Russia has always had a soft spot for Kornei Chukovsky,
whose 120th birth anniversary is celebrated in the last days of
March. In this country, several generations of children grew up
reading droll fairy tales and poems by Chukovsky. The men of
letters who participated in the country's ideological liberation
of the 20th century all praised Chukovsky's support and his
eagerness to reanimate literature and give it a second life.
Likewise, many appreciated his reflections about the Russian
language and his aspiration to free it of ugly bureaucratic
Chukovsky's book, "As Alive as Life Itself," is especially
topical now that the state is struggling to cleanse the language
of excessively abundant slang expressions, spelling and grammar
mistakes and words unreasonably borrowed from other languages.
The book became a huge hit immediately upon its release in 1962.
A witty and captivating study of common language mistakes, it
proved a great helper for all those who wanted to perfect their
speech. No doubt it could be handy for some of the present-day
politicians, journalists and public figures as well.
Chukovsky's wonderful children's poems, too, have proved
long-standing hits and now rate among the classics of Russian
literature. The writer himself confessed he felt "very happy"
when he wrote them. Back in the days when he took to writing
poems, there were probably just a few worthy children's books in
Russian literature. Sergei Mikhalkov, Samuil Marshak, Agnia
Barto, Kornei Chukovsky were the ones who created the "golden
fund" of children's literature. Their books taught kids to be
kind and to care for their loved ones. Many of them were later
televised, for instance Chukovsky's "Dr. Doolittle," which
exists in the form of several cartoons and a full-length feature
Many grown-ups still recall how their hearts ached for the
Buzzer-fly, who had a narrow escape from death before she got
married to a brave and gallant mosquito, and for the "insulted
and humiliated" beasts terrorized by the dreadful Cockroach whom
they thought to be the most powerful creature in the world.
Among other childhood "companions" is the careless heroine of
"Fedora's Woe," whose tableware got tired of being neglected and
ran away. "Each time I read these lines I think they are a
marvel of absolute but perfectly natural penetration into the
world of kids. It's unbelievable just how much Chukovsky did for
millions of children's hearts," confessed Sergei Obraztsov, the
founder of Moscow's famous Puppet Theater.
Chukovsky kept in touch with his young readers, read out
his tales on the radio and at live performances in different
parts of the country. This communication provided him with
priceless material for a book called "From Two to Five" /1928/,
which dealt with the kids' way of thinking and expressing their
thoughts. Until this day, children's psychologists often refer
to this funny and fascinating study of the world of kids, which
has by now been reprinted more than 20 times.
Born Nikolai Korneichukov, Chukovsky made his first steps
in literature by writing pranky satyrical pieces for a
provincial newspaper. He had an inclination for self-education
and read everything he could lay his hands on while hoping to
become a "real" literary critic. Eventually, this goal was
He was among the first critics who appraised the works of
Anna Akhmatova, who now ranks among the best Russian poets of
the 20th century. Then he wrote a study of the poems of the very
talented Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Finally, he won the
country's highest award for his book about Russia's 19th-century
poet and democrat Nikolai Nekrasov. He liked seeking out new
unusual traits in Russian writers: speaking about Chekhov, he
described him as a "hospitable host" and a "trusting person with
an exceedingly amiable disposition," while Leo Tolstoy appeared
to him as a "natural born landowner with a taste for military
and peasant life." Another of his favorite heroes was the
American poet Walt Whitman, whose original writings he
popularized among the Russian reading public.
Chukovsky supported young writers and helped them find
their way into literary magazines. His colleagues noticed that
he found joy in discovering new talents. He was fondly
remembered by the 1960s poets Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei
Voznesensky. "Of all the literary folk, he was the one who cared
for us. He would introduce us to English-speaking guests and
inform us if there was an article about us printed somewhere,"
Chukovsky died in 1969. He spent the last years of his
life in Peredelkino, a village outside Moscow that is known as
the residence of many of the country's writers. Describing his
life in the village, he said: "Working from morning till evening
is what smooths the difficulties of my old age and fills it with
meaning. Take the pen away from me and I will stop breathing."