Childhood & Early Life
He was born on October 22 (Old Style, October 10), 1870 in Voronezh, Central Russia to Aleksey Nikolayevich Bunin and Lyudmila Aleksandrovna Bunina as their youngest son among five children. His ancestry included poets such as Vasily Zhukovsky and Anna Bunina.
He had a happy early childhood living in Butyrky Khutor and thereafter in Ozerky, surrounded by loving and intelligent people. He was introduced to the world of Russian literature by his mother.
He was first taught by a private tutor, Romashkov and thereafter by his elder brother Yuly. Yuly, a university student, taught him philosophy, psychology and social science and also inspired him to read Russian classics like Tolstoy, Gogol and Pushkin among others. Yuly gradually became his companion and mentor, who also encouraged him to write.
By the 1870s the family was severely impacted by the gambling spree of his father who lost the family estate in a deplorable card game.
In 1881 he joined the gymnasium in Yelets for his secondary education but had to drop out after five years in March 1886 due to financial constraints.
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He possessed extraordinary perception and acumen towards subtleties of nature and many of his works display his experience of rural and natural life. ‘Village Paupers’ was his first poem that was published in the ‘Rodina’ magazine in May 1887.
The impoverished state of his family forced him to take up various clerical and technical jobs. He went to Kharkov with his brother in 1889 and there he did several jobs working as assistant editor of local paper, court statistician, government clerk and librarian.
Thereafter he relocated to Oryol in 1889 and till mid-1892 he served the local newspaper ‘Orlovsky Vestnik’ in its editorial section. Many of his early poems and short stories were published in the literary section of the newspaper.
‘Country sketch’ was his first short story that was published in the ‘Russkoye Bogatstvo’ journal in 1891.
In August 1892 he relocated to Poltava where his brother Yuly was settled. Yuly helped him in getting work in the administration of Zemstvo.
In January 1894, he met the legendary Leo Tolstoy in Moscow and was mesmerised by Tolstoy’s work. He travelled across Ukraine during the first part of the year.
In 1895 he met eminent personalities in the Russian capital including Anton Chekhov, Narodniks Nikolay Mikhaylovsky, Konstantin Balmont and Sergey Krivenko among others. He developed a strong bond with Anton Chekhov.
‘To the Edge of the World and Other Stories’, his first collection of short stories was published in 1897.
He translated ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1898.
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He became close to Maxim Gorky during 1899 that saw him dedicate his poetry collection ‘Falling Leaves’ (1901) to Gorky. ‘Falling Leaves’ reflects his association with the Russian Symbolist movement especially with Symbolists like Valery Bryusov.
‘Falling Leaves’ and translation of ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ fetched him his first ‘Pushkin Prize’.
The new century saw him making a prominent transformation from poetry to prose. Some of his remarkable early novels include ‘Antonov Apples’, ‘On the Farm’ and ‘The News from Home’ of which the former is considered his first masterpiece.
He also got associated with Gorky’s ‘Znanie’ group. The group published five volumes of the ‘Complete Bunin’ series from 1902 to 1909. The series was later published in 11 volumes by ‘Petropolis’ during 1934-36. However his bond with Gorky was severed in April 1917, during the ‘Russian Revolution of 1917’, and was never reconciled.
His ‘Poems 1903–1906’ and translation works of Lord Byron's ‘Cain’ and that of sections of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's ‘The Golden Legend’ earned him second ‘Pushkin Prize’ in October 1909. The same year he became an elected member of the ‘Russian Academy’.
To work for the Volunteer Army, around 1919, he served ‘Iuzhnoe Slovo’ an anti-Bolshevik newspaper as its cultural section editor.
His notable short novels are ‘The Village (1910), ‘Dry Valley’ (1912) and ‘Mitya’s Love’ (1924).
He had penned down many short story collections in the 1900s. Some of the remarkable ones are ‘Bird’s Shadow’ (1907 to 1911), ‘The Gentleman from San Francisco’ (1916), ‘Temple of the Sun’ (1917) and ‘Dark Avenues’ (New York, 1943; Paris, 1946).
In 1920 he immigrated to France.
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Around 1925 -26 ‘Vozrozhdenye’, a Paris based newspaper began to publish ‘Cursed Days’, his anti-Bolshevik diaries (from 1918 to 1920). He was looked up to as one of the senior advocates and spokespersons of anti-Bolshevism.
His autobiographical novel, ‘The Life of Arseniev’ (1933, 1939) was highly acclaimed by the critics who considered the novel to have reached new heights in the literary scene of Russia.
His book ‘The Liberation of Tolstoy’ (1937) received favourable reviews from Tolstoy scholars.
He remained in Grasse during the Second World War. When Germans occupied Vichy, Bunin, a strong anti-Nazi, gave shelter to many fugitives including the Jews ignoring his own life risk.
He went to Paris in May 1945 and apart from a few stays in the health resort of Juan-les-Pins, he spent rest of his life in Paris.
Personal Life & Legacy
He fell in love with his classmate Varvara Paschenko from Yelets days in 1889. Their relationship ended in 1894.
On September 23, 1898, he married Anna, daughter of one of his associates N. P. Tsakni. They separated in March 1900 while Anna was pregnant. On August 30, 1900 their son Nikolai was born, who died young in January 16, 1905.
After he legally divorced Anna, he married Vera Muromtseva in 1922.
He suffered from chronic pneumonia, asthma and bronchitis during his last years. On November 8, 1953, he died in Paris. The burial service was conducted at Rue Daru’s Russian Church. Thereafter, his coffin was kept in the burial vault for a while and finally buried in the ‘Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Cemetery’ on January 30, 1954.