“The Life and Works of Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov” by B.B. Kudryavtsev

Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov

MV Lomonosov

B.B. Kudryavtsev

Without MV Lomonosov, there would probably no Russian literature as we currently know it. And in general, the intellectual landscape of Russian culture would probably be quite different. A fascinating figure, Lomonosov worked tirelessly throughout his life to usher in new ideas in subjects as varied as poetry and phlogiston.

At the same time, his works and ideas have been eclipsed by later writers and scientists who took what he began and developed it into the art and science that we now recognize and admire. Lomonosov was a man ahead of his time during his time, but that time has long past. And for better or worse, the taste for celebratory odes and didactic epistles is currently in abeyance, meaning that few will read Lomonosov’s literary works for pleasure. So Lomonosov languishes in that special hell reserved for genuine trailblazers, where their genius is acknowledged when it is remembered, but by and large they remain shadowy, semi-forgotten figures.

But if you do happen to want to read more about Lomonosov, and I recommend that you do, even if you don’t actually read any of the works he wrote himself, since his life was the kind of rollicking adventure that people tended to live in the 18th century, there are a couple of English-language biographies to choose from. This particular one is short and slight and distinctly Soviet, but still better than nothing.

As is the fashion amongst a certain set of Russian/Soviet biographies, it moves back and forth between factual information and speculation about what Lomonosov was thinking and feeling at various moments in his life. It reminds me of the “Lives of Famous Americans” (or whatever it was called) series of books I read as a child, which as a child I found vastly entertaining, but as an adult I recognize as being semi-fictionalized, cleaned-up stories. But you know what? I still learned lots of history, and did lots of reading, so those books worked better than many a more rigorous work might have.

And so this biography is also a hoot to read, and will give you an overview, more or less correct, of Lomonosov’s life and works. It was published in 1954, and like many Soviet biographies of its era, has strong hagiographic tendencies, as well as managing to work in, often in remarkably creative ways, the mandatory quotations from Lenin, Stalin, Marx, Engels, and Belinsky, along with various Stalin Prize winners. While the modern academic may find certain aspects of the biography doubtful, it is delightfully vintage, and does give the reader a sense of who Lomonosov was and what he did. I wouldn’t use it as my only source on Lomonosov, but it’s an entertaining read in its own deeply Soviet way, and is also one of the few biographies on him available in English. So if you’re casting around for something a bit different to read, or just want to know more about 18th century Russia, you could do worse than to pick this up.

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