Russian Literature and Language

views updated


RUSSIAN LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE. The category of "old Russian literature," however enduring, constitutes little more than an omnibus retrospection of almost all prose native to Rus' and written in Slavonic or Russian prior to the eighteenth century. It marks the mythic boundary between antiquity and modernity in Russian culture and includes heroic tales and epics, compendia of saints' lives (chet'i minei, prologi, etc.), chronicles (letopisi), general Christian histories (khronografy), and numerous individual codices (sborniki) compiled from a wide range of materials, usually by anonymous monastic bookmen.

From the end of the twentieth century scholarship increasingly replaced this confining typology of an undifferentiated old Russian culture with more nuanced and fragmented constructs that posit inner tensions, regional variations, and epistemic shifts over the centuries between the fall of Kiev and Peter the Great's assertion of Russian modernity. Such tensions and variations were particularly marked during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thanks in large measure to a cultural influx from Poland and Ukraine. Another major stimulus came from the schism within Russian Orthodoxy in the 1650s, out of which emerged the movement known as Old Believers or Old Ritualists. Edifying vitae soon appeared for many of the movement's early martyrs, including Boiarynia Feodosiia Morozova, Ivan Neronov, and Iuliana Lazarevskaia. The most outstanding of these was the autobiographical account of the leader of the Old Believers, the archpriest Avvakum Petrovich. Told in earthy and vivid prose, The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum (16721673) marked the beginning in Russia of a vernacular form of autobiographical writing, penned by an identified author and directed at a broad literate audience who read outside of the church service. All of these lives were widely known, at least among religious dissenters, and their abiding tropes of civic powerlessness and suffering for one's faith later became commonplaces of eighteenth-century memoirs and autobiographies.

At the same time Russia was developing a new "high" literature beyond the narrowly devotional, including highly literary sermons, religious poetry, drama, and an ever growing corpus of tales and fables, translated in large measure from Polish. Most scholars tie these innovations to the courts of Tsar Alexis I Mikhailovich (ruled 16451676) and, especially, his daughter Sofiia, who was the de facto regent between 1682 and 1689. Starting in 1672 the Muscovite court housed an intermittent theater whose repertoire mixed biblical tales (such as that of Artaxerxes) with Greek fables and dramas based on saints' lives (for example, of St. Catherine).

Another important new genre of literary expression was the sermon, a rarity in Russian culture before the mid-seventeenth century. The central figure in this trend was the monk Simeon Polotskii, who moved from Belarus to Moscow in 1660. During the final few decades of the seventeenth and throughout the eighteenth century, several other religious hierarchs, almost all of them Ukrainians linked to the Kremlin or important monasteries near Moscow, were active in sermonizing. Although subject to severe restrictions in form, theme, and structure, sermons afforded these clerics the opportunity to create new texts, many of which were subsequently published in collections, and to be recognized as their authors.


Peter the Great's new civil orthography of 1707 and his aggressive deployment of print initiated new explorations toward a distinctly civil Russian (as opposed to Slavonic) literary language. Most scholars now believe that this discourse did not arise in a linguistic vacuum, but that the developments of the late-seventeenth century as well as the evolution of what is sometimes termed "chancellery (prikaznyi) writing" set the context for the reforms. During the 1730s, Vasilii Trediakovskii, Antiokh Kantemir, and Mikhail Lomonosov debated furiously about the shape of this literary language. At issue were the use of arcane constructions and "pure" slavonicisms versus the construction of something more in line with contemporary European literature. All three of the principals, but especially Trediakovskii and Lomonosov, chose the medium of literary translation as their linguistic laboratory, often creating texts that were stilted and idiosyncratic but nonetheless literary. A noted example is Trediakovskii's rendering of Paul Tallemant's Le voyage à l'isle d'amour de Lycidas.

Along with the new orthography and the nascent literary language, the institutionalization of literature benefited from the proliferation of lay publishing, primarily at educational institutions. Drawing from a mixture of foreign scholars, professional translators, and a handful of brilliant former seminarians and cadets (including Trediakovskii, Lomonosov, and Sumarokov), the Academy of Sciences during the second quarter of the eighteenth century acted as midwife for the birth of a lay print culture, producing small runs of poetry, tales, and translated opera librettos. Exceedingly modest in volume when compared to the rest of Europe, this work was nonetheless momentous for creating what we would now call Russian literature, as a creative, public, accessible, lay discourse for private reading and pleasure.

Mid-century witnessed several new publishing houses, primarily at Moscow University and the Cadet Academies; together these presses provided an institutional setting for youngmostly nobleliterati to engage in literary pursuits and develop a public voice. Virtually every luminary of the Elizabethan and Catherinian erasincluding Mikhail Kheraskov (17331807), Denis Fonvizin (17451792), Ippolit Bogdanovich (17441803), Gavrila Derzhavin (17431816), Aleksandr Radishchev (17491802), and several othersparticipated in this collective endeavor of literary and institutional creation. In most cases these writers earned little or nothing from their original works (a bit more from translations), and the great majority maintained commissions in state service. Derzhavin, for example, had been in an elite guards' regiment, and he ultimately became a full-time civil administrator, rising to the very high position of provincial governor. Some, however, including Nikolai Novikov (17441818) and Nikolai Karamzin (17661826), became something approaching professional intellectuals in that they devoted all their time to intellectual pursuits, sometimes, as with Novikov, resigning their commissions. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century the life of literature and literary production developed very rapidly, thanks to the growth in secondary education, both secular and religious, which produced an exponential rise in the number of writers and readers, as well as the easier access to print, especially after 1783, when the decree on private presses made publishing much simpler.


In addition to the profusion of literary translation, poetry provided some of Russia's most important writing during this period. Especially significant were the lyric and religious poetry of Trediakovskii, the epic poetry of Kheraskov (the "Russian Homer" and author of the lengthy Rossiiada ), and, above all, the reflective and highly personal verses of Derzhavin. As was true throughout Europe, travel literature, recounting journeys both real and imaginary, proved to be a particularly effective medium for combining entertainment with cultural commentary. Karamzin's Letters of a Russian Traveler, 17891790 (1797), although often fanciful, nevertheless offered entertaining glimpses of the mores Karamzin observed during his European grand tour of 17891790, and it situated Russia in the European context and oriented the reader's sense of national identity and civility. The genre also lent itself to severe social commentary, most famously in Radishchev's novel, A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Taking advantage of lax censorship, Radishchev published this savage critique of serfdom and Russia's lack of freedom in 1790, much to the outrage of the empress Catherine II, who ordered all copies confiscated and the author jailed. Dramatic as this episode was, Radishchev's pained voice of political and social opposition remained the exception for the eighteenth century, as few of his contemporaries expressedor apparently heldviews in opposition to the political status quo.

Beginning in the mid-1750s and especially from the late 1760s onward, literary and philosophical journalism became the medium of choice among aspiring literati. Few of these ventures lasted longer than several months, and most could count their readerships in hundreds rather than thousands. But these journals came out frequently and regularly, and as one folded others took its place. Essayists and translators, as often as not still unidentified by name, could pool their resources and energies and use periodical publication to construct the rudiments of an engaged textual community, playing off of other journals to establish a clear field of discourse. The prime example comes from the socalled satirical journals of 17691774. During this period, journals linked to Novikov (The Painter, The Drone, The Tattler) parried with others associated with the empress (Bits of This and That), who was herself an avid author and essayist. As was true elsewhere, editors employed public subscription campaigns to generate a reader base and to inscribe a public onto their enterprises. Some of these campaigns, such as Novikov's solicitation for his pietistic journal Morning Light (17771780), were quite successful, generating hundreds of subscribers (who thereby subsidized Novikov's new charity schools) from towns throughout the empire and from social groups, such as clergy and merchants, well beyond the omnipresent cosmopolitan audience. Most journals, however, attracted several dozen to about a hundred subscribers, almost 90 percent of whom derived from the hereditary nobility.


The intimate and largely male world that produced Russia's lay literati led easily into a proliferation of small societies, translation groups, student seminars, private lending libraries, reading circles, and eventually salons, at which women often were in attendance. By far the most popular sites of sociability, though, were Masonic lodges, which in Russia were quintessentially masculine in outlook and membership. During the Catherinian period as many as three thousand Russian subjects belonged to dozens of lodges, most of which combined a vaguely Neostoic sense of public improvement with the conviviality of brotherhood. Some scholars have seen the lodges as the beginnings of a Russian public sphere, while others have emphasized their secrecy, exclusivity, and sense of hierarchy. But there is no doubt that the lodges became centers of sociability that encouraged the fusion of literary activity and an increasingly ritualized politesse, which reached its apotheosis during the era of Aleksandr Pushkin in the 1830s. Although they were typically not oppositional, their combination of fraternity, secrecy, and commitment to moral improvement evoked periodic suspicion from officialdom, leading to periodic censure and closures in the latter fifteen years of the eighteenth century and again during the early 1820s.

See also Alexis I (Russia) ; Avvakum Petrovich ; Catherine II (Russia) ; Enlightenment ; Journals, Literary ; Novikov, Nikolai Ivanovich ; Old Believers ; Orthodoxy, Russian ; Peter I (Russia) ; Printing and Publishing ; Sofiia Alekseevna .


Primary Sources

Avvakum Petrovich, Protopope. The Life of Archpriest Avvakum by Himself. Translated by Jane Harrison and Hope Mirrlees. London, 1924.

Segel, Harold B., ed. and trans. The Literature of Eighteenth-Century Russia: An Anthology of Russian Literary Materials of the Age of Classicism and the Enlightenment from the Reign of Peter the Great, 16891725, to the Reign of Alexander I, 18011825. 2 vols. New York, 1967.

Secondary Sources

Levitt, Marcus C., ed. Early Modern Russian Writers, Late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Vol. 150 of A Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit, 1995.

Newlin, Thomas. The Voice in the Garden: Andrei Bolotov and the Anxieties of Russian Pastoral, 17381833. Evanston, Ill., 2001.

Raeff, Marc. Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia: The Eighteenth-Century Nobility. New York, 1966.

Reyfman, Irina. Vasilii Trediakovsky: The Fool of the New Russian Literature. Stanford, 1990.

Rogger, Hans. National Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century Russia. Cambridge, Mass., 1960.

Schönle, Andreas. Authenticity and Fiction in the Russian Literary Journey, 17901840. Cambridge, Mass., 2000.

Gary Marker