Yury Karlovich Olesha (1899 - 1960)
Writer, journalist, and playwright, whose best-known work, Zavist (1927, Envy) painted a prophetic picture of the clashing values in the early years of the Soviet Russia. When the authorities realized that Olesha's works were more ambiguous than was permissible, he fell from favor.
Yury Olesha was born in Elizavetgrad, Ukraine, into a middle-class family. His father was an excise officer, an impoverished member of the gentry. The family moved to Odessa in 1902. Olesha was educated at home, and Rishelevskii gymnasium, Odessa (1908-17). He studied law for two years at Novorossiikii University, Odessa, where he participated in literary discussion groups.
Rejecting his parents' monarchist sympathies Olesha joined in 1919 the Red Army for a year. He served as a telephonist in a Black Sea naval artillery battery. He married Olga Gustavovna Suok and worked as a propagandist at the Bureau of Ukrainian Publications in Kharkov. In 1922 Olesha moved to Moscow and published his first story, 'Angel'. He became a staff member of the railway journal Gudok, which had such writers as Isaak Babel, and Ilf and Petrov.
In the 1920s Olesha published humorous verse and sharp, critical articles. His famous novel Envy appeared ten years after the Revolution and created an sensation. The ambiguous work tells the story of a Nikolai Kavalerov and two brothers, Andrei and Ivan Babichev. Andrei is a hero of the Revolution whom Kavalerov envies and who represents the rising generation. Kavalevov longs for personal fame. He allies with Ivan, opponent of the new age, against Andrei. Their plans fail, and Ivan withdraws from the scene. As the narrator in Dostoevsky novel Notes from Underground, Kavalerov is pushed to the margins of society, that can find no place for a dreamer. The stage adaptation of the novel was entitled A Conspiracy of Feelings (1929). In Olesha's original ending Kavalevov lapses into a stupor and is denounced by Ivan as a worthless museum piece, "the man whose life was stolen away." In the staged ending, Kavalevov murders Ivan, instead of Andrei.
Envy was followed by novella The Three Fat Men (1927), where the circus stars Tibul and Suok are leading the people to overthrow repressive authorities. It was made into a play (1930), a ballet (1935) and an opera (1956). After the early 1930s Olesha published little. 'A Cherry Pie', published in a collection of short stories in 1931, Olesha confessed his confusion: "Comrade driver, believe me, I am a mere amateur, and cannot tell you what turn to take." He wrote a few translations and film scenarios, and chose silence. In a speech to the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, Olesha defended the need for independent literature. Following this event Olesha's name vanished from Soviet literature. The literary doctrine known as Socialist Realism was formulated more or less by Maxim Gorky, who was chosen chairman of the Writers' Union. When a few years before Envy was praised for its original form, it was now condemned for its 'reactionary' stylistic tendencies and in 1937 Olesha was accused of 'antihumanism'.
During World War II Olesha was evacuated with the Odessa Film Studio to Ashkhabad in Turkmenistan. After the war he returned to Moscow. His only noteworthy theatre piece in later years was an adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot for the Vakhtangov Theatre. Olesha died on May 10, 1960.
The publication of a selection of his stories, IZBRANNYE SOCHINENIYA, signaled Olesha's rehabilitation in 1956, three years after Joseph Stalin's death. In 1965 appeared posthumously Olesha's autobiographical No Day Without a Line, a collection of fragments in more or less thematic order, dealing with such subjects as 'family', 'school', 'the circus' and 'literary figures'. "There was something Beethovesque about Yuri Olesha, something mighty, even in his voice," said the writer Konstantin Paustovsky once. "His eyes spotted many marvellous things around him, and he wrote about them tersely, precisely, and well."