Russian Literature
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Russian Literature

Andrew Baruch Wachtel, Ilya Vinitsky

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eBook - ePub

Russian Literature

Andrew Baruch Wachtel, Ilya Vinitsky

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About This Book

For most English-speaking readers, Russian literature consists of a small number of individual writers - nineteenth-century masters such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev - or a few well-known works - Chekhov's plays, Brodsky's poems, and perhaps Master and Margarita and Doctor Zhivago from the twentieth century. The medieval period, as well as the brilliant tradition of Russian lyric poetry from the eighteenth century to the present, are almost completely terra incognita, as are the complex prose experiments of Nikolai Gogol, Nikolai Leskov, Andrei Belyi, and Andrei Platonov. Furthermore, those writers who have made an impact are generally known outside of the contexts in which they wrote and in which their work has been received.

In this engaging book, Andrew Baruch Wachtel and Ilya Vinitsky provide a comprehensive, conceptually challenging history of Russian literature, including prose, poetry and drama. Each of the ten chapters deals with a bounded time period from medieval Russia to the present. In a number of cases, chapters overlap chronologically, thereby allowing a given period to be seen in more than one context. To tell the story of each period, the authors provide an introductory essay touching on the highpoints of its development and then concentrate on one biography, one literary or cultural event, and one literary work, which serve as prisms through which the main outlines of a given period?s development can be discerned. Although the focus is on literature, individual works, lives and events are placed in broad historical context as well as in the framework of parallel developments in Russian art and music.

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The Origins: Russian Medieval Culture
According to one influential view of Russian cultural history, a book devoted primarily to modern developments could well begin with a consideration of eighteenth-century Russian literature. Anything before that belongs to a completely different cultural formation, one no more closely related to modern Russia than classical Roman culture is to modern Italy. This attitude grows from a broadly accepted understanding of the import of the reign of Emperor Peter I (the Great). Peter, it is said, created Russia anew from the ground up, annihilating earlier Russian cultural practices and refashioning a new culture oriented to Western Europe rather than to the autarkic and / or “Asiatic” cultural tradition that had developed in the Russian lands over the previous 750 years. The historian and philosopher Mikhail Pogodin (1800–75) expressed this sentiment baldly in the first issue of his journal The Muscovite (Moskvitianin) in 1841:
We cannot open our eyes; we cannot make a move; we cannot turn in any direction without encountering him: at home, in the street, church, school, court, regiment, at leisure. He is everywhere, every day, every minute, at every step. We wake up. What day is it? 1 January 1841. Peter the Great ordered us to number years from the birth of Christ. Peter the Great ordered us to take January as the first month. Time to get dressed – our clothing is sewn in the manner Peter the Great prescribed, our uniforms according to his design. The fabric is woven at a factory that he founded; the wool is shorn from sheep that he bred. Our gaze falls upon a book – Peter the Great introduced this alphabet and carved this type himself. You begin to read – Under Peter the First this language became a written, literary one, supplanting the earlier church language. The newspapers are brought in – Peter the Great founded them.
Although no one would dispute that much in Russia did change in the wake of Peter’s reforms, we do not accept the claim that modern Russian literature can be understood without reference to medieval Russian culture, which in fact remained remarkably vibrant and influential in many spheres despite all attempts to suppress it and which played an important role in creating the distinctive outlines of modern Russian culture in general and literature in particular. That having been said, it is important to recognize that the cultural mentality of Russians, even well-educated Russians in the period before the eighteenth century was, from a modern Western perspective, peculiar, and needs to be understood on its own terms rather than as a direct precursor of modern Russian thought. Furthermore, although there are significant continuities in the culture of Russia from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries, it is dangerous to lump all of the dynamic development of this long time frame into a single “period” whose defining characteristic is that it is not identical to modern Russian culture. Recognizing and appreciating these difficulties, we nevertheless sketch a history of Old Russian culture, focusing primarily on those elements that remained salient into the modern period.
Before beginning, the ambiguity of the term “Old Russian” must be considered. The Rus’, according to the best evidence that can be mustered, were a relatively small group of Norse (Viking) war lords, who came to rule over a group of speakers of East Slavic dialects in the area of today’s northwestern Russia (around Novgorod), beginning sometime in the ninth century. In a relatively short time this ruling caste became Slavicized and extended its reach to other territories in the immediate vicinity and farther south along the trade route that connected the Baltic to the Black Sea. Though they shifted their base of operations depending on the vicissitudes of war, dynastic politics, and the personal preference of various warlord leaders, Kiev, in today’s Ukraine became their most important stronghold by the tenth century. It remained the center of what has come to be called Kievan Rus’ through the beginning of the thirteenth century when the city was sacked by the armies of Batu Khan.
As was the case with analogous political formations all over medieval Europe, the Rus’ state was unified, insofar as it was unified at all, by a dynastic rather than a national conception, held together by the horizontal relationships of the rulers of its various territories rather than by a vertical conception of the cultural or ethnic solidarity of its inhabitants. Thus, while the ruling class had a fairly strong notion of the Rus’ territories, which comes through clearly in various literary works, they had no interest in the creation of a homogeneous Rus’ nation. After the destruction of Kiev, Rus’ fragmented and a number of formerly peripheral cities attempted to take up the mantle of Rus’ in the forest regions that the Mongols could not control (or did not find worth controlling). Among these were Vladimir-Suzdal in the northeast, Novgorod in the northwest, and Volhynia in the southwest. In the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, Moscow, which had been unimportant during the heyday of Kievan Rus’, became the most powerful East Slav city, eliminating rival Slavic centers of power as a vassal state to the Tatars, and eventually leading a coalition against the Tatars by the late fourteenth century. As Moscow gained political hegemony, it also claimed religious and cultural centrality and its leaders came to view their state as the natural heir, not only to the cultural patrimony of Kievan Rus’ but to that of all Orthodox Christianity. The Byzantines had seen themselves as Romans and Constantinople was dubbed the Second Rome. After its fall to the Ottomans in 1453, Moscow was the only remaining Orthodox Christian power, and Muscovite ideologues developed the theory of Moscow as the Third (and final) Rome.
When modern European notions of the nation appeared in the mid to late eighteenth century, Russian nationalists created a narrative of political and cultural development that outlined a natural arc from Kievan Rus’ through Muscovy to modern Russia. This narrative remained more or less unchallenged as long as Russia was the only East Slavic national state. More recently, however, nationalist-oriented scholars in Ukraine, and to a lesser extent Belarus, have claimed the culture of Kievan Rus’ as their ancestor, dubbing it not Old Russian culture, as had been the standard usage, but Old Ukrainian or Old Belarusian culture. Recent, post-nationalist scholarship has emphasized the problematic nature of any such assertion, focusing on the wide variety of proto-national cultural formations among the East Slavs and noting the artificiality of any narrative that seeks to assert a single, teleological line of national cultural development. From our perspective this controversy misses the point. Certainly other modern cultures can plausibly claim to be the heirs of what has traditionally been called Old Russian culture. Rather than engaging in polemics regarding who owns the legacy of this culture, however, we prefer to explicate some of its specificities and to point out ways in which it affected the formation of modern Russian culture. We will, however, use the term Old Rusian to describe the culture of Kievan Rus’ and reserve Old Russian for the culture that developed in the Eastern portions of the Rus’ lands after the Mongol invasions of the early thirteenth century.
Event – The Christianization of Rus’
According to the Primary Chronicle (Povest’ vremennykh let) the crucial historical source for our knowledge of Kievan Rus’ as well as a key early literary work (see below), the Rus’ prince Vladimir agreed to be baptized and to convert his people to Byzantine-rite Christianity in the late 890s. This choice was undoubtedly the single most important cultural event of the entire pre-modern period, as Christianization laid the foundations for practically every cultural development that would occur on the Russian lands over the next seven hundred years.
According to the Chronicle account, Vladimir chose Byzantine-rite Christianity having carefully considered alternative monotheistic religions – Judaism, Latin-rite Christianity, and Islam. Islam was rejected because of its prohibition against alcohol – “Drink is Rus’s love,” Vladimir is quoted as saying, “we cannot do without it.” Judaism was rejected because its contemporary Diasporic reality suggested that it lacked the ability to be the basis for a strong political state, and there is no doubt that Vladimir was interested in conversion at least as much for political as for spiritual reasons. While Roman Christianity impressed Vladimir’s envoys, they were awed by the pomp and circumstance of Christianity as practiced in Constantinople, then the greatest city in the Western world. “The Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.”1
To be sure, the Chronicle account must be taken with a grain of salt, or at least it must be recognized that the choice of Byzantine-rite Christianity was over-determined. The Byzantine Empire had been the main civilization with which the Rus’ had been trading for more than one hundred years, and a religious alliance with the Greeks made more sense than one with religions professed by groups whose center was more distant. Constantinople was, after all, the capital of the most powerful empire of its day, and could likely provide the Rus’ lands with some added protection. As had been the case with South Slav rulers who had converted earlier, Vladimir also probably recognized that Christianity could be a unifying force in his kingdom. Furthermore, individual members of the Rus’ elite had been converting to Byzantine Christianity for many years (including Vladimir’s grandmother Olga who had been baptized some fifty years earlier by the Byzantine Emperor himself) so the religion was not completely unfamiliar. Finally, according to the Chronicle, Vladimir reaped significant personal benefits from his willingness to convert, including the ultimate trophy wife: the sister of the Byzantine Emperor. A marital union with the most powerful empire in the Western world was an obvious sign that Vladimir and his realm were important.
Nevertheless, just because a ruler agreed to convert did not necessarily mean that his subjects thought the same way. For the rank and file, the benefits of conversion were unclear. The pagan gods had provided a sense of security for many, and it is difficult to believe they were eager to give up familiar idols for the abstract, text-based Christian faith. As the Chronicle account states when recounting that Vladimir forced the sons of the “best people” to study Christian books: “The mothers of these children cried over them; for they were not yet firm in their faith and they cried over them as if they had died” (132). Given that we can find exhortations against various pagan practices in texts by Christian clerics for hundreds of years, we can guess that despite Christianity’s ability to fold pagan customs into its practices, Christianity and paganism continued to exist side by side for a long time. Indeed, ethnographers could still find echoes of pre-Christian practices in the life and folkways of nineteenth-century Russian peasants, though they had lost any connection to an organized pagan Slavic belief system.
Regardless of how quickly or thoroughly the masses embraced the new religion, the adoption of Christianity in Rus’ was of critical importance for further cultural and social developments. In accepting the Orthodox religion, Rus’ became part of the Byzantine Orthodox world and unavoidably assimilated many Byzantine political customs and assumptions. The Byzantine Empire was first and foremost a Christian state, whose basic doctrines were defined by the church fathers, the church councils, and the decisions of the various Byzantine emperors. Although during earlier centuries the church had been racked by heresies and doctrinal disagreements, after the final victory of those in favor of icon veneration in 843, the doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox Church was essentially fixed. By comparison with Catholicism (not to mention later Protestantism), Orthodoxy was a traditionalist religion, which placed great stock in liturgy and ritual and tended to be less concerned with individual achievements. To be sure, at the time of the conversion, Christianity had not yet split definitively between Orthodoxy and Catholicism (this would occur only in 1054). Nevertheless, for both political and ecclesiastical reasons the two wings of the church had been drifting apart for hundreds of years, and by the late tenth century, they were clearly distinct. As the Chronicle account indicates, the Rus’ were particularly impressed by the liturgical and sensory aspects of Orthodoxy, rather than by its theological principles, and they would remain attached to the somewhat more mystical and less rational practices of Orthodoxy.
In the Byzantine scheme of things, the emperor, chosen by God, was more powerful than any Western ruler. It was the emperor, not the patriarch (the title given to the spiritual leader of the Orthodox church), who presided over church councils and expounded dogmatic pronouncements. While Catholic popes could make even the most powerful Catholic kings bend to their will at times, the Byzantine patriarch was appointed by the emperor and could be dismissed by him. When one eleventh-century patriarch tried to challenge this arrangement he was arrested, beaten, and thrown into prison where he died before a trial could occur. In the Orthodox world, therefore, the linkage between church and state was tighter than in the West, and state interference with church affairs was more pervasive.
Because the Byzantine church permitted the liturgy to be celebrated and the central religious texts translated into local languages and because some southern Slavic groups had converted earlier (the Bulgarians, for example, had done so by the early 860s) translations of many basic theological texts already existed in a comprehensible Slavic idiom. The rapid influx of “prepackaged” religious texts was of cardinal importance to future literary developments. There is no evidence that the Rus’ possessed any writing system before their conversion to Christianity. The provenance of the religious texts translated by Saints Kiril and Methodius for missionary work among the Eastern and Southern Slavs ensured that their language (which would later come to be called Old Church Slavonic) and the language of everyday conversation in Rus’ would not be identical. Linguists use the word diglossia to describe a cultural system in which two languages or linguistic registers exist side-by-side in a given cultural milieu and can be called upon to serve different functions. This is a useful term and applies well to the situation in Rus’, though it would be better to imagine the two spheres as more like poles on a continuum than separate and impermeable systems. Thus, the religious texts brought to Rus’ and copied by local scribes quickly took on features of the local spoken dialect, and the local dialect rapidly began to absorb words and grammatical constructions borrowed from the bookish language of the church.
Throughout the history of Russian literature writers have exploited the diglossia between Church Slavonic and spoken Russian for stylistic effect, and this rich linguistic potential is one of the most significant long-term influences of Old Rusian culture on modern Russian literature. In the 1750s Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–65) developed a theory of “three styles” for modern Russian literature distinguished by the relationship of Slavonicisms to colloquial Russian. The high style, suitable for epic and tragedy, was to contain a preponderance of Slavonic forms, a middle style, suitable for lyric poetry, verse comedy, and prose, would exhibit a mixture of Slavonicisms and Russian forms, while a low style suitable for fables and other popular genres would primarily employ colloquial Russian. Battles between proponents of Slavonicisms and those who favored a more colloquial idiom would continue from the mid-eighteenth century into the 1820s, after which time Russian forms generally gained the upper hand. Nevertheless, Slavonicisms continue to exist in parallel to more standard Russian forms to this day. To an extent, the modern usage is analogous to the option writers of English have to choose between more colloquial Germanic words and rarified Latinate synonyms (to find someone innocent or to exculpate him, for example) except that in modern Russian the relationship is more consistent and more frequently exploited.
In addition to literary culture, the Rus’ borrowed heavily from the architectural and visual lexicon of Constantinople. The first Russian stone churches were built by the late tenth century in Kiev and in Novgorod in the eleventh century, and a number of these edifices remained in a remarkably good state of preservation into the modern period. The domed church building (though not onion-domed – this characteristic Russian style did not appear until later, probably in the thirteenth century) became a ubiquitous feature of the Russian landscape. And the icon, again imported originally from Constantinople but quickly nativized by Russian painters, became a feature not only of church interiors but also of homes, both peasant and noble. Even after the Petrine reforms, the icon did not lose its central place in the traditional Russian home, and iconic images retained a significant place in the cultural memory of modern Russians.
Initially, the Rus’ were satisfied to attach themselves to the great Christian narrative but did not claim to play a crucial role in it. This attitude shifted in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as Moscow gained influence and the power of other centers of Orthodox Christianity diminished (beginning with the Ottoman subjugation of the Balkans in the late fourteenth century and concluding with their capture of Constantinople itself). The Russians began to develop a more muscular attitude to their role in the Christian narrative. Thus, whereas earlier versions of the Primary Chronicle noted that no apostle had set foot in Russian territory, later versions present an apocryphal story claiming that the apostle Andrew visited not only the coasts of the Black Sea (as Byzantine legends had it) but also the Dnepr river basin and the site of the future city of Novgorod where he became acquainted with the Slavs. In particular it was asserted that he had marveled at the peculiar bathing customs of the Slavs near Novogorod: “I saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them I noticed their wooden bathhouses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they take young reeds and lash their bodies” (47). Such stories permitted the Muscovites to claim a direct connection, however, tenuous, with the earliest Christians. The marriage in 1472 of Prince Ivan III to Sophia Paleologus, the surviving niece of the last Byzantine emperor, allowed the Muscovite state to claim important symbolic trappings of the fallen Byzantine Empire.
At about this time the curious Tale of the White Cowl (Povest’ o belom klobuke) was composed in Novgorod, which was in an increasingly desperate struggle with Moscow for its political autonomy. According to this narrative, in gratitude for a healing vision in which the pope had appeared, Emperor Constantine had given a white cowl to Pope Sylvester as a sign of the primacy of clerical over imperial power. This holy object remained in Rome until the popes fell into heresy (by this time the Orthodox considered Catholicism as heretical). It had been transferred to Constantinople where the Orthodox patriarchs had shown it due respect until such time as...

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