Russian literature

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. 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).

This article is about literature from Russia. For the song by Maxïmo Park, see Our Earthly Pleasures.

Russian literature refers to the literature of Russia or its émigrés, and to the Russian-language literature of several independent nations once a part of what was historically Russia or the Soviet Union. Prior to the nineteenth century Russia produced very little, if any, internationally read literature, but from around the 1830s Russian literature underwent an astounding golden age, beginning with the poet Aleksandr Pushkin and culminating in two of the greatest novelists in world literature, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the playwright Anton Chekhov. In the twentieth century leading figures of Russian literature included internationally recognised poets such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky, and prose writers Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Nabokov, Mikhail Sholokhov, Mikhail Bulgakov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Early history

Old Russian literature consists of several masterpieces written in the Old Russian language (not to be confused with the contemporaneous Church Slavonic). Anonymous works of this nature include The Tale of Igor's Campaign (Слово о Полку Игореве, Slovo o Polku Igoreve) and the Praying of Daniel the Immured (Моление Даниила Заточника, or Moleniye Daniila Zatochnika). The so-called жития святых (zhitiya svyatikh, lives of the saints) formed a popular genre of the Old Russian literature. The Life of Alexander Nevsky (Житие Александра Невского, or Zhitiye Aleksandra Nevskovo) offers a well-known example. Other Russian literary monuments include Zadonschina, Physiologist, Synopsis and A Journey Beyond the Three Seas. Bylinas – oral folk epics – fused Christian and pagan traditions. Medieval Russian literature had an overwhelmingly religious character and used an adapted form of the Church Slavonic language with many South Slavic elements. The first work in colloquial Russian, the autobiography of arch priest Avvakum, emerged only in the mid-17th century.

Petrine era

The "Westernization" of Russia, commonly associated with Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, coincided with a reform of the Russian alphabet and increased tolerance of the idea of employing the popular language for general literary purposes. Authors like Antioch Kantemir, Vasily Trediakovsky, and Mikhail Lomonosov in the earlier 18th century paved the way for poets like Derzhavin, playwrights like Sumarokov and Fonvizin, and prose writers like Radishchev and Karamzin, the later is often credited with creation of modern Russian literary language.

Golden Era

The 19th century is traditionally referred to as the "Golden Era" of Russian literature. Romanticism permitted a flowering of especially poetic talent: the names of Zhukovsky and later that of his protegé Aleksandr Pushkin came to the fore. Pushkin is credited with both crystallizing the literary Russian language and introducing a new level of artistry to Russian literature. His best-known work is a novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. An entire new generation of poets including Mikhail Lermontov, Evgeny Baratynsky, Konstantin Batyushkov, Nikolai Alekseevich Nekrasov, Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, Fyodor Tyutchev, and Afanasij Fet followed in Pushkin's steps.

Prose was flourishing as well. The first great Russian novelist was Nikolai Gogol. Then came Leskov, Ivan Turgenev, Saltykov-Shchedrin and Goncharov. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky who soon became internationally renowned to the point that many scholars have described one or the other as the greatest novelist ever. In the second half of the century Anton Chekhov excelled in writing short stories and became perhaps the leading dramatist internationally of his period.

Other important nineteenth-century developments included Ivan Krylov the fabulist; non-fiction writers such as Belinsky and Herzen; playwrights such as Griboedov and Ostrovsky and Kozma Prutkov (a collective pen name) the satirist.

Silver Age

The beginning of the 20th century ranks as the Silver Age of Russian poetry. Well-known poets of the period include: Alexander Blok, Sergei Esenin, Valery Bryusov, Konstantin Bal'mont, Mikhail Kuzmin, Igor Severyanin, Sasha Cherny, Nikolay Gumilyov, Maximilian Voloshin, Innokenty Annensky, Zinaida Gippius. The poets most often associated with the "Silver Age" are Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak. These latter two women and two men are sometimes jokingly called "The ABBA of Russian poetry".

While the Silver Age is considered as the development of the 19th century Russian literature tradition, some avant-garde poets tried to overturn it: Velimir Khlebnikov, David Burlyuk and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Though the Silver Age is famous mostly for its poetry, it gave some first-rate novelists and short-story writers, such as Alexander Kuprin, Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin, Leonid Andreyev, Fedor Sologub, Aleksey Remizov, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Andrei Bely, though most of them wrote poetry as well as prose.

Soviet era

The first years of the Soviet regime were marked by the proliferation of avant-garde literature groups. One of the most important was the Oberiu movement that included Nikolay Zabolotsky, Alexander Vvedensky, Konstantin Vaginov and the most famous Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms. Other famous authors experimenting with language were Andrei Platonov, Mikhail Zoschenko, Yuri Olesha and Isaac Babel.

But soon Sovietization of the country brought Sovietization of the literature. Socialist realism became the only officially approved style. Novelists Maxim Gorky, Nobel Prize winner Mikhail Sholokhov, and Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoi; and poets Konstantin Simonov and Aleksandr Tvardovsky were the most prominent representatives of the official Soviet literature. Only a few, such as Ilf and Petrov, with their picaresque novels about a charismatic con artist Ostap Bender, could publish without strictly following the Socialist realism guidelines.

Many writers wished to resist official ideology. Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita, and Boris Pasternak with his novel Doctor Zhivago continued the classical tradition of Russian literature with little hope of being published. The Serapion Brothers insisted on the right to write independently of political ideology: this brought them into conflict with the government.

Meanwhile, émigré writers, such as poets Georgy Ivanov, Georgy Adamov and Vladislav Khodasevich; and novelists such as Ivan Bunin, Gaito Gazdanov, Mark Aldanov and Vladimir Nabokov, continued to flourish in exile.

In post-Stalin Russia, Socialist realism remained the only permitted style, and while some good authors such as Yury Trifonov managed to make it through censorship barriers, most, like Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (who built his works on the legacy of the gulag camps), or Vasily Grossman couldn't publish their major works in the USSR.

The authorities tried to control Russian literature even abroad: for example, they put pressure on the Nobel Prize committee to deny Konstantin Paustovsky the Literature Prize in 1965. The prize was awarded instead to Mikhail Sholokhov who was more loyal to the Soviet regime. Pasternak was forced to refuse his Nobel Prize in 1958.

Post-Communist Russia saw most of these works be published and become a part of mainstream culture. However, even before the decay of the Soviet Union, tolerance to non-mainstream art had slowly started to grow, especially during the Khrushchev Thaw. Some works of Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov were published in the 1960s. The decade brought out new popular authors, such as Strugatsky brothers who disguised Social criticism as Science fiction. Poetry became a mass cultural phenomenon: Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrey Voznesensky, Robert Rozhdestvensky and Bella Akhmadulina read their poems in stadiums and attracted huge crowds.

But the thaw didn't last long. In the 1970s, some of the most prominent authors were not only banned from publishing, but were also prosecuted for their Anti-Soviet sentiments or parasitism. Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the country. Leaders of the younger generation, such as Nobel prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky, novelists Vasily Aksenov, Eduard Limonov and Sasha Sokolov, short story writer Sergei Dovlatov, had to emigrate to the US, while Venedikt Erofeyev "emigrated" to alcoholism. They remained known in the Soviet Union with the help of samizdat. The only relatively independent prose that could be published during this period of time was the Village Prose, whose most prominent representatives were Viktor Astafiyev and Valentin Rasputin.

Post-Soviet era

The end of the 20th century has proven a difficult period for Russian literature, with relatively few distinct voices. Among the most discussed authors of these period were novelists Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin, and the poet Dmitry Alexandrovich Prigov.

A relatively new trend in Russian literature is that female novelists such as Tatyana Tolstaya, Lyudmila Ulitskaya or Dina Rubina have come into prominence.

Detective stories and thrillers have proven a very successful genre of new Russian literature: in the 90s serial detective novels by Alexandra Marinina, Polina Dashkova and Darya Dontsova were published in millions of copies. In the next decade a more "high-brow" author Boris Akunin with his series about the 19th century sleuth Erast Fandorin became widely popular.

Tradition of classic Russian novel continues with such author as Mikhail Shishkin.

The leading poets of the young generation are arguably Dmitry Vodennikov and Andrey Rodionov, both famous not only for their verses, but also for their ability to artistically recite them.

Russian literature abroad

Russian literature is not only written by Russians. In the Soviet times such popular writers as Belarusian Vasil Bykov, Kyrgyz Chinghiz Aitmatov and Abkhaz Fazil Iskander wrote some of their books in Russian. Some renowned contemporary authors writing in Russian have been born and live in Ukraine (Andrey Kurkov, Marina and Sergey Dyachenko) or Baltic States (Garros and Evdokimov).

A number of prominent Russian authors such as novelists Mikhail Shishkin, Ruben Gonsales Galiego, Svetlana Martynchik and Dina Rubina, poets Alexei Tsvetkov and Bakhyt Kenzheev, though born in USSR, live and work in Europe, North America or Israel.

Themes in Russian books

Suffering, often as a means of redemption, is a recurrent theme in Russian literature. Dostoevsky in particular is noted for exploring suffering in works such as Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment. Christianity and Christian symbolism are also important themes, notably in the works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov. In the 20th century, suffering as a mechanism of evil was explored by authors such as Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago.

A leading Russian literary critic of the 20th century Viktor Shklovsky, in his book, Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, wrote, "Russian literature has a bad tradition. Russian literature is devoted to the description of unsuccessful love affairs."

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