Mikhail Yevgrafovich Saltykov-Shchedrin (Russian: Михаи́л Евгра́фович Салтыко́в-Щедри́н, born Saltykov, pseudonym Nikolai Shchedrin; 27 January [O.S. 15 January] 1826 – 10 May [O.S. 28 April] 1889), was a major Russian satirist of the 19th century. He spent most of his life working as a civil servant in various capacities. After the death of poet Nikolay Nekrasov he acted as editor of the well-known Russian magazine, Otechestvenniye Zapiski (variously translated as "Annals of the Fatherland", "Patriotic Notes", "Notes of the Fatherland", etc.), until the government banned it in 1884. His best-known work, the novel The Golovlyov Family, appeared in 1876.
Mikhail Saltykov was born on 27 January 1826, in the village of Spas-Ugol, Tver Governorate. He was one of eight children (five brothers, three sisters) in the large family of Yevgraf Vasilievich Saltykov, a member of the ancient Saltykov family, and Olga Mikhaylovna Zabelina, heir to a rich merchant family. At the time of Mikhail's birth, Yevgraf was fifty years old, and Olga twenty five. Mikhail spent his early years on his parents' large estate in Spasskoye on the border of the Tver and Yaroslavl governorates, in the Poshekhonye region.
"In my childhood and teenage years I witnessed serfdom at its worst. It saturated all strata of social life, not just the landlords and the enslaved masses, degrading all classes, privileged or otherwise, with its atmosphere of a total lack of rights, when fraud and trickery were the order of the day, and there was an all-pervading fear of being crushed and destroyed at any moment," he remembered, speaking through one of the characters of his later work Old Years in Poshekhonye. Life in the Saltykov family was equally difficult. Dominating the weak, religious father was despotic mother whose intimidating persona horrified the servants and her own children. This atmosphere was later recreated in Shchedrin's novel The Golovlyov Family, and the idea of "the devastating effect of legalized slavery upon the human psyche" would become one of the prominent motifs of his prose. Olga Mikhaylovna, though, was a woman of many talents; having perceived some in Mikhail, she treated him as her favorite.
The Saltykovs often quarreled; they gave their children neither love nor care and Mikhail, despite enjoying relative freedom in the house, remembered feeling lonely and neglected. Another thing Saltykov later regretted was his having been completely shut out from nature in his early years: the children lived in the main house and were rarely allowed to go out, knowing their "animals and birds only as boiled and fried." Characteristically, there were few descriptions of nature in the author's works.
Mikhail's early education was desultory, but, being an extraordinarily perceptive boy, by the age of six he spoke French and German fluently. He was taught to read and write Russian by the serf painter Pavel Sokolov and a local clergyman, and became an avid reader, later citing the Gospel, which he read at the age of eight, as a major influence. Among his childhood friends was Sergey Yuriev, the son of a neighbouring landlord and later a prominent literary figure, editor and publisher of the magazines Russkaya Mysl and Beseda. In 1834 his elder sister Nadezhda graduated from the Moscow Ekaterininsky college, and Mikhail's education from then on was the prerogative of her friend Avdotya Vasilevskaya, a graduate of the same institute who had been invited to the house as a governess. Mikhail's other tutors included the local clergyman Ivan Vasilievich who taught the boy Latin and the student Matvey Salmin.
At the age of ten Saltykov joined the third class of the Moscow Institute for sons of the nobility (Dvoryansky institute), skipping the first two classes, where he studied until 1838. He then enrolled in the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum in Saint Petersburg, spending the next six years there. Prince Aleksey Lobanov-Rostovsky, afterwards the Minister оf Foreign Affairs, was one of his schoolfellows. In the lyceum the quality of education was poor. "The information taught to us was scant, sporadic and all but meaningless... It was not so much an education as such, but a part of social privilege, the one that draws the line through life: above are you and me, people of leisure and power, beneath - just one single word: muzhik," Saltykov wrote in his Letters to Auntie.
While at the lyceum Saltykov started writing poetry and translated works from Lord Byron and Heinrich Heine. He was proclaimed an 'heir to Pushkin' - after the local tradition which demanded that each course should have one. His first poem, "The Lyre", a hymn to the great Russian poet, was published by Biblioteka Dlya Chteniya in 1841. Eight more of Saltykov's verses made their way into Sovremennik in 1844-1845. At the time he was attending Mikhail Yazykov's literary circle, which was occasionally visited by Vissarion Belinsky. The latter's articles and essays made a great impression on Mikhail.
Upon graduating the Lyceum in 1844, Saltykov, who was one of the best students, was promoted directly to the chancellery of the Ministry of Defense. This success upset Mikhail, as it ended his dream of attending Saint Petersburg University. The same year he became involved with Otechestvennye zapiski and Sovremennik, reviewing for both magazines children's literature and textbooks. His criticism was sharp, and Belinsky's influence on it was evident. At this time Saltykov became a follower of the Socialist ideas coming from France. "Brought up by Belinsky's articles, I naturally drifted towards the Westernizers' camp, but not to the major trend of it which was dominant in Russian literature at the time, promoting German philosophy, but to this tiny circle that felt instinctively drawn towards France - the country of Saint-Simon, Fourier... and, in particular, George Sand... Such sympathies only grew stronger after 1848," he later remembered. Saltykov befriended literary critic Valerian Maykov and economist and publicist Vladimir Milyutin, and became close to the Petrashevsky circle. "How easily we lived and what deep faith we had in the future, what single-mindedness and unity of hopes there was, giving us life!" he later remembered, calling Mikhail Petrashevsky "a dear, unforgettable friend and teacher."
In 1847 Saltykov debuted with his first novella Contradictions (under the pseudonym M.Nepanov), the title referring to the piece's main motif: the contrast between one's noble ideals and the horrors of real life. It was followed by A Complicated Affair (1848), a social novella, reminiscent of Gogol, both in its plotlines and the natures of its characters, dealing with social injustice and the inability of an individual to cope with social issues. The novella was praised by Nikolai Dobrolyubov who wrote: "It is full of heartfelt sympathy for destitute men... awakening in one humane feelings and manly thoughts," and Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who referred to it as a book "that has created a stir and is of much interest to people of the new generation." It was the publication of Contradictions that caused Saltykov's banishment to Vyatka, - apparently the result of overreaction from the authorities in response to the French Revolution of 1848. On 26 April 1848, Tsar Nicholas I signed the order for the author's arrest and deportation.
In his first few months of exile Saltykov was mainly occupied with copying official documents. Then he was made a special envoy of the Vyatka governor; his major duty in this capacity was making inquiries concerning brawls, cases of minor bribery, embezzlement and police misdoings. Saltykov made desperate attempts to break free from what he called his 'Vyatka captivity', but after each of his requests he received the standard reply: "would be premature." He became more and more aware of the possibility that he'd have to spend the rest of his life there. "The very thought of that is so repellent that it makes by hair bristle," he complained in a letter to his brother. It helped that the local elite treated Saltykov with great warmth and sympathy; he was made a welcome guest in many respectable houses, including that of vice-governor Boltin whose daughter Elizaveta Apollonovna later became Saltykov's wife.
While in Vyatka Saltykov got carried away by the idea of radically improving the quality of education for young women and girls. There were no decent history textbooks at the time in Russia, so he decided to write one himself. Called A Brief History of Russia, it amounted to 40 handwritten pages of compact text compiled from numerous sources. He worked on it while on vacation in a village near Tver, sending it to Vyatka to be published as a series.
As the numerous members of the Petrashevsky Circle were arrested in 1848, Saltykov got summoned to the capital to give evidence on his involvement in the group's activity. There he managed to convince the authorities that 'spreading harm' was not his intention and safely returned to Vyatka. In the summer of 1850 he became a councillor of the local government which implied long voyages through the province on official business, many of them having to do with issues concerning the Old Believers. As an investigator, he traveled throughout the Vyatka, Perm, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod and Yaroslavl governorates. In 1850 he became the organizer of the Vyatka agricultural exhibition, one of the largest in the country. All this provided Saltykov with priceless material for his future satires.