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Russian Literature

Brief History of the Russia


The country of Russia has been inhabited by people for thousands of years. The first
modern state in Russia was founded in 862 by King Rurik of the Rus, who was made the ruler of
Novgorod. Some years later, the Rus conquered the city of Kiev and started the kingdom of the
Kievan Rus. Over the 10th and 11th century the Kievan Rus became a powerful empire in Europe
reaching its peak under Vladimir the Great and Yaroslav I the Wise. During the 13th century the
Mongols led by Batu Khan overran the area and wiped out the Kievan Rus. In the 14th century the
Grand Duchy of Moscow rose to power. It became the head of the Eastern Roman Empire and
Ivan IV the Terrible crowned himself the first Tsar of Russia in 1547. Tsar was another name for
Caesar as the Russians called their empire the "Third Rome". In 1613, Mikhail Romanov
established the Romanov dynasty that would rule Russia for many years. Under the rule of Tsar
Peter the Great (1689-1725), the Russian empire continued to expand. It became a major power
throughout Europe. Peter the Great moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg. During the
19th century, Russian culture was at its peak. Famous artists and writers such as Dostoyevsky,
Tchaikovsky, and Tolstoy became famous throughout the world.
After World War I, in 1917, the
people of Russia fought against the
leadership of the Tsars. Vladimir Lenin led
the Bolshevik Party in revolution
overthrowing the Tsar. Civil war broke out
in 1918. Linen's side won and the
communist state the Soviet Union was born
in 1922. After Lenin died in 1924, Joseph
Stalin seized power. Under Stalin, millions
of people died in famines and executions.
During World War II, Russia
initially allied with the Germans. However, the Germans invaded Russia in 1941. Over 20 million
Russians died in World War II including over 2 million Jewish people who were killed as part of
the Holocaust.
In 1949, the Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons. An arms race developed between
Russia and the United States in what was called the Cold War. The Soviet economy suffered under
communism and isolationism. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and many of its member nations
declared independence. The remaining area became the country of Russia.

Russian Literature
Ancient Russian Literature
With the advent of Orthodox Christianity in 988 Russia was open to the best samples of
Byzantine culture. They laid the foundation for active development of religious literature. In the
early 12th century (1113) Nestor, the monk of Kiev Monastery of the Caves, wrote the Primary
Chronicle, which is by right is one of the most brilliant pieces of ancient Russian culture. “The
Tale of Igor’s Campaign” was another monument of ancient Russian literature, which was created
in the late 12th century.
Russian Medieval Literature
The 15th century was the time of hagiography. This genre depicts the lives of saints,
patriarchs, and monks. The legend of St. Peter and Fevronya of Murom was transformed into this
genre in the late 15th or early 16th century. This is a moving story about love between a Duke
(knyaz) and a daughter of an ordinary wild-hive beekeeper, which later turned into the symbol of
eternal love. The same period is known for the rising interest for stories about travels to faraway
lands. The most interesting and original work in this genre is “A Journey Beyond the Tree Seas”
by Athanasius Nikitin, the merchant from Tver, who wrote about his impressions of the Caucasus,
Persia, India, Turkey and Crimea in simple and fascinating language. The invention of book
printing was an important development for Russia. Ivan Fyodorov and Pyotr Mstislavets printed
the first exactly dated book, “Apostle”, in 1564.

The Blossoming of Russian Culture in the 18th Century


The 18th century was the Golden Age for Russian Literature. It split the literature into three
branches. The first was classicism – the style in art and literature characterized by high civic
subjects as well as integrity of place, time and action. Classicism reached its peak in works of
Mikhail Lomonosov, Gavriil Derzhavin, Sumarokov and others. Another trend in Russian
literature was realism, the most prominent representative of which was Denis Fonvizin, the author
of immortal comedy “The Minor”. The third direction was sentimentalism, which is characterized
by increased interest to human emotions, emotional perception of the surrounding world. In
Russian literature sentimentalism was represented by N. Karamzin who was not only a great
historian but also popular writer. In the early 19th century Karamzin became a conservative. His
new outlooks were reflected in his «History of the Russian State».

Russian Literature of the 19th Century.


Russian literature throve in the 19th century as well thanks to such famous names as
Alexander Griboyedov, Ivan Krylov, Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol and
many others.

Famous Russian Writers

Antiochus Kantemir
Antiochus Kantemir was a Moldavian who served as a man of letters, diplomat, and prince
during the Russian Enlightenment. He has been called "the father of Russian poetry".
Kantemir was born into a noble Moldavian family of Crimean Tatar origin, "Kantemir"
deriving from "Khan Timur", at Iaşi on 8 September 1708. His illiterate
grandfather Constantin had been made voivode of Moldavia by the Ottomans in 1685 and was
succeeded by his well-educated sons Antioch and Demetrius. Kantemir was the son of Demetrius
by his wife, the Princess Kassandra Cantacuzene, who claimed descent from the Byzantine
dynasty of the same name. He spent much of his youth in Constantinople as a hostage to the Turks.
He was then educated by his father and at the St Petersburg Academy[1] before moving to the
family estate near Dmitrovsk.
He served as the Russian ambassador at London from
1731 to 1736, when he was relocated to Paris to serve as
Russia's minister plenipotentiary to the Kingdom of France.
There, he became a noted intellectual and a close friend
of Montesquieu and Voltaire. Kantemir died a bachelor
in Paris amid litigation concerning his illegitimate children.
Kantemir used his classical education to assist Peter the
Great's programme of modernizing and westernizing Russian
culture. His most noticeable effort in this regard is his Petrida,
an unfinished epic glorifying the emperor. He produced a tract
on old Russian versification in 1744 and numerous odes and
fables. His use of gallic rhyme schemes can make his work
seem antiquated and awkward to modern readers.

He edited his father's History of the Growth and Decay


of the Ottoman Empire in England and wrote a biography and
bibliography of his father which later accompanied its 1756
edition. His 1742 Letters on Nature and Man (O Prirode i
Cheloveke) was a philosophical work. He is best remembered
for his satires in the manner of Juvenal, including To My Mind: On Those Who Blame Education
and On the Envy and Pride of Evil-Minded Courtiers, which were among the first such works in
the Russian language.

Kantemir also translated Horace and Anacreon into Russian, as well as Algarotti's
Dialogues on Light and Colors. His 1740 translation of De Fontenelle's Conversations on the
Plurality of Worlds was partly censored as heretical. His own works were translated into French
by the Abbé Guasco, who also penned his biography.

Ivan Krylov
Ivan Andreevich Krylov was a Russian poet, fabulist,
translator and writer. He is the author of more than 200 fables.
Krylov was born in Moscow into the family of a poor
army captain. He did not receive an exceptional education, but
his parents paid great atte ntion to his upbringing, and with time,
he became one of the most learned people of his era. When he
was six, his father resigned from the army and the family moved
to Tver. There, the young fabulist impressed the local landlord
Nikolay Lvov with his poetry and the landlord allowed him to
study together with his children.
Five years later Krylov moved to St. Petersburg to work
as a regional secretary, and soon brought his mother and younger
brother Lev to the capital. Despite his work, literature was his
main occupation at the time. This did not change when his
mother died and he was left to take care for his brother alone. At the time, Krylov wrote mainly
for the theater. He created the librettos for the comic operas “The Coffee Box” (“Kofeynitsa”) and
“The Rabid Family” (“Beshenaya semya”), the tragedies “Cleopatra” and “Philomela” and the
comedy “The Composer at the Entrance” (“Sochinitel v prikhozhey”). These works brought
neither money nor fame to the young author, but they helped him make a place for himself in the
St. Petersburg literary circles. He was patronized by the famous playwright Yakov Knyazhnin, but
Krylov broke their ties because of his own pride. After that, he wrote the comedy “The
Pranksters,” whose lead characters hinted at Knyazhnin and his wife. “The Pranksters” was a
more mature work, but the staging of it was prohibited and Krylov had his relations spoiled not
only with the Knyazhnins, but also with the theater directorate, upon whom the fate of any dramatic
work depended.
Starting from the end of the 1780s, Krylov’s main work was in the field of journalism. In
January 1789, he began publishing a monthly satiric magazine called “The Spirit Mail” (“Pochta
dukhov”), which derided noblemen’s vices and bureaucracy. However, eight months later the
magazine closed down because it had too few subscribers. The following year Krylov left
journalism and decided to dedicate himself fully to literature. He became the owner of a publishing
house and together with his friend, the writer Klushin, he started to publish a new magazine, “The
Viewer” (“Zritel”), which became more popular than the previous one. A year later, it was renamed
the “St. Petersburg Mercury,” but at the end of the year, it ceased publication. Krylov left St.
Petersburg for several years. There is no accurate information about his life during this period. In
1797 Krylov appeared at Prince Golitsyn’s estate, where he worked as the prince’s secretary and
his children’s teacher.
Two years later Krylov wrote the play “Trumf or Podshchipa” for a home performance at
the Golitsyns. The pièce ridiculed Emperor Pavel I Romanov and the irony of the play was so
pointed that it was only published in 1871. After the Emperor’s death, prince Golitsyn was
appointed Governor General of Riga, and Krylov worked as his secretary for two more years before
resigning in 1803. The only thing that is known about next two years of his life is that it was the
time he started writing fables. Upon arriving in Moscow in 1806, he showed the famous poet and
fabulist Ivan Dmitriev his translation of two Jean de La Fontaine fables, “The Oak and the Cane”
and “The Picky Bride.” In 1806 Krylov published three fables, before returning to dramaturgy.
In 1807 he wrote three plays that gained major popularity and success on the stage, “The
Fashion Shop” (“Modnaya lavka”), “A Lesson For the Daughters” (“Urok dochkam”) and “Ilya
the Bogatyr.” The former two were especially successful, as
each of them in its own way laughed at the nobility’s attraction
to French language, fashion and manners. The plays were
staged multiple times, and “The Fashion Shop” was even
staged at the royal court. Despite his theatrical success, Krylov
quit playwriting and started to devote more and more time to
fables.
In a year, he wrote 17 fables, including the famous
“Moska and the Elephant” (“Slon i Moska”). In 1809, his first
fable collection was published, affording Krylov instant
popularity. Krylov worked on his fables until his last days; in
1844 his friends received the last edition of his fables together
with the notification of his death.
At first, translations or interpretations of La Fontaine’s
fables prevailed in Krylov’s works (“The Dragonfly and the
Ant,” “The Wolf and the Lamb”), bu t he soon started
inventing more and more plots of his own, many of which
were connected to the burning issues of contemporary Russian life. He reacted to various political
events with fables like “The Quartet” (“Kvartet”) and “The Wolf in the Kennels” (“Volk na
psarne”). More abstract plots were the basis of “The Curious” (“Lyuboytny”) and “The Hermit
and the Bear” (“Pustynnik i medved”). Working in a new genre completely changed Krylov’s
reputation. Through the first half of his life he was practically unknown and suffered from money
troubles and hardships; now, he was showered with honors and enjoyed universal respect as his
books were published in enormous runs.
Together with popular acclaim came official recognition. Starting in 1810, Krylov worked
first as assistant librarian, then as librarian in the Imperial Public Library in St. Petersburg. At the
same time, he received a growing pension “as respect for exceptional talents in Russia’s language
arts.” He was elected a member of the Russian Academy and awarded a gold medal for literary
achievements, along with many other awards and honors. Even so, Krylov’s popularity was
characterized by a multitude of half-legendary stories about his laziness, gluttony and sharp wit.
Although his fables were translated to the French and Italian languages, Krylov remained
hostile to Westernism throughout his life.
Towards the end of his life Krylov suffered two cerebral hemorrhages, but recovered at
Empress Mariya Fedorovna’s palace in Pavlovsk. Soon after, however, he died in St. Petersburg.
His death was caused, according to various sources, either by over-eating or pneumonia. He is
buried in the Necropolis of the Masters of Arts.

Alexander Pushkin
Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was a Russian poet, short-story writer, novelist, and
dramatist commonly considered as Russia's greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian
literature. Born into an aristocratic family, Pushkin attended school at the prestigious Imperial
Lyceum at Tsarskoye Selo from 1811-1817, where, at age 15, he published his first poem and
impressed the renowned poet Gavrila Derzhavin.

He followed the traditional aristocratic career


path by taking a post in the foreign service office in St.
Petersburg after his graduation, but in 1820, the year
his narrative poem "Ruslan and Lyudmila" was
published, he was exiled from the capital due to some
of his politically subversive poems. Pushkin headed
south to what is now Ukraine, the northern Caucasus,
and the Crimea, and from these experiences he
composed his so-called "southern cycle" of poems.
Also, in 1823 Pushkin began writing his novel-in-verse
Eugene Onegin.

Due to an intercepted letter, Pushkin was exiled


to Mikhailovskoe, his mother's estate, where he would
spend the years 1824-1826. There he wrote the
provincial chapters of Eugene Onegin and his historical tragedy Boris Godunov, which was not
published until 1831. The year after the 1825 Decembrist Revolt, in which several of Pushkin's
friends were involved, Pushkin was pardoned by Tsar Nicholas I and allowed to return to Moscow.
Over the course of the incredibly productive autumn of 1830 spent at the family estate of
Bordino at Nizhny Novgorod, Pushkin completed several works including The Tales of Belkin, a
short-story collection. The following year he married the celebrated beauty Natalya Goncharova,
received a lowly court position, and reentered the government service.

Despite the pressures of his social and professional lives, Pushkin continued his artistic
productivity, finishing Eugene Onegin in 1831; writing "The Queen of Spades," his most famous
short-story, and "The Bronze Horseman," one of his most famous poems, in 1833; and The
Captain's Daughter, a prose novel, in 1836. Distressed by tight censorship of his work, mounting
debts, and personal attacks, in 1837 Pushkin fought a duel with Georges d'Anthès, his wife's
alleged lover, and died of his wounds.

Pushkin's paramount position in the history of Russian literature is owed to his rejuvenation
of the Russian language and literary forms. From a wide, international reading and an intimacy
with traditional Russian culture, Pushkin produced a distinctly new idiom which, as twentieth-
century novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote, combined the profundity of Church Slavonic (the
classical Russian language), the flavor of the French so popular among the Russian aristocracy,
and the realism of the colloquial speech from all rungs of Russian society.

Moreover, by opening the quotidian topic of contemporary society to literary endeavor, he


paved the path for the legendary nineteenth-century Russian realist novel. Such legendary authors
as Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and Fyodor Dostoevsky have acknowledged their inheritance from
Pushkin, who, as Maksim Gorky wrote, was for Russian literature "the beginning of beginnings."

Nikolay Karamzin
Nikolay Mikhailovich Karamzin was a Russian
writer, poet, historian and critic. He is best remembered for
his History of the Russian State, a 12-volume national
history.

In 1794, Karamzin abandoned his literary journal and


published a miscellany in two volumes entitled Aglaia, in w
hich appeared, among other stories, The Island of Bornholm
and Ilya Muromets, the latter a story based on the adventures
of the well-known hero of many a Russian legend. From
1797 to 1799, he issued another miscellany or poetical
almanac, The Aonides, in conjunction with Derzhavin and
Dmitriev. In 1798 he compiled The Pantheon, a collection of
pieces from the works of the most celebrated authors ancient
and modern, translated into Russian. Many of his lighter
productions were subsequently printed by him in a volume entitled My Trifles. Admired by
Alexander Pushkin and Vladimir Nabokov, the style of his writings is elegant and flowing,
modelled on the easy sentences of the French prose writers rather than the long periodical
paragraphs of the old Slavonic school. His example proved beneficial for the creation of a Russian
literary language, a major contribution for the history of Russian literature.
In 1802 and 1803, Karamzin edited the journal the Envoy of Europe (Vestnik Evropy). It
was not until after the publication of this work that he realized where his strength lay, and
commenced his 12 volume History of the Russian State. In order to accomplish the task, he
secluded himself for two years at Simbirsk.

When Emperor Alexander learned the cause of his retirement, Karamzin was invited to
Tver, where he read to the emperor the first eight volumes of his history. He was a strong supporter
of the anti-Polish policies of the Russian Empire, and expressed hope that there would be no Poland
under any shape or name. In 1816, he removed to St Petersburg, where he spent the happiest days
of his life, enjoying the favour of Alexander I and submitting to him the sheets of his great work,
which the emperor read over with him in the gardens of the palace of Tsarskoye Selo.

He did not, however, live to carry his work further than the eleventh volume, terminating
it at the accession of Michael Romanov in 1613. He died on 22 May (old style) 1826, in the Tauride
Palace. A monument was erected to his memory at Simbirsk in 1845.

Alexander Sumarokov
Alexander Petrovich Sumarokov was a Russian poet and playwright who single-handedly
created classical theatre in Russia, thus assisting Mikhail Lomonosov to inaugurate the reign of
classicism in Russian literature.
Born of a good family of Muscovite gentry,
Sumarokov was educated at the Cadet School in
Petersburg, where he acquired an intimate familiarity
with French polite learning. Neither an aristocratic
dilettante like Antiokh Kantemir nor a learned
professor like Vasily Trediakovsky, he was the first
gentleman in Russia to choose the profession of letters.
He consequently may be called the father of the
Russian literary profession. His pursuits di d not
undermine his position in the family; indeed, his
grandson was made a count and, when the Sumarokov
family became extinct a century later, the title
eventually passed to Prince Felix Yusupov, who also
held the title of Count Sumarokov-Elston.

Sumarokov wrote much and regularly, chiefly


in those literary kinds neglected by Lomonosov. His
principal importance rests in his plays, among which Khorev (1749) is regarded as the first regular
Russian drama. He ran the first permanent public theatre in the Russian capital, where he worked
with the likes of Fyodor Volkov and Ivan Dmitrievsky. His plays were based on the subjects taken
from Russian history (Dmitry Samozvanets), proto-Russian legends (Khorev) or on Shakespearean
plots (Makbet, Hamlet).

D.S. Mirsky believed that there could be no doubt "the good acting made the reputation of
Sumarokov, as the literary value of his plays is small. His tragedies are a stultification of the
classical method; their Alexandrine couplets are exceedingly harsh; their characters are
marionettes. His comedies are adaptations of French plays, with a feeble sprinkling of Russian
traits. Their dialogue is a stilted prose that had never been spoken by anyone and reeked of
translation".

Sumarokov's non-dramatic work is by no means negligible. His fables are the first attempt
in a genre that was destined to flourish in Russia with particular vigor. His satires, in which he
occasionally imitates the manner of popular poetry, are racy and witty attacks against the
government clerks and officers of law. His songs, of all his writings, still attract readers of poetry.
They are remarkable for a prodigious metrical inventiveness and a genuine gift of melody. In
subject matter they are entirely within the pale of classical, conventional love poetry.

Sumarokov's literary criticism is usually carping and superficial, but it did much to
inculcate on the Russian public the canons of classical taste. He was a loyal follower of Voltaire,
with whom he prided himself on having exchanged several letters. Vain and self-conscious,
Sumarokov considered himself a Russian Racine and Voltaire in one. In personal relations he was
irritable, touchy, and often petty. But his exacting touchiness contributed, almost as much as did
Lomonosov's calm dignity, to raise the profession of the pen and to give it a definite place in
society.

His daughter Ekaterina, an 18th-century poet, is often considered to be the first Russian
woman writer,as she, together with Elizaveta Kheraskova (ru) and Alexandra Rzhevskaia (ru) were
the first women to see their works printed in Russian journals.

Anton Chekhov
Russian writer Anton Chekhov is recognized as a
master of the modern short story and a leading playwright of
the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Anton Chekhov was born on January 29, 1860, in
Taganrog, Russia. Through stories such as "The Steppe" and
"The Lady with the Dog," and plays such as The Seagull and
Uncle Vanya, the prolific writer emphasized the depths of
human nature, the hidden significance of everyday events
and the fine line between comedy and tragedy. Chekhov died
of tuberculosis on July 15, 1904, in Badenweiler, Germany.

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