Russian literature

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Russian Literature Institute on Vasilievsky Island, St. Petersburg.

Russian literature refers to the literature of Russia or its émigrés, and to the Russian-language literature of several independent nations once a part of what was historically Russia or the Soviet Union. Prior to the nineteenth century, Russia produced very little, if any, internationally read literature. The primary form of literature included былины byliny and скаски skazku (folk and fairy tales), which arose from the pagan traditions, the historically-based Primary Chronicle, the Tale of Bygone Years, and the Christian-inspired жития святых (zhitiya svyatikh, Lives of the Saints). Medieval Russian literature had an overwhelmingly religious character and used an adapted form of the Church Slavonic language with many South Slavic elements. The first work in colloquial Russian, the autobiography of arch priest Avvakum, emerged only in the mid-seventeenth century.

From around the 1830s, Russian literature underwent an astounding "golden age," beginning with the poet Aleksandr Pushkin and culminating in two of the greatest novelists in world literature, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the playwright and short story writer, Anton Chekhov. In the twentieth century leading figures of Russian literature included internationally recognized poets such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky, and prose writers Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Nabokov, Mikhail Sholokhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

In the twentieth century, Russian literature came under the control of the Soviet policy of Socialist realism, which did not officially end until the collapse of communism. The imposition of communist dogma silenced many voices, both figuratively and literally.

Early history

Old Russian literature consists of several masterpieces written in the Old Russian language (usually referred to as Old Church Slavonic, but not to be confused with the contemporaneous Church Slavonic). Anonymous works of this nature include The Tale of Igor's Campaign (Слово о Полку Игореве, Slovo o Polku Igoreve) and the Praying of Daniel the Immured (Моление Даниила Заточника, or Moleniye Daniila Zatochnika). The so-called жития святых (zhitiya svyatikh, Lives of the Saints) formed a popular genre of the Old Russian literature. The Life of Alexander Nevsky (Житие Александра Невского, or Zhitiye Aleksandra Nevskovo) offers a well-known example. Other Russian literary monuments include:

Zadonschina, a literary work from the late fourteenth century which relates the exploits of Dmitri Donskoi and the defeat of the Golden Horde at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380.

Physiologist, containing information on animals and birds (lion, eagle, and so on), mythical creatures (phoenix, centaur, siren, and so forth), stones, and trees. The stories are accompanied by commentaries in the spirit of medieval Christian symbolism. The images from the Physiologist found reflection in the old Russian literature, iconography, and book ornamentation.

Synopsis, a historical work, first published in Kiev in 1674. Synopsis was the first Slavic textbook on history. It was rather popular until the mid-nineteenth century and survived some 30 editions. The book began with the history of the origins and lifestyle of the Slavs and ended with the mid-seventeenth century in the first edition. The second and third editions (1678 and 1680) ended with the Chigirin Campaigns of 1677-1678. Synopsis covers the history of Kievan Rus, the Mongol invasion of Rus, the struggle of the Ukrainian people against the Crimean Tatars, Turkey, and Poland.

A Journey Beyond the Three Seas, a literary monument in the form of travel notes, made by a merchant from Tver Afanasiy Nikitin during his journey to India in 1466-1472. A Journey Beyond the Three Seas was the first Russian literary work to depict a strictly commercial, non-religious trip. The author visited the Caucasus, Persia, India, and the Crimea. However, most of the notes are dedicated to India, its political structure, trade, agriculture, customs and ceremonies. The work is full of lyrical digressions and autobiographic passages. Its last page is in Turkic and the broken Arabic language; these are, in fact, typical Muslim prayers, indicating that Nikitin probably converted to Islam while he was in India, although his lapse from Christianity bothered him as he mentions several times in the text.[1]

Bylinas—oral folk epics—were fused Christian and pagan traditions. Medieval Russian literature had an overwhelmingly religious character and used an adapted form of the Church Slavonic language with many South Slavic elements. The first work in colloquial Russian, the autobiography of arch priest Avvakum, emerged only in the mid-seventeenth century.

Petrine era

The "Westernization" of Russia, commonly associated with Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, coincided with a reform of the Russian alphabet and increased tolerance of the idea of employing the popular language for general literary purposes. Authors like Antioch Kantemir, Vasily Trediakovsky, and Mikhail Lomonosov in the earlier eighteenth century paved the way for the development of poets, historians, and prose writers.

Gavrila Romanovich Derzhavin was Russia's finest eighteenth century poet, and generally considered the greatest Russian poet before Alexander Pushkin. Derzhavin is best remembered for his odes dedicated to the empress and other of his fellow courtiers. He came to the empress's attention with his ode "Felitsa," which flattered her while mocking some of her courtiers.

Derzhavin's major odes were the impeccable "On the Death of Prince Meschersky" (1779), the playful "Ode to Felicia" (1784), the lofty "God" (1785), which was translated into all the languages of Europe, "Waterfall" (1794), occasioned by the death of Russian statesman and a favorite of Empress Catherine, Prince Potemkin, and "Bullfinch" (1800), a poignant elegy on the death of his friend, Count Alexander Suvorov—like Potemkin a military general.[2] He also provided lyrics for the first Russian national anthem, Grom pobedy, razdavajsya! (Let the Sound of Victory Sound!)

Prominent playwrights included Aleksandr Petrovich Sumarokov and Denis Fonvizin. Fonvizin is the only playwright of the Russian Enlightenment whose plays are still staged today. His main works are two satirical comedies which mock contemporary Russian gentry. The Enlightenment in Russia came in response to that of Western Europe and was led by those who wanted to introduce more Western social, political, and cultural ideas into Russian life.

Among the finest prose writers were Aleksandr Nikolaevich Radishchev and Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin, the later is often credited with creation of modern Russian literary language. In this regard, Karamzin was an important influence on Pushkin, the first acknowledged master of modern Russian literature, and the father of the Russian literary language. He authored the most important Russian travelogue, Letters of a Russian Traveler, and was justly called the first Russian literary critic as well. In his later career he turned to writing history. He is best remembered today for his History of the Russian State, a 12-volume national history modeled after the works of Gibbon.

Golden Age

Alexander Pushkin by Vasily Tropinin.

The nineteenth century is traditionally referred to as the "Golden Age" of Russian literature. The century began with the rise of Romanticism, which permitted a flowering of especially poetic talent. It ended with the dominance of Russian Realist novelists, such as Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Leo Tolstoy.

Zhukovsky was perhaps the first great poet of the nineteenth century, but it was his protegé Aleksandr Pushkin, who is most closely identifiedd with the rise of Russian Romanticism and Russian poetry in general. Pushkin is credited with both crystallizing the literary Russian language and introducing a new level of artistry to Russian literature. He is still regarded in Russia as without peer, a view that was memorialized in Dostoevsky's famous eulogy shortly before his own death. His best-known work is the Romantic novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. Puskhin helped to usher in an entire new generation of poets including Mikhail Lermontov, Evgeny Baratynsky, Konstantin Batyushkov, Nikolai Alekseevich Nekrasov, Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, Fyodor Tyutchev, and Afanasy Fet. Lermontov was a great poet in his own right, and his novel, A Hero of our Time, an important step in the development of the Russian novel. Like Pushkin, he would die at a very young age in a duel.

The first great Russian novelist was Nikolai Gogol. Gogol is a humorist with few peers. His short-stories, like "The Overcoat" and "The Nose," his play The Inspector General, and his novel, Dead Souls, expose both the petty bureaucratic corruption of the nineteenth century Russian civil service, but strike a deeper chord at the problem of human vanity. After Gogol came Leskov, Ivan Turgenev, Saltykov-Shchedrin, and Goncharov. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky are widely considered among the greatest novelists in the world. At the close of the century Anton Chekhov helped to introduce realism into the short story genre and into drama, becoming arguably the finest short story writer and leading dramatist internationally of his period.

Other important nineteenth century developments included Ivan Krylov the fabulist; the literary criticism of Vissarion Belinsky and Herzen; playwrights such as Griboedov and Ostrovsky and Kozma Prutkov (a collective pen name) the satirist.

Silver Age

The Silver Age is a term traditionally applied by Russian philologists to the first two decades of the twentieth century. The appellation suggests that while the era did not quite attain the dramatic breadth and scope of the Golden Age, it was not far behind. Especially in poetry, it was an exceptionally creative period on par with the Golden Age a century earlier. In the Western world other terms, including Fin de siècle and Belle Époque, are somewhat more popular.

Although the Silver Age may be said to have truly begun with the appearance of Alexander Blok's "Verses to the Beautiful Lady," some scholars have extended its chronological framework to include the works of the 1890s, starting with Nikolai Minsky's manifesto "With the light of conscience" (1890), Dmitri Merezhkovsky's treatise "About the reasons for the decline of contemporary Russian literature" (1893) and Valery Bryusov's almanac "Russian symbolists" (1894).

The Silver Age was dominated by the artistic movements of Russian Symbolism, Acmeism, and Russian Futurism. Nonetheless, there flourished innumerable other poetic schools, such as Mystical Anarchism. There were also such poets as Ivan Bunin and Marina Tsvetaeva who refused to align themselves with any of these movements. The poets most often associated with the "Silver Age" are Sergei Yesenin and Alexander Blok and younger Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelshtam and Boris Pasternak. These latter two women and two men are sometimes jokingly called "The ABBA of Russian poetry."

The Silver Age ended after the Russian Civil War. Blok's death and Nikolai Gumilev's execution in 1921, as well as the appearance of the highly influential Pasternak collection, My Sister is Life (1922), marked the end of the era. The Silver Age was a golden era nostalgically looked back upon especially by emigre poets, led by Georgy Ivanov in Paris and Vladislav Khodasevich in Berlin.

Well-known poets of the period include: Valery Bryusov, Konstantin Bal'mont, Mikhail Kuzmin, Igor Severyanin, Sasha Cherny, Nikolay Gumilyov, Maximilian Voloshin, Innokenty Annensky, Zinaida Gippius. While the Silver Age is considered as the development of the nineteenth century Russian literature tradition, some avant-garde poets tried to overturn it, including Velimir Khlebnikov, David Burlyuk, and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

While the Silver Age is justly famous mostly for its poetry, it gave some first-rate novelists and short-story writers, such as Aleksandr Kuprin, Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin, Leonid Andreyev, Fedor Sologub, Aleksey Remizov, Evgeny Zamyatin, Dmitri Merezhkovsky, and Andrei Bely, though most of them wrote poetry as well as prose.

Soviet era

The first years of Soviet regime were marked by proliferation of avant-garde literature groups. One of the most important was the Oberiu movement that included Nikolay Zabolotsky, Alexander Vvedensky, Konstantin Vaginov and the most famous Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms. Oberiu (in Russian, ОБэРИу—Объединение реального искусства, An Association of Real Art) was a short-lived avant-garde grouping of Russian post-Futurist poets in 1920s-1930s. The OBERIU group became notorious for provocative performances which included circus-like stunts, readings of what was perceived as non-sensical verse, and theatrical presentations that some view as preceding and foreshadowing the European Theatre of the Absurd (for instance, Kharms's play, "Elizabeth Bam"). The group's actions were derided as "literary hooliganism" in the ever-more conservative press of the late 1920s. It was chastised even more in the early 1930s, and many of its associates were arrested (though most were released quickly).

Other famous authors experimenting with language were Andrei Platonov, Mikhail Zoschenko, Yury Olesha, and Isaac Babel.

But soon Sovietization of the country brought Sovietization of the literature. Socialist realism became the only officially approved style. Novelists Maxim Gorky, Nobel Prize winner Mikhail Sholokhov, Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoi, poets Konstantin Simonov and Aleksandr Tvardovsky were the most prominent representatives of the official Soviet literature. Only a few, like Ilf and Petrov, with their picaresque novels about a charismatic con artist Ostap Bender, could publish without strictly following the Socialist realism guidelines.

Not everybody complied with official ideology. Mikhail Bulgakov's famous satiric novel, Master and Marguerita sat in his desk. Boris Pasternak wrote Doctor Zhivago with little hope of being published. The Serapion Brothers insisted on the right to create a literature independent of political ideology: this brought them into conflict with the government.

Meanwhile, émigré writers such as poets Georgy Ivanov, Georgy Adamov and Vladislav Khodasevich, novelists Ivan Bunin, Gaito Gazdanov, Mark Aldanov, and Vladimir Nabokov continued to flourish in exile.

In the post-Stalinist Soviet Union, Socialist Realism remained the only permitted style, and while some good authors such as Yury Trifonov managed to make it through censorship barriers, most like Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (who built his works on the legacy of the gulag camps) or Vasily Grossman couldn't publish their major works at home. One result was the rise of samizdat, or self-publishing, as manuscripts would be mimeographed and circulated unofficially.

The authorities tried to control Russian literature even abroad: For example, they put pressure on the Nobel Prize committee to deny Konstantin Paustovsky the Literature Prize in 1965. The prize was awarded instead to Mikhail Sholokhov who was more loyal to the Soviet regime. Pasternak was forced to refuse his Nobel Prize in 1958.

Post-Communist Russia saw most of these works published and become a part of mainstream culture. However, even before the decay of the Soviet Union, tolerance to non-mainstream art had slowly started to grow, especially during the Khrushchev Thaw. Some works of Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov were published in the 1960s. The decade brought out new popular authors, such as Strugatsky brothers who disguised social criticism as science fiction.

In the 1970s, however, some of the most prominent authors was not just banned by publishing, but prosecuted for their Anti-Soviet sentiments or parasitism. Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the country. Leaders of the younger generation such as Nobel prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky, novelists Vasily Aksenov, Eduard Limonov and Sasha Sokolov, short story writer Sergei Dovlatov, had to emigrate to the U.S., while Venedikt Erofeyev remained behind to succumb to alcoholism.

Post-Soviet era

The end of the twentieth century century has proven a difficult period for Russian literature, with relatively few distinct voices. Among the most discussed authors of these period were novelists Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin and a poet Dmitry Alexandrovich Prigov.

A relatively new trend in Russian literature is that female novelists such as Tatyana Tolstaya, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, and Dina Rubina came into prominence.

Detective stories and thrillers have proven a very successful genre of new Russian literature: In the 1990s, serial detective novels by Alexandra Marinina, Polina Dashkova, and Darya Dontsova were published in millions of copies. In the next decade a more "high-brow" detective fiction by author Boris Akunin, with his series about the nineteenth century sleuth Erast Fandorin, became widely popular.

The tradition of classic Russian novel continues with such authors as Mikhail Shishkin.

The leading poets of young generation are arguably Dmitry Vodennikov and Andrey Rodionov, both famous not only for their verses, but also for ability to artistically recite them.

Russian literature abroad

One legacy of the Soviet Union is that Russian literature is not only written by Russians. In the Soviet times such popular writers as Belorussian Vasil Bykov, Kyrgyz Chinghiz Aitmatov, and Abkhaz Fazil Iskander wrote some of their books in Russian. Some renown contemporary authors writing in Russian have been born and live in Ukraine (Andrey Kurkov, Marina and Sergey Dyachenko) or Baltic States (Garros and Evdokimov).

A number of prominent Russian authors such as novelists Mikhail Shishkin, Ruben Gonsales Galiego, Svetlana Martynchik, and Dina Rubina, poets Alexei Tsvetkov and Bakhyt Kenzheev, though born in USSR, live and work in Europe, North America, or Israel.

See also


  1. Richard H. Major (ed.), "The Travels of Athanasius Nikitin," tr. Mikhail M. Wielhorsky, In India in the Fifteenth Century (London: Hakluyt Society, 1857).
  2. Russian, On the Death of Prince Meschersky. Retrieved August 3, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brown, Edward J. Russian Literature Since the Revolution. Harvard University Press, 1982. ISBN 0-674-78204-6.
  • Brown, William Edward. A History of Russian Literature of the Romantic Period. Ardis Publishers, 1986. ISBN 0-88233-938-9.
  • Terras, Victor. A History of Russian Literature. Yale University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-30005934-5.

External links

All links retrieved December 22, 2022.


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