Denis Fonvizin

Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin (Russian: Денис Иванович Фонвизин; 14 April [O.S. 3 April] 1745—12 December [O.S. 1 December] 1792) was a playwright and writer of the Russian Enlightenment, one of the founders of literary comedy in Russia. His main works are two satirical comedies, one of them Young ignoramus, which mock contemporary Russian gentry and are still staged today.

Denis Fonvizin
Denis Fonvizin; portrait by O. V. Martynenko
BornDenis Ivanovich Fonvizin
(1745-04-14)14 April 1745
Moscow, Russian Empire
Died12 December 1792(1792-12-12) (aged 47)
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
Resting placeLazarevskoe Cemetery, Saint Petersburg
OccupationWriter, playwright, translator
Alma materImperial Moscow University
SpouseEkaterina Ivanovna Rogovikova (1774—1792)


Denis Fonvizin was born in Moscow into a noble Russian Orthodox family, the first of eight children.[1][2][3] His mother Ekaterina Vasilievna Fonvizina (née Dmitrieva-Mamonova) (born 1718) belonged to the Smolensk Rurik branch on her father's side and to the Grushetsky family on her mother's side; she was a cousin-niece of Tsaritsa Agafya Grushetskaya and an aunt to Alexander Dmitriev-Mamonov who was famously a lover of Catherine the Great.[4][5]

His father Ivan Fonvizin (1705—1785) started as an army officer, then served in the Collegium of Accounting, becoming a State Councillor in 1783.[2][3] His ancestor baron Berndt von Wiesen belonged to the Livonian Order, was captured during the Livonian War and became a naturalized Russian citizen; his descendants russified, the family name transformed with years, but it was Ivan Andreevich who started writing it as Fonvizin.[6][7]

Denis Fonvizin received good education at the Imperial Moscow University and very early began writing and translating. He entered the civil service, becoming secretary to Count Nikita Panin, one of the great noblemen of Catherine the Great's reign. Because of Panin's protection, Fonvizin was able to write critical plays without fear of being arrested, and, in the late 1760s, he brought out the first of his two famous comedies, The Brigadier-General.

A man of means, he was always a dilettante rather than a professional author, though he became prominent in literary and intellectual circles. In 1777-78 he traveled abroad, the principal aim of his journey being the medical faculty of Montpellier. He described his voyage in his Letters from France — one of the most elegant specimens of the prose of the period, and the most striking document of that anti-French nationalism which in the Russian elite of the time of Catherine went hand in hand with a complete dependence on French literary taste.

In 1782 appeared Fonvizin's second and best comedy The Minor, which definitely classed him as the foremost of Russian playwrights. His last years were passed in constant suffering and traveling abroad for his health. He died in Saint Petersburg in 1792.

Works and influenceEdit

Fonvizin's reputation rests almost entirely on his two comedies, which are beyond doubt the most popular Russian plays before Aleksander Griboyedov's Woe from Wit. They are both in prose and adhere to the canons of classical comedy. Fonvizin's principal model, however, was not Molière, but the great Dano-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg, whom he read in German, and some of whose plays he had translated.

Both comedies are plays of social satire with definite axes to grind. The Brigadier-General is a satire against the fashionable French semi-education of the petits-maîtres. It is full of excellent fun, and though less serious than The Minor, it is better constructed. But The Minor, though imperfect in dramatic construction, is a more remarkable work and justly considered Fonvizin's masterpiece.

The point of the satire in The Minor is directed against the brutish and selfish crudeness and barbarity of the uneducated country gentry. The central character, Mitrofanushka, is the accomplished type of vulgar and brutal selfishness, unredeemed by a single human feature — even his fondly doting mother gets nothing from him for her pains. The dialogue of these vicious characters (in contrast to the stilted language of the lovers and their virtuous uncles) is true to life and finely individualized; and they are all masterpieces of characterization — a worthy introduction to the great portrait gallery of Russian fiction.

As a measure of its popularity, several expressions from The Minor have been turned into proverbs, and many authors (amongst whom Alexander Pushkin) regularly cite from this play, or at least hint to it by mentioning the characters' names.[8][9][10]


  1. ^ Gary M. Hamburg (2016). Russia's Path toward Enlightenment: Faith, Politics, and Reason, 1500-1801 — New Haven: Yale University Press ISBN 978-0300113136
  2. ^ a b Charles Arthur Moser (1979). Denis Fonvizin. — Boston: Twayne Publishers, pp. 11—12 ISBN 978-0805764024
  3. ^ a b Pyotr Petrov (1991). The History of the Russian Nobility in Two Volumes. Volume 1. — Moscow : Sovremennik, pp. 309—310 ISBN 5-270-01515-3
  4. ^ Velvet Book, XXX, p. 241
  5. ^ Grushetsky coat of arms by All-Russian Armorials of Noble Houses of the Russian Empire. Part 2, June 30, 1798 (in Russian)
  6. ^ Von Wiesen coat of arms by All-Russian Armorials of Noble Houses of the Russian Empire. Part 3, January 19, 1799 (in Russian)
  7. ^ Fonvizin, Denis Ivanovich at the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary (in Russian)
  8. ^ Alexander Pushkin, The Captain's Daughter, Chapter 1 and motto of Chapter III.
  9. ^ Pushkin, The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin, motto
  10. ^ Pushkin, A Novel in Letters, Chapter VIII


  This article incorporates text from D.S. Mirsky's "A History of Russian Literature" (1926-27), a publication now in the public domain.