In the course of Russia's thousand-year history, Russian literature has come to occupy a unique place in the culture, politics, and linguistic evolution of the Russian people. In the modern era, literature has been the arena for heated discussion of virtually all aspects of Russian life, including the place that literature itself should occupy in that life. In the process, it has produced a rich and varied fund of artistic achievement. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Before the 19th century, there really wasn't a Russian literature per say other than popular stories, legends and folk tales of which Russians were familiar and could recite. Most of what was described as literature was poor imitations of styles popular in Europe. Many Russian poets composed their work in French.

Once they became literate, which for peasants largely didn’t occur until the Communists came to power, Russians became among as the world's avid readers. Writers have traditionally been held in great esteem. Russians often read more Shakespeare, Dickens and Balzac than their Western counterparts. Many think the Russian passion for reading is based on the fact there is sometimes little else to do during the long cold winters. Others theorized it was because Soviet television was so bad.

The writer Lyudmila Uiltskaya told the Washington Post, “In Russian literature a writer is often a teacher.” The writer “starts to lecture people about who to vote for, how to cook lunch, how to make do. He’s only good at writing but tradition forces him into to it.”

Early Russian Literature

Literature first appeared among the East Slavs after the Christianization of Kievan Rus' in the tenth century. Seminal events in that process were the development of the Cyrillic alphabet around A.D. 863 and the development of Old Church Slavonic as a liturgical language for use by the Slavs. The availability of liturgical works in the vernacular language--an advantage not enjoyed in Western Europe--caused Russian literature to develop rapidly. [Source: Library of Congress. 1996 *]

The Russian language emerged from the common East Slavic tongue (which also includes Ukrainian and Belarussian), Ancient Russian or Old Church Slavonic, by the A.D. 14th century in the Rostov-Suzdak area of central Russia. Old Church Slavonic (also known as Old Church Slavic) was the first Slavic literary language, which influenced the development of the modern Slavic languages, including literary Russian. Used in liturgies of the Slavic Orthodox churches, it became known as Church Slavonic after the twelfth century. Methodius translated the entire Bible into Old Church Slavonic in the 9th century.

Early Russian literature consisted by folk poetry often spread by traveling bards, Written literature appeared with the introduction of Christianity and the Cyrillic alphabet. The oldest work of Russian literature is The Lay of the Host of Igor, written in 1187. It is about a Russian prince who is captured in battle, imprisoned and escapes. It took Guttenbergs technology more than a century to reach Russia so the first printed books did not appear until the 16th century.

Through the sixteenth century, most literary works had religious themes or were created by religious figures. Among the noteworthy works of the eleventh through fourteenth centuries are the Primary Chronicle , a compilation of historical and legendary events, the Lay of Igor's Campaign , a secular epic poem about battles against the Turkic Pechenegs, and Zadonshchina , an epic poem about the defeat of the Mongols in 1380. Works in secular genres such as the satirical tale began to appear in the sixteenth century, and Byzantine literary traditions began to fade as the Russian vernacular came into greater use and Western influences were felt. *

Written in 1670, the Life of the Archpriest Avvakum is a pioneering realistic autobiography that avoids the flowery church style in favor of vernacular Russian. Several novellas and satires of the seventeenth century also used vernacular Russian freely. The first Russian poetic verse was written early in the seventeenth century. *

Folk Stories in Russia

Children's stories from both East and the West are popular. Children grow up with stories from 1001 Nights and Grimm's Fairy Tales. The most popular Russian folk character are the Firebird, and Baba Yaga, a witch who lives in a hut that runs constantly on chicken legs.

Many Russian folk tales captures both peasant life and the vastness of Russia. They often contain phrases like "over three times fifty mountains" and "crossed three times fifty rivers." Many stories also describe the beauty and freshness of spring, the coldness and whiteness of winter and the wisdom of peasants.

A Grimm-like collection of Russian folk tales was made listening to old stories passed down over generations orally by Afanas'ev in the 19th century. Pushkin also recorded old tales, some of which appear in Skazki, a collection of old stories in verse. Collections of folk stories from the former Soviet republics have been translated into English by Port Wheeler, Charles Downing, Arthur Ransoms, Valery Carrick, George and Helen Papashvily, Babette Deutsch and Avrahm Yarmolinsky.

Russian Literature Under Peter and Catherine the Great

In the 15th and 16th century, Russia emerged as true nation. In the 17th it began having closer contact with the West. In the 18th century the first real Russian literature began to appear. The first highly regarded writer to emerge was Mikhail Lomonosov, a fisherman by birth who became highly educated and founded Russia's first university in 1755.

The eighteenth century, particularly the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (r. 1762-96), was a period of strong Western cultural influence. Russian literature was dominated briefly by European classicism before shifting to an equally imitative sentimentalism by 1780. Secular prose tales--many picaresque or satirical--grew in popularity with the middle and lower classes, as the nobility read mainly literature from Western Europe. Peter's secularization of the Russian Orthodox Church decisively broke the influence of religious themes on literature. The middle period of the eighteenth century (1725-62) was dominated by the stylistic and genre innovations of four writers: Antiokh Kantemir, Vasiliy Trediakovskiy, Mikhail Lomonosov, and Aleksandr Sumarokov. Their work was a further step in bringing Western literary concepts to Russia. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Under Catherine the Great, Western, particularly French, philosophies and literature were introduced to Russia ( See Catherine the Great Under History). Writers that prospered under Catherine the Great, included Denis Fonvizin, the author of the comedy of manners The Minor; Ivan Krylov (died in 1844), much loved for his vivid fables about scheming crows and two-faced foxes; Alekander Radisjechev, who wrote A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow, satirizing corrupt officials; and Gavriil Derzhavin, who wrote Odes, which both praised and made fun of Catherine the Great's court.

Under Catherine, the satirical journal was adopted from Britain, and Gavriil Derzhavin advanced the evolution of Russian poetry. Denis Fonvizin, Yakov Knyazhnin, Aleksandr Radishchev, and Nikolay Karamzin wrote controversial and innovative drama and prose works that brought Russian literature closer to its nineteenth-century role as an art form liberally furnished with social and political commentary. The lush, sentimental language of Karamzin's tale Poor Lisa set off a forty-year polemic pitting advocates of innovation against those of "purity" in literary language. *

Russian Literature in the 18th Century

The 18th and 19th centuries were a time when the intellectual world was dominated by the English, French and Germans and Russians were searching for a literature and philosophy that described their existence and mentality. By 1800 Russian literature had an established tradition of representing real-life problems, and its eighteenth-century practitioners had enriched its language with new elements. On this basis, a brilliant century of literary endeavor followed.

The 19th century was the golden era of Russian literature. Novelists Leo Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who wrote Crime and Punishment, and Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, considered Russia's greatest playwright, are the three literary figures most well known in the West. Other notable writers included the poet Mikhail Lermontov and the novelists and short story writers Ivan Tugenev and Nikolay Gogol. The figure closets to the hearts of Russians is the poet Alexander Pushkin.

The major literary figure in the last decade of the nineteenth century was Anton Chekhov, who wrote in two genres: the short story and drama. Chekhov was a realist who examined the foibles of individuals rather than society as a whole. His plays The Cherry Orchard , The Seagull , and The Three Sisters continue to be performed worldwide. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Russian literature of the nineteenth century provided a congenial medium for the discussion of political and social issues whose direct presentation was censored. The prose writers of this period shared important qualities: attention to realistic, detailed descriptions of everyday Russian life; the lifting of the taboo on describing the vulgar, unsightly side of life; and a satirical attitude toward mediocrity and routine. All of those elements were articulated primarily in the novel and short story forms borrowed from Western Europe, but the poets of the nineteenth century also produced works of lasting value. *

Age of Realism in 19th Century Russia

The Age of Realism, generally considered the culmination of the literary synthesis of earlier generations, began around 1850. The writers of that period owed a great debt to four men of the previous generation: the writers Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Nikolay Gogol', and the critic Vissarion Belinskiy, each of whom contributed to new standards for language, subject matter, form, and narrative techniques. Pushkin is recognized as the greatest Russian poet, and the critic Belinskiy was the "patron saint" of the influential "social message" writers and critics who followed. Lermontov contributed innovations in both poetic and prose genres. Gogol' is accepted as the originator of modern realistic Russian prose, although much of his work contains strong elements of fantasy. The rich language of Gogol' was much different from the direct, sparse lexicon of Pushkin; each of the two approaches to the language of literary prose was adopted by significant writers of later generations. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

By mid-century a heated debate was under way on the appropriateness of social questions in literature. The debate filled the pages of the "thick journals" of the time, which remained the most fertile site for literary discussion and innovation into the 1990s; traces of the debate appeared in the pages of much of Russia's best literature as well. The foremost advocates of social commentary were Nikolay Chernyshevskiy and Nikolay Dobrolyubov, critics who wrote for the thick journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary) in the late 1850s and early 1860s. *

The best prose writers of the Age of Realism were Ivan Turgenev, Fedor Dostoevsky, and Lev Tolstoy. Because of the enduring quality of their combination of pure literature with eternal philosophical questions, the last two are accepted as Russia's premier prose artists; Dostoyevsky's novels Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov , like Tolstoy's novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina , are classics of world literature. *

Other outstanding writers of the Age of Realism were the playwright Aleksandr Ostrovskiy, the novelist Ivan Goncharov, and the prose innovator Nikolay Leskov, all of whom were closely involved in some way with the debate over social commentary. The most notable poets of mid-century were Afanasiy Fet and Fedor Tyutchev. *

An important tool for writers of social commentary under strict tsarist censorship was a device called Aesopic language--a variety of linguistic tricks, allusions, and distortions comprehensible to an attuned reader but baffling to censors. The best practitioner of this style was Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, a prose satirist who, along with the poet Nikolay Nekrasov, was considered a leader of the literary left wing in the second half of the century. *

Soviet Era Literature

The period immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution was one of literary experimentation and the emergence of numerous literary groups. Much of the fiction of the 1920s described the Civil War or the struggle between the old and new Russia. But under Stalin, literature felt the same restrictions as the rest of Russia's society. After a group of "proletarian writers" had gained ascendancy in the early 1930s, the communist party Central Committee forced all fiction writers into the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934. The union then established the standard of "socialist realism" for Soviet literature, and many of the writers in Russia fell silent or emigrated. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Approved Soviet-era literature was dominated by Socialist Realism, defined as "concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary accordance with...ideological training of workers on the spirit of Socialism." The authorities went through great length to get writer to the socialist-realist line. Those that did were great rewarded materially with apartments and cars and professionally with huge press runs. Those didn’t conform were ignored. If there work was published at all it was published underground

Writers were at the forefront of fomenting social change. Between 1953 and 1991, Russian literature produced a number of first-rate artists, all still working under the pressure of state censorship and often distributing their work through a sophisticated underground system called samizdat (literally, self-publishing). Another generation of writers responded to the liberalized atmosphere of Gorbachev's glasnost in the second half of the 1980s, openly discussing previously taboo themes: the excesses of the Stalin era, a wide range of previously unrecognized social ills such as corruption, random violence, anti-Semitism, and prostitution, and even the unassailably positive image of Vladimir I. Lenin himself. *

Writers and Publishers in the Communist Era

In the Communist era, writers and intellectuals were endorsed and supported by the government. To gain membership to special unions and organizations they had to study at certain approved schools and create works which fit into parameters set by the government. Without government endorsement they were nobodies. According to Communist theory, the duty of the Communist party was to maintain that there was the correct number of artists and writers for society's needs and follow the party line. Writers were required to submit their work to censors before it was allowed to be presented to the public.

Writers recognized by the government received a salary, supplies, comfortable private homes or apartments, spacious offices or working space, other perks and markets for their works. Unofficial artist had to support themselves by other means. Boiler room supervisory jobs were sought after because they worked 24 hours straight and then had three days off.

Writers that cooperated with the government received dachas, apartments, stipends and cars. The Russian writer Alessandra Stanely wrote in the New York Times, "Obscurity was noble when professional achievement was bound up with political compromise." Poets were sometimes treated like rock stars. Tens of thousands of people used to flock to Moscow's Luzhniki stadium for poetry readings.

Works by Soviet writers were published in "thick journals" Poem collections and and political philosophy books sold well. Many folk tales and classics were given a communist spin. In Hänsel and Gretel, for example, the evil stepmother is replaced by loving mother who helped her woodchopper husband. Pearls and jewels replaced by a big pot of food. The villains were landlords and the theme was problems of capitalism.

Publishers were funded by the government and manuscripts were supplied by Glavit, the censorship board. Press runs for a single could run in the millions compared to the thousands today and almost every home had bookcases filled with books. One publisher told the Los Angeles Times, "In Soviet society, people ha plenty of time and practically no other from of amusement. They got used to thinking that a good book shod be read trough in one evening."

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the most prolific publisher was Progress Publishers (founded in 1931 in the Soviet Union). In 1989, it published 750 titles in 50 languages.

Soviet Era Writers

Soviet period writers basically fell into four categories: 1) those who towed the party line like Gorky; 2) those who condemned the Soviet system and either were repressed in their homeland or lived in exile like Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky; 3) those who wavered between supporting and condemning Communism like Pasternik; and 4) those who lived in exile and wrote about non-Soviet things like Nabakov.

The best prose writers of the 1920s were Isaak Babel', Mikhail Bulgakov, Veniamin Kaverin, Leonid Leonov, Yuriy Olesha, Boris Pil'nyak, Yevgeniy Zamyatin, and Mikhail Zoshchenko. The dominant poets were Akhmatova, Osip Mandel'shtam, Mayakovskiy, Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Sergey Yesenin. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the Stalin era, A few prose writers adapted by describing moral problems in the new Soviet state, but the stage was dominated by formulaic works of minimal literary value such as Nikolay Ostrovskiy's How the Steel Was Tempered and Yuriy Krymov's Tanker Derbent . A unique work of the 1930s was the Civil War novel The Quiet Don , which won its author, Mikhail Sholokhov, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965, although Sholokhov's authorship is disputed by some experts. The strict controls of the 1930s continued until the "thaw" following Stalin's death in 1953, although some innovation was allowed in prose works of the World War II period. *

The poet Pasternak's Civil War novel, Doctor Zhivago , created a sensation when published in the West in 1957. The book won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but the Soviet government forced Pasternak to decline the award. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) also was a watershed work, was the greatest Russian philosophical novelist of the era; he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974 and eventually settled in the United States. *

In the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation of satirical and prose writers, such as Fazil' Iskander, Vladimir Voinovich, Yuriy Kazakov, and Vladimir Aksyonov, battled against state restrictions on artistic expression, as did the noted poets Yevgeniy Yevtushenko, Andrey Voznesenskiy, and Joseph Brodsky. Aksyonov and Brodsky emigrated to the United States, where they remained productive. Brodsky won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. The most celebrated case of literary repression in the 1960s was that of Andrey Sinyavskiy and Yuliy Daniel, iconoclastic writers of the Soviet "underground" whose 1966 sentence to hard labor for having written anti-Soviet propaganda brought international protest. *

Among the best of from Gorbachev era generation were Andrey Bykov, Mikhail Kurayev, Valeriy Popov, Tat'yana Tolstaya, and Viktor Yerofeyev--writers not necessarily as talented as their predecessors but expressing a new kind of "alternative fiction." The glasnost period also saw the publication of formerly prohibited works by writers such as Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, and Zamyatin. *

Literature and Publishing After the Collapse of the Soviet Union

Beginning in 1992, Russian writers experienced complete creative freedom for the first time in many decades. The change was not entirely for the better, however. The urgent mission of the Russian writers, to provide the public with a kind of truth they could not find elsewhere in a censored society, had already begun to disappear in the 1980s, when glasnost opened Russia to a deluge of information and entertainment flowing from the West and elsewhere. Samizdat was tacitly accepted by the Gorbachev regime, then it disappeared entirely as private publishers appeared in the early 1990s. Writers' traditional special place in society no longer is recognized by most Russians, who now read literature much less avidly than they did in Soviet times. For the first time since their appearance in the early 1800s, the "thick journals" are disregarded by large portions of the intelligentsia, and in the mid-1990s several major journals went bankrupt. Under these circumstances, many Russian writers have expressed a sense of deep loss and frustration. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The circulation of Russia's main literary publications have plummeted. Novy Mir's circulation has dropped from 2.5 million to 22,000; Druzhba from 2 million to 40,000; and Znamya from 1 million to 40,000. The numbers off books printed has dropped from 1.8 billion in 1986 to 950 million in 1994. These days self-help books and American pulp fiction is much easier to but from Moscow booksellers than Russian literature.

In the early 1990s the literary scene was quite depressing. Writers have a much lower status than they did in the Soviet era. Much of the serious fiction written sits unread in publisher's desks. The intellectual movement fragments after the break-up of the Soviet Union and lost it credibility as the nation's conscious by failing to rise up against the horrors of the Chechen War. There was competition from television. The stuff that getting published by serious writers tended be depressing. AP reporter Julia Robin wrote, "Russian novelist today paint life so darkly you long for the lighthearted days of Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn.

By the mid 2000s, the publishing industry was picking up. The Booker prize is Russia's top literary prize. It is an offshoot of Britain's Booker literary prize, Britain's number one literary award. For awhile it was known as Smirnoff-Booker Award, then the Booker/Open literary award. The winner gets $12,500. Each of the five the writers who make the short list get $1,000.

Russian bookshops offer far fewer titles than their Western counterparts and even books that sell well often sell out because a published doesn't want to print copies that don't sell. Many people purchase books from sidewalk hawkers. Russian translations of books like John Fowles “French Lieutenant Women” sold for as little as 42 cents a copy in the early 2000s. Kiosks are filled with pornographic publications. The readership of a given book is often double or triple the sales figures because books are relatively expensive and people share coopies and pirated versions are sold on the streets.

It seems Russians read less than they used to. Explaining why he read less, one music critic told the New York Times, "I'm much busier—everyone is. Life is busier. There's lots to do, there's money to make. Socialism—now that was a period of forced luxury!"

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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