Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature
as a Mirror of Society
Great works of literature and poetry have always been and will remain a historical, social, cultural and psychological mirror of what Northrop Frye called the “Mythology” of an age.236 As Lionel Trilling put it in 1945: “What marks the artist is his power to shape the material of pain we all have.”237
With respect to Russian literary development, it was nineteenth-century literature in particular - and the underground fiction during the Soviet period - that caught the humane concerns of a divided nation. Old Russia between the 10th century A. D. and the beginning of the 18th century when Peter the Great began to Europeanize and modernize the country was, as Dmitry Likhachev has pointed out, a static and repetitive religious culture.238 As such, the focus fell on otherworldly spiritual concerns rather than on the worldly experience of an increasingly brutal and despotic existence. In the 18th century, when Russia was confronted by the European Enlightenment, there was - with a few notable exceptions (Kantemir, Radishchev) - a similar dearth of social reflection in literature. Russian writers spent more time eulogizing Russian despotism and imitating European literary models than on the inhumanity of Russian serfdom. To be fair, eighteenth-century Russian literature had begun to be influenced by the moral and humane concerns of the European Enlightenment - liberty and the rights of man - but for the Russians this was still more of an intellectual preoccupation primarily among its intelligentsia, rather than an existential, social commitment.
It was only in the 19th century, when Russia experienced an extraordinary literary Renaissance, that literature began to reflect the more profound social and cultural issues of a nation doomed to despotic rule and still in the grip of
236 Northrop Frye, The Modern Century. The Whidden Lectures 1967 (London et al., 1969), p.
105. See alsoThe Educated Imagination. The Massey Lectures — Second Series (Toronto,
1971), p. 52.
237 Lionel Trilling, “Art and Neurosis,” in his The Liberal Imagination. Essays on Literature
and Society (New York, 1953), pp. 159-78, here p. 173.
238 Dmitry Likhachev, “V chem sut’ razlichiy mezhdu drevney i novoy russkoy literaturoy,”
Voprosy Literatury, No. 5 (1965), pp. 170-86.