On This Day in Literary History – February 13, 1769 – Russian fable writer Ivan Krylov is born

Ivan Krylov, who wrote some of the most famous fables in Russian literature and came to be known as “The Russian La Fontaine,” was born in Moscow on February 13, 1769.

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His father was a military officer from the lowest ranks of the Russian nobility. He died when Krylov was ten years old, plunging the family into economic peril.

Krylov edited several satirical magazines and wrote plays and comic operas for much of his early years. He had many literary friends among his circle, including Alexander Pushkin, who helped him to advance his career. Krylov’s early writing was usually satirical and he was often at odds with the authorities.

He found fame in 1809 when he began loosely translating La Fontaine’s fables and fairy tales from the French. Soon he began writing his own. He wrote over 200 original fables which were immensely popular in their time and are still taught in Russian schools today.

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Besides being charming in their own right, many of Krylov’s fables were also satirical commentaries on political corruption and governmental short-sightedness, played out among talking animals. He still faced problems of censorship but also had powerful friends at the imperial court, including Tsar Nicholas I who protected him.

Many of Krylov’s sayings became common phrases in Russian, as Aesop’s lines (i.e. “sour grapes”) have in English and other languages.

One of his lines from “The Ass and the Peasant” refers to “an ass of most honest principles.” The phrase became so well know that Pushkin used an allusion to it in the opening line of his verse novel Eugene Onegin: “My uncle, of most honest principles,” to show readers what the narrator really thought of his uncle.

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Krylov became famous in his later years for his laziness, gluttony and gambling, a caricature he gladly played up to. He was also famous for his stinging wit and outspoken ideas.

Ivan Krylov died in 1844 at the age of 75.

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