July 01, 2008

The Muckraker

born July 15, 1853 

Vladimir Korolenko has been completely forgotten as a writer. I read Korolenko as a child – he was idolized by my grandfather – and his collected works still stand on my shelf, although it has been years since I glanced at their pages. I can still conjure hazy memories of the unfortunate, sickly, and impoverished children, and the strict but fair judge of In Bad Company (written in 1885 and published in English translation in 1916); of the blind boy Pyotr who was able to overcome his misfortune and become a true Blind Musician in the novel of that name; of the devil who, on Yom Kippur, carried off the Jewish tavern keeper Yankel, whom the villagers blamed for their own drunkenness and empty pockets. The following year he returned Yankel and took in his stead an “upstanding” Christian miller, who turned out to be a much worse scoundrel and thief than the universally despised Jew. I can also recall images of life in provincial Ukraine from Korolenko’s autobiographical History of My Contemporary (also available in English translation) – and that’s about it. 

But this writer of fiction, who penned many books that are quite good, but not outstanding, is only one side of the mighty and utterly astonishing personality who bore the name Vladimir Galaktionovich Korolenko. Even the irritable and sarcastic Ivan Bunin said, with good reason, that he felt better knowing that Russia had Korolenko, “the living conscience of the Russian people.” 

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