Russian literature

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Russian literature

Russian literature, literary works mainly produced in the historic area of Russia, written in its earliest days in Church Slavonic and after the 17th cent. in the Russian language.

Early Literature

Russian literature was first produced after the introduction of Christianity from Byzantium in the 10th cent. Byzantine influence, which suffused the culture of Kievan Rus, explains the adoption of Church Slavonic as the religious and literary language. Early Church Slavonic literature was overwhelmingly religious in character and didactic in intent, although some movement toward a literary purpose marked the chronicles attributed to the friar Nestor. More original were the byliny, oral folk lays, which fused Christian and pagan traditions and at times achieved the level of great epic poetry.

The first written masterpiece of Russian literature was The Song of Igor's Campaign (c.1187; see Igor), which towered above the general cultural desolation under Tatar domination. A few notable sermons and lives of saints were written in this period, and in the early 15th cent. the priest Sophonia of Ryazan wrote the epic Beyond the River Don to commemorate the victory over the Tatars at Kulikovo (1380). Athanasy Nikitin (d. 1472) wrote a distinguished account of his Journey beyond Three Seas to distant lands.

The rise of the grand duchy of Moscow and the overthrow of the Tatars was followed by an expansion of literary activity, still largely in a religious vein. Russian literature in general was hampered by the autocratic regime of the czars and by political and religious turmoil, although these conditions generated the few exceptional works of the 16th and 17th cent. The recriminatory correspondence between Czar Ivan IV and Prince Andrei Mikhailovich Kurbsky (c.1528–83), who had deserted to the Poles, showed polemical and linguistic mastery. The great schism that rent the Russian Church in the mid-17th cent. produced the memorable autobiography of the archpriest Avvakum (martyred 1682), the first work in colloquial Russian.

Western Influence: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Western influence was manifest in the 17th cent. in numerous translations and in the establishment (1662) of the first theater in Russia. Under Peter I the Westernizing process was enormously accelerated; at the same time the Russian alphabet was revised and Russian works began to be published in the vernacular. Close contact with Europe began a century of the application of Western literary modes to Russian materials.

Prince Antioch Kantemir (1708–44) blended European neoclassicism with portraiture of Russian life and wrote poetry in the syllabic system common to French and Polish. Poetry in tonic form, more suitable to Russian, was written by V. K. Tredyakovsky and was brought to a brilliant level by M. V. Lomonosov. A. P. Sumarokov, the founder of Russian drama, combined European forms and Russian themes in his fables and plays.

The literature of the reign of Catherine II revealed the influence of the European Enlightenment. Catherine's own dramas compounded classical style and satirical tone, as did the journals of N. I. Novikov and the grandiose odes of G. R. Derzavhin. Satire was combined with realistic motifs in the plays of D. I. Fonzivin (1745–92), author of Russia's first truly national drama, The Minor (produced 1782), and in the fables of I. I. Khemnitser. Near the end of the century the beginning of political radicalism was given expression in tandem with Rousseauean sentimentalism by A. N. Radishchev. Sentimentality was developed by Vladislav Ozerov (1769–1816) in the drama and found its principal prose exponent in Nikolai Karamzin, who also initiated the Russian short story.

Romanticism and Modern Style: The Early Nineteenth Century

V. A. Zhukovsky introduced European romantic idealism into Russian poetry. Increasing interest in national characteristics was expressed in the fables of I. A. Krylov, and literary nationalism rose to a high pitch during the wars against Napoleon I. In the 1820s a modern Russian literary style, realistic and nationally conscious, if to some degree shaded by romanticism and by European influence, was advanced by the versatile Aleksandr Pushkin, generally considered the greatest of Russian poets. M. Y. Lermontov's poetry maintained this stylistic excellence for a brief time. The despair detailed in the works of the romantic poet and novelist Yevgeny Baratinsky reflects the repressive atmosphere that existed under Czar Nicholas I.

In the 1830s cultural schism was manifested in the conflict between Slavophiles and Westernizers; the leader of the Westernizers, the critic V. G. Belinsky, stressed the importance of literature's relationship to national life, thus furthering the development of Russian literary realism. Nikolai Gogol, considered the primary initiator of realistic prose, also revealed aspects of romantic and morbid fantasy in his satirical and humanitarian tales. At mid-century a merciless realism, not devoid of humor, was developed by I. A. Goncharov, while A. N. Ostrovsky, who first made the merchant world a subject of Russian literary works, wrote a vast number of plays, most of which are no longer performed. The poetry of F. I. Tyuchev conferred philosophic significance upon everyday events. N. A. Nekrasov created verses of social purpose.

An Age of Masterpieces: Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

The works of Russia's golden age of prose literature were written against a background of czarist autocracy. Falling generally within the realist framework, the masterworks of this era exhibit a strong bent toward mysticism, brooding introspection, and melodrama. I. S. Turgenev achieved world stature with sophisticated novels that were profoundly critical of Russian society. Great critical and popular acclaim were bestowed upon the tormented genius and moral and religious idealism expressed in the works of Feodor Dostoyevsky, and upon the monumental, socially penetrating novels of Leo Tolstoy; these two authors stand among the giants of world literature. With the brilliantly sensitive stories and plays of Anton Chekhov the golden age essentially came to a close, passing into a time noted for poetic works.

A reaction against realism manifested itself in the rise of symbolism, which flourished from the 1890s to about 1910 in the works of Feodor Sologub, V. K. Brynsov, I. F. Annensky, Andrei Bely, A. A. Blok, K. D. Balmont, and A. M. Remizov. The reaction was also evident in the religious and philosophical works of Vladimir Soloviev and in the historical novels of D. S. Merezhkovsky.

In 1912 the Acmeist school, led by N. S. Gumilev and S. M. Gorodetsky, proclaimed a return to more concrete poetic imagery. The poets Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova belonged to this group also. In fiction the outstanding figures included V. M. Garshin and V. G. Korolenko. Maxim Gorky dominated fictional literature just prior to the Revolution of 1917. His passionate realism was echoed in the stories and dramas of his disciple Leonid Andreyev, while Ivan Bunin, also a member of Gorky's circle, wrote in a more conservative realistic vein.

Soviet Literature, 1917–39

After the triumph of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution (1917), many writers emigrated and were active abroad (Bunin, Kuprin, Merezhkovsky, Aldanov, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others). Some writers remained in Russia but published no new works; others became Communists; some adapted their talents to the needs of the new system while remaining partly aloof from its doctrines. Literary forms developed under the Bolshevik regime were at first similar to those appearing in Western Europe at the same time. In the first period after the revolution (to 1921) poetry flourished; principal figures included the symbolist Blok, the imagist S. A. Yesenin, and the iconoclast V. V. Mayakovsky. The older novelist Boris Pilnyak chronicled the new scene, and Isaac Babel wrote colorful short stories.

In the era of the New Economic Policy (1922–28) there was much debate over literary dictatorship, with the "On Guard" group arguing for it and the Mayakovsky group against it. The Serapion Brothers (a group including K. A. Fedin, M. M. Zoshchenko, Vsevolod Ivanov, V. A. Kaverin, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and Lev Lunts) proclaimed their credo of artistic independence, and the formalists emphasized the structure of a poem rather than its content. This period saw the rebirth of the novel in the satirical works of Ilya Ilf and Y. P. Petrov and in the psychological and romantic novels of L. M. Leonov, Yuri Olesha, and Kaverin. M. A. Sholokhov gave the revolution-oriented novel an epic breadth, and in 1928 Gorky returned to enormous popularity.

A general dissolution of the various literary groups took place from 1929 to 1932, and there was a marked trend toward political mobilization of writers. This trend was strengthened in the 1930s during Stalin's purges of the intelligentsia, and socialist realism was proclaimed as the guiding principle in all writing. In the drama, a form greatly encouraged and widely used as a means of propaganda, outstanding figures since the revolution include Yevgeny Schvartz, Nikolai Erdman, M. A. Bulgakov, S. M. Tretyakov, V. P. Katayev, V. M. Kirshon, A. N. Afinogenov, and Alexei Arbuzov. Boris Pasternak and Nikolai Tikhonov became the leading poets, and the novels of Ostrovsky, Aleksey Tolstoy, and Ilya Ehrenburg were widely read. V. B. Shklovski gained great influence as a critic.

World War II to the Present

During World War II, Ehrenburg and Simonov were outstanding reporters. The spirit of friendliness toward the West ended abruptly in 1946 with a campaign initiated by Andrei Zhdanov, a Communist party secretary. Cultural isolationism and rigid party dictatorship of literature were enforced, and the effects on literature were disastrous.

After the death of Stalin in 1953 some writers, previously in disgrace, were returned to favor; those still living were again permitted to publish. Ehrenburg's celebrated novel The Thaw (1954) described the despair of authors condemned to write in accordance with official doctrines. During this period cultural exchange with foreign countries was encouraged. In opposition to patriotic propaganda from orthodox party spokesmen, literature critical of Soviet society was, for a time, warmly received. Andrei Voznesensky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko were widely acclaimed for their nonconformist poetry. Voznesensky was praised for remarkable innovation in poetic form and use of language. Among Yevtushenko's most admired works is Babi Yar, an eloquent protest against Soviet anti-Semitism.

In 1963 the government and the Union of Soviet Writers issued severe reprimands to these and other dissident writers. Pasternak's epic novel Doctor Zhivago (1957), published and received with critical accolades throughout the Western world, was refused publication in the USSR, and the author was compelled by official pressure to decline the Nobel Prize.

After Khrushchev's fall from grace in 1964, the struggle to liberate Soviet writing from political control intensified. Famous writers such as Voznesensky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn publicly asked for an end to government censorship. Others, including Andrey Sinyavsky and Yuly Daniel, were imprisoned for permitting pseudonymous foreign publication of works critical of the Soviet regime. Solzhenitsyn's first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), described life in a concentration camp; its anti-Stalinism was in line with the political climate of 1962. His subsequent works earned him exile from Russia in 1974.

The 1980s saw new religious, even mystical, trends, as in the stories of Tatyana Tolstaya. After the fall of the Soviet regime, Solzhenitsyn returned to his homeland in 1994, twenty years after he had gone into exile. The playwright Mikhail Shatrov (1932–2010), who had been censored during the Soviet era, wrote witheringly of Stalin and pre-glasnost Russia. Meanwhile, younger writers reflected the changed milieu of post-Communist Russia in their pursuit of more personal and less political themes in their prose and poetry.


See D. S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature (rev. ed. 1949); E. J. Simmons, ed., Through the Glass of Soviet Literature (1953, repr. 1963); M. Slonim, The Epic of Russian Literature (1950, repr. 1964) and Soviet Russian Literature (rev. ed. 1967); H. E. Segel, ed., The Literature of Eighteenth-Century Russia (2 vol., 1967); E. J. Brown, Russian Literature since the Revolution (rev. ed. 1969); O. Carlisle, ed., Poets on Street Corners (1969); N. K. Gudzii, History of Early Russian Literature (1949, repr. 1970); G. Struve, Russian Literature under Lenin and Stalin (1971); W. E. Harkins, Dictionary of Russian Literature (1956, repr. 1971); J. Ferrell and A. Stokes, Early Russian Literature (1973); J. Lavrin, A Panorama of Russian Literature (1973); V. Jerras, ed., Handbook of Russian Literature (1985); V. Zubok, Zhivago's Children: The Last Russian Intelligensia (2009).

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