Krylov, Ivan Andreyevich

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Krylov, Ivan Andreyevich

Krylov, Ivan Andreyevich (1769-1844) Russian fabulist ands playwright

A satirist and fabulist, Ivan Adreyevich Krylov produced catchy aphorisms that spiced everyday Russian conversation. A product of the 18th- century Age of Enlightenment, he grew up in a humble military family in St. Petersburg, Russia. He educated himself by reading the French masters Nicolas Boileau, Moliere, and Jean Racine and began writing in his mid-teens with Cofeinitsa (The fortune teller, 1785), a play about a gypsy who reads the future in coffee grounds. While coediting the literary magazine Zritel (Spectator) and the Sankt-Peterburgskii Merkurii (St. Petersburg Mercury), he produced a short SATIRE, “Eulogy to the Memory of My Grandfather” (1792), which ridicules pretentious aristocrats and corrupt bureaucrats. The squire in the caricature caters to hunting hounds and horses while ignoring the needs of serfs. The story prefigures the peasant unrest that resulted in 1917 in the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II, Russia's last monarch.

Krylov enjoyed tweaking his social superiors. During the golden age of Russian literature, he angered government censors with his caustic wit in an oriental quest story, “Kaib: An Eastern Tale” (1792), a denunciation of the czarist autocracy of Catherine the Great, who extended the Russian Empire into Ottoman and Polish-Lithuanian territories to control Belarus, Courland, Crimea, Lithuania, and Ukraine. Imperial police rifled Krylov's print shop and monitored his activities. Wisely, he stopped writing and left St. Petersburg. From 1797 to 1801, during the early reign of Czar Paul I, he remained in self-imposed exile and taught children in the household of Prince Sergei Galitzin of Riga on the Latvian coast south of Finland. In later travels, while observing the country folk of the Volga basin, he composed operas and stage dramas, beginning with a satire of Czar Paul (ruled 1796-1801) in The Nibbler (1804) and following with an attack on social fashion in The Fashion Shop (1807) and Lesson for Daughters (1807).

From Drama to Fable

As he approached age 40, Krylov began translating the FABLES of the French satirist JEAN DE LA FONTAINE, but he soon began to write his own, initially in the style of both La Fontaine and AESOP. He ultimately composed 203 original beast tales in vigorous, mirthful vernacular. For the nine successful publications he began in 1809, Krylov earned the admiration of Czar Alexander I and received a government post as director of Russian literature at St. Petersburg's Imperial Public Library, where he lived and worked. In 1812, he published “The Wolf in the Kennel” and “The Crow and the Hen,” two satires of the debacle of Napoleon Bonaparte in Russia that year that reduced the French army to consuming meals of crow soup. “The Division” and “The Pike and the Cat” mocked the disagreements of the Russian military hierarchy during the French invasion of Moscow. The author described the honor given to “snakes in hell” with “The Slanderer and the Snake” (1814). Tongue in cheek, he smirked that, in Satan's domain, names like Attila, Nero, and Napoleon “are inscribed on a tablet, and great solemnities are appointed in their honour” (Krylov 1883, 156).

Krylov's overt spite against the ruling class brought both notoriety and danger. “The Cask” scorns the residue of Russian admiration for French mannerisms and perspectives. He mocks affectations retained by Russians enraptured by Western European enlightenment and over-refined decorum. Stories such as “The Bear among the Bees,” “The Rain Cloud,” “The Council of the Mice,” and “The Dog” skewered venal officials, who had the power to retaliate against a simple poet. Undeterred by their threats, in 1815, with “The Hare at the Chase” and “Canine Friendship,” the fabulist scoffed at the ill-concealed hostilities during the Congress of Vienna, which remained in session from November 1, 1814, to June 8, 1815. After he incurred the displeasure of Czar Alexander I, and in 1824, Krylov stopped writing after the publication of the anticensorship tale “The Cat and the Nightingale,” the antimonarchy fable “The Elderly Lion,” and “The Grandee,” a short gates-of-heaven dialogue in which St. Peter lauds a Persian satrap for indulging himself while leaving his subjects unburdened by royal interference. In spite of royal disapproval, by the 1830s, Krylov had become an honored figure in Russian literary circles. In 1838, a festival was held in his honor. He died in St. Petersburg on November 21, 1844.

From Censorship to Print

Over a decade after Krylov's death, his suppressed anticzarist, antielite plays and allegories such as “The Feast” went into print as textbooks for children and later as songs set to music composed by Sergei Rachmaninov and Anton Rubenstein. At the heart of Krylov's beloved cautionary parables, such as “Trishka's Caftan,” “Fortune and the Beggar,” “Demian's Fish Soup,” “The Peasant in Trouble,” were the famine, taxation, and injustices borne by the lowest level of Russian peasantry. In “The Leaves and the Roots,” he reminded citizens that they should never stray too far from their ethnic beginnings. In “The Sheep's Petition,” he dramatized the plight of the underclass under an impotent chain of command. When the sheep complains of the marauding wolves, Leo the lion king sends the sheep to state his case to the bear, who simply decrees that wolves should not eat sheep—but he does not enforce the decree. The droll conclusion declares that all must be well in the animal empire because there are few cases pending against wolves.

Krylov had much to teach royalty. His motif of the preparation of a prince in “The Education of the Lion,” based on Catherine the Great's education of her grandson, Czar Alexander I, concludes with an expression of regret that most rulers lack an understanding of the wants and needs of their subjects, a theme found in the PANCHATANTRA (ca. 200 B.c.), the BHAGAVAD GITA (ca. 200 B.c.), and in Hans Christian Andersen's fable “The Emperor's New Clothes” (1837). One Krylov fable, “The Musicians,” explains the inability of an ass, bear, goat, and monkey to form a musical quartet. They cannot agree on how to position themselves, but a nightingale tells them it does not matter, as they will never be musicians. Written in 1810, the text miniaturizes the disagreements of the four departments of the Russian Imperial Council. On the same theme, “The Swan, the Pike, and the Crab” describes the disunity of three unlike creatures as a team of dray animals. The description, like the PROPHECY of revolution in “The Horse and the River,” hints at the uprising of the working class in 1917 to bring down the last Romanov czar. The fall of the Russian Empire restored one of Krylov's sayings to popularity: “To a head that is empty no art can add brains: / Though you place it in office—it empty remains” (182).


Krylov, Ivan. Krilof and His Fables. Translated by W. R. S. Ralston. 4th edition. London: Cassell & Co., 1883.

Tosi, Alessandra. Waiting for Pushkin: Russian Fiction in the Reign of Alexander I (1801—1825). Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006.