Culture

Article excerpt

Culture--there are those who would argue that this is the country's true natural resource--has long headed the list of Russia's exports and lasting contributions to the world. Below are a few lesser-known facts.

Birch bark tablets are a fascinating piece of evidence pointing to an extremely high level of literacy in early-medieval Novgorod. Pleas of meek supplicants, threats of litigious schemers, laments of jilted women, and the doodlings of a schoolboy called Onfim paint a vivid picture of Russia's humble, yet promising, beginnings.

The ancient Greeks argued over Homer's birthplace, and suspiciously little is known about the greatest of English-language authors. So perhaps it is fitting that the dawn of Russian literature should be shrouded in mystery. Scholars argue not only about the authenticity of Russia's national epic, The Song of Igor's Campaign (traditionally dated 12th century), but also about the testy exchanges between Ivan the Terrible and Russia's most prominent early political exile, Prince Kurbsky. Tradition attributes to Ivan (once known as John the Dread in England) not only well-documented atrocities and witty correspondence, but also musical compositions. Do you know that he sought the hand of Elizabeth I?

Shakespeare may have beaten Peter the Great in the race to proclaim Russia an empire, to the English-speaking world at least: in The Winter's Tale Hermione--no, not that one--says that her father was "the Emperor of Russia."

Did you see Eternity the other night? If not, look no further than the poetry of Yevgeny Boratynsky, Fyodor Tyutchev and Afanasy Fet. The English metaphysical poets are well known for their ability to look past the mundane in their search for the eternal, but the best known of their Russian counterparts are every bit as profound in their startling revelations concerning things that really matter.

Will someone put a smile on Count Leo's face? There isn't a single line in War and Peace that makes you laugh, complained one of my college professors. It all depends on how you read it, I suppose. Take Julie Karagin's letter to Princess Marie Bolkonsky: Napoleon has invaded Russia, so the French-speaking Russian nobles wax patriotic. Dainty Julie isn't able to abandon her native French, and her Russian is plain hilarious.

The Russian attitude toward sex has been the subject of numerous studies underscoring the country's conservatism. …