Literature is the most complete and expressive manifestation of the Russian creative genius. It conveys not only aesthetic, moral and spiritual values and beliefs; literature is also our philosophy, the way to get insight into life, as leading Russian philosophers note. Great Russian poets and writers have always been the voice of this people’s conscience and soul, and had to suffer for it.
The priority of literature in the cultural life of the Russian people can be explained by its origin and the meaning it got from the moment of its appearance. Written language and literature were introduced to Russia from the outside, along with Christianity. Book appeared in Russia in the form of a sacred scripture, thus determining the place and role of literature in the history of Russian culture. Yet, one should not forget about the riches of folk creativity, the vivid source of primordial knowledge and inspiration for men of letters and thinkers of all times. The language and spirit of folk poetry in the form of songs, fairy tales, epics, etc. introduced genuine life and imagery to Russian literature. Thus, literature in this country developed as a blending of folk art and church scriptures, reflecting the mixture of pagan and Christian traits in Russian cultural tradition.
The national epos expressed in folk poetry had three stages of development: mythological, heroic and historical. Slav mythology has been much interfered with later Christian influences, yet we still can perceive something about the beliefs of this people through certain pieces of spoken lore, kept till this day. These can be observed in sacral songs, which were used to accompany pagan rites and symbolized the interaction or fighting of various forces of nature. Mythology is also obvious in olden fairy tales, which, however, were much altered with later additions of plentiful details. Olden beliefs can also be traced in spells, riddles, proverbs and sayings.
Bylina (coming from the word ‘byl’ or something that really happened) is a heroic epic speaking about bogatyri (mighty heroes), who protect the land of Rus from enemies and act for its unifying. They possess certain supernatural powers and have something in common with the Greek mythological heroes, though seem to have real prototypes. The images of bogatyri, such as Mikula Selyaninovich or the ideal mighty peasant Ilya Muromets, bespeak the high moral values of the Russian people. Bylinas are a poetic memorial of the past that present interesting types and paragons of personal and social virtues.
Later bylinas gave way to historic songs, more precise reflections on stormy historic events of the Tatar yoke, the unifying of Russia by Ivan the Terrible, etc. Lyric songs reveal the inmost thoughts and feelings of the Russian people. The general mood of folk lyrics, peculiar for its poetic gentleness and tenderness, is remarkably sad and wistful, at times jumping to wildly hilarious and even riotous. Such features can be accounted for by the harsh yet beautiful nature of this enormous land as well as the hard conditions of life. Listening to lingering, plangent and spacious sounds of a Russian folk song can probably give the insight into the ‘mysterious Russian soul’.
The imagery and vivid style of Russian folklore bear comparison with the best specimen of European literatures.
Church influence and early literature
For centuries church literature remained the major spiritual and moral pabulum for the Russian people. In that way it was influencing the formation of the national character. Later the Russian scribes provided a theoretical foundation for the idea of the unity of the Russian land and the national and religious originality of the Russian realm. So, the Russian literature once and for all marked its connection with the development of the nation and the state. Even so, it was never limited by the national frames, due to plentiful translations.
The most important scriptures of the Kievan period are the teachings by metropolitan Ilarion (11th century), Povest Vremennykh Let (11th-early 12th century, the oldest chronicle), teaching by Prince Vladimir Monomakh (11th – early 12th century), Lay of Igor’s Warfare (12th century), Wanderings of Daniel (12th century). All these texts are examples of vivid poetic creation. This was the epoch of extensive literary activities, which gave rise to patterns of literary forms and genres for the following centuries. Russian literature of the late Middle ages is remarkable for its feeling of Russia being the chosen one (the theory of Moscow as the third Rome). Inner upheavals of the 16th – 17th centuries imparted to literature certain features of religious and political publicism. In some cases these works arise to a high artistic level. Such are the Messages of Ivan the Terrible and The Life of Avvakum Petrovich, originally blending the church and bookish language with lively folk speech. At the same time, folk-lore poetry attained real power, beauty and expressiveness; however, scribes of the Old Rus hardly ever resorted to this plentiful source. The late 16th century saw rapid development of the secular story of manners, which often interpreted the ‘wandering’ plots of the western and oriental literatures.
Search for national originality
From the late 17th century Russian culture is invaded with West European values. The overturn of the world outlook that coincided with the language and spelling reforms resulted in the cultural crises of the 18th century. The writers of that time waver between sheer imitation of the French specimen and looking for their own subjects, language and style. The aspiration for national originality can be observed throughout the whole period: V.K.Trediakovsky and M.V. Lomonosov create a theory of Russian prosody; A.V. Sumarokov, along with the tendency to be the Russian Racine and Voltaire, creates folk-style songs; D.I.Fonvisin writes comedies on Russian everyday life and uses lively colloquial speech; Derzhavin anticipates the ‘sacred genre’ of the later Russian lyric poetry. Drama and poetry firmly stand first in the hierarchy of genres. The Russian language found its definite form in the creations of N.M.Karamzin, V.A.Zhukovsky, and A.S.Pushkin.
The epoch of Alexander I was the time of great creative effort; the time when Russian writers experienced the joy of independent creation, original and authentically national in spirit and style. The highest expression of it is certainly the creative work of Alexander Pushkin. European culture was assimilated and reflected upon; later generations develop Slavophil opposition, not only national and psychological, but also cultural and artistic one.
From the 1840s literature experiences the growth of moral and metaphysical anxiety that finds a theoretical expression in romanticism. Artistic persons feel uneasy in life, as if in a wrong place. The theme of ‘a needless man’ arises in literature: M.Y.Lermontov gave an unforgettable picture of the spiritual sensations of that time, the mix of exaltation and doubts, in his famous novel The Hero of Our Time. N.V.Gogol with his bright satire specified the religious and moral topics in Russian culture, which became the prevailing problematic throughout the 19th century. At the same time another peculiar feature of Russian art becomes apparent – that is the inseparability of an artist’s creative development from his/her personal destiny.
Great reforms and social issues
The ‘great reforms’ epoch of the 1860s – 1870s drew the attention of literature towards social issues. The issue of overcoming the tragic loneliness of a person in this world is solved by writers in search of this or that form of harmonious social communication, mainly in joining the life of common people. At the same time there teethes a painful breach between the new coming aesthetic rise and the new philosophic and religious awakening. Two creative mainstreams start taking shape in Russian literature. The adherents of ‘pure art’, such as A.Grigoriev, A.V.Druzhinin and A.A. Fet stand against the utilitarian moral function of literature, while Leo Tolstoy aims at ‘destruction of aesthetics’ for the sake of moral transformation of people by means of art. Religious reflections upon the Russian experience found expression in works by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, who showed with great artistic power, how isolated and proud human freedom results in slavery or self-destruction. The prevalence of philosophic topics in literature conditions the hey-day of Russian novel. However, philosophic motives sound distinct in the lyric poetry as well (F.I.Tyutchev).
The pre-Revolutionary years see a new uplift in literature, to be called the ‘silver age’. The feeling of life itself alters. ‘The sensation of extremity is growing more and more.’ (Alexander Byeli). New depths open up in a person, sometimes these are dark abysses. Stern apocalyptic rhythm can be felt in the events.
A new blossom of Russian poetry starts in the 1890s. Symbolism has become not only a literary movement but also a new spiritual experience. Poetry and literature again acquire special vital importance, as a way to faith and eternity via art. It was a recurrence of romanticism in Russian consciousness. In a contradictive mixture of rebel and fatigue, self-affirmation and melancholy, artists strive to go ‘beyond good and evil’, to transcend the ethics with aesthetics. ‘
The mysticism of V.S.Soloviev finds a genius poetic commentary in work of Alexander Block. The religious exaltation of symbolism perceiving a poet as a medium of higher, irrational forces, meets the reaction of acmeism (Nikolay Gumilev, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelshtam) with its orientation on reasonable will in poetic creation. At the same time Anton Chekhov and Ivan Bunin develop the classic line of Russian literature, enriching it with new achievements in form.
20th century: post-revolutionary
The revolution of 1917 brought an artificial division of Russian literature into domestic and emigrant literature, with the most outstanding writers finding a safer place abroad. However, literature retained its unity, based on belonging to the traditions of classical Russian culture, in this or that way present in creations by Ivan Bunin, Vladimir Nabokov, Ivan Shmelyov, Vladimir Khodasevich, Osip Mandelshtam, Mikhail Bulgakov, Boris Pasternak, Mikhail Gorky, and others. It is this line of Russian literature that got universal acclaim in the 20th century.
At the same time, following the traditions did not exclude the search of new forms. Post-revolutionary prose and poetry demonstrated an incredible variety of stylistic and other novelties. Great paragons of Russian prose were created by Alexander Solzhenitsyn who managed to give the second breath to the classical Russian novel. In poetic sphere the worldwide acknowledgment belongs to Josef Brodsky.
The development of Russian literature in the 20th century speaks of its imperishable universal meaning and inexhaustible creative capabilities.
Russian literature has become an integral part of the world culture and has been appreciated by most outstanding men of letters all over the world.