In the eyes of the world Russian literature is perhaps the chief glory of Russian culture. What the world knows, above all, is the classic Russian novel, whose great age was amazingly brief — a mere quarter century, all within the reign of Alexander II ( 1855-81), which saw the publication of the best works of Tolstoi, Dostoevskii, Turgenev, and Goncharov.Those with a deeper interest might extend their knowledge back to the time of Pushkin and Lermontov in the early I9th century, and forward to Chekhov and the modernist Silver Age — around a century altogether — so becoming aware that Russian literature has more to it than blockbuster narratives: in particular an intensely‐ developed poetic tradition. Few outsiders (and not all Russians) understand, however, how deeply literaturnost' ("literariness") has been ingrained in Russian cultural consciousness over the thousand years since the Conversion, or realize that what is usually called Old Russian literature forms part of a distinctive tradition whose effects are far from being exhausted yet. Of course the forms of sophisticated literature, like the forms of upper-class behaviour, were changed radically and forcibly after Peter the Great's Westernizing measures, but many underlying older principles remained intact, to be revealed in numerous ways as time went on.
Analogous situations are obviously to be seen in the other sophisticated art-forms: painting, sculpture, architecture, and music. In each, wholesale innovations of form, genre, and purpose apparently swept away "medieval" artistic systems. It may be, however, that literature, embedded as it must be in practices of language, is less susceptible than other arts to the sudden and complete imposition of new methods. Whatever the reasons, mid-I8th-centurywriters such as Vasilii Trediakovskii and Mikhail Lomonosov, themselves propagators of western literary forms, had considerable interest in the literary tradition they were engaged in remodelling, an interest redoubled at the turn of the century with the generation of Aleksandr Radishchev, the Decembrists, and subsequently of Pushkin and his contemporaries, when the issue of "Russianness" in literature came into sharp focus. It was then, too, that a growing antiquarian and historical interest in the manuscript heritage of Old Russia was galvanized by the sensational discovery (c. 1795) of a complex, subtle, and highly original work thought to date from the I2th century, Slovo o polku Igoreve ( The Lay of Igor's Campaign), raising questions about the nature and aesthetic qualities of Old Russian literature that have been with us ever since.
To discuss this literature in any detail would take a volume or several volumes. The purpose of this treatment is to fit it into the larger picture of Russian literary and cultural history: so I intend chiefly to give a fresh (if necessarily generalized) view of the diachronic nature of the literary experience in Russia.
First, some preliminary observations have to be made. The term Old Russian Literature, near-universal in scholarly usage, needs to be employed with caution. It (with its variants Early or Medieval Russian literature) is a temporal designation, tying literary development to historical periodization. Taken as implying that literature of the Old Russian period (i.e. up to Peter the Great's reforms) is qualitatively separate from what came afterwards, the term is misleading. Modern literary forms (i.e. like those of the baroque elsewhere) are observable in Russian literature at least from the early I7th century (even if they do not lead to masterpieces of European quality), within a still largely medieval literary system, whose after-effects, as suggested above, in turn long outlive the end of Old Russia itself. I propose instead the coinage Russian Traditional Literature as a conceptual rather than periodic term.
There is far more traditional (or Old) Russian literature than is usually thought, as plenty of it remains unpublished. Two works from the time of Ivan IV (ruled 1533-84) have more than 20,000 pages each in manuscript. More significantly, there are literally thousands of chronicles from the early I2th to the I8th century originating from a large number of local centres, often small or remote; hundreds of versions of oral epic poems have been transcribed; and we must not forget the hundreds or thousands of translated religious and learned works, mostly of Byzantine origin, that were the bedrock of sophisticated traditional literature. Despite the large quantity of works that remain, we also know for certain of some that have not survived, and can postulate the former existence of many other lost works. There are probably still significant rediscoveries to be made: several important early works have been discovered in single copies in modern times. As for the durability of traditional Russian literature, one may mention as a curiosity the fact that there are still so-called Old Believer communities in out-of-the-way areas where a manuscript tradition of religious polemics in an essentially I7th-century vein has persisted to the present. More significantly, the guru of modernist Russian poetics, Velimir Khlebnikov ( 1885-1922), could claim to be the culminating "Old" Russian writer (to the extent that he purged from his work all vocabulary of west European origin). The poet Osip Mandel'shtam wrote admiringly of him that "he cannot distinguish which is nearer, the railway bridge or The Lay of Igor's Campaign." Khlebnikov's followers, a group that extends to the present generation (such as Viktor Sosnora), have shown the continuing vitality of his example, and his influence has rippled outwards to affect much modern Russian writing. Even had Khlebnikov never lived, through Aleksei Remizov and other writers the older Russian traditions of "literariness" would have been revived and given credibility for the 20th century, and doubtless beyond.
The next general point that must be made about traditional Russian literature is that it existed in two great complementary spheres: the "visible" and the "invisible", in other words the written and the oral. Historians, for obvious reasons, concentrate on the former, admitting the latter only when (as with oral epics, the so-called byliny) it achieved permanent
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Book title: Reference Guide to Russian Literature. Contributors: Neil Cornwell - Editor, Nicole Christian - AssociateEditor. Publisher: Fitzroy Dearborn. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 1998. Page number: 3.