September 19, 2014

Ivan Bunin

Ivan Bunin [Russia]

Best known for his novels, The Village (1910), Dry Valley (1912), Mitya’s Love (1924) the autobiographical work, The Life of Arseniev (1933), and his numerous collections of short tales, Ivan Bunin was one of the most revered writers of pre-Communist Russian literature, and was the first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he received in 1933. Bunin, however, was also the author a several important collections of poetry.

     He was born on his parental estate in the Voronezh province of Central Russia, the third son of parents from a long line of rural gentry with distinguished Polish ancestors, including the poets Anna Bunina (1774-1829) and Vasily Zhukovsky (1783-1852).

     Bunin reportedly lived a happy childhood in Butyrky Khutor and Ozerky. His father was an intelligent, physically active man, addicted to gambling. Before the Crimean War, in which his father served, he abstained from alcohol, but upon his return he became a heavy drinker. Bunin’s mother, however, was the one who introduced her son to the world of Russian folklore and literature. Educated by a home, first by a colorful tutor, Romashkov, and, later, by his university-educated brother, Yuly Bunin (a man who had been deported for being a Narodnik activist, the Narodniks being a socially conscious middle class movement that eventually opposed the Tsarists), the young Ivan grew up with a passion for painting and poetry. He wrote both prose and poetry from an early age.

     By the late 1870s, however, the Bunins had lost most of their wealth from the father’s gambling debts, and Ivan was sent to a public school in Yelets. He never completed the course, having been expelled from school in 1886 for failing to return to the school after Christmas holidays, due to his family’s financial problems.

     In May of the next year, 1887, Bunin published his first poem in the St. Petersburg literary magazine Rodina (Motherland). His first short story appears in 1891.

     In the Spring of 1889, Bunin, like his brother before him, moved to Kharkov, where he first became a government clerk before moving to a position as assistant editor of the local paper. He also worked as a librarian and a court statistician before moving to Oryol to work as the de fact editor of the local Orlovsky Vestnik newspaper, where he also published numerous of his stories, poems, and reviews. In Oryol he also met Varvara Paschenko, whom he married.

     Moving in with his brother Yuly in Poltava, he found, with his brother’s help, a job in the local government administration. His first collection of poetry, Poems 1887-1891 was published in Oryol in 1891.

     During 1894 Bunin traveled throughout Ukraine, where, as he described it: “I fell in love with Malorossiya (Little Russia), its villages and steppes.” And the following year, for the first time, he visted the capital, meeting the Marodniks Nikolay Mikyalovsky and Sergey Krivenko, Anton Chekhov, Alexander Ertel, and the poets Konstantin Balmont and Valery Brysov. A few years later he developed a close friendship with the playwright and fiction writer Maxim Gorky, to whom he dedicated his 1901 collection of poetry, Falling Leaves.

     From 1895 through 1896, Bunin traveled back and forth between Moscow and St. Petersburg, as he continued to write poetry and stories. In 1898 he published his second collection of poetry, Under the Open Skies.

     In June 1898, he moved to Odessa, becoming close to the Southern Russia Painters Comradeship, and developed friendships with E. Bukovetski, V Kurovsky, and P. Nilus. In the next couple of years he began attending the Sreda (Wendesday) literary group in Moscow, forging a friendship with Nikolay Teleshov and others.

     His third collection of poetry, mentioned above, received positive critical attention from numerous writers and journalists, including Alexander Ertel, Alexander Blok, and Aleksandr Kruprin, who saw it as an antidote to the pretentiousness of “decadent” poetry. For that third volume, as well as for his translation of the American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, Bunin received his first Pushkin Prize.

     Over the next several years, Bunin continued to publish fiction, stories, and poetry, three volumes of which were collected into Poems and Stories (1907-1909), published by Obschestvennaya polza publishing house.

     Throughout the 1900s Bunin traveled extensively, regularly visiting Chekhov and his family until 1904. During the October Revolution, Bunin was living in Yalta, Crimea, and he soon after moved back to Odessa, developing in 1906 a passionate love affair with Vera Muromtseva, with whom he not only defied social conventions but abandoned Russia in 1907 for an extended tour throughout Egypt and Palestine, resulting in numerous travel sketches.

     Upon his return to Russia, Bunin wrote some of his most noted fictions. In 1909 he was awarded his second Pushkin Prize for Poems 1903-1906 and translations of Lord Byron and, once again, Longfellow. He was also elected as a member of the Russian Academy.

     In 1910 he and Muromtseva again traveled to the Middle East before visiting Ceylon. Upon their return to Russia they discovered that conditions had worsened, and traveled between Moscow and the Bunin family estate at Glotovo village. He wintered for three years in Capri with Gorky, there meeting Fyodor Shalyapin and Leonid Andreev.

     During the first couple of years of World War I, Bunin and Muromtseva lived in Glotovo, while he worked to finish his first volume of prose and verse Chalice of Life, and composed perhaps his best known story, “The Gentleman from San Francisco,” translated into English by D. H. Lawrence.

     Throughout the war Bunin attempted to keep aloof from contemporary literary and political debates, refusing to be pigeon-holed into any literary school. “I did not belong to any literary school; I was neither a decadent, nor a symbolist, nor a romantic, nor a naturalist. Of literary circles I frequented only a few.” By 1916 Bunin had become deeply depressed because of the war.

     In October 1917, the Bunins returned to Moscow, staying with Vera’s parents, while continued to attend meetings of the Sreda circle. That same year, Bunin severed all ties with Gorky, who by this time had become openly revolutionary, while he worked on the anti-Bolshevik newspaper Iuzhnoe Slovo.

     On January 26, 1920, Bunin and Vera boarded the last French ship in Odessa, traveling to Constantinople, and, after brief periods in Sofia and Belgrade, arrived in Paris, where he would live until World War II. Continuing to write significant works, Bunin became one of the major spokesmen for a generation of expatriates living abroad. Accordingly, his award of the Nobel Prize was seen in the USSR as “an imperialist intrigue.” Bunin donated some of his prize money to create a literary charity fund, but his helpful attempts resulted in controversy among his émigré friends resulting in a severing of friendships with Gippius and Merezhkovsky.

    Although friends attempted to help Bunin, a strong anti-Nazi spokesperson, out of France, Bunin determined to remain in France at his mountain retreat in Grasse. There he was joined by Leonid Zurov and Nikolai Roschin, sometimes joined by others, living in a commune system attempting to survive. According to Zurov, who lived with the Bunins for the rest of their lives, “Grasses’s population had eaten all of their cats and dogs.” A visiting journalist in 1942, found a Bunin whom he described as “skinny and emaciated…looking very much like an ancient patrician.”

    Throughout the war Bunin risked his life by sheltering several Jews and other fugitives, despite the fact that a heavily guarded German headquarters stood only 300 meters from his home. Although Bunin continued to write throughout the war, he published nothing.

    With the war’s end, Bunin and Vera returned to their 1, rue Jacques Offenbach home in Paris, with Bunin spending spells in a clinic in Jan-les-Pins) convalescing. Bunin remained in Paris until his death in 1953.


Poems (1887–1891) (1891, originally as a literary supplement to Orlovsky vestnik newspaper); Под открытым небом, (1898); Листопад (Moscow, 1901); Стихотворения (Stikhotvorenīia) (St. Petersburg: Znanīe, 1903-1906) (1903); Стихотворения, 1906); Poems of 1907 (Saint Petersburg, 1908); Selected Poems (Paris, 1929); Stikhotvoreniia (Petrozavodsk: Izd-vo “Kareliia”, 1978); Stikhotvoreniia (Moscow: Sovetskaia Rossia, 1981); Listopad: poèma (Moscow: Sovremenik, 1982); Stikhotvoreniia (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1985)

Poems also appeared  in several of Bunin’s short story collections and in his books published in emigration.


Stories and Poems (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979)

Click here for a selection of poems:

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