I’ve long been a fan of the Dictionary of Literary Biography series (Wikipedia, publisher’s site), now up to Volume 366 (Orientalist Writers), but I’ve had to consult them in libraries, since the damn things cost over $300 each. New, that is; a while back it occurred to me to add the ones for Russian writers to my private Amazon wishlist, and sure enough, they occasionally show up used for only a few bucks. So far I’ve accumulated volumes 198 (Russian literature in the age of Pushkin and Gogol: Prose), 238 (Russian novelists in the age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky), 272 (Russian prose writers between the world wars), and the most recently acquired, Early Modern Russian Writers (Volume 150, covering the late 17th and 18th centuries). It may seem odd to spend one’s time reading biographical articles on obscure writers no one’s given a thought to in a couple hundred years, but I find that in some ways reading about minor writers is more interesting and revealing than reading about major ones. You read about Tolstoy’s life to understand Tolstoy, but you read about Andrey Bolotov or Vasily Kapnist to understand their times. These were people struggling to get by, most of them, who used literature as a means of getting a little money and renown at a time when that was just becoming possible. Irwin Titunik’s introductory paragraph on Vasily Ruban (Russian Wikipedia) will give an idea of how these articles expand one’s idea of Russian literature:
Vasilii Grigor’evich Ruban was an enterprising and prolific participant in eighteenth-century Russia’s equivalent of Grub Street—a host of professional literary men willing and able to undertake any writing task, equally adept at producing manuals on agriculture or card playing, at composing panegyric odes to the high and mighty or Russifying the works of Homer or Horace, and at performing as compilers, editors, and publishers. Such hackwork was by no means necessarily of poor quality; reputable writers were produced in this way. In Ruban’s case there were works compiled, edited, published, and also translated by him that received wide approval and appreciation. However, Ruban was notorious among his contemporaries for producing great quantities of occasional poems, especially those written for or to patrons whose protection, gifts, and monetary support he solicited and often gained. Ruban’s more distinguished and independent fellow writers reviled and mocked these “obsequious” verses, and he was subsequently condemned as a sycophant[…] Although that reputation has survived into the twentieth century, an unbiased assessment, without denying his reprehensible traits, must also acknowledge Ruban not only as a literary entrepreneur of extraordinary energy and versatility (not to speak of productivity) but also a competent writer typical of eighteenth-century Russia and of interest in his own right, especially as a poet.
One of the sad aspects of literary history is the tendency of writers blessed with a good position in society, from Pushkin to Virginia Woolf, to sneer at the lowly scribblers who are unable to match their leisurely grace.
Some other tidbits from this volume: of the religious figure Gedeon (Russian Wikipedia), “the first to preach in Russian rather than Church Slavonic,” Victor Zhivov writes:
Having become a grandee in his way, Gedeon also adopted the accepted cultural codes dictating how a magnate should act. One element of such behavior at mid century was apparently petty tyranny, and anecdotes about Gedeon ascribe such behavior to him. For example, it is said that while walking through the Trinity–Saint Sergius Monastery with his protégé Platon Levshin (the future metropolitan of Moscow; at the time a simple priest), Gedeon noticed the valuable silk cassock Platon was wearing and pushed him into a pond. Afterwards he reportedly made an admonition that someone of a lower rank should not be upset when a superior jokes with him and thereupon presented Platon with two expensive cassocks to replace the one that had been ruined.
Antiokh Kantemir had problems as a young man because his father “named as his heir whichever son excelled the most in his studies by the time of his coming of age,” at the same time calling Antiokh, the youngest, “the best of all in intelligence and learning”; as you might imagine, “the indefiniteness of the will regarding the inheritance later resulted in lengthy family disputes.” And it was fascinating to read David Gasperetti’s article on Matvei Komarov (Russian Wikipedia), forgotten now but in his day “Russia’s first best-selling literary figure,” whose 1779 Van’ka Kain “reached more readers than almost any other Russian novel, with a publication history spanning close to one hundred years,” and whose Milord George was even more successful: “Belinsky went so far as to call the novel immortal, and […] Leo Tolstoy observed that the people were far more interested in Milord George than in the belles lettres and philosophy that the leading lights of Russian culture would have them read. Komarov’s tale of the English lord remained a best-seller in Russia until the newly established Bolshevik state did what the cajoling of previous generations of critics never could: it confiscated an edition of the work that was at press in 1918, thus ending its remarkable 136-year publication history.”