The epoch of Alexander I was the time of great creative effort; the time when Russian writers experienced the joy of independent creation, original and authentically national in spirit and style. The highest expression of it is certainly the creative work of Alexander Pushkin. European culture was assimilated and reflected upon; later generations develop Slavophil opposition, not only national and psychological, but also cultural and artistic one.
The first forty years of the 19th century are called the Golden Age of Russian poetry, and it is certainly due to the greatest Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799–1837), whose first triumph was the poem Ruslan and Lyudmila (1820).
It was followed by a number of romantic poems imbued with impressions of his staying in the South of Russia, and finally Pushkin created his genius Eugene Onegin (finished in 1830). This splendid work is a unique "novel in verse”: it contains more than 5000 versed lines making strophes and presents a narration about contemporary Russian life. The images of the main characters, Eugene and Tatiana, and the story of their ruined love have had a great impact on all the latest Russian literature.
Pushkin created several big poetic works, among them the inimitable poem The Bronze Horseman (1833), a whole range of prosaic writings and several hundreds of verses notable for their classical fine simplicity of form and deep lyrical feeling.
Many poets recognized Pushkin as their teacher and followed him in form and themes.
Apart from them there stood the greatest Russian fable author, poet Ivan Andreyevich Krylov (1768–1844), whose witty fables gained wide popularity as lessons of wisdom and paragons of language mastery.
From the 1840s literature experiences the growth of moral and metaphysical anxiety that finds a theoretical expression in romanticism. Artistic persons feel uneasy in life, as if in a wrong place. The theme of 'a needless man' arises in literature: Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov (1814–1841) gave an unforgettable picture of the spiritual sensations of that time, the mix of exaltation and doubts, in his famous novel The Hero of Our Time. The best verses and romantic poems written by M.Y.Lermontov, in particular his brilliant story in verse Demon (1829–1833), gained him outstanding fame for centuries ahead. Philosophic verses and love lyric poetry masterpieces by Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev (1803–1875) crown the Golden Age of Russian poetry.
The development of prose in the early 19th century was considerably inspired by acquaintance with Walter Scott’s historic novels that were widely spread in Russian translations. An outstanding example of this genre is Pushkin’s Captain's Daughter (1836), a captivating story on years of Pugachev’s riot under Catherine the Great. Closer to reality were his Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin (1831), five stylistically perfect stories from contemporary life, as well as his short story The Queen of Spades (1834) about being possessed with gambling: it has no equals in Russian literature as far as the action suspense and laconic expressiveness are concerned. The famous Byronic hero of Lermontov’s masterpiece A Hero of Our Time (1840) is an utterly romantic image.
The main prose writer of that period, which had a determinant influence on development of realism, was Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809–1852). His early stories are imbued with humor-tinted romantic effects not without participation of ghosts, witches and other supernatural creatures. Later he comes to combine romantic devices with exceptionally striking realistic writing, like in The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich (1835), where comic narration leads to an intensely morbid ending; or in The Overcoat (1842), where a wretched clerk dies of grief when robbers tear off him his new overcoat that cost him incredible sacrifice and all his miserable salary. Yet, Gogol’s worldwide glory is surely based on his great novel Dead Souls (1842) with its fanciful plot – a story of purchasing “souls” of deceased serf peasants.
Pushkin’s historic play Boris Godunov (1825) is an attempt to create a Russian tragedy in free verse. Many of its scenes are remarkable for splendid dramatic effects and elevated poetic passages, yet it never was a great success on theatre stage.
However, two plays of that period rank among the most glorious achievements of the Russian theatre. Woe from Wit (1822–1823) by Alexander Sergeyevich Griboyedov (1795–1829) is a social satire rich in excellent witticisms and aphorisms. It is rivaled in popularity by the famous Gogol’s comedy The Government Inspector (1836) of how a transient crook is mistaken for an inspector from the capital.