovremennik years[edit]

Ostrovsky (far right) on Levitsky's 1856 photograph

Nekrasov's team had long been discussing the prospects of tempting the 'Moscow prophet', as Ostrovsky had become known, from Moskvityanin over to Sovremennik. First in February 1855 Ivan Turgenev visited Ostrovsky in his Moscow home. Then in May of the same year Grigorovich and Druzhinin visited him. At the end of 1855 Ostrovsky himself made a trip to Saint Petersburg where he spent most of his time with the Sovremennik. "I like him, and his talent even more. He is a real character, not like some of those yermils [Yermil was Pisemsky's nickname]", Druzhinin wrote in his diary in January 1856. "Ostrovsky came [to the party], and what a great man he is. Frighteningly intelligent, but also very warm, quite unlike this Yermil", he continued a month later. Ostrovsky enjoyed his new company too but struck an instant friendship with only one man, the young Tolstoy, who shared with him the love for all things 'simple' along with an aversion to 'high phrasing'. Nekrasov, always a practical man, made Ostrovsky sign a four-year contract (which proved to be easier done than to be followed through, as it turned later) and published his first play The Pictures of Family Happiness, under the new title The Family Picture, as it has become known since. On 15 February 1856, the six authors (Nekrasov was absent as he was unwell) went to the photographer Sergei Levitsky's studio to pose for a photograph that itself has made history.[18]

In 1856 Great Duke Konstantin offered Russian writers an assignment to visit different Russian regions and describe the industry and everyday life there. Konstantin Nikolayevich's initial idea was to reform the Russian Navy's recruiting system. Impressed with the adventures of Ivan Goncharov with the Frigate "Pallada", he came up with an 'arty' gesture much in the spirit of the post-Nikolai wave of liberal changes. The major reason for Ostrovsky (who initially was left behind and had to ask for special permission to be added as a volunteer to the list of eight) joining the expedition was the example set by Leo Tolstoy who, with his Crimean war experience, looked like a man who had seen the world, while Ostrovsky up until then had only travelled "from his home to the theatre and back".[18]

Ostrovsky chose the Volga region and took a cruise down the Volga River, his area of inquiry laying along the upper Volga, a part of the country memorable for some of the most important events in Russian history. Having travelled the Volga from its beginnings down to Nizhny Novgorod, he compiled a dictionary of navigation, shipbuilding and fishery terms of the Higher Volga region.[8] There for the first time he came into contact with the provincial Russian intelligentsia, people who knew real life, had strong opinions about it and never held those opinions back. Travelling through utterly poor, devastated areas was in itself enough to have quite a sobering effect upon the author whose outlook until then was rather restricted and who knew well only the life of merchants, state officials and minor noblemen.[18]

The trip was marred by two incidents. In May 1856 Ostrovsky was profoundly shaken by the news that the new allegations of plagiarism were being made against him in both major cities, based upon his ex-co-author Gorev's stories. Ostrovsky had to compile his own account of the events concerning the inception of Family Affair and sent it to Moskovsky Vestnik and Sovremennik. To his relief he learned that Nekrasov supported his case wholeheartedly. Fortunately for Ostrovsky, the Russian press's interest in Gorev died out the moment he published his own new play Here and There (Splosh da ryadom, OZ, #56) which proved to be a failure. Then in Kalyazin, Ostrovsky's carriage overturned. He spent two months lying in bed with a broken leg, then had to return home and receive further treatment. Despite urges from Ivan Panaev to start writing, he returned to the Upper Volga region in the spring of 1857 and resumed his journey, visiting Rybinsk, Uglich and Nizhny Novgorod in the summer.[18] Morskoi sbornik published just one of Ostrovsky's reports. Since this magazine, interested only in facts and figures, was editing out all the 'artistic' details, the author decided not to go on with the project. It was while on this trip that Ostrovsky came up with the idea of writing a series of plays called Nights on the Volga. The project never materialised but some of his later plays like The Storm were meant to be part of it. Dozens of real life stories gathered during this voyage were used in his later work. It was this mission that induced him to write later in 1860s several historical dramas, such as Kozma Zakhar'yich Minin-Sukhoruk, The False Dmitry and Vassily Shuisky, Vassilisa Melentieva (the name of a favourite court lady of Ivan the Terrible) and the comedy Voyevoda.

Portrait of Ostrovsky by Sergei Levitsky, 1856

By 1858 Ostrovsky, now a father of four, had made it his habit to work at nights, spending weeks doing apparently nothing or practising his stylistic skills by translating from Greek or English (which served for him as both practise and education in drama), then in three or four days churning out the whole play, writing feverishly, talking to himself and his characters, as an obsessed man. After the Volga trip he stopped regarding himself in terms of "Slavophile or Westernizer" and started to explore a new, deeper understanding of the Russian people and Russia.[18]

The year of 1857 saw the release of A Profitable Position (Dokhodnoye mesto), rated exceptionally high by Leo Tolstoy. "This is a colossal thing, in terms of depth, power and relevance and this impeccably real character of Yusov", he wrote in a letter.[20] The new thing was set to fulfil expectations of the Sovremennik followers, but it was not a 'denouncing play' of the kind that had become popular at the time. Ostrovsky (according to biographer Lakshin) thought along different lines: "Would it be worthwhile to wage wars against bribe-takers when they are only part of the way of life where the corruption serves for a hidden mechanism? Wouldn't it be more intriguing to try and penetrate under the skin of these people, learn how their special kind of morality works, expose the logic in the way they find excuses for themselves?" Ostrovsky loathed 'tendentious' drama and shied away from didacticism. He wrote:

A Profitable Position‍ '​s premiere, scheduled for 20 December 1857, was cancelled at the eleventh hour, as censors labelled it as "an opus poking fun at state officials". But it was in those days that the police surveillance over the dramatist was finally lifted, of which the local police chief informed the author by making a personal visit to his home. Also, in September (seven months after it was banned for the second time) the innocuous Family Picture at last was permitted for theatre production. "You may write now more openly, censors are confused," Nekrasov advised Ostrovsky in a letter. Also in 1857 The Sleep on Holiday Before Dinner (Prazdnitchny son - do obeda) came out, the first part of the Balzamininov trilogy. (Parts two and three, Two Dogs Fight, the Third Keep Away and Whatever You Look for, You'll Find appeared in 1861). In 1858 Not of the Same Ilk (Ne soshlis kharakterami), written originally as a novelette, came out. Subtitled "The Picture of Moscow Life", it represented an unexpected turn for the author, featuring for the first time an impoverished nobleman who marries a rich merchant woman only to find out she's an exceptionally stingy person. The play which was evolved with difficulty, was not of Ostrovsky's best. Much more successful was his next play, A Protégée of the Mistress (Vospitannitsa, 1859), a continuation of the "nobility's degradation" theme, written during just three weeks while he was on a visit to Saint Petersburg in 1858. It was banned from being staged in a theatre on 23 October of the same year by Alexander Timashev after a censor in his report posed a question: "Should we indeed give way to a play showing such immorality in Russian landowners' daily life?"[18]

In 1859 Count G.A. Kushelev-Bezborodko published the first edition of The Works by A.N. Ostrovsky in two volumes, censored by none other than Ivan Goncharov who had helped in including Family Affair into the collection, albeit with cuts made by the author. It was this collection that inspired Nikolai Dobrolyubov to write the first of his two famous essays, hailing Ostrovsky as "a ray of light in the realm of darkness". Dobrolybov systematised all the critical reviews and subjected them to sharp criticism, much to Ostrovsky's delight (who'd been greatly upset by the early articles of the then unknown critic who was dismissive of the author and apparently treated him as being on par with Gorev). In November 1859, Ostrovsky made a visit to Dobrolyubov's house and thanked him personally for what he saw as the first ever proper analysis of his work. "In retrospect one cannot fail to see the polemic nature of [Dobrolyubov's] two articles. Ostrovsky wasn't a satirist, not even a humorist. What he cared for was objectivity in depicting life... and even among the ugliest things he managed to find beauty," critic P. Morozov wrote half a century later. Ostrovsky himself saw his duty in just portraying a Russian man the way he saw him. "Let him see himself and rejoice. Correct his wrongs - there always will be people around who's want to. But to have the right to correct wrongs one has to see clearly the good side of the people too," he added.[13] In the second half of the 1850s Ostrovsky started to work more and party less, looking to some of his friends like a hermit. At his home he continued to received friends, one of whom, Ivan Gorbunov, soon became a kind of family member and for a while performed the duties of a secretary.[18]

In 1860 another play came out inspired by what Ostrovsky saw during the Volga voyage, The Storm, a tragic story of unhappily married Ekaterina, her harsh domineering mother-in-law and her weak-willed husband Tikhon. The storm, only being mentioned and never happening, was seen by Nikolay Dobrolyubov as a metaphor for the changes in Russian society that were happening throughout the 1860s. In his article, Dobrolyubov described Ekaterina as "a ray of light in a kingdom of darkness", seeing her family and the other town dwellers as symbolising the ignorance and the conservatism of the 'old world'.[21] In October 1859 Ostrovsky recited the play in Nikulina-Kositskaya's flat to the Maly Theatre troupe and met with a rapturous response. To make sure the play overcame the censorial barrier he made a trip to the capital and had a hard time trying to convince censor Nordstrom that vile Kabanikha was not a secret swipe at the late Tsar Nikolai I. The storm was premiered on 16 November 1859, as actor Sergei Vasiliev's benefice, to great success.[18]

Ostrovsky was greatly upset by the moral climate in both theatres (Alexandrinka in particular, corrupted as it was by its closeness to the Court) which seemed to bring out the worst in actors. One of the few exceptions was Alexander Martynov, a man Ostrovsky admired and respected. In the spring of 1860 Martynov, terminally ill with tuberculosis, ventured on a trip down to Odessa and Ostrovsky agreed to follow him as a companion. On the way home, in Kharkov, the actor died. "With Martynov I lost all that I've ever had in Petersburg's theatre", Ostrovsky wrote in a letter to Panaev.[18]

In 1861 Ostrovsky finished a small comedy Whatever You Go for, You'll Find (Za chem poidesh, to I naidesh), the final part of the Balzaminov trilogy (praised among others by Dostoyevsky) and the historical drama in verse, Kosma Zakharyich Minin-Sukhoruk, the result of six years of work. The latter, published by Sovremennik, was seen by many as a political statement and was criticised as such by detractors (one of whom, the poet Shcherbina found the main hero sounding too much like Nekrasov's poetry fan). Ostrovsky's idea was two-fold: to give credit to the merchant class which he'd been rather harsh on in most of his plays, but also to highlight a moral lesson, portraying a rich man giving away all his wealth for his country's sake. In 1862 the Tsar showed his approval by presenting the author with a golden ring (which rather upset Ostrovsky, who saw it as a scant reward for all the trouble censors had brought upon him). A year later Minin was banned without any explanation. Rumour had it that the January Uprising in Poland was the reason, making the authorities fear that the play might "agitate the public", either against or for the Poles. Minin returned to theatre repertoires years later, severely cut.[18]

In the spring of 1862 Ostrovsky went abroad and visited Germany, Austria, Italy, France and England, feeling acutely the contrast between the two time planes Russia and Europe were living on.[note 3] Judging by his letters home, he travelled around Europe in the rapturous trance. In London Ostrovsky visited Alexander Hertzen, although this fact became known only years later through the memoirs of his companion Ivan Gorbunov and confirmed by some of the people that the dramatist had talked to. In August 1862 he returned to Russia full of new ideas and by the end of the year finished Sin and Sorrow Are Common to All (Grekh da beda na kogo ne zhivet). Published in Dostoyevsky's Vremya magazine, it was a drama of strong characters, based on a real life story related to the author by one of his merchant friends. In Autumn 1863 Ostrovsky finished Difficult Days (Tyazhelye dni), a sequel to Hangover, telling the story of ignorance and backwardness of the Russian provinces. It was followed by Jokers (Shutniki, 1864) and The Deep (Puchina, 1865), the latter concluding the vast Zamoskvorechye cycle. One of Ostrovsky's experimental pieces (more a novel than a play, fashioned after the recently translated Thirty Years by Ducange), it traced the history of moral decline of a good man falling victim of Zamoskvorechye society's ways. The Deep, subjected to heavy censorial cuts, had little success on stage.[18] In 1865, accompanied by Ivan Gorbunov, Ostrovsky made another trip down the Volga River.[8]

By the mid-1860s Ostrovsky's reputation as Russia's leading dramatist was firm and sound. For two of his plays, The Storm and Sin and Sorrow, he received the prestigious Uvarov's Prize. But after returning from Europe, he started to feel more acutely the repressive atmosphere of Russian society and with it an ever-growing tiredness. Like Shakespeare and Molière he was a man of the theatre and could not just write plays without seeing them staged. He said:

Like his predecessor Tsar Alexander II was an avid theatre-goer, preferring ballet and French vaudeville. "Ostrovsky is a talented man, but his plays for me are unbearable. I come to the theatre to rest from my labours, and there to be amused, but Ostrovsky's plays leave me depressed and distraught," the Tsar complained, according to Burdin. After the much-mangled Minin has found its way back to the Imperial theatre's stage, Ostrovsky followed on with more historic dramas: Voyeavoda (1866), False Dmitry and Vasily Shuisky (1866) and Tushino (1867). This was his way of reacting against the censorial oppression. In 1867 things suddenly brightened up as Stepan Gedeonov (the official who once helped with The Sled) took the directorial post in the Imperial Theatre's main office. In just six weeks Ostrovsky wrote Vasilisa Melentyeva, using Gedeonov's script as the background. But the 3rd Department agents suspected it contained political subversion, Gedeonov proved to be unresponsive to his pleas concerning financial support and again Ostrovsky was down in the dumps.[18]

Ostrovsky's Schelykovo house, now a museum

Since 1846 Ostrovsky's father, Nikolai, had used his connections and court experience in order to buy lands off bankrupt landowners. During 1846-1847 he purchased two estates in Nizhny Novgorod and two in the Kostroma Governorate. The biggest of them was Schelykovo in Kostroma Governorate, with its 111 peasants, an 18th-century mansion built by captain Mikhail Kutuzov.[22] Alexander Ostrovsky spent most of his time either in Moscow or Shchelykovo. After Nikolai Ostrovsky's death, Alexander and brother Mikhail bought the estate in 1867 from their stepmother. "At last I'll have the opportunity the keep of our modest house and drop the soul-rendering theatre slavery which took the best years of my life", he wrote in a letter. For a while he was trying to embark upon the new life of a man of the land, building a creamery and setting up a garden. Soon it became clear that this enterprise would not make him richer and Maria Vasilievna, his second wife, took control. Yet it was here that Ostrovsky spent his happier days, receiving guests and enjoying bouts of inspiration for new plays. Producing new ideas in summer, in winter he travelled to Moscow and then Saint Peterburg to sit at another premier. This routine went on for years. Ostrovsky called Shchelykovo "the Kostroma Switzerland" and insisted that even in Italy he had never seen such beauty.[8]


By 1867, with the peak of his fame now behind him, Ostrovsky fell into a deep depression, feeling a worthless and lonely man. Tushino (1867), an early-17th-century chronicle, could be published only in the humble Vsemirny Trud journal, others rejected it. Neither Dostoyevsky nor Nekrasov now had magazines of their own to support him. After Karakozov's assassination attempt on the Tsar, many of Ostrovsky's friends in high places lost their posts. To make ends meet he undertook translations and wrote librettos. But then Nekrasov became the head of Otechestvennye zapiski. Ostrovsky was warmly welcomed in and debuted there in November 1868 with Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man (Na vsyakovo mudretsa dovolno prostoty).[18]

Stanislavski and Vasily Kachalov in the Moscow Art Theatre production of Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man, 1910.

Taking cues from the 'worst enemy' operetta which came from France to conquer Petersburg and actually drove Ostrovsky's plays from theatre repertoires, he wrote "Ivan-tsarevich", an ironic fairytale with a Russian folklore plot mixed with modern parody and farce. The lack of finance forced Ostrovsky to cancel the project, but the idea was soon revived in Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man, a pamphlet written in contemporary language but set in Moscow of the old times.[18] It was followed by The Ardent Heart (Goryachee serdtse, 1869), part detective fiction, part naive fairytale, part modern pamphlet aimed at Moscow traders who had started to buy from aristocrats huge plots of land. The main character Khlynov bore strong resemblance to Moscow millionaire trader M.A. Khludov, who became famous for his bizarre projects and pranks. The premier of The Ardent Heart in The Maly on 15 January 1869 (played as a benefice for Prov Sadovsky as Kuroslepov), was triumphant and heralded Ostrovsky's return as the major force in Russian theatre. Not all critics were happy, though. With his new satirical approach, some lamented the 'good-heartedness' of old.[18]

Also in 1869 Money to Burn (Beshenye dengi) came out, reflecting the author's interest (and wariness too) in the new emerging class of capitalist entrepreneurs, 'practical people', as they became known. Ostrovsky himself was a very impractical man, even if he liked to pretend to be otherwise. "All these publishers are crooks and they drink my blood," he used to say. "Nekrasov openly laughed at me and called me an altruist. He said no man of literature would sell their work as cheaply as I do," complained Ostrovsky in a letter. Nekrasov (who paid him 200 roubles per act which was considered a good price) tried to help Ostrovsky in the business of publishing. "But it just happened so that in the end [Ostrovsky] was always losing money... and was constantly on the verge of bankruptcy," Lakshin wrote. Each of his new plays was sent simultaneously to Maly Theatre and Otechestvennye zapiski. Occasionally the publication preceded the premiere: such was the case with The Forest (1871), the story of actors travelling from Vologda to Kerch satirising the backwardness of the Russian province of the time.[18]

Now visiting Petersburg regularly, Ostrovsky was enjoying the parties Nekrasov staged in a fashion of Sovremennik happenings, but for all the thrills of meeting people like Gleb Uspensky and Nikolai Mikhailovsky, in the capital he felt clumsy and often came across as an arrogant man which he was not. For some reason the plays which were successful in Moscow were flopping in Petersburg, such as The Ardent Heart, due to the poor quality of the Alexandrinsky theatre's stage production. In January 1872 Alexander II unexpectedly visited the theatre to watch It's Not All Shrovetide for the Cat (Ne vsyo kotu maslennitsa, 1871) and showed little enthusiasm. Gedeonov's efforts to make sure Ostrovsky should be granted a personal pension, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of his literary career, came to nothing. The Tsar refused to sign the document and there was no official commemoration of the date at all. The jubilee premiere of the play The False Dmitry and Vassily Shuisky (first published in 1866) on the Mariinsky stage on 17 February 1872 failed to meet expectations. "Costumes shocked everybody with their ruggedness, decorations looked as if they were brought from Berg's puppet show and everything reeked of negligence towards Russian theatre and Russian talents", the Grazhdanin reviewer wrote. The ceremony held behind the stage was a low profile affair with only theatre actors and director Alexander Yablochkin present. Disappointed, Ostrovsky returned to Moscow where he had always been revered as a veteran dramatist and the head of the Russian drama authors society. Here the celebration was lavish and prolonged, involving a tour through all the best restaurants. "Ostrovsky for Moscow has become what the Pope means for Rome," Ivan Goncharov wrote.[18]

The year 1872 also saw the release of The 17th Century Comic (Komik semnadtsatovo stoletiya), written for the 200th anniversary of the Russian theatre. The play was soon forgotten, but decades later Marina Tsvetayeva praised it as "exemplary in language". A year later one of Ostrovsky's most unusual plays, The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka) came out, based on the myth of the Berendey kingdom with its noble tsar, who was a poet and an artist. Lev Tolstoy and Nekrasov both loathed the experiment (so it had to be published in Vestnik Evropy) and the Moscow premiere drew only a lukewarm response. But the musical community was enthusiastic and it took just three weeks for Pyotr Tchaikovsky to write the music for the stage production, and later Rimsky-Korsakov created an opera, keeping most of the original text in the libretto.[18]


Ostrovsky, c1870s

In the early 1870s Ostrovsky started to experiment more with his plays. Most of them had little success on stage and all were more or less disliked by critics. "The Impotence of Creative Thought", the title of Nikolai Shelgunov's article in the democratic Delo magazine, reflected the general mood. While in the old days Ostrovsky was criticised for being too epic and paying little attention to form, Late Love (1873) and Wolves and Sheep (1875), with their perfect inner mechanism of action and technical gloss, were criticised as too "French-like in structure". "I am at a loss, being scolded from all sides for my work which I've been totally honest in", Ostrovsky complained to Nekrasov in a letter dated 8 March 1874.[18]

Most of Ostrovsky's later plays were based on real stories. "All of my plots are borrowed, they were made up by life itself. A dramatist does not invent stories but writes of things that have happened, or could have happened", Ostrovsky was reported as saying to fellow dramatist Dmitry Averkiev. Wolves and Sheep (Volki i ovtsy, 1875) told the story of a real court case involving the denouncement of hegumenness Mitrofania (Baroness Praskovia Rosen in real life) who in October 1874 was sued for fraud. Ostrovsky saw the story of this woman (landowner Murzavetskaya, in the play) as an unusual mix of the extraordinary personal ambitions and religious hypocrisy of "the Russian Tartuffe in a frock.[18] The Last Victim (Poslednyaya zhertva, 1877) told the story of a real actress Yulia Linskaya who had left the theatre to marry a rich man, then became a rich widow and, then robbed by her lover, died in poverty.[23]

Without a Dowry (Bespridannitsa, 1878) was based on a criminal case dealing with a murder arising from jealousy (committed by a certain Konovalov, a millionaire and a harem-holder, Knurov's prototype), which was going on in the Kineshma court where Ostrovsky once worked and which he since then often visited.[note 4] Marked by the author as "Opus 40" the play was meant, as he hoped, to start "a new line" in his career. It went by unnoticed, though, and only in retrospect was seen as a new word in 'domestic drama' and a precursor to Checkov's similar line of work. The play was written especially for the new Alexandrinka actress Maria Savina who "with all her arsenal should drive the audience mad", as the author hoped. Indeed, in Petersburg the play was more successful than in Moscow, but not among critics. Revived by Vera Komissarzhevskaya after the author's death, the play, according to Lakshin, "remains a timeless reminder of how deep the chasm between two sides of success, the artistic and the public one, can be."[18]

In the autumn of 1877 Ostrovsky left his old house at Nicola-Vorobin and moved into a posh and comfortable flat in a house on Prechistenka street. Despite having fallen out of favour with critics, Ostrovsky, a great authority and a theatre patriarch, was continuously visited by young authors seeking his advice and assessment. He discovered several new dramatists, among them Nikolai Solovyov, a monk and a gifted playwright (recommended to him by Konstantin Leontiev) who became the co-author of Belugin's Marriage (Zhenitjba Belugina, a re-working of Solovyov's Who Could Expect?) and two more plays.[18] He left it to his wife to entertain guests. Ostrovsky spent most of his time writing in his room, a process which became for him more and more difficult, as the ever increasing financial demands of his family meant he couldn't give himself a day of rest. "I know I’d feel much better should I be given two or three months of freedom from working and thinking, but this is unthinkable and, as Eternal Jew I am doomed to walk on and on and on", he wrote in 1879. People who visited him in Moscow in his last years were horrified at how tired and unhealthy he looked.[18]

Ostrovsky and Russian theatre reform[edit]

In 1874 Ostrovsky co-founded The Society of Russian Dramatic Art and Opera Composers which dealt mostly with legal issues and gave financial support to authors writing for the theatre. The Society published plays, organised performances and exerted a strong influence upon the development of the Russian theatre. Prior to this, in 1865, Ostrovsky initiated the formation of the Artists' Circle, a club and an informal school of drama.[8] Appalled by the deep crisis faced by the Russian theatre during the 1870s, Ostrovsky worked out a profound plan for its radical reform and revival. In 1881 he came to Petersburg with two long reports: "On the Situation in the Modern Drama Art in Russia" and "On the Needs of the Imperial Theatre". Minister I.I. Vorontsov-Dashkov invited Ostrovsky to join the government committee and the latter's enthusiasm was later rewarded by Alexander III, who presented him a golden tobacco-box. But after five months of hard work, disillusionment started to creep in, for the committee was ignoring most of his ideas, dealing mainly with financial questions and caring little for the organisational reforms Ostrovsky insisted upon. On the other hand, his idea of opening in Moscow the first "people's theatre", independent from officials in Petersburg, suddenly appealed to the Tsar and soon independent private theatres started to open all over Russia.[18]

Ostrovsky worked with actors and young dramatists and, according to biographer Anna Zhuravlyova, in his later years had every reason to write: "Other arts have schools, academies, mentors in high places... Russian drama has only myself. I am its everything: the academy, the sponsor and the protector."[24]

Last years[edit]

After one of his cherished projects, the creation of a "people's theatre" in Moscow, failed. In the autumn of 1883 Ostrovsky made a trip down to the Caucasus. The lavish reception he received in Georgia moved him to tears. Refreshed and full of new hopes, Ostrovsky came back and promptly finished Guilty Without Fault (Bez viny vinovatye). Back home, though, he was again in financial trouble. "I am on the brink, there is no way out: Maria Vasilievna is ill, all those worries have broken me totally, my heart falters and I often faint. None of the theatres pays me and I live in debt", he wrote to Burdin.[18]

In the early 1884 Ostrovsky was finally granted a personal pension from the Court, something he had requested 15 years earlier and had been refused. Mikhail Ostrovsky, now one of Alexander's ministers and a member of the State Council of Imperial Russia, mentioned his brother's financial difficulties to the Tsar and the problem was solved in a minute. Ostrovsky's feelings were mixed, though: 3 thousand roubles a year was not a large sum and there was a tinge of humiliation too in the way it had been obtained. Still on 5 March 1884, Ostrovsky came to the Palace to see Alexander III and had a 15-minute talk with the monarch. The Tsar asked why had the author chosen such a hero for The Handsome Man (Krasavets-muzhchina), a play about a pimp. "Such is the spirit of our times", Ostrovsky answered simply.[18]

In December 1885, Ostrovsky was appointed the Imperial theatre's repertoire director. For several months he spent every evening in one of the Moscow theatres, inspecting productions, having talks, trying to implement reforms he had been thinking over for years. Driven by the idea of "making the theatre the home of a thinking man" Ostrovsky invited university professors (I. Storozhenko, N. Tikhonravov) and dramatist N. Chaev to work on the repertoires. He was helping new authors, firing corrupt or inadequate officials and trying to stop theft which was going on every level. He reorganised the Moscow drama school.[18]

On 28 May, Ostrovsky went to Schelykovo, feeling already very ill. In an inn he had a severe asthma attack. His condition started to quickly deteriorate; his last days he spent in great pain, unable to move.[25] On 2 June, Ostrovsky died in his home of angina pectoris while at his desk translating William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.[26]

Alexander Ostrovsky was buried in the local cemetery in Nikolo-Berezhki. Only close relatives, a couple of old friends, dramatist Nikolai Kropachev and A.A. Maykov (his colleague in the Theatre department and Apollon's nephew) were present. The ceremony was modest and humble. Brother Mikhail's plans to move the coffin to the Moscow Novodevichye cemetery remained unfulfilled. "Ostrovsky's life was hard, full of strife, inner suffering and hard work. But he lived it as if he wrote it, being loyal to simple ideals: native land, pure feelings, goodness in people and the source of both happiness and torment in his life, theatre," biographer Lakshin wrote.[18]

Works adapted in music[edit]

Statue of Ostrovsky beside the Maly Theatre, sculptor Nikolay Andreyev

Several of Ostrovsky's plays have been turned into operas, mostly by Russian composers. In particular, the play The Storm (Groza) was the inspiration behind Janáček's opera Káťa Kabanová. He's known outside of Russian-speaking countries mostly because of these two works.

His early comedy Don't Live as You Like (Ne tak zhivi, kak khotchetsa) (1854) was adapted as the tragic opera The Power of the Fiend (premiered in 1871) by Serov.

The historical drama The Voyevoda (Dream on the Volga) was transformed into two operas: one by Tchaikovsky (as The Voyevoda) and later another by Arensky entitled Dream on the Volga. Tchaikovsky also later wrote incidental music for a scene in the play.

The most notable Russian opera based on an Ostrovsky play is Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka). Tchaikovsky also wrote incidental music for this play.


Alexander Ostrovsky is considered one of the most important Russian playwrights of the 19th century, credited with bringing dramatic realism to the Russian theatre stage. His best-known plays, in which he meticulously portrayed the Russian society of his time, focusing on the morals and manners of the newly emerging merchant class, were extremely popular during his lifetime and remain an integral part of the Russian repertoire. They are esteemed for their skillful characterization and use of dialect.[27]

Ostrovsky wrote 47 original plays featuring 728 characters, "a real word of its own where some figures might seem similar, but no two of them are the same," according to Y. Kholodov. "Ostrovsky's world was exceptionally diverse, as was his set of formats: he's written dramas, historical chronicles, scenes of Moscow life, a spring fairytale and a dramatic etude… His legacy could be seen as one endless play set on one stage, that of Russia, of the last three centuries," the critic continued.[9] Never restricting himself now with merchants' life, Ostrovsky in the 1850s started to portray state officials, land-owners and Russian nobility. His work divided the critics, and while Apollon Grigoriev enthused about their originality and Nikolai Dobrolyubov praised their social straightforwardness, some (like Nikolai Chernyshevsky) criticised the author of being maudlin and sentimental as regards patriarchal habits and ways. Politically neutral critics and the theatre community especially, though, loved his work and the best Russian stage stars, like Sadovsky, S. Vasiliev, Stepanov, Kositskaya and Borozdina were totally on his side.[13]

Some scholars doubted the existence of the piece of paper on which allegedly Gogol had allegedly scribbled words of encouragement to the young dramatist, but in retrospect most of them agreed that regardless of that Ostrovsky came as a direct heir to Gogol's tradition of realism, humanism and closeness to folk culture and language. Ostrovsky was foreign to pastel colours and undertones, subtlety was not his thing. Critics used to compare his scenes to paintings by Pavel Fedotov. His was juiciness of natural brightness, dramatism, strong emotions, bright humour and unforgettable, lavishly painted characters.[28] Ostrovsky was regarded as a real master of language. Back in 1859 Nikolai Dobrolyubov (in his Realm of Darklness essay) remarked that many phrases he coined were being eagerly adopted by people and attributed the quality of folk sayings, common people talk. "Nobody has had such glorious, tasteful and clear Russian language before Ostrovsky," Turgenev wrote.[28]

Ostrovsky is considered a master of the realistic drama, being praised in particular for his insight into the psychology of the Russian people, and many of his well-drawn characters are favorites among Russian actors and audiences. While international recognition of his talent has been limited by the difficulties of translating his heavily idiomatic dialogue, his contributions remain central to the development of modern Russian drama.[27]

Detractors often referred to Ostrovsky as a vain man but this has not been corroborated by facts. He's failed to write a comprehensive autobiography and did nothing to present himself in a 'winning' way to the posterity. He's never kept diaries and his letters were informational, obviously never meant to be preserved. In 1879, answering Russkaya Starina’s Mikhail Semevsky who was asking for memoirs, Ostrovsky replied:

Most of Ostrovsky's letters (including those to Nikolai Nekrasov, biographer S. Maksimov and friend Ivan Gorbunov) disappeared. The dramatist's son S.A. Ostrovsky when he was going to the World War I promised to hand to Knyaznin (Apollon Grigoriev's biographer) all the Ostrovsky's letters he had in his disposal, but never did so. In Shchelykovo huge amount of papers has been destroyed through negligence.[30][31][32] The first academic works dealing with Ostrovsky and his legacy started to appear only in the Soviet times, via scholars N. Kashin, N. Dolgov, A. Revyakin, A. Lotman, E. Kholodov, V. Lakshin. Still, there are many gaps in his biography, unconfirmed dates and uncorroborated facts, according to Lakshin.[33]

Outside of Russia[edit]

Unlike those of his contemporaries Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev, Ostrovsky's works are little known outside of Russian-speaking countries. The two that are fairly well-known in the West became so mostly because they were adapted for operas: "Katya Kabanova" (based on The Storm (play)), and his play that became "The Snow Maiden" by Rimsky-Korsakov.

Ostrovsky wrote mostly of the conservative "old Russia", the traditional Russian society—of the everyday life of merchants and poor city dwellers—the subjects that seemed to attract little interest in the West.[34]

Private life[edit]

In the mid-1840s, Ostrovsky was an attractive young man ("pale, tall and lean", with "soft blonde hair opening up a tall forehead", as a biographer describes him), impressionable and romantically inclined. In the late 1847 he met Agafia Ivanovna, a lower middle-class 24-year-old woman who lived in the Yauza neighborhood, and became close to her. No photograph of the woman remained and even her surname was unknown (sister's name was Natalya Ivanovna Belenkova, but whether that was her husband's second name was not known too). According to biographer Lakshin, there was a strong possibility that he parents were ex-serfs, then most certainly her surname would be Ivanova.

Ostrovsky's first ever visit to Schelykovo was inspired by his father who hoped to make the son forget about Agafia Ivanovna. Yet in the summer of 1849 Ostrovsky refused to go to the estate and, while the family was away, took Agafia into the house as his civil wife.[35] Marriage was out of question and Agafia (Gasha, as she was known) never demanded that. Ostrovsky apparently wasn't regarding this union as a lasting one, but it proved otherwise and Gasha stayed with him until her death in 1867. Poorly educated, but exceptionally talented and intelligent woman, she had deep knowledge of lower classes' life and certainly exerted some influence upon the dramatist.[36]

Lyubov Nikulina-Kositskaya, Ostrovsky's lover in the late 1850s

While writing The Storm Ostrovsky spent time nearby Moscow, in villages Davydkovo and Ivankovo, places of actors' gatherings. It was there that he became close to Lyubov Nikulina-Kositskaya, whom they were friends with from the times of Sledge. For several years in Ostrovsky-Kositskaya relations there's been coldness caused by the Gorev incident. Then she wrote him a letter asking for a benefice play and he gave her the role of Nadya in The Protégée. The new director of Imperial theatres Saburov disapproved of this (having nothing against the play as such) then it was banned altogether and Kositskaya has got nothing. But in the Autumn of 1859 Ostrovsky was working on The Storm having Kositskaya in mind as Katerina (although, as Lakshin noted, there was as much of Varvara in her volatile, impulsive and mostly light-hearted persona). Now, in 1859, they fell in love. Only Kositskaya's letters remained, but from the follows he was madly in love, promising to "elevate" her "up a pedestal", she, although responsive, still much more guarded, having all kinds of reservations, and reminding her lover of his duties towards his civil wife. After two years of uncertainty which caused great anguish (to Agafia Ivanovna in particular, whose behaviour though was most dignified which caused Ostrovsky's friends treat her with even more respect and admiration) Ostrovsky proposed and Kositskaya refused. It transpired that by the time she's been in love with her young fan Sokolov, a flamboyant merchant's son who first squandered his own money, then started spending hers. This doomed romance was so painful and humiliating to Ostrovsky that for the rest of his life he was trying to keep his romance firmly shut off his memory.[18]

In the early 1860s Ostrovsky met Maria Vasilievna Vasilieva, the Maly Theater actress whom he became close with (judging by hints in letters addressed to a friend, Burdin) in 1864. In the New Year Eve Maria Vasilievna gave birth to a child, Alexander. On August 1866 the second boy was born, Mikhail. In the end of 1867 daughter Maria was born. On February 12, 1869, Ostrovsky and Vasilieva were married, in church. Boasting impressive looks in her youth, his wife quickly revealed her character, being passionate, jealous and very demanding.[8][18]


  1. ^ Emilia von Tessin's grand-grandfather Karl Gustaf Tessin (1695-1770) was a Swedish politician, diplomat and the King's Chancellery's head, best known for his book Letters to Prince Albert. His son, accused of links with freemasons escaped to Russia and settled in Moscow. In the early 19th century on the Yauza bank there appeared the Tessin Lane which is still there.
  2. ^ The first Russian private newspaper, started in January 1847 started by Moscow liberal professor Vladimir Drashusov (1820−1883). It was in Listok that Ostrovsky has met Alexander Hertzen for the first time.
  3. ^ Several years later when The Storm was premiered in France and had little success, it was said the French regarded it as historical, not social drama, for the things it described were common in 14th-century France. Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin was aware of that too, saying: "For [West Europeans] I am virtually a 17th-century author."
  4. ^ Dmitry Furmanov, who came from Kineshema, once planned to write a novel about this case called "On the Trace of Without a Dawry".


  1. ^ a b c "Aleksandr Nikolayevich Ostrovsky". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2012-03-01. 
  2. ^ Revyakin< A.I. A.N. Ostrovsky. Life and Works. Мoscow, 1949, p. 7.
  3. ^ Revyakin, p. 10-15.
  4. ^ The Complete A.N. Ostrovsky in 12 Volumes. Moscow. Iskusstvo Publishers. 1973-1980. Vol. XI, p.399.
  5. ^ Lvov, Y.D. Quarter of Century Ago. Rampa y Zhizn, 1910, No.42, p.701.
  6. ^ N. P. Gilyarov-Platonov. From My Life Experience (Iz perezhitogo), p. 153.
  7. ^ Ivanov, I.A. A.N.Ostrovsky. Saint Petersburg, 1900, p.10.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Zhuravlyova, A.I. (1990). "Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky". Russian Writers. Biobliography dictionary. Ed. P.A. Nikolayev. Prosveshchenye Publishers. Retrieved 2012-03-01. 
  9. ^ a b Kholodov, E. Biography of A.N.Ostrovsky. Plays by A.N.Ostrovsky. Detskaya Literatura, 1969. Pp.230-255
  10. ^ Semyonov, D.D. Pyotr Grygorievich Redkin. Russkaya Starina. 1891, No.8. N.P.Kolyupanov. From Things Long Gone (1843-1849). - Russkoye Obozrenie. 1895, No.3.
  11. ^ Nevezhin, P.M. Ostrovsky in his Contemporaries' Memoirs. p.262.
  12. ^ Literaturnoye Nasledstvo, 1974, vol. 88, book. I, pp.449-450.
  13. ^ a b c d e Morozov, P. (1911). "A.M. Ostrovsky biography". Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-03-01. 
  14. ^ P.M Nevezhin, F.A. Burdin. Ostrovsky in his Contemporaries' Memoirs. pp. 262, 329. B.V. Varneke. Russian Dictionary of Biographies, v. 12. 1905, p. 426.
  15. ^ I.P. Barsukov. Life and Works of M.P. Pogodin. vol. 11, p. 66.
  16. ^ "The Family Picture. Commentary". The Complete A.N. Ostrovsky. Vol.1, Plays: 1847-1854. Khudozhestvennaya literature. Moscow. 1949. Retrieved 2012-03-01. 
  17. ^ The Central State Historical Archives (ЦГИА), Drama, cens. N 35, л. 37. Report on plays presented in 1847.
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  20. ^ Lev Tolstoy's letter to Alexander Ostrovsky, 29 January 1857. L.N. Tolstoy. Letters to Russian writers. Moscow, 1962, p. 214).
  21. ^ "Prominent Russians: Aleksandr Ostrovsky". Russapedia. Retrieved 2012-03-01. 
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  23. ^ А. Аltshuler. Yulia Lanskaya. Leningrad, 1973.
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  26. ^ "The Last Days of Ostrovsky in Schjelykovo". Retrieved 2012-03-01. 
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  28. ^ a b Vladimir Lakshin. A.N. Ostrovsky. Selected plays. Khudozhestvennaya Literatura. Preface by… Moscow, 1970, pp 3-38
  29. ^ The Complete A.N. Ostrovsky in 12 Volumes. Moscow. Iskusstvo Publishers. 1973-1980. Vol.11, p. 652-653.
  30. ^ V. Lakshin. Ostrovsky and Nekrasov. - Science and Life (Nauka y Zhizn), 1973, N 4, p. 141-143.
  31. ^ Apollon Alexandrovich Grigoriev. Material for Biography. Petersburg, 1917, p. 6.
  32. ^ Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky (1823-1923). Ivanovo-Voznesensk, 1923, p. 118.
  33. ^ V. Lakshin, Literaturnaya Rosiya, 1973, N 15. Т. Ornatskaya, Russkaya Literatura, 1977, N 1.
  34. ^ Ostrovsky, Alexander -- San Diego Opera
  35. ^ The Complete A.N. Ostrovsky. Vol.10, p. 350-360. Also: Commentaries to Ostrovsky's diaries. A.N. Ostrovsky. Diaries and letters. Moscow, Leningrad. Academia, p.199.
  36. ^ A.I. Revyakin. Ostrovsky’s First Wife. – Liternaturnoye Nasledstvo, book 88, vol. 1, p. 460-468.

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