Russian Literature


Russian Literature Essay, Research Paper

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Russian Literature


I. Introduction

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Russian Literature, literature of the Russian people, written from the 900s to the present.

Russian literature includes some of the most beloved and influential plays, novels, and poems in

world literature. Scholars generally divide Russian literature into four broad historical periods:

Old Russian (10th century to 17th century), Modern Russian (18th century to 1917), Soviet

Russian (1917 to 1991), and Post-Soviet (1991 to the present). Although most Russian

literature is written in the Russian language, some works are in related Slavic languages such

as Old Church Slavonic, which was the first written language in Russia.

Much of the earliest Russian literature consists of religious writings within the tradition of

Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Western European influences brought examples of nonreligious

literature to Russia beginning in the late 17th century, and during much of the 18th century,

French influence was especially strong. By the early 19th century, a native tradition had

emerged in Russia, along with some of the greatest writers of all time, including Aleksandr

Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Anton Chekhov. Strong political control over

literature marked the period after the 1917 Russian Revolution and the formation of the Union

of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and the end of

Communism in Russia and the former Soviet republics, a new period of literary freedom began.

For information on the literature of former Soviet Republics, see Armenian Literature; Georgian

Literature; Lithuanian Literature.

II. Old Russian Literature

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Scholars generally divide the earliest Russian literature into two periods: the Kyiv (also spelled

Kiev) and the Muscovite. The Kyiv period extends from the 10th century to the mid-13th

century. During that time Kyiv (now the capital of Ukraine) served as Russia’s cultural hub and

thrived as one of the most important religious and commercial cities of medieval Europe. In

1240 nomadic peoples from Asia called Tatars invaded and destroyed Kyiv, and Russian cultural

and political activity gradually shifted north to Moscow. The Muscovite period, when Moscow

became the new power, lasted from the late 13th century to the 17th century. Much of old

Russian literature consists of historical chronicles and religious works prompted by Russian

participation in the Orthodox Church.

A. The Kyiv Period

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The earliest literary works of the Russians were not in the Russian language but in Old Church

Slavonic, a related Slavic language that was the first written language in Russia. Old Church

Slavonic was first written down in the 9th century AD by Greek missionaries Cyril and

Methodius, who used it to convert Slavic peoples to Christianity. Old Church Slavonic became

the liturgical language of the Orthodox Church, which directed literary activity in Russia. In 988

Vladimir I, Grand Duke of Kyiv, converted to Christianity and made it Russia’s official religion.

With his conversion came the need for scribes to translate and compile biblical texts, sermons,

lives of saints, and other instructive and inspirational writings from Greek originals. As literacy

increased, so did the available reading matter: Compilations of knowledge, historical chronicles,

and poems appeared, all translated into Old Church Slavonic. Old Church Slavonic remained the

literary language of Russia until the 17th century.

Russia’s acceptance of Eastern Orthodox Christianity made available writings from the

neighboring Byzantine Empire. Byzantine Greek writings provided models for the first texts

produced during the Kyiv period: sermons, lives of saints, and historical chronicles. The most

notable of the sermons, Slovo o zakone i blagodati (1050?; Sermon on Law and Grace), is an

elaborate oration that was written by the head of the Orthodox Church in Russia at that time,

Metropolitan Ilarion. It is generally accepted as the first original work of Russian literature. A

number of accounts by anonymous authors of the martyrdom of the first native Russian saints,

Boris and Gleb, appeared in the 11th century. The chronicle Povest’ vremennykh let (1113?;

Tale of Bygone Years, also known as The Russian Primary Chronicle), attributed to the monk

Nestor, surveys the history of the East Slavic peoples (Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians)

to the year 1110. The most celebrated work of the period, Slovo o polku Igoreve (1185?; The

Song of Igor’s Campaign), recounts in lyrical, rhythmic prose a failed raid undertaken by Prince

Igor against an army of Asian nomads. A highly sophisticated work filled with striking, unusual

imagery, it stands out so markedly from other literature of the period that a number of scholars

have questioned its authenticity. Other scholars contend that its grammar and vocabulary

distinguish it as genuine.

B. Muscovite Period

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In 1240 a Tatar army occupied Kyiv, marking the end of a great period of culture. For the next

200 years the Tatars occupied most of Russia, and literature stagnated. Kyiv’s influence

declined and was gradually replaced by that of a new power, Moscow. By the time Ivan IV

(known as Ivan the Terrible) became tsar in 1547, Moscow had expelled the Tatars,

consolidated its power, and expanded its rule as far east as the Ural Mountains. But in 1453

Russia had been cut off from the Byzantine Empire, the original source of its culture, when

Ottoman Turks took control of Constantinople (now Istanbul), the Byzantine capital and the

center of the Orthodox Church. With the Ottoman Empire separating it from the rest of Europe,

Russia became isolated, just when the European continent was enjoying the Renaissance and a

flourishing of the arts and humanities. Until the beginning of the 18th century, Russia remained

largely outside developments in the West.

Russia continued to produce literature on both worldly and religious themes, but it increasingly

reflected the power-hungry attitudes of the Muscovite state. Tales and poems such as the

Zadonshchina (The Battle Beyond the Don, 1390?) celebrated victory over the Tatars. Other

works tried to justify Moscow’s claim to leadership of the Orthodox Christian world by claiming

that imperial and religious power had been transferred from Rome (capital of the Roman Empire)

to Constantinople (capital of the Byzantine Empire) to Moscow (capital of the Russian Empire).

Many existing literary works, such as saints’ lives and historical chronicles, were collected and

consolidated, signifying the regime’s desire to systematize and regulate political, religious, and

cultural life. One of the most interesting of these 16th-century compilations, Domostroi

(House-Orderer), sets forth rules both for moral behavior and for the day-to-day running of a

household. The Domostroi is not a purely literary work, but it does provide insight into the

ideology and everyday culture of 16th-century Russia.

C. The 17th Century

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A period of political chaos at the beginning of the 17th century marked the end of Muscovite

Russia. In literature the new century saw the end of Old Russian culture, with literary efforts

directed largely by the church or the tsar, and the beginnings of Western influence. This shift

resulted from Russia’s westward expansion, its military conflicts with other European powers,

and, late in the century, Tsar Peter the Great’s fascination with European culture. The first

printed books appeared, although they were few in number. Almost all were religious in content.

Translations (largely from Polish) of adventure tales and romances brought secular

(nonreligious) Western culture to a small audience. The traditional genres of Old Russian

literature saints’ lives and historical chronicles were still alive, although with distinctly secular

features. The most notable example of this growing worldliness is Zhitie protopopa Avvakuma

(1672-1673; The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum). In his biography, Avvakum forcefully defends

the values of tradition in the face of change. He does so in a racy, vivid language that owes

less to traditional Church Slavonic than to the spoken Russian of his day.

For the first time, Russian poets composed verses in imitation of Western models, and the first

plays by a Russian, written by Symeon Polotsky, appeared in 1678 and 1679. In fiction the

influence of Western adventure tales (such as Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes) is evident

in works such as Povest’ o Savve Grudtsyne (The Tale of Savva Grudtsyn, 1660?) and Povest’

o Frole Skobeeve (The Tale of Frol Skobeev, late 17th century). The former is a moralistic

story, but the latter is written purely for entertainment, presenting the adventures of a rogue

in the manner of the picaresque novel.

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