Russia Table of Contents

In the course of Russia's thousand-year history, Russian literature has come to occupy a unique place in the culture, politics, and linguistic evolution of the Russian people. In the modern era, literature has been the arena for heated discussion of virtually all aspects of Russian life, including the place that literature itself should occupy in that life. In the process, it has produced a rich and varied fund of artistic achievement.

The Beginnings

Literature first appeared among the East Slavs after the Christianization of Kievan Rus' in the tenth century (see The Golden Age of Kiev, ch. 1). Seminal events in that process were the development of the Cyrillic (see Glossary) alphabet around A.D. 863 and the development of Old Church Slavonic as a liturgical language for use by the Slavs. The availability of liturgical works in the vernacular language--an advantage not enjoyed in Western Europe--caused Russian literature to develop rapidly. Through the sixteenth century, most literary works had religious themes or were created by religious figures. Among the noteworthy works of the eleventh through fourteenth centuries are the Primary Chronicle , a compilation of historical and legendary events, the Lay of Igor's Campaign , a secular epic poem about battles against the Turkic Pechenegs, and Zadonshchina , an epic poem about the defeat of the Mongols in 1380. Works in secular genres such as the satirical tale began to appear in the sixteenth century, and Byzantine literary traditions began to fade as the Russian vernacular came into greater use and Western influences were felt.

Written in 1670, the Life of the Archpriest Avvakum is a pioneering realistic autobiography that avoids the flowery church style in favor of vernacular Russian. Several novellas and satires of the seventeenth century also used vernacular Russian freely. The first Russian poetic verse was written early in the seventeenth century.

Peter and Catherine

The eighteenth century, particularly the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (r. 1762-96), was a period of strong Western cultural influence. Russian literature was dominated briefly by European classicism before shifting to an equally imitative sentimentalism by 1780. Secular prose tales--many picaresque or satirical--grew in popularity with the middle and lower classes, as the nobility read mainly literature from Western Europe. Peter's secularization of the Russian Orthodox Church decisively broke the influence of religious themes on literature. The middle period of the eighteenth century (1725-62) was dominated by the stylistic and genre innovations of four writers: Antiokh Kantemir, Vasiliy Trediakovskiy, Mikhail Lomonosov, and Aleksandr Sumarokov. Their work was a further step in bringing Western literary concepts to Russia.

Under Catherine, the satirical journal was adopted from Britain, and Gavriil Derzhavin advanced the evolution of Russian poetry. Denis Fonvizin, Yakov Knyazhnin, Aleksandr Radishchev, and Nikolay Karamzin wrote controversial and innovative drama and prose works that brought Russian literature closer to its nineteenth-century role as an art form liberally furnished with social and political commentary (see Imperial Expansion and Maturation: Catherine II, ch. 1). The lush, sentimental language of Karamzin's tale Poor Lisa set off a forty-year polemic pitting advocates of innovation against those of "purity" in literary language.

The Nineteenth Century

By 1800 Russian literature had an established tradition of representing real-life problems, and its eighteenth-century practitioners had enriched its language with new elements. On this basis, a brilliant century of literary endeavor followed.

Russian literature of the nineteenth century provided a congenial medium for the discussion of political and social issues whose direct presentation was censored. The prose writers of this period shared important qualities: attention to realistic, detailed descriptions of everyday Russian life; the lifting of the taboo on describing the vulgar, unsightly side of life; and a satirical attitude toward mediocrity and routine. All of those elements were articulated primarily in the novel and short story forms borrowed from Western Europe, but the poets of the nineteenth century also produced works of lasting value.

The Age of Realism, generally considered the culmination of the literary synthesis of earlier generations, began around 1850. The writers of that period owed a great debt to four men of the previous generation: the writers Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Nikolay Gogol', and the critic Vissarion Belinskiy, each of whom contributed to new standards for language, subject matter, form, and narrative techniques. Pushkin is recognized as the greatest Russian poet, and the critic Belinskiy was the "patron saint" of the influential "social message" writers and critics who followed. Lermontov contributed innovations in both poetic and prose genres. Gogol' is accepted as the originator of modern realistic Russian prose, although much of his work contains strong elements of fantasy. The rich language of Gogol' was much different from the direct, sparse lexicon of Pushkin; each of the two approaches to the language of literary prose was adopted by significant writers of later generations.

By mid-century a heated debate was under way on the appropriateness of social questions in literature. The debate filled the pages of the "thick journals" of the time, which remained the most fertile site for literary discussion and innovation into the 1990s; traces of the debate appeared in the pages of much of Russia's best literature as well. The foremost advocates of social commentary were Nikolay Chernyshevskiy and Nikolay Dobrolyubov, critics who wrote for the thick journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary) in the late 1850s and early 1860s.

The best prose writers of the Age of Realism were Ivan Turgenev, Fedor Dostoyevskiy, and Lev Tolstoy. Because of the enduring quality of their combination of pure literature with eternal philosophical questions, the last two are accepted as Russia's premier prose artists; Dostoyevskiy's novels Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov , like Tolstoy's novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina , are classics of world literature.

Other outstanding writers of the Age of Realism were the playwright Aleksandr Ostrovskiy, the novelist Ivan Goncharov, and the prose innovator Nikolay Leskov, all of whom were closely involved in some way with the debate over social commentary. The most notable poets of mid-century were Afanasiy Fet and Fedor Tyutchev.

An important tool for writers of social commentary under strict tsarist censorship was a device called Aesopic language--a variety of linguistic tricks, allusions, and distortions comprehensible to an attuned reader but baffling to censors. The best practitioner of this style was Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, a prose satirist who, along with the poet Nikolay Nekrasov, was considered a leader of the literary left wing in the second half of the century.

The major literary figure in the last decade of the nineteenth century was Anton Chekhov, who wrote in two genres: the short story and drama. Chekhov was a realist who examined the foibles of individuals rather than society as a whole. His plays The Cherry Orchard , The Seagull , and The Three Sisters continue to be performed worldwide.

In the 1890s, Russian poetry was revived and thoroughly reshaped by a new group, the symbolists, whose most prominent representative was Aleksandr Blok. Two more groups, the futurists and the acmeists, added new poetic principles at the start of the twentieth century. The leading figure of the former was Vladimir Mayakovskiy, and of the latter, Anna Akhmatova. The premier prose writers of the period were the realist writers Leonid Andreyev, Ivan Bunin, Maksim Gor'kiy, Vladimir Korolenko, and Aleksandr Kuprin. Gor'kiy became the literary figurehead of the Bolsheviks and of the Soviet regimes of the 1920s and 1930s; shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, Bunin and Kuprin emigrated to Paris. In 1933 Bunin became the first Russian to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Soviet Period and After

The period immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution was one of literary experimentation and the emergence of numerous literary groups. Much of the fiction of the 1920s described the Civil War or the struggle between the old and new Russia. The best prose writers of the 1920s were Isaak Babel', Mikhail Bulgakov, Veniamin Kaverin, Leonid Leonov, Yuriy Olesha, Boris Pil'nyak, Yevgeniy Zamyatin, and Mikhail Zoshchenko. The dominant poets were Akhmatova, Osip Mandel'shtam, Mayakovskiy, Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Sergey Yesenin. But under Stalin, literature felt the same restrictions as the rest of Russia's society. After a group of "proletarian writers" had gained ascendancy in the early 1930s, the communist party Central Committee forced all fiction writers into the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934. The union then established the standard of "socialist realism" for Soviet literature, and many of the writers in Russia fell silent or emigrated (see Mobilization of Society, ch. 2). A few prose writers adapted by describing moral problems in the new Soviet state, but the stage was dominated by formulaic works of minimal literary value such as Nikolay Ostrovskiy's How the Steel Was Tempered and Yuriy Krymov's Tanker Derbent . A unique work of the 1930s was the Civil War novel The Quiet Don , which won its author, Mikhail Sholokhov, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965, although Sholokhov's authorship is disputed by some experts. The strict controls of the 1930s continued until the "thaw" following Stalin's death in 1953, although some innovation was allowed in prose works of the World War II period.

Between 1953 and 1991, Russian literature produced a number of first-rate artists, all still working under the pressure of state censorship and often distributing their work through a sophisticated underground system called samizdat (literally, self-publishing). The poet Pasternak's Civil War novel, Doctor Zhivago , created a sensation when published in the West in 1957. The book won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but the Soviet government forced Pasternak to decline the award. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) also was a watershed work, was the greatest Russian philosophical novelist of the era; he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974 and eventually settled in the United States. In the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation of satirical and prose writers, such as Fazil' Iskander, Vladimir Voinovich, Yuriy Kazakov, and Vladimir Aksyonov, battled against state restrictions on artistic expression, as did the noted poets Yevgeniy Yevtushenko, Andrey Voznesenskiy, and Joseph Brodsky. Aksyonov and Brodsky emigrated to the United States, where they remained productive. Brodsky won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. The most celebrated case of literary repression in the 1960s was that of Andrey Sinyavskiy and Yuliy Daniel, iconoclastic writers of the Soviet "underground" whose 1966 sentence to hard labor for having written anti-Soviet propaganda brought international protest.

Another generation of writers responded to the liberalized atmosphere of Gorbachev's glasnost in the second half of the 1980s, openly discussing previously taboo themes: the excesses of the Stalin era, a wide range of previously unrecognized social ills such as corruption, random violence, anti-Semitism, and prostitution, and even the unassailably positive image of Vladimir I. Lenin himself. Among the best of this generation were Andrey Bykov, Mikhail Kurayev, Valeriy Popov, Tat'yana Tolstaya, and Viktor Yerofeyev--writers not necessarily as talented as their predecessors but expressing a new kind of "alternative fiction." The glasnost period also saw the publication of formerly prohibited works by writers such as Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, and Zamyatin.

Beginning in 1992, Russian writers experienced complete creative freedom for the first time in many decades. The change was not entirely for the better, however. The urgent mission of the Russian writers, to provide the public with a kind of truth they could not find elsewhere in a censored society, had already begun to disappear in the 1980s, when glasnost opened Russia to a deluge of information and entertainment flowing from the West and elsewhere. Samizdat was tacitly accepted by the Gorbachev regime, then it disappeared entirely as private publishers appeared in the early 1990s. Writers' traditional special place in society no longer is recognized by most Russians, who now read literature much less avidly than they did in Soviet times. For the first time since their appearance in the early 1800s, the "thick journals" are disregarded by large portions of the intelligentsia, and in the mid-1990s several major journals went bankrupt. Under these circumstances, many Russian writers have expressed a sense of deep loss and frustration.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress