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There aren’t many of us left who can make sense of this one. Look at the first photo above. Even if you know Russian extremely well, you may not be able to make out that the name on this monument is Yakov Borisovich Knyazhnin (1742-1791). I wouldn’t have been able to read it had I not been informed about it by the map at the entrance to the Lazarevskoe cemetery (18th-century necropolis) at the Alexandro-Nevskaya Lavra in St. Petersburg. You see that map directly below – Knyazhnin’s grave marker is No. 49. Note that the No. 49 stands under the left of two columns. That is because this precisely is the monument to Knyazhnin, one of the most important playwrights and poets of the late 18th century in Russia.
The monument on the right, however, is also of interest to us (see second photo immediately below). It commemorates the life of Knyazhnin’s wife Yekaterina (1746-1797), who was not only the daughter of Russia’s first great playwright Alexander Sumarokov, she was, according to many sources, the first woman to have published poetry in Russia. It’s a hard story to follow on short-notice research, and I do not claim to present the gospel truth here. But it would appear that some of her work, usually with the support of her famous father, perhaps sometimes with the aid of her husband, did make it into print during her lifetime. Some claim these were actually poems written by Sumarakov, and, naturally, there are claims that her work was “edited” by her father and her husband. It was once believed that several of her songs were put to music by the Russia-based German composer German Raupach, but that apparently has been disproved. One can also find conjecture that Knyazhnina published several of her poems under pseudonyms – not at all unexpected for the late 18th century. We do know that she published a poem, “Oh, You, Who Is Always,” in the March 1759 issue of the literary journal The Busy Bee. This is the one that marks her as Russia’s first published woman writer.
Both Knyazhnin and his wife took it on the chin from Ivan Krylov, Russia’s first great writer of fables. In a comedy called Pranksters, Krylov satirized Knyazhnin as Verse-Stealer (Rifmokrad) and Knyazhnina as Babbler (Taratora). Supposedly it was Knyazhnina who insulted Krylov and pushed him to attack her family, although the details of the incident are not readily available to an internet-searcher. Most sources simply state that the attack was “probably” due to some personal insult.
The couple was originally buried in the Smolenskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg, but were moved to the 18th-century necropolis in the 1950s, where their monuments are crammed in tightly and rather forlornly among other prominent personages of the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Yakov Knyazhnin doesn’t get a whole lot of respect in the historical record. Krylov’s attack on him as a verse-stealer didn’t help, although it is common knowledge that writers in the 18th century freely borrowed from others, particularly if the source was in a foreign language. Krylov himself, for God’s sake, honed his pen by copying/translating the fables of de La Fontaine. Pushkin called him “imitative.” Knyazhnin, like Sumarokov before him, leaned heavily on the great writing of Europe to provide him inspiration. Sometimes he called his work a translation, other times he took authorship for himself. In fact, Knyazhnin was highly educated and spoke French, German and Italian. His profession was translator.
His first play was apparently the melodrama Orpheus (1763), while his first genuine literary success was the tragedy Didon, written in 1767 (some sources 1769), eight years after his wife’s first published poem, by the way.
The 1770s were an eventful decade for the fledgling writer. While giving in to a passion for cards and losing enormous sums of money, he also wrote several works that were popular at the time – the tragedy Vladimir and Yaropolk (a reworking of Racine’s Andromaque, 1772) and the comic work Misfortune from a Carriage (1779). However, he was plunged into disgrace when he embezzled 5,773 rubles. He was originally condemned to death, but that sentence was commuted to a demotion to the rank of simple soldier. Catherine the Great, also a prominent playwright of the time, took pity on the disgraced soldier, overturned his sentence and gave him the rank of captain. This was in 1777. He wisely chose to get out of the service while he could and retired immediately, throwing himself into literary work, translating Voltaire’s epic poem Henriade (1777) as well as several tragedies by Corneille and Claude Crebillon. He penned another tragedy, Rosslav, which I remember reading with some pleasure in grad school, in 1784. It was another hit, if we can speak of plays as “hits” in those years.
Over the last decade of his life, Knyazhnin turned out numerous works of note. They included three “serious” works, The Mercy of Titus (1778), Sofonisba (1786), and Vladisan (1786), and numerous light works – either comedies or comic operas – The Miser (1782?, music by Vasily Pashkevich), The Fisherman and the Spirit (1781), The Braggart (1784/5), The Honey-Mead Maker (1783), The Failed Mediator (?), Odd Fellows (1790), Mourning, or The Widow Consoled (?), and The Woman who Faked Insanity (?).
Knyazhnin, labeled as a Russian classicist, had the reputation of writing works on patriotic themes while remaining a bit of a freethinker. This became particularly apparent in his last work, the tragedy Vadim of Novgorod (1788/9), in which his sympathies lay not with the ruler Ryurik, but with the rebel Vadim. The play is sprinkled with attacks on the notion of tyranny and tyrants, which could not possibly have pleased Catherine. Understanding this well, Knyazhnin originally gave Vadim of Novgorod to a theater for staging, but changed his mind and stopped the production. When it was published after his death, Catherine had the copies hunted down and destroyed. Fortunately, she could not get to all of them, and the play text, like most of what he wrote, has come down to us.
One Russian source sums his work up this way: “One of Knyazhnin’s merits was that he developed what was, for his time, an excellent style, and, relative to Sumarokov, light, attractive versification. Knyazhnin, thanks to his translations, introduced the most relevant current works of Western literature into his cultural sphere. Additionally, his use of blank verse for the first time in Russian literature was innovative.”