INTRODUCTION Russia: Land and People

We are about to embark together on a long walk through time, more than 800 years, in fact, from about A. D. 1000 to 1845. Our purpose is to observe the way in which the literature of Russia developed over that time, from its pre- literary beginnings through the burgeoning of its medieval literary culture and on into the dawning and first flowering of its modern literature. At first--through the first 700 years--we will walk fast. Our purpose is to comprehend the general shape of entire periods in the development of Russian literature in these older times. Later we will walk more slowly, and will devote increasingly larger amounts of time to individual authors and finally to individual works.

The history that we will trace in this course did not occur in a vacuum. It was made in a real place by real people, and it behooves us to know something of the land, its inhabitants, their language, and their history. My purpose in this introduction is to supply, for those who may not be aware of them, the basic facts of Russian geography, language, and history. At the end of this introduction, I have included a short list of sources which you may, if you are interested, consult for further information.

The Geography of Russia

Maps of Russia and Other Parts of the Former Soviet Union

Russia was, until recently, the largest republic of the Soviet Union, a nation which covered an area of almost nine million square miles, approx imately one-sixth of the inhabited area of the earth. It was the largest country in the world--and one of the most powerful and influential. Its fifteen autonomous republics wer home to over 240 million people. Of the 170 nationalities of the Soviet Union, the most numerous (about 160 million of them) were the Russians. The vast majority of Russians reside in Russia, the successor to the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.

The Soviet Union was the successor to the Russian Empire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and, before that, to the state called Rus' which existed from the ninth to the seventeenth centuries.

While Russia and the Soviet Union historically have been large and diverse places, only a portion of the total area (in later times a relatively small portion) has been involved in the development of the literary culture with which we are concerned in this course. This part is usually called European Russia. The lands of eastern Europe are located on the western border of this area; the north is marked by Baltic countries and the White Sea, the east by the Ural Mountains, and the south by the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea. It was in this area that Russian literature developed.

In medieval times, from the ninth century to the thirteenth, Russia (or, as it was called until modern times, Rus') was located roughly in the area now occupied by the Ukraine. It was bordered on the northwest by the Gulf of Finland and on the northeast by the dense forests which then marked the area around Moscow. Along the western border flowed the River Vistula; to the southwest and the south lay the Carpathian Mountains and the Black Sea. On the eastern flank, in a 300-mile broad tract of steppe land between the border and the River Volga, lived a variety of nomadic tribes. The political and cultural center of Rus' was Kiev, the seat of the Grand Prince.

From about A. D. 1350 on, the center of medieval Rus' began to shift to the northeast to the relatively young city of Moscow. Territorial expansion in the time of Muscovy was considerable, both to the south and especially to the east. At this time, all of what is presently regarded as European Russia came under Russian control.

The territory of Russia continued to expand after the end of the Muscovite period (in the seventeenth century) and the beginning of the Imperial period (eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries). At its height in the nineteenth century the Russian empire was larger even than the Soviet Union at the height of its power. Still, as is also true today, the develop ment of Russian literature took place mainly within the territory of European Russia.

The People of Russia--Language

The Soviet Union was home to well over two hundred languages and dialects, all of which have a history and some of which have their own literatures. In this course we will deal with only the Russian language and the Russian literary tradition. This tradition encompasses all literary works written in Russian or its predecessors as the nation's standard literary language, usually by Russians but occasionally (as in the case of the Ukrainian Nikolai Gogol in the nineteenth century, or the Kirghiz Chingiz Aitmatov in the twentieth) by persons of non-Russian ethnic background who chose to write in Russian.

The Russian language of today, along with the Ukrainian and Belorussian languages, descended from the language of medieval Rus'. That language, which is called East Slavic, became a "literary language" (that is, a method was devised for writing it down and it was used for literary purposes) in the tenth century. This development occurred about the same time that Rus' became a Christian nation (in A. D. 988 or 989). The actual written form of this language was imported into Rus' from Bulgaria; its initial use was for writing church books and documents--hence, this language is often called "Old Church Slavic" or "Old Bulgarian." The works in this language form the common literary inheritance not only of Russian literature, but also of Ukrainian and Belorussian literature. The literary forms of these three languages diverged sufficiently to form separate literatures only in relatively modern times.

The People of Russia--History

From what we know of recorded history, Slavic tribes had lived in the area of the present-day Ukraine long before the eighth century. Around that time, however, they became the dominant group in the area. According to the chronicles, the consolidation of Slavic power in the area was achieved only in the mid-ninth century when, as the story goes, the Slavs invited a group of "Varangians" (that is, Norsemen, Vikings) to come and rule over them.

The first organized Russian state was called Rus'; it was centered in Kiev and lasted from the ninth century until 1240. Rus' was a federation of principalities (each major city had its own princely family); the two most important cities were Kiev and, in the north, Novgorod. The prince of Kiev was accounted the first among equals and was usually referred to as the "Grand Prince." Kiev was a flourishing cultural and commercial center in its heyday, certainly on a par with the great European cities of the time.

Kievan literary culture became possible with the introduction of Christianity (and, at about same time, the use of a written literary language) in 988 to 989 by Grand Prince Vladimir (called "the Baptizer"). From these beginnings, Kievan literary culture grew and began to be prominent from about 1050 on. In the twelfth century, territorial expansion to the northeast resulted in the founding of new cities, including Moscow in 1147. Kievan Rus' suffered cataclysmic destruction in the early thirteenth century when the land was overrun by the Mongol (also called "Tatar" or "Tartar") Horde from 1238 to 1240. The city of Kiev was sacked and burned in 1239.

The years from 1240 to 1380 are known in Russian history as the period of the Tatar Yoke. Generally speaking, the rule of the Tatars was rather mild (except in the suppression of rebellion). However, the destruction wrought during the initial invasion had been extensive, so it was not until near the middle of the fourteenth century that the cities of Rus' were again able to assert their autonomy. In 1380, several cities, under the leadership of the prince of Moscow, mounted a successful campaign against a portion of the Tatar army. Their victory at the battle of Kulikovo in 1380 marks the beginning of the loosening of the Tatar grip on the country.

The next hundred years of Russian history saw the gradual weakening of Tatar control, accompanied by increasing competition among the cities of Rus' for political, military, and cultural supremacy. When the Tatar Yoke was finally broken by the decisive Russian victory in the battle of the River Oka in 1480, Moscow emerged as the new power center of the East Slavs. The time from 1480 to the end of the seventeenth century is known as the period of Muscovite Rus'. The first century of Muscovite rule was devoted to squashing any remaining pretensions the other cities (mainly Novgorod) still had to a share of political authority.

Both processes, the gradual throwing off of the Tatar yoke and the increasing importance of Moscow, culminated in the rule of Ivan IV ("the Terrible"), who was the first grand prince to call himself "tsar" (that is, "tsesar" = Caesar, emperor) of all Rus'. After he was crowned Tsar in 1547, Ivan IV made large territorial gains for the country by pushing to the south and especially to the east, into Siberia. After his death in 1584, however, a period of confusion began. These years of internal dissension and foreign invasion, the "Time of Troubles," lasted until the establishment of the Romanov dynasty on the Russian throne in 1613. The remainder of the seventeenth century was a time of relative peace and prosperity, except for a major dispute within the church at mid-century. From about 1650 on there was a gradual opening of the country to form a connection with western Europe.

Europeanization of Russia was the leading policy of Tsar Peter I ("the Great"). He is credited with bringing Russia into the modern world and making it a European power. His policies introduced radical changes into the political and cultural life of the nation. He also moved the capital from Moscow to a new city called St. Petersburg (known to us today as Leningrad). Located near the Gulf of Finland, St. Petersburg was to be Russia's "window on the west." Peter laid the foundation for one of the great states of the modern world. The territory held by the Russian empire continued to grow under Peter's successors, especially under Catherine II ("the Great"), until, in the mid-nineteenth century, it became even larger than the Soviet Union is today. The international political stature of the country also continued to grow, as did its cultural prestige. Today, scholars recognize that Russian literature of the nineteenth century deserves a place among the great literary achievements of the western world and is equal to the literature of ancient Greece and Elizabethan England.

The Russian monarchy came to an end in 1917, the year of two revolutions. The first, in February, forced the abdication of the tsar and the establishment of a democratic-like interim government. This government proved unable to cope with Russia's severe problems, however, and was overthrown by the socialist (the so-called "Bolshevik") revolution in November of the same year. After several years of civil war the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, succeeded in establishing their rule over the entire country. The Russian Empire, after some territorial trimming, became the Soviet Union which was organized, mainly along ethnic lines, as a federation of autonomous republics. Since the gradual break-up of the Soviet Union began, in the mid- 1980s, Russia has been established as an independent nation, but (at least as of the present writing) has retained some connection with other parts of the former Union.

Internet Connections of Interest

I hope this brief sketch has given you a sense ofthe context of the history of literature in Russia. I encourage you to read further about the history of the various periods we will study in this course. Here are some general suggestions; clicking on the highlighted title will take you to the full citation in the course bibliography, clicking on "Bibliography" at the end of this section will take you to the top of the bibliography document, and clicking on the LUMINA link will connect you, via telnet, to the U of M on-line Library catalogue. A telnet link to the catalogue is also provided at the top of the bibliography document. NOTE: Complete citations for these and other suggested readings are listed in the bibliography at the end of this study guide. Those sources available in the University of Minnesota libraries, as of the writing of this study, are marked with an asterisk (*).