LESSON 1 The Literature of Old Rus'

Study Notes

We begin our survey of the history of Russian literature with a look at its earliest periods. If you will turn to the "Chronology and Periodization of Russian Literature" at the back of this study guide, you will see that the initial phases in the development of Russian literary culture lasted a long time, from about A. D. 1000 to the beginning of the seventeenth century. In your study of this 600-year span you will want to focus on finding answers to the most basic questions: What were the major turning points in this long history and when did they occur? What was the character of each of its constituent periods? What were the major individual literary achievements and when were they produced?

The literature of old Rus' (the ancient name of Russia) can seem problematic to the modern student in various ways, not the least of which is that most of the works that belong to it do not seem to us to be literary works at all. In Rus', even at its height, there was no fiction, no drama, and no poetry. Literature consisted of works of history and devotion, the lives of saints, and accounts of battle. It was not until the middle of the seventeenth century that literature, as we think of it today, began to be known in Rus'.

Bear in mind that "literature" functions in a given community at a given time. The general purpose of this lesson is to help you gain an understanding of the literary standards of the community of old Rus' during these early times.

Literacy and Literature

Two obvious requirements for the development of literature in a community are the abilities of the population to read and to write. These abilities came to Rus' at the end of the tenth century together with the conversion of the nation to Christianity. When Prince Vladimir accepted the Eastern Orthodox faith in 988, he opened the way for the importation into Rus' of a large library of religious works that had been translated over the preceding century from Greek into the language of the Slavs. These works of translated literature served as the basis for the development of literature in Rus'.

Literature in Kievan Rus'

Writing in imitation of the works of translated litera ture, an original literature flowered in Rus' in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Since virtually all literary activity was in the hands of churchmen, the works of this period (and even until the beginning of the modern period) were either overtly religious in content or else bore a strong ecclesiastical imprint. The literature of Kievan Rus' possessed the same sort of works as were generally known in the Orthodox East: chronicles, homiletic works, and saints' lives. Only toward the end of the Kievan period did works appear that seemed to go beyond the models available in the translated literature. Of these, the most celebrated is "The Igor Tale."

The Tatar Yoke

"The Igor Tale," written about 1185, contained the dire prediction that unless the petty princes of Rus' united, the external enemy would overpower them one by one. This prediction unfortunately was proved true in the first part of the thirteenth century when Rus' was overrun by Tatar (Mongol) invaders. The capital city of Kiev was taken and destroyed in 1239, and its utter devastation was symbolic of the fate that befell the literary culture of Rus'. In those days, before the invention of printing, books were made by hand, one at a time. Consequently, they were few and precious, and were carefully protected in the libraries of monaster ies. During the Tatar invasion, monasteries were especially hard hit, and most of the physical substance of early Russian literature was lost.

Without a cultural center and with its literary inheri tance nearly wiped out, the literature of Rus' entered a period of stagnation that lasted for almost 150 years. Over that period the nation gradually rebuilt itself, and a new center of national politics and culture established itself--the city of Moscow.

The Literature of Muscovite Rus'

The Muscovite period lasted from about 1400 until about 1700. After hesitant beginnings, Moscow became the undisputed capital city about 1480, and the height of Muscovite literary culture was reached about 1550, during the reign of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. The writers of Moscow did not, however, continue the literary innovations evident near the end of the Kievan period. Instead, they returned to the strict imitation of existing models of literary works; their main achievements are the mammoth collections of chronicles and saints' lives which they compiled in the sixteenth century. The one salient characteristic of the litera ture of this period is its conscious service of state policies.

In the last century of the Muscovite period (1600-1700), the medieval literary culture of Rus', which had endured for 600 years, at last began to break down. Works of history made way for works of fiction, the saint's life gave place to the biography, and poetry and drama appeared for the first time. The literature of Rus' was dying, and the literature of Russia was being born.


The materials that are required or suggested for reading for this first lesson are listed below. They will provide you with a general view of the entire period under discussion. (I hope you will take time to look into the supplemental readings as well. They contain a great deal of fascinating information about a literary culture which is far different from ours but has more than a few traits in common with the modern Russian literature which succeeded it.)

Background (Suggested)

Zenkovsky, Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles, and Tales. Introduction, pp. 1-40, Chronology, pp. 525-526
Literary Texts (Required)

Zenkovsky, Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles, and Tales Selections from the Primary Chronicle, pp. 43-76

Selections from Hilarion and Cyril of Turov, pp. 85-92

"Life of Our Blessed Father Theodosius, Abbot of the Crypt Monastery," pp. 116-134

"The Lay of Igor's Campaign," pp. 167-190

Selection from The Life of St. Stephen of Perm, pp. 259-262

Supplemental Reading

Complete citations for these and other suggested reading are listed in the bibliography at the end of this study guide.

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.

Auty and Obolensky, An Introduction to Russian Language and Literature, pp. 56-82 and 90-102

Tschizewskij, History of Russian Literature, pp. 11-381

Terras, Handbook of Russian Literature, section on "Old Russian Literature"

Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature. Chapter 1

Go to Course Bibliography


For Further Thought

Based upon your background reading, and making reference to the literary works assigned in this first lesson, reflect on the following questions.

What is meant by the term "decorum" as applied to old Russian literature? Hint: In its social sense "decorum" refers to behavior which is appropriate to a given situation, behavior which is in accord with accepted standards or models. What was the relation between the works of old Russian literature and the models on which that literature was based.

In what way do the Russian chronicles exemplify the principle of decorum?

What was the purpose of hagiography? How do saints' lives differ from modern biographies?

What is meant by the term "second South Slavic influence"?

What was the "first South Slavic influence"?

In what ways did Muscovite literary style differ from the style of the Kievan period? What factors produced these differences?

What is meant by "kenoticism"? Can you name any works of old Russian literature to which this term applies? Do you know any works of modern Russian literature to which this term applies? Hint: Kenosis is the name given in Orthodox theology to Christ's voluntary acceptance of humiliation and suffering in order to redeem mankind from its life of sin. A kenotic act would be one which resembled this action of Christ.

Who were Cyril and Methodius? What contribution did they make to Slavic literature?

What were the literary advantages of Rus' having been converted to Christianity by the Eastern Orthodox rather than the Roman Catholic church? Were there any disadvantages?

Why do commentators on Russian literature find that "The Igor Tale" somehow stands out among the works of old Russian literature?

Optional and Personal

If you are moved to do so, you might also think about the following optional question:
Do you find anything of literary value in old Russian literature? Is it too different from what you usually think of as literature to qualify as such? How do you identify literary works as such?

Have a question? Students who are formally enrolled in Russian 3421 or Russian 5421 at the University of Minnesota are invited to send questions to: