LESSON 2 The Dawn of Modern Russian Literature: The Seventeenth and
Your work on the first lesson should have shown you that the literature
of ancient Rus', from the eleventh century through the sixteenth, was remarkably
stable. Despite cataclysmic events, such as the Tatar invasion, Russian
literature knew the same genres and proceeded from the same ecclesiastical
background throughout this long period.
In the seventeenth century, however, this traditional, ecclesiastical literature
began to show signs of decay and dissolution. There are some basic reasons
for this phenomenon. As you read about this period in the history of Russian
literature it will be a good idea to bear the following points in mind.
The Muscovite period culminated in the powerful and commanding figure of
Tsar Ivan the Terrible, whose personality dominated
and whose policies changed the face of the nation between the late 1530s
and the mid-1580s. So dominant a figure was he that when he died a vacuum
of power was created, complicated by uncertainty about the proper succession
to the throne. Various factions contended for power and, from about 1590
until 1613, Muscovy was plunged into a period of disarray and weakness which
is known to history as the "Time of Troubles."
At this time there appeared a pretender to the throne; he claimed that he
was the son of Ivan the Terrible and that he had escaped the hands of those
assassins whom his enemies had dispatched against him. This "false
Dmitry," as he was called, contended with other factions of the Muscovite
power elite, notably with Boris Godunov, a "boyar" (a nobleman
of ancient lineage) who himself sat as tsar for a brief period. The "Time
of Troubles" culminated in a Polish invasion and in a short-lived Polish
rule over Muscovy.
The effect of these events on literature was considerable. As with the Tatar
invasion, several centuries earlier, the "Time of Troubles" became
the center of literary interest. Numerous historical works were written
about this period, and not all of them were of the standard historical (that
is, chronicle) type.
One notable change was an emerging interest in the individual personalities
of the major players on the historical stage. Old Russian literature, as
you have discovered, did not prize the individual as individual. The interest
of the older writers was in the individual as an example of an abstract
type. That is why the lives of the saints, for example, are so remarkably
alike in their general outlines; the writer saw his task not in the representation
of the individuality of his subject but in the demonstration of his subject's
perfect conformity with the model of saintly life as established by the
The historical literature about the "Time of Troubles," however,
knows several works that organize their accounts not in the traditional
year-by-year manner of the chronicles but rather according to the contributions
made by various individuals. The paradigm for the individual was the powerful
personality of Ivan the Terrible. It was about his individual contribution
to the events of this and the preceding period that the writers of this
time were most prolific.
Decline of Ecclesiastical Authority
As Ivan the Terrible consolidated his rule and his personal authority he
occasionally came into conflict with the church. This once-independent social
entity fell more and more into the service of the state. In the early eighteenth
century, at the command of Peter the Great, the church became by law subservient
to the state.
The close relationship between church and state was the factor that gave
the Muscovite literature you studied in your last lesson its peculiar publicistic
and ideological character. In the seventeenth century the church was shaken
by a major internal schism between the official hierarchy and the dissident
group of "Old Believers" (also called "Old Ritualists").
The schism was motivated by disagreements over ritual and liturgical practices
in the church.
From our point of view the significance of the schism is in the idea that
it is possible to oppose the hegemony of the church. If such opposition
may arise in matters of theology and liturgical practice, then why not also
in literary matters?
Two important factors must be considered here. First, the language of the
"official," literature was by now so out of touch with the developing
spoken language that by the end of the seventeenth century a Dutch grammarian
named Ludolph who visited Muscovy was able to write that the educated people
there had two lan guages: "they speak in Russian, but they write in
Slavic." Thus, the literary language was almost completely out of touch
with the living Russian of daily use. In addition, the style of Muscovite
literature, which was, as you have learned, very heavy and rhetorical, gave
the traditional literary works written in that language a character of abstraction
and removal from reality. Some of them (for example, "The Diary of
Ivan Timofeev") are so ornate and syntactically complex as to be almost
Second, a writer of genius appeared in the camp of the dissident religious
group. This man, himself a priest, was named Avvakum. His "Autobiography"
is one of the readings for this lesson. As you read it, pay attention to
how the author takes issue with the official church and with the official
church literary style. Avvakum's preface to his "Autobiography"
is especially revealing for his objections to the official literary style
of the church.
Contact with Western Europe
Throughout most of the Muscovite period the land of Rus' had been a closed
kingdom. Contact with foreigners from Europe had been infrequent and stringently
controlled. With the restoration of order after the "Time of Troubles"
and the establishment of the Romanov dynasty in 1613, however, a period
of relative peace, prosperity, and openness followed.
Books of many sorts began to enter the Russian land from Western Europe.
By the middle of the seventeenth century many foreigners, Germans in particular,
were in Russia. Although foreigners were confined to particular sections
(called "suburbs" but actually ghettos) of particular cities and
their freedom to associate with the native population was still limited,
nonetheless, their numbers were increasing and the restrictions on them
were diminishing, as was enforcement of those restrictions. These foreigners
were often educated people who missed the literary and artistic culture
they had left behind in order to come to Muscovy. Insofar as they could,
they tried to recreate that culture in their adopted land. They brought
in books of poetry and they established a theater in the "foreign suburb."
At the beginning of the eighteenth century Tsar Peter the Great came to
the throne. It was his conscious intention to raise Russia to the status
of a European power. He realized that this was possible only given the modernization
(the "Europeanization") of his country. Though he was not personally
very interested in the literary culture, his general policy entailed the
penetration of Russia by western models of literature and the encouragement
of their adaptation to the Russian situation.
Neither poetry nor drama was known to old Russian literature. This was an
impediment to the further progress of Russian literature. If Russia wished
to emulate European literary culture (which was then a culture of poetry),
poetry would have to come into being in Muscovy. That meant that the techniques
upon which poetry rests would have to be adapted for use with Russian. These
techniques go by the general name of versification. From the last third
of the seven teenth century and on through the first half of the eighteenth
century a primary problem in the development of the literary culture is
just this invention and perfection of a system of versification for Russian
poetry. As you read, you will want to pay close attention to the thoughts
that various writers expressed on the subject of versification. (Russian
Versification by Silbajoris gives complete details on this subject.
See the listing in the bibliography.)
A second problem faced by those eighteenth-century pioneers of modern Russian
literature was even more basic than developing a system of versification:
the normalization of the literary language. By "normalization"
I mean the desire to (1) develop consistent standards for the use of the
language in written form, and (2) greatly reduce the distance between the
written form of the language and its spoken form. I mentioned above Ludolph's
remark about educated Russians having to know two languages; "Russian"
was for speaking, "Slavic" was for writing. By "Slavic"
Ludolph meant the old Russian literary standard which was exceedingly old-fashioned
by comparison with the spoken language and exaggeratedly ornate in the way
it was typically written. The eighteenth century found itself with an embarrassment
of linguistic alternatives in which literary works could be written. There
were at least four important variants of language, which had to be taken
into account in the normalization of the literary language.
Thus, the problem was not that Russian writers of the eighteenth century
had no language of consensus in which to write as they sought to produce
a Russian version of the literary culture of Europe. Their problem was having
to choose from among so many diverse written variants of the language. As
you read about this period, it will help you if you bear in mind that there
would seem to be three possible ways to deal with normalization of such
Pay special attention to the approach taken by the various authors considered
in this lesson.
- First, of course, was the form of the literary language inherited from
the period of old Russian literature. This archaic language, called Old
Slavic or Old Church Slavic, was, by the end of the seventeenth century,
no longer comprehensible to speakers of Russian without special training.
This was the language in which literary works had been written for hundreds
- Second, there was the spoken language of educated persons. This version
of the language was normally used for purposes of business or other everyday
- Third, the government offices, faced with the vast amounts of paperwork
needed to keep the bureaucracy functioning, had developed a form of the
written language to meet its particular needs. This form is known as the
"chancery" language (from the word used to designate the departments
of the Russian government of the time). This form of written Russian had
elements of the Old Slavic literary language mixed with foreign borrowings
and the "bureaucratese" (that is, the jargon of government) of
- Fourth, there was a language called Ruthenian, which was used for purposes
of academic exchange. Russia's most important school at the end of the seventeenth
century was the Kiev-Mohyla Academy (located in Kiev and named in honor
of its founder, Peter Mohyla). Ruthenian consisted of Old Slavic mixed with
elements peculiar to the geographical area of Kiev (that is, southern and
western dialects of East Slavic) and with borrowings from the academic culture
of Poland, which included Polish elements and borrowings from Latin.
You may want to consult these other sources as well:
For Further Thought
1. What would you have to say in response to a queston on the topic "contributions
to the development of a system of versification: Polotsky, Trediakovsky,
2. What would you have to say in response to a question on the topic "contributions
to the development of the normalization of the literary language: Feofan
Prokopovich, Kantemir, Lomonosov, Sumarokov."
Optional and Personal
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: