LESSON 2 The Dawn of Modern Russian Literature: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Study Notes

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.

Historical Cataclysm

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 ancients.

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 incomprehensible.

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 diversity: (1) One way would involve selecting one of the four variants as the literary standard and then purposefully not using the other three.

(2) A second approach would seek to apportion the possible tasks of literature to one or another variant as being particularly appropriate to the task. This would bring about a sort of cooperation among the competing literary standards while still acknowledging the autonomy of each and their differences with one another.

(3) Finally, normalization could be achieved by a judicious pruning of certain elements from each of the competing standards and a blending of the rest into a single literary language.
Pay special attention to the approach taken by the various authors considered in this lesson.

Required Reading

Zenkovsky, Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles, and Tales

"The Life of Archpriest Avvakum, Written by Himself," pp. 399-448.

Supplemental Reading

You may want to consult these other sources as well: Auty and Obolensky, An Introduction to Russian Language and Literature, pp. 111-129

Brown, A History of Seventeenth-Century Russian Literature

Drage, Russian Literature in the Eighteenth Century

Silbajoris, Russian Versification

Vinogradov, The History of the Russian Literary Language from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Centuries

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, Lomonosov."

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

If you like, I would be very glad to have your opinion of the relationship between Sumarokov's "Nonsense Ode #2" (in Segel's The Literature of Eighteenth-Century Russia) and Lomonosov's "Ode on the Taking of Khotin." Is the dispute between them one of versification or literary language, or one of style? How does this exchange show that Russian literature is already coming of age?

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