Olga Sobolevskaya
Kornei Chukovsky, a writer and a public figure

RIA Novosti / 2002

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 expressions.

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 film.

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 successfully achieved.

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,» recalled Voznesensky.

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.»