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Russia: Tsarist and Communist

By Anatole G. Mazour | Go to book overview

23
The Literary Heritage of Imperial Russia

OSCAR WILDE once observed that 'literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but molds it to its purpose'. This is particularly true in Russia. In no country has literature played a more important role or proved to be a more powerful social tool than here. Here art seems to have been extracted not from the abundant life, but from want, despair, and rebelliousness. Deprived of a free press, of free speech, of free as sembly, the intelligentsia used literature as its only means of defense. It was along this literary front that most distinguished artists became known to the public. Some of the most eminent writers of Russia began their literary careers as contributors to monthly publications. Political and social subjects were usually relegated to periodical literature in Russia, since they had to appear in the form of belles-lettres if they were to appear at all. For this reason Russian literature and even such arts as the stage became inseparable from political and social life; and hence the literary heritage of the country is part and parcel of its history.


THE RUSSIAN LANGUAGE

The instrument used by the nation's men of letters for their creative work is the remarkable Russian language and to a lesser degree the Ukrainian, first cousin of the Great Russian--the former spoken in northern and central Russia, the latter in southern Russia. Though stemming from the Indo-European linguistic family as a branch of Slavonian, Russian has assimilated a considerable vocabulary from other languages: Greek and Latin, Mongolian and Turkish, German and French. Despite this adulteration, the language has managed with astonishing success to retain its purity. Modern Russian is a comparatively young language, derived from the old rigid Church-Slavonic, scarcely suitable for modern literary use. Peter the Great, who applied his inexhaustible energy to every realm of national life, lay his hand on the language too: he adopted the old Slavonic script more closely to the Roman alphabet, hoping thereby not only to free the language from obsolete features but to divorce it from ecclesiastic influence. The spade work done by Peter was furthered by eighteenth-century writers such as Lomonosov and Derzhavin, followed by Karamzin and a legion of less illustrious literary figures. By the beginning of the nineteenth century Russian had acquired a plasticity equal if

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