Kornei Chukovsky (1882-1969). Children’s writer, essayist, critic, translator.
Kornei Chukovsky was an illegitimate son of a Jewish merchant and a Ukrainian woman-servant living in his house. Shortly after his birth his father left them to marry a woman “of his own circle”. His mother had to raise her two children, Kornei and his elder sister, on her own. They moved to Odessa where Kornei went to a grammar school but was expelled in his fifth year because of his humble origin. In his youth his illegitimate status was a source of distress and shame for the boy: “I never had such a luxury as a father of a grandfather”.
When he had his own children he showered them with love which he was deprived of in his own childhood. As a writer he devoted much time to children’s literature which is marked with love, understanding, and gentle humour. In his later years, already a nationwide celebrity with many awards and medals, he regularly invited local children to read poems and tales to them.
Many of his verse tales for children (The Giant Roach, The Crocodile, Wash’em Clean) with their air of mischief and lightness were adapted for the theater and cinema, while Sergei Prokofyev produced several operas and ballets based on Chukovsky’s tales. His book about children From Two to Five is still highly popular with parents and children’s psychologists, running into numerous editions. Chekhov was his literary idol.
Chukovsky retold for children a number of Greek myths, such as the ones about Perseus, Athens, Medusa Gorgon, beautiful Andromeda, to name a few. He translated Kipling’s Tales, Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Robinson Crusoe, and many other children’s classics.
Chukovsky was friends with many famous people of his age and throughout his life almost daily he noted down his impressions and reflections in his diary. In 1991 his Diaries were published in Russia to great critical and readers’ acclaim. Recently an English translation of the Diary came out from Yale University Press. His Complete Works come to fifteen bulky volumes.
He was also actively supporting many dissidents while Alexander Solzhenitsin lived in his house for long periods.
In Great Britain, he was awarded the Doctor’s Degree Honoris causa in Literary Studies by Oxford University.
From the introduction to his Diaries:
“A perceptive literary critic, a world-famous writer of witty and playful verses for children, a leading authority on children’s linguistic creativity, and a highly skilled translator, Kornei Chukovsky was a complete man of letters. As benefactor to many writers including Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky, he stood for several decades at the center of the Russian literary milieu. It is no exaggeration to claim that Chukovsky knew everyone involved in shaping the course of twentieth-century Russian literature. His voluminous diary, here translated into English for the first time, begins in prerevolutionary Russia and spans nearly the entire Soviet era. It is the candid commentary of a brilliant observer who documents fifty years of Soviet literary activity and the personal predicament of the writer under a totalitarian regime.
From descriptions of friendship with such major literary figures as Anna Akhmatova and Isaac Babel to accounts of the struggle with obtuse and hostile censorship, from the heartbreaking story of the death of the daughter who had inspired so many stories to candid political statements, the extraordinary diary of Kornei Chukovsky is a unique account of the twentieth-century Russian experience.”
“Kornei Chukovsky’s diary opens a window into the world of the Russian intelligentsia over a long and tumultuous period. We are drawn into the story of a young provincial trying to make a literary career; we are treated to close-ups of prominent political and cultural figures; we hear the everyday voices of virtually every notable writer and critic among Chukovsky’s contemporaries.” – Carol J. Avins, Rutgers University