Russian literature, literary works mainly produced in the historic area of Russia, written in its earliest days in Church Slavonic and after the 17th cent. in the Russian language.
Russian literature was first produced after the introduction of Christianity from Byzantium in the 10th cent. Byzantine influence, which suffused the culture of Kievan Rus, explains the adoption of Church Slavonic as the religious and literary language. Early Church Slavonic literature was overwhelmingly religious in character and didactic in intent, although some movement toward a literary purpose marked the chronicles attributed to the friar Nestor. More original were the byliny, oral folk lays, which fused Christian and pagan traditions and at times achieved the level of great epic poetry.
The first written masterpiece of Russian literature was The Song of Igor's Campaign (c.1187; see Igor), which towered above the general cultural desolation under Tatar domination. A few notable sermons and lives of saints were written in this period, and in the early 15th cent. the priest Sophonia of Ryazan wrote the epic Beyond the River Don to commemorate the victory over the Tatars at Kulikovo (1380). Athanasy Nikitin (d. 1472) wrote a distinguished account of his Journey beyond Three Seas to distant lands.
The rise of the grand duchy of Moscow and the overthrow of the Tatars was followed by an expansion of literary activity, still largely in a religious vein. Russian literature in general was hampered by the autocratic regime of the czars and by political and religious turmoil, although these conditions generated the few exceptional works of the 16th and 17th cent. The recriminatory correspondence between Czar Ivan IV and Prince Andrei Mikhailovich Kurbsky (c.1528–83), who had deserted to the Poles, showed polemical and linguistic mastery. The great schism that rent the Russian Church in the mid-17th cent. produced the memorable autobiography of the archpriest Avvakum (martyred 1682), the first work in colloquial Russian.
Western Influence: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
Western influence was manifest in the 17th cent. in numerous translations and in the establishment (1662) of the first theater in Russia. Under Peter I the Westernizing process was enormously accelerated; at the same time the Russian alphabet was revised and Russian works began to be published in the vernacular. Close contact with Europe began a century of the application of Western literary modes to Russian materials.
Prince Antioch Kantemir (1708–44) blended European neoclassicism with portraiture of Russian life and wrote poetry in the syllabic system common to French and Polish. Poetry in tonic form, more suitable to Russian, was written by V. K. Tredyakovsky and was brought to a brilliant level by M. V. Lomonosov. A. P. Sumarokov, the founder of Russian drama, combined European forms and Russian themes in his fables and plays.
The literature of the reign of Catherine II revealed the influence of the European Enlightenment. Catherine's own dramas compounded classical style and satirical tone, as did the journals of N. I. Novikov and the grandiose odes of G. R. Derzavhin. Satire was combined with realistic motifs in the plays of D. I. Fonzivin (1745–92), author of Russia's first truly national drama, The Minor (produced 1782), and in the fables of I. I. Khemnitser. Near the end of the century the beginning of political radicalism was given expression in tandem with Rousseauean sentimentalism by A. N. Radishchev. Sentimentality was developed by Vladislav Ozerov (1769–1816) in the drama and found its principal prose exponent in Nikolai Karamzin, who also initiated the Russian short story.
Romanticism and Modern Style: The Early Nineteenth Century
V. A. Zhukovsky introduced European romantic idealism into Russian poetry. Increasing interest in national characteristics was expressed in the fables of I. A. Krylov, and literary nationalism rose to a high pitch during the wars against Napoleon I. In the 1820s a modern Russian literary style, realistic and nationally conscious, if to some degree shaded by romanticism and by European influence, was advanced by the versatile Aleksandr Pushkin, generally considered the greatest of Russian poets. M. Y. Lermontov's poetry maintained this stylistic excellence for a brief time. The despair detailed in the works of the romantic poet and novelist Yevgeny Baratinsky reflects the repressive atmosphere that existed under Czar Nicholas I.
In the 1830s cultural schism was manifested in the conflict between Slavophiles and Westernizers; the leader of the Westernizers, the critic V. G. Belinsky, stressed the importance of literature's relationship to national life, thus furthering the development of Russian literary realism. Nikolai Gogol, considered the primary initiator of realistic prose, also revealed aspects of romantic and morbid fantasy in his satirical and humanitarian tales. At mid-century a merciless realism, not devoid of humor, was developed by I. A. Goncharov, while A. N. Ostrovsky, who first made the merchant world a subject of Russian literary works, wrote a vast number of plays, most of which are no longer performed. The poetry of F. I. Tyuchev conferred philosophic significance upon everyday events. N. A. Nekrasov created verses of social purpose.
An Age of Masterpieces: Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
The works of Russia's golden age of prose literature were written against a background of czarist autocracy. Falling generally within the realist framework, the masterworks of this era exhibit a strong bent toward mysticism, brooding introspection, and melodrama. I. S. Turgenev achieved world stature with sophisticated novels that were profoundly critical of Russian society. Great critical and popular acclaim were bestowed upon the tormented genius and moral and religious idealism expressed in the works of Feodor Dostoyevsky, and upon the monumental, socially penetrating novels of Leo Tolstoy; these two authors stand among the giants of world literature. With the brilliantly sensitive stories and plays of Anton Chekhov the golden age essentially came to a close, passing into a time noted for poetic works.
A reaction against realism manifested itself in the rise of symbolism, which flourished from the 1890s to about 1910 in the works of Feodor Sologub, V. K. Brynsov, I. F. Annensky, Andrei Bely, A. A. Blok, K. D. Balmont, and A. M. Remizov. The reaction was also evident in the religious and philosophical works of Vladimir Soloviev and in the historical novels of D. S. Merezhkovsky.
In 1912 the Acmeist school, led by N. S. Gumilev and S. M. Gorodetsky, proclaimed a return to more concrete poetic imagery. The poets Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova belonged to this group also. In fiction the outstanding figures included V. M. Garshin and V. G. Korolenko. Maxim Gorky dominated fictional literature just prior to the Revolution of 1917. His passionate realism was echoed in the stories and dramas of his disciple Leonid Andreyev, while Ivan Bunin, also a member of Gorky's circle, wrote in a more conservative realistic vein.
Soviet Literature, 1917–39
After the triumph of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution (1917), many writers emigrated and were active abroad (Bunin, Kuprin, Merezhkovsky, Aldanov, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others). Some writers remained in Russia but published no new works; others became Communists; some adapted their talents to the needs of the new system while remaining partly aloof from its doctrines. Literary forms developed under the Bolshevik regime were at first similar to those appearing in Western Europe at the same time. In the first period after the revolution (to 1921) poetry flourished; principal figures included the symbolist Blok, the imagist S. A. Yesenin, and the iconoclast V. V. Mayakovsky. The older novelist Boris Pilnyak chronicled the new scene, and Isaac Babel wrote colorful short stories.
In the era of the New Economic Policy (1922–28) there was much debate over literary dictatorship, with the "On Guard" group arguing for it and the Mayakovsky group against it. The Serapion Brothers (a group including K. A. Fedin, M. M. Zoshchenko, Vsevolod Ivanov, V. A. Kaverin, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and Lev Lunts) proclaimed their credo of artistic independence, and the formalists emphasized the structure of a poem rather than its content. This period saw the rebirth of the novel in the satirical works of Ilya Ilf and Y. P. Petrov and in the psychological and romantic novels of L. M. Leonov, Yuri Olesha, and Kaverin. M. A. Sholokhov gave the revolution-oriented novel an epic breadth, and in 1928 Gorky returned to enormous popularity.
A general dissolution of the various literary groups took place from 1929 to 1932, and there was a marked trend toward political mobilization of writers. This trend was strengthened in the 1930s during Stalin's purges of the intelligentsia, and socialist realism was proclaimed as the guiding principle in all writing. In the drama, a form greatly encouraged and widely used as a means of propaganda, outstanding figures since the revolution include Yevgeny Schvartz, Nikolai Erdman, M. A. Bulgakov, S. M. Tretyakov, V. P. Katayev, V. M. Kirshon, A. N. Afinogenov, and Alexei Arbuzov. Boris Pasternak and Nikolai Tikhonov became the leading poets, and the novels of Ostrovsky, Aleksey Tolstoy, and Ilya Ehrenburg were widely read. V. B. Shklovski gained great influence as a critic.
World War II to the Present
During World War II, Ehrenburg and Simonov were outstanding reporters. The spirit of friendliness toward the West ended abruptly in 1946 with a campaign initiated by Andrei Zhdanov, a Communist party secretary. Cultural isolationism and rigid party dictatorship of literature were enforced, and the effects on literature were disastrous.
After the death of Stalin in 1953 some writers, previously in disgrace, were returned to favor; those still living were again permitted to publish. Ehrenburg's celebrated novel The Thaw (1954) described the despair of authors condemned to write in accordance with official doctrines. During this period cultural exchange with foreign countries was encouraged. In opposition to patriotic propaganda from orthodox party spokesmen, literature critical of Soviet society was, for a time, warmly received. Andrei Voznesensky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko were widely acclaimed for their nonconformist poetry. Voznesensky was praised for remarkable innovation in poetic form and use of language. Among Yevtushenko's most admired works is Babi Yar, an eloquent protest against Soviet anti-Semitism.
In 1963 the government and the Union of Soviet Writers issued severe reprimands to these and other dissident writers. Pasternak's epic novel Doctor Zhivago (1957), published and received with critical accolades throughout the Western world, was refused publication in the USSR, and the author was compelled by official pressure to decline the Nobel Prize.
After Khrushchev's fall from grace in 1964, the struggle to liberate Soviet writing from political control intensified. Famous writers such as Voznesensky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn publicly asked for an end to government censorship. Others, including Andrey Sinyavsky and Yuly Daniel, were imprisoned for permitting pseudonymous foreign publication of works critical of the Soviet regime. Solzhenitsyn's first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), described life in a concentration camp; its anti-Stalinism was in line with the political climate of 1962. His subsequent works earned him exile from Russia in 1974.
The 1980s saw new religious, even mystical, trends, as in the stories of Tatyana Tolstaya. After the fall of the Soviet regime, Solzhenitsyn returned to his homeland in 1994, twenty years after he had gone into exile. The playwright Mikhail Shatrov (1932–2010), who had been censored during the Soviet era, wrote witheringly of Stalin and pre-glasnost Russia. Meanwhile, younger writers reflected the changed milieu of post-Communist Russia in their pursuit of more personal and less political themes in their prose and poetry.
See D. S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature (rev. ed. 1949); E. J. Simmons, ed., Through the Glass of Soviet Literature (1953, repr. 1963); M. Slonim, The Epic of Russian Literature (1950, repr. 1964) and Soviet Russian Literature (rev. ed. 1967); H. E. Segel, ed., The Literature of Eighteenth-Century Russia (2 vol., 1967); E. J. Brown, Russian Literature since the Revolution (rev. ed. 1969); O. Carlisle, ed., Poets on Street Corners (1969); N. K. Gudzii, History of Early Russian Literature (1949, repr. 1970); G. Struve, Russian Literature under Lenin and Stalin (1971); W. E. Harkins, Dictionary of Russian Literature (1956, repr. 1971); J. Ferrell and A. Stokes, Early Russian Literature (1973); J. Lavrin, A Panorama of Russian Literature (1973); V. Jerras, ed., Handbook of Russian Literature (1985); V. Zubok, Zhivago's Children: The Last Russian Intelligensia (2009).
"Russian literature." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 10, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/russian-literature
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Biblical and Hebraic Influences
The Jewish impact on Russian literature may be traced back 900 years to the period when that body of writing was still the common patrimony of a people that was to emerge later as three distinct East Slavic ethnic groups: the Russians, the Ukrainians, and the Belorussians, each with its separate language and, ultimately, its own literature. The 11th-century "Primary Chronicle," of which 13th-century transcriptions are extant, begins with an account of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Equally ancient is the 11th-century translation of *Josephus' Jewish War into East Slavic, although the original translation was later supplemented by newer versions. Not only was Josephus' work extremely popular in Russia throughout the Middle Ages, but for several centuries his style and imagery continued to exert a powerful influence on original Russian literary works, particularly martial tales. In 1106–08 the abbot Daniel made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and his account of the journey, extant in 15th-century transcriptions, contains a number of interesting descriptions of Jerusalem and its surroundings.
Polemical attacks on Judaism as a creed antedate the appearance in Russia of any sizable Jewish population. Thus the metropolitan Ilarion, in his Slovo o zakone i blagodati ("Sermon on Law and Grace," written 1037–50), attacks Judaism for its alleged lack of Divine grace, a stock claim of Christian theologians over the centuries. It is likely that the metropolitan's attack was prompted by fear of the *Khazars, then Kiev's neighbors and rivals, among whose ruling class Judaism was widely professed. In a popular 12th-century tale, "The Virgin's Road Through Torments," Mary intercedes on behalf of various sinners whom she encounters on her journey through Hell. Only for the Jews can she find no compassion, since they are the alleged murderers of her son. In this doctrine, too, Russian Orthodoxy did not differ from Western European Christianity.
Judaism's theological threat to Russian Christianity became somewhat more real in the 15th century, with the appearance in the cities of Novgorod and Moscow of a heresy whose adherents were dubbed "*Judaizers" (Zhidovstvuyushchiye). Because most of their works were destroyed by the Church, little is known about these heretics other than their skepticism with regard to several articles of Christian faith, including the Trinity and Virgin Birth, and their high regard for the Old Testament, the importance of which Russian Orthodoxy has traditionally minimized. Russia's "Judaizers" translated anew from Hebrew sources (and not, as had been customary, from existing Greek translations) a number of biblical texts, particularly the Psalms and the books of Daniel and Esther. They were also the first to translate a treatise on logic by *Maimonides. Some Russian church historians maintain rather unconvincingly that these translations were made by Jews such as Feodor the Jew for coreligionists who no longer knew Hebrew. Among the best-known works of apocryphal literature was the "Tale of the Centaur," extant in a 15th-century text, which was based on an ancient Jewish story about Solomon building the Temple without recourse to iron.
During the 16th century certain Western European anti-Jewish philippics were translated from Latin into Russian, notably works by *Nicholas de Lyre and by an apostate known as Samuel the Jew. In the following century Old Testament authority and biblical imagery were frequently invoked by opponents of the official Church. An outstanding example was the archpriest Avvakuma (1621–1682), founder of the Old Believers' sect, whose autobiography, Zhitiye protopopa Avvakuma (written 1672–75) is a milestone in the development of the modern Russian literary language.
biblical drama and poetry
The first Russian theatrical performance, which took place in Moscow in 1672, was a German stage adaptation of the Book of Esther. Early plays on biblical themes for the Moscow repertories were written by Semyon Polotski and a German Lutheran pastor, Johann Gottfried Grigori, the author of a morality play on Adam and Eve, and there were also adaptations of the stories of Judith, Daniel, and David and Goliath. Conventional imagery and allusions drawn from the Bible are as characteristic of later Russian literature as they are of other literatures, and biblical motifs regularly occurred in the works of Russian authors of the 19th century. Such was the case with the magnificent statement of the poet's mission in "Prorok" ("The Prophet," 1826) by Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837). Among later, prerevolutionary writers, Leonid Nikolayevich Andreyev (1871–1919) wrote a drama about Samson (Samson v okovakh, 1925; Samson in Chains, 1923), and Alexander Ivanovich Kuprin (1870–1938) published Sulamif (1908; Eng. tr. Sulamith, 1923), a stylized romance about Solomon. Their Jewish contemporary, Akim Lvovich *Volynski, wrote a critical study of the Bible in Russian poetry.
The last prerevolutionary decade was marked by an upsurge of interest in both biblical and modern Hebrew literature. Interest in the latter was heightened by the fact that many of the founding fathers of the new Hebrew writing, preeminently *Bialik, were Russian Jews then still living in Russia. V. *Jabotinsky translated Bialik into Russian, and Bialik thus gained wide appreciation both among writers (e.g., Gorki) and among the public. Among the translators and popularizers of modern Hebrew verse at the turn of the century were such eminent Russian symbolist poets as Valeri Bryusov (1873–1924) and Feodor Sologub (1863–1927); of a slightly later vintage was the émigré poet, the half-Jew Vladislav *Khodasevich. A journey to Palestine inspired some poetry by another émigré, Ivan Bunin (1870–1953).
After the Bolshevik Revolution biblical works naturally fell into disfavor, but it is significant that two Jewish writers of the post-Stalin era turned to the Bible for themes expressive of their spirit of protest. Semyon Isaakovich *Kirsanov, who had published a poem entitled "Edem" ("Paradise") in the late 1940s, wrote "Sem dney nedeli" ("Seven Days of the Week," 1957), an anti-materialist narrative poem based on the Creation story; while Yosif *Brodski, a prime target of Soviet antisemitism, also wrote a long narrative poem entitled "Isaak i Avraam" ("Isaac and Abraham"), which, like his other original works, had to be published in the West (in Stikhotvoreniya i poemy, 1965).
The Image of the Jew
Although one of the stock characters of the Vertep puppet show – Russia's oldest form of theater – was a grotesque caricature of a greedy and cowardly Jew, there were very few Jewish motifs in Russian literature during the 18th century. One reason for this may be the fact that the Jews lived in areas to the west with which Russian writers, mostly from central Russia, were unfamiliar. Another is that Russian writing of the period rarely featured anyone who was not an aristocrat. To a lesser extent this was also true of Russian literature of the first half of the 19th century, despite the sudden increase in Russia's Jewish population after the annexation of former Polish territories following that country's partitions at the end of the 18th century.
the antisemitic stereotype
Biblical portraits gradually gave way to a stylized, romantic portrayal of the Jew reminiscent of the Jews in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, but familiar since *Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. An antisemitic stereotype tempered by courtly gallantry, the Russian figure was normally an incongruous combination of an ugly and repugnant Jewish father (more often than not a greedy usurer and hater of Christians) and his beautiful daughter. A noteworthy example may be found in Ispantsy ("The Spaniards," 1830), an early drama by Russia's foremost Byronic poet, Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841), which portrays hapless lovers against the background of the Inquisition. Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883) was no romantic, but his realistic short story Zhid (1847; The Jew…, 1899) exudes the familiar blend of human compassion and aristocratic disgust with a Jew about to be executed on suspicion of espionage. Turgenev's portrayal of the Jew, which sharply contrasts with his humane understanding of the plight of the Russian peasant, is not unlike that found in Taras Bulba (1842), a novella by Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852), who both as a man and a writer was otherwise very different from the Westernized and liberal Turgenev. In Gogol's short novel, set during the 17th-century Polish-Cossack wars, a Jewish innkeeper, also suspected of espionage, is described as shifty, mercenary, and treacherous, in many respects far more despicable than the Polish enemy. Curiously enough, this motif of a Jew suspected of spying for the Poles (who are themselves shown to be antisemitic) reappeared nearly a century later in a short story by the Soviet-Jewish writer Isaac *Babel ("Berestechko," in Red Cavalry, 1926), in which a Communist soldier calmly slits the throat of an old Jew.
Hostile portrayals of Jews are scattered throughout the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevski (1821–1881). A noteworthy instance is the criminal who remains faithful to the practices of Judaism in Zapiski iz mertvogo doma ("Memoirs from the House of the Dead," 1861–62). The works of Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) display an ambivalence characteristic of his attitude toward other ethnic minorities, such as the Poles. On the one hand Tolstoy, particularly in his later years, condemned antisemitism as inconsistent with the commandment to love one's neighbor; on the other, he showed in his own few literary references to Jews the disdainful attitude of a haughty seigneur toward pitiful but despicable creatures.
In the mid-19th century the unfriendly depiction of the Jew underwent yet another shift. Aristocratic contempt for the Jew had largely disappeared, but it was replaced by the hostile references of plebeian writers. Some of these, driven by chauvinism and religious intolerance, accused the Jews of plotting against Russia's traditional values and institutions, identifying them with revolutionary terrorists. Representative of this tendency were Vsevolod Krestovski's (1840–1895) Tma Yegipetskaya ("Egyptian Darkness," 1889) and the "anti-Nihilist" writings of Alexey Pisemski (1821–1881). Simultaneously, however, anti-Jewish notes could be discerned in the works of such Populists and radical sympathizers as the poet Nikolai Nekrasov (1821–1878), the novelist Feodor Reshetnikov (1841–1871), and Russia's foremost satirist, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826–1889). The latter's attitude toward the Jews was, however, like Tolstoy's, inconsistent and contradictory. In the works of these writers (as in the pronouncements of some revolutionary parties of the period, notably Narodnaya Volya) the Jew was often abused as the merciless exploiter of Russia's downtrodden and impoverished masses.
During the second half of the 19th century other writers began to defend the Jews from their numerous enemies and to attack all forms of antisemitic persecution and discrimination. Some of these champions of the Jews were politically and religiously moderate conservatives. Outstanding among these was Nikolay *Leskov, some of whose tales contain traditional antisemitic stereotypes, but whose overall output constitutes a clever attack on Russian antisemitism. Leskov, a prolific writer on the Jewish question, also published anonymously a pamphlet entitled Yevrei v Rossii ("The Jews in Russia," 1884), undoubtedly the most impassioned defense of Russian Jews ever written by a Russian author. Most of their defenders were, however, moderates, liberals, and leftists. There are sympathetic portrayals in works by Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), such as in the short story Skripka Rotshilda ("Rothschild's Violin," 1894), and Ivanov (1887), one of his early serious plays. In this, a Jewish woman forsakes her faith and her family in order to marry the man she loves, but he ultimately insults her by calling her a despicable Jewess. Chekhov also distinguished himself as an ardent defender of Alfred *Dreyfus, losing many of his friends as a result. Alexander Kuprin portrayed a Jewish fiddler in his short story Gambrinus (1907, Eng. tr., 1925) while in his whimsical tale Obida (1906; "An Insult," in The Bracelet of Garnets…, 1917), a delegation of thieves indignantly protests the "slanderous" insinuations of a newspaper that anti-Jewish pogroms are the work of underworld elements. Yevgeni Chirikov's (1864–1936) play Yevrei (1904; Die Juden, 1904) was also an attack on antisemitism, as were the numerous short stories and newspaper articles by Vladimir *Korolenko and Maxim *Gorki, who warmly championed Russia's Jews, particularly the poor ones.
During the latter part of the 19th century Jews themselves began to write on Jewish themes. Before 1917, however, they were never fully accepted as Russian writers and none of them achieved literary stature. Russian Jewry was, in any case, only superficially secularized and its artistic energies were canalized into the literary realms of Hebrew and Yiddish. Three pioneer authors were Osip *Rabinovich, Grigori Bogrov, and Lev *Levanda, whose descriptions of Jewish life were intended to demonstrate the brutal oppression of an inoffensive minority, and to gain the sympathy of all decent and fair-minded Russian Christians. A more militant note was sounded in the poetry of Shimon Shmuel (Semyon) *Frug, who at first linked his hopes for the salvation of Russia's Jews with the triumph of the revolutionary cause, but who later became more attracted to Zionism. Two writers whose reputation has proved more lasting were Andrey *Sobol and Semyon *Yushkevich. In his novel Pyl ("Dust," 1915), Sobol expressed the Jewish revolutionary's disenchantment with socialism as a solution of the Jewish problem, a feeling reflected in another semi-autobiographical work, Oblomki ("The Wreckage," 1923), a collection of stories published after the Bolshevik triumph.
The Soviet Position
The distinction between portrayals of Jews in Russian literature by writers who were themselves Jews and those who were not loses much of its validity during the Soviet period. In the first place, Jewish writers in the U.S.S.R. were, for the most part, culturally assimilated; many of them wrote under Slavic-sounding names which concealed their origin. Secondly, the everpresent threat of an accusation of "Jewish nationalism" caused many of them – either out of genuine Communist conviction or from ordinary fear – to shy away from excessive preoccupation with Jewish subjects. And last but not least, the many levels of ideological control over Soviet literature, operative from the early days of the regime, have to a greater or lesser extent – depending on the period – prevented the appearance of works too much at variance with the official party position on the subject; and these controls have been roughly applicable to all Soviet writers, regardless of their ethnic background. The periodical shifts in the portrayal of Jews in Soviet literature have thus been more closely tied to fluctuations in official policy and to the stringency of literary censorship than to the preferences of the authors themselves or, more important still, to the social conditions which their works purported to reflect in a realistic manner.
The official Soviet position may be reduced to the following essentials. The Jews, like all other ethnic groups, are really divided, as Lenin stated, into two warring nations in one – the exploiters and the exploited. The exploited and the poor of all nations are natural allies, as are the rich exploiters of the various ethnic groups. The former are to be portrayed with compassion and sympathy, and the latter are to be shown as their villainous foes. There can be no recognition of an ethnic group that might transcend class antagonisms. This article of faith was to be observed with particular stringency in Soviet literature's treatment of Jewish themes, and it has resulted in some grotesque descriptions of manifestations of antisemitism and other phenomena which, in one way or another, affect all Jews, regardless of their religious ties, economic status, or political allegiance.
In the distorting mirror of Soviet literature, where ideology takes precedence over historical or artistic truth, there are few exceptions to the rule that only the Jewish poor are shown to be victims of antisemitism, whereas the bourgeoisie are somehow unaffected by it. In fact, Jewish capitalists – who, as a rule, are also portrayed as the only Jews infected with the dual poison of religious faith and Zionism – are shown making common cause with antisemites, provided that the latter are their class allies – fellow capitalists and enemies of the working class. This tendency can be discerned in Soviet literature from the earliest years of the Soviet regime and is not, as is commonly thought, a phenomenon of Stalin's last years. However, since antisemitism as such was condemned during the early years of Soviet rule, and because antisemitic policies were in the 1920s associated with the ancien régime, Soviet books describing poor Jews in czarist Russia portrayed them in a sympathetic light as victims of persecution.
A documentary of unusual interest and importance that was unearthed some 45 years after its publication is the poem "Yevrey" ("The Jew") by the otherwise conformist Soviet writer Vladimir Mayakovski, a leader of the Futurist movement. Here Mayakovski, a friend of Bialik (to whom he dedicated another of his poems), vigorously attacked Russian antisemitism and championed the victims of its constant slanders. The poem, first read to a meeting in favor of Jewish economic rehabilitation which he had himself helped to organize in November 1926, subsequently appeared in Izvestiya; but it has been carefully omitted from Mayakovski's collected works. Another poem, "Zhid" ("Jew"), written in May 1928 as a protest against the resurgence of antisemitism, appeared in Komsomolskaya Pravda (June 15, 1928).
Subsequently, in the 1930s, as glorification of Russia's past became more fashionable, czarist antisemitism tended to be avoided, although the familiar attitude continued to be maintained in works describing Jews still living in capitalist countries. This, too, became muted in the early 1940s and was almost entirely suppressed after World War ii, perhaps in order to avoid undesirable parallels with the Soviet Union's own brand of antisemitism, which began in the late 1940s with Stalin's virulently antisemitic purges of *"cosmopolitans." These culminated in the closure of all Soviet Yiddish cultural institutions in 1948 and the execution of Soviet Yiddish writers in 1952. By then, nearly all discussion of antisemitism, past and present, Russian or foreign, or of any other Jewish themes, had become practically taboo. The worldwide sensation created by the appearance in 1961 of a brief poem, "Babi Yar," by Yevgeni *Yevtushenko, condemning Nazi and prerevolutionary antisemitism, and the mutilation by Soviet censorship of Babi Yar (1966; Eng. 1967, revised 1970), a documentary novel by Anatoli Kuznetsov (1929–1979) about the Nazi massacre of Soviet Jews in a ravine near Kiev, demonstrate that, in contrast to other areas of Soviet life, there was no real thaw in Soviet literature's treatment of Jewish themes.
the jew through soviet eyes
Early Soviet literature portrayed two types of "sympathetic" Jews: the victims of prerevolutionary persecution, and the fighters for the Communist cause and, occasionally, the passive victims who were transformed into active fighters. It is interesting that the victims were usually endowed with various ethnic traits, such as observance of Jewish tradition, attachment to Jewish culture, and even loyalty to the Yiddish language; but these they would discard in the process of transformation into good Communists. At the same time, Jewish villains, usually "class enemies" from the past such as rich merchants and rabbis, were depicted as "socially alien elements" who had somehow succeeded in worming their way into the Communist Party. The fact that Jewish heroes outnumbered Jewish villains in early Soviet fiction reflects Soviet literature's general predilection for "positive" characters as well as the undeniable fact that the impoverished Jewish masses were sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause, many Jews having fought in the civil war on the Communist side.
The most celebrated portraits of "positive" fighting Jews are to be found in works such as Alexander Fadeyev's (1901–1956) novel Razgrom (1927; The Nineteen, 1929) and Eduard *Bagritski'sDuma pro Opanasa ("The Lay of Opanas," 1926). A middle-class Jew who hates the Soviet regime is depicted in Yuri *Libedinski'sNedelya (1923; A Week, 1923), while an obnoxious, pushy young Jew nicknamed "little Trotsky" appears in Sergey Malashkin's (1890–?) collection of stories Luna s pravoy storony ("The Moon on the Right," 1927). Small-town Jews, reminiscent of those found in Yiddish literature, were portrayed in scores of works, including Ilya *Ehrenburg'sBurnaya zhizn Lazika Roytshvantsa (1928; The Stormy Life of Lasik Roitschwantz, 1960). Joseph *Utkin described the sudden metamorphosis of a humble tailor steeped in Jewish tradition into an emancipated and internationalist Bolshevik in his Povest o ryzhem Motele… ("The Tale of Motele the Redhead…," 1926). The fullest and most sophisticated portrait of Russian Jewry during the last decade of czarist Russia, at the time of the Revolution and the civil war, and in its first years under Soviet rule is found in the works of Isaac *Babel.
During the 1930s the manner in which Jews were portrayed in Soviet fiction, poetry, and drama underwent a significant change. Not only heroes, but also villains and even marginal characters were no longer, as a rule, described as Jews – persons with specifically Jewish problems, hopes, and aspirations – but rather as Soviet men and women whose Jewish origin could only be guessed from their names, or from fleeting references to their family backgrounds. This can only partly reflect the changes that actually took place in Soviet Jewry. Much of the explanation must be sought in the already stringent political controls imposed on Soviet literature. Two examples of such literary characterization are the enthusiastic engineer Margulis in Valentin Katayev's (1897–1986) "production novel" Vremya, vperyod! ("Time, Forward!," 1932), and Davydov, the organizer of a collective farm, in Podnyataya tselina ("Virgin Soil Upturned," 1932–59) by the Nobel Prizewinning novelist Mikhail Sholokhov (1905–1984). The latter case is particularly noteworthy in view of the fact that, in the novel, Davydov's Jewish background is almost imperceptible, despite the fact that he was partly modeled on a real-life Jewish Communist.
The artificiality and insincerity in Soviet literature's portrayal of Jews during the 1940s is particularly striking in works dealing with World War ii. At a time when the Nazi extermination of Jewish civilians and prisoners of war must already have been common knowledge, these continued to portray Soviet people of Jewish birth as almost completely unaware of their Jewishness. This fact, and the enforced tendency to avoid Jewish subjects altogether, is corroborated by the memoirs of Ehrenburg, which were published during the relatively liberal years following Stalin's death. The contrived nature of the portrayal of Jews in Soviet literature during the late 1940s and early 1950s is further evident from the fact that the few "positive" Jewish heroes found in Soviet writings of the period – such as the engineers Liberman and Zalkind in Vasili Azhayev's (1915–1968) novel Daleko ot Moskvy ("Far from Moscow," 1948) – display no awareness of the existence of antisemitism in the U.S.S.R. itself. Confirmation of this assumption may again be found in the memoirs of Soviet writers, notably Ehrenburg and Samuel *Marshak.
The most important distortion, however, took the innocuous form of silence. At a time when Jewish and non-Jewish writers throughout the world were shaken and inspired by the two most important events in the past 2,000 years of Jewish history – the Nazi massacre of 6,000,000 Jews and the reestablishment of an independent Jewish state – Soviet literature affected a pose of indifference and apathy. Nor, understandably, was there any reaction in Soviet literature to the wave of officially inspired antisemitism then sweeping the U.S.S.R. Very muted echoes of this can be found in Soviet writing of the post-Stalin era, such as Ehrenburg's novella Ottepel (1954; The Thaw, 1955) and Yevtushenko's poetry. By 1970, problems such as Soviet antisemitism and Jewish identity were dealt with only in underground literature circulating illegally in the U.S.S.R., much of it actually published in the West. The most notable writer in this category was the non-Jew Andrey Sinyavski (1915–1997), whose works appeared under the Jewish-sounding pseudonym Abram Tertz. Particularly interesting are his Fantasticheskiye povesti (1961; Fantastic Stories, 1967), and the novels Sud idyot ("The Trial Begins," 1959) and Lyubimov (1964; Eng. tr., The Makepeace Experiment, 1965). Other "underground" writers included Yuli *Daniel, whose works appeared under the pseudonym Nikolay Arzhak, and Yosif *Brodski. Sinyavski, Daniel, and Brodski were all sentenced to varying terms of forced labor.
The Jewish Contribution
Since the late 19th century, hundreds of Jews have played an active, and often major role in Russian literary affairs. As in Germany, there was at first a tendency for Russian Jewish writers to accelerate their assimilation through baptism: the poet and essayist Nikolai *Minski and his brother-in-law, the literary scholar Semyon *Wengeroff, were two such converts. The feuilletonist Miron (Meyer) Davidovich Ryvkin (1869–1915), who wrote for Jewish and liberal journals, successfully conveyed the atmosphere of the *shtetl. His historical novel Navet (1912; Yid. tr., Der Velizher Blut-Bilbl, 1913) dealt with a blood libel. After the Bolshevik Revolution a number of Jewish writers left Russia. They included the critic Yuli *Aikhenvald (who was expelled in 1922); the novelist Mark *Aldanov; the poets Sasha *Cherni and V.F. Khodasevich; and the playwright Lev Natanovich *Lunts. Another émigré, Mikhail Osipovich Zetlin (1882–1945), was the author of Dekabristy – Sudba odnogo pokoleniya (1933; The Decembrists, 1958) on the 1825 insurrection. Among those who remained in the U.S.S.R. were David *Aizman; Mikhail *Gershenzon, who promoted Hebrew culture but fought Zionism; and Ilya Ehrenburg.
Despite the pressures of Soviet life, Russian Jewish writers were as active in the "liberal" camp as among the conformists. Rejection of or indifference to the Jewish heritage characterized the first post-revolutionary generation of Jewish authors, which included the Komsomol poet Alexander Bezymenski (1898–1973); the humorist Ilya *Ilf; the eminent poet Osip *Mandelshtam, who had an obsessive dislike of everything Jewish; the Nobel Prize-winning poet and novelist Boris *Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago (1957; Eng, tr., 1959); the half-Jewish author and critic Victor Shklovski (1893–1984); and the novelist and literary scholar Yuri *Tynyanov. The critic Abram Zakharovich Lezhnev (1893–1938) wrote Sovremenniki ("Contemporaries," 1927), which contains three chapters on Babel, Pasternak, Selvinski, and Utkin, and Proza Pushkina (1937). The philosophy of Jewish assimilation under the Soviet regime suffered a setback with the great purges of the 1930s, when Leopold *Averbach and Vladimir *Kirshon disappeared, and many other Jewish writers, notably the poet Joseph Utkin, were exposed to severe criticism. The problem of reconciling their Jewish identity with their Soviet allegiances preoccupied Isaac Babel (who was liquidated by the regime), Ilya Ehrenburg, Ilya Selvinski, and Mikhail *Svetlov. Like Ehrenburg, Emmanuil *Kazakevich, a former Yiddish writer from Birobidzhan, escaped the antisemitic excesses of the Stalin era and was a prominent "liberal" during the post-Stalin thaw; while Samuel Marshak, the poet and translator, also survived, despite his evident "cosmopolitanism." A decade or more after Stalin's death many Jewish writers in the U.S.S.R. still felt the weight of Soviet oppression. Vladimir *Admoni was a defense witness at the 1964 Brodski trial; Vasili *Grossman courageously attempted to document Nazi crimes against the Jews in the face of official displeasure; Lev Kopelev (1912–1997), an ally of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918– ), was a dissident literary scholar.
There are relatively few translations from Hebrew literature into Russian, although translations from Yiddish literature are quite numerous, some of them – above all those of *Shalom Aleichem – among the most effective in any language. This is due partly to the traditional excellence of the art of literary translation in Russia, and partly to the fact that the Yiddish language lends itself well to translation into Russian, since both have two distinct lexical components: the lofty with religious overtones (Hebraisms in Yiddish and Church Slavonicisms in Russian), and the informal vernacular (Germanic in Yiddish, and common speech in Russian). There are numerous successful translations of Russian literature into Hebrew. The most noteworthy are *Shlonsky's poetic version of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1937, 19534) and Lea *Goldberg's translations from several Russian authors.
V. Aleksandrova, in: Ya. G. Frumkin et al. (eds.), Kniga o russkom yevreystve 1917–1967, 2 (1968); E.J. Brown, Russian Literature since the Revolution (1969); B.J. Chaseed, in: E.J. Simmons (ed.), Through the Glass of Soviet Literature: Views of Russian Society (1953), 110–58; D.I. Čiževskij, History of Russian Literature from the Eleventh Century to the End of the Baroque (1962); J. Kunitz, Russian Literature and the Jew: a Sociological Inquiry… (1929); D.S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature (1949), incl. bibl.; G.P. Struve, Russkaya literatura v izgnanii (1956); idem, Soviet Russian Literature 1917–1950 (1951).
"Russian Literature." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 10, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/russian-literature
"Russian Literature." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved September 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/russian-literature