Russian literature, the body of written works produced in the Russian language, beginning with the Christianization of Kievan Rus in the late 10th century.
The unusual shape of Russian literary history has been the source of numerous controversies. Three major and sudden breaks divide it into four periods—pre-Petrine (or Old Russian), Imperial, post-Revolutionary, and post-Soviet. The reforms of Peter I (the Great; reigned 1682–1725), who rapidly Westernized the country, created so sharp a divide with the past that it was common in the 19th century to maintain that Russian literature had begun only a century before. The 19th century’s most influential critic, Vissarion Belinsky, even proposed the exact year (1739) in which Russian literature began, thus denying the status of literature to all pre-Petrine works. The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Bolshevik coup later in the same year created another major divide, eventually turning “official” Russian literature into political propaganda for the communist state. Finally, Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascent to power in 1985 and the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 marked another dramatic break. What is important in this pattern is that the breaks were sudden rather than gradual and that they were the product of political forces external to literary history itself.
The most celebrated period of Russian literature was the 19th century, which produced, in a remarkably short period, some of the indisputable masterworks of world literature. It has often been noted that the overwhelming majority of Russian works of world significance were produced within the lifetime of one person, Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). Indeed, many of them were written within two decades, the 1860s and 1870s, a period that perhaps never has been surpassed in any culture for sheer concentrated literary brilliance.
Russian literature, especially of the Imperial and post-Revolutionary periods, has as its defining characteristics an intense concern with philosophical problems, a constant self-consciousness about its relation to the cultures of the West, and a strong tendency toward formal innovation and defiance of received generic norms. The combination of formal radicalism and preoccupation with abstract philosophical issues creates the recognizable aura of Russian classics.
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The first quarter of the 19th century was dominated by Romantic poetry. Vasily Zhukovsky’s 1802 translation of Thomas Gray’s “An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard” ushered in a vogue for the personal, elegiac mode
Old Russian Literature (10th–17th Centuries)
The conventional term “Old Russian literature” is anachronistic for several reasons. The authors of works written during this time obviously did not think of themselves as “old Russians” or as predecessors of Tolstoy. Moreover, the term, which represents the perspective of modern scholars seeking to trace the origin of later Russian works, obscures the fact that the East Slavic peoples (of the lands then called Rus) are the ancestors of the Ukrainian and Belarusian as well as of the Russian people of today. Works of the oldest (Kievan) period also led to modern Ukrainian and Belarusian literature. Third, the literary language established in Kievan Rus was Church Slavonic, which, despite the gradual increase of local East Slavic variants, linked the culture to the wider community known as Slavia orthodoxa—that is, to the Eastern Orthodox South Slavs of the Balkans. In contrast to the present, this larger community took precedence over the “nation” in the modern sense of that term. Fourth, some have questioned whether these texts can properly be called literary, if by that term is meant works that are designed to serve a primarily aesthetic function, inasmuch as these writings were generally written to serve ecclesiastic or utilitarian purposes.
The Kievan period
The Kievan period (so called because Kiev was the seat of the grand princes) extends from the Christianization of Russia in 988 to the conquest of Russia by the Tatars (Mongols) in the 13th century. Russia received Christianity from Byzantium rather than from Rome, a fact of decisive importance for the development of Russian culture. Whereas Catholic Poland was closely linked to cultural developments in western Europe, Orthodox Russia was isolated from the West for long periods and, at times, regarded its culture as dangerous. Conversion by Byzantium also meant that the language of the church could be the vernacular rather than, as in the West, Latin; this was another factor that worked against the absorption of Western culture.
Russia was not the first Slavic culture to be converted to Christianity, and a standardized language, the Old Church Slavonic pioneered in the 9th century by Saints Cyril (or Constantine) and Methodius, was already available. Bulgaria, which had been Christianized a century earlier and had offered a home to the Cyrillo-Methodian community, became a conduit for the transmission of Greek culture, translated into Old Church Slavonic, to Russia, which in turn rapidly established its own scribal activities in copying and translating. Thus a significant literary activity of the Kievan period consisted of translating or adapting borrowed works. It is worth stressing that the enormous prestige accorded to translating has continued to be a distinctive characteristic of Russian culture. Even in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, major Russian writers devoted their energies to the translation of foreign works, which in some cases constituted their most significant contribution—a literary fact reflecting Russia’s status as a self-conscious cultural borrower for much of its history.
During the Kievan period the selection of translated foreign works circulating in Russia by and large reflected the interests of the church: almost all were from the Greek, and most were of ecclesiastical interest. Ostromirovo evangeliye (The Ostromir Gospel) of 1056–57 is the oldest dated Russian manuscript. Versions of the four Gospels, the Book of Revelation, guidebooks of monastic rules, homilies, hagiographic collections, and prayers reflect the religious interests of the clerical community. To be sure, translations of secular works also circulated, including Flavius Josephus’ The Jewish War (which influenced Russian military tales), chronicles, and some tales. But, on the whole, translations offered a rather limited access to Greek culture aside from the ecclesiastical.
A celebrated monument of Old Russian literature is Hilarion’s Slovo o zakone i blagodati (1037–50; “Sermon on Law and Grace”), an accomplished piece of rhetoric contrasting Old Testament law with New Testament grace. Other significant homiletic works were written by Clement of Smolensk, metropolitan of Russia from 1147 to 1154, and by St. Cyril of Turov (1130–82). The central genre of Old Russian literature was probably hagiography, and a number of interesting saints’ lives date from the earliest period. Both a chronicle account and two lives of Boris and Gleb, the first Russian saints, have survived to the present day. The sanctity of these two men, who were killed by their brother Svyatopolk in a struggle for the throne, consists not in activity but in the pious passivity with which, in imitation of Christ, they accepted death. This ideal of passive acceptance of suffering was to exercise a long-lasting influence on Russian thought.
The monk Nestor (c. 1056–after 1113), to whom a life of Boris and Gleb is ascribed, also wrote Zhitiye prepodobnogo ottsa nashego Feodosiya (“Life of Our Holy Father Theodosius”) (d. 1074). The Kievo-Pechersky paterik (The Paterik of the Kievan Caves Monastery), closely related to hagiography, collects stories from the lives of monks, along with other religious writings. A saint’s life of quite a different sort, Zhitiye Aleksandra Nevskogo (“Life of Alexandr Nevsky”) (d. 1263), celebrates a pious warrior prince. The tradition of pilgrimage literature also begins in this period. Nestor was involved with compiling the Povest vremennykh let (“Tale of Bygone Years”; The Russian Primary Chronicle), also called the Primary Chronicle of Kiev (compiled about 1113), which led to the writing of other chronicles elsewhere.
From a literary point of view, the best work of Old Russian literature is the Slovo o polku Igoreve (The Song of Igor’s Campaign), a sort of epic poem (in rhythmic prose, actually) dealing with Prince Igor’s raid against the Polovtsy (Kipchak), a people of the steppes, his capture, and his escape. Composed between 1185 and 1187, the Igor Tale, as it is generally known, was discovered in 1795 by Count Musin-Pushkin. The manuscript was destroyed in the Moscow fire of 1812; however, a copy made for Catherine II the Great survived. The poem’s authenticity has often been challenged but is now generally accepted. Its theme is the disastrous fratricidal disunity of the Russian princes.
From the 14th to the 17th century
Beginning in the 1230s, the Tatars conquered most of the Russian lands, thus destroying the hegemony of Kiev and initiating a period in which political and cultural power was dispersed among numerous principalities. Eventually the grand princes of Moscow succeeded in defeating the Tatars (1480) and subduing the principalities. (The exception was the lands under the rule of the Lithuanian-Polish kingdom, and this division initiated the development of separate Ukrainian and Belarusian cultural traditions.) Once the Russian lands were united, Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible; reigned 1533–84) undertook a campaign against the remaining power of the old aristocracy (boyars). Reflecting these political facts, chronicles and saints’ lives served the interests of particular local powers. A series of works in various genres, known as the Kulikovo cycle, celebrated the first (but by no means definitive) Russian victory over the Tatars in 1380 under the leadership of Grand Prince Dmitry Ivanovich (“Donskoy”). A rather weak imitation of the Igor Tale, the Zadonshchina (attributed to Sofony of Ryazan and composed no later than 1393) glorifies Dmitry Donskoy.
The Second South Slavic Influence
The Ottoman occupation of the Balkans at the end of the 14th century, and later the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, drove a number of prelates to Russia, thus initiating the “Second South Slavic Influence.” Schooled in an Eastern Christian theological movement, Hesychasm, these men brought with them a style of writing closely linked to their theological doctrines. Known as “word weaving,” this ornamental style played with phonic and semantic correspondences. It appears in the most notable hagiography of the period, Zhitiye svyatogo Sergiya Radonezhskogo (“Life of Saint Sergius of Radonezh”) by Epifany Premudry (Epiphanius the Wise; d. between 1418 and 1422).