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Serial Killing It

Andrew Madigan By Andrew Madigan Published on July 1, 2016

The Russian Messenger was the world’s greatest magazine. There’s not even a close second, or a distant third.

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The Messenger was founded over 200 years ago and still exists, though the content has evolved and publication has not been continuous. It was a literary magazine—and more, which we’ll get to in a moment—that serialized many of the popular and important novels of 19th century Russia.

During the Victorian era, magazines and newspapers enjoyed a boost in popularity as the result of emergent literacy, economic growth, and advancements in printing. A unique aspect of these periodicals was serial fiction—novels published in installments, one part per issue. This helped the publisher sell copies because readers had to buy successive issues in order to read the next section, or fascicle, of the story. This system also created a readership for the authors and for the eventual book once it came out as a complete novel. If you’ve ever wondered why 19th century books are so long, one reason is serialization. Editors pressured writers to stretch out the story so they could squeeze more money out of readers.

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The Messenger was established in 1808 in Moscow as a patriotic monthly journal that ardently supported the monarchy. Articles were devoted primarily to military and historical topics. Publication moved to St. Petersburg in 1841 and back to Moscow in 1856 when Mikhail Katkov took over as editor. Under Katkov’s leadership, the Messenger rebranded itself as a literary journal and soon became one of the most popular and influential magazines of the era. The ideological focus changed, too, becoming more progressive; this can be attributed to the leanings of the scholars, critics, and writers who now ran the magazine.

This was the Messenger’s golden age. Katkov published work by Leskov, Saltykov-Shchedrin and Aleksandr Ostrovsky, who wrote the spectacularly titled Hangover at Somebody Else's Feast (1856). The magazine also featured works by Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Not a bad roster. Some of the titles serialized during this period include Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862), Tolstoy’s The Cossacks (1863) and Anna Karenina (1873–77), Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (1868), The Possessed (1871–72) and The Brothers Karamazov (1879–80).

The Messenger grew increasingly popular throughout the 1850’s and 1860’s, though the magazine, under Katkov’s tutelage, gradually became more conservative in order to appease both readers and government censors. Katkov was a profound influence on several generations of Russian writers, providing a shrewd editorial eye and a stubborn insistence that works be changed to suit his own political and personal leanings. Despite the fact that he was a control freak, Katkov was an invaluable source of financial support for many writers. Dostoyevsky, for example, who was prone to gambling debts and unsuccessful business ventures, relied on Katkov for loans and advances.

Tolstoy broke with the Messenger in 1877 over a spat with Katkov regarding the ending of Anna Karenina. The editor was offended by the politics implicitly espoused by the novel’s conclusion and browbeat Tolstoy, unsuccessfully, to change it. Dostoyevsky had a long, fraught, unique relationship with the Messenger. The magazine first published his work in 1857, but Katkov refused pay the contracted fee. Sweet guy. Nonetheless, Dostoyevsky worked with the magazine until his death in 1881, and all four of his major works appeared in its pages. Katkov, as inconsistent as he was chiseling, advanced Dostoyevsky money after he was bankrupted by Epoch, a competing literary journal Dostoyevsky founded with his brother.

The second half of the 19th century, in Russia, was a time of fervent, febrile discourse among the intelligentsia. It was also an age of reform, rapid social change and radical politics. This is evident, of course, in contemporaneous Russian fiction such as Fathers and Sons and The Possessed. The Messenger responded to, and at times provoked, this discourse by addressing a diverse range of artistic, scholarly, economic, social and political issues—serfdom, poverty, literary theory, the press, immigration, populism, agrarian socialism, nihilism and terrorism.

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Image courtesy of Benedetto Buono.

The Messenger peaked after the publication of The Brothers Karamazov, and Katkov died a few years later in 1887. The magazine found a new owner and, naturally, was relocated once again to Petersburg. The new owner, Count von Berg, never managed to turn a profit, so he shut down the Messenger in 1906.

The Messenger was revived in 1991, backed by the International Fund for Slavic Literature and Culture. Of course, this foundation decided to re-re-re-relocate the journal to Moscow. 

This is all very interesting, you say, but what makes The Russian Messenger the world’s greatest literary magazine? Here’s what. The Messenger not only serialized both Crime and Punishment and War and Peace, but did so during the very same issues. This feat is almost implausibly impressive. It’s quite unusual, first of all, for two masterpieces to be written at the same time—1866—in the same country. But to have them both published, simultaneously, by the same magazine is an unrivaled accomplishment. The fact that serial fiction was only one part of the Messenger’s content makes the achievement even more spectacular.

Still not convinced? Take the two best books of any year, say 2013. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, maybe, and Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon. Or choose your own. First of all, they’re no War and Peace and Crime and Punishment. Second, they weren’t serialized in The New Yorker. Or The Paris Review. Or Granta. Or anywhere else. So much talent boiled down, reduced and infused into one little magazine. We’ll never see this again, but I sure hope we do.

    Freelance writer (food, drinks, travel, culture) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, Dubai, ... Show More

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