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Russian Literature. Famous Russian writers and poets.
The formation of Russia's first literary traditions goes back to the first century. The adoption of Christianity boosted the development of literacy, philosophy and theological literature. Old Church Slavonic was the literary language of Russia and remained in use until the 17th century. Church literature including and historical chronicles were written or translated from Greek into Old Church Slavonic.
The first original work of Russian literature is believed to be "Slovo O Zakone I Blagodati" (1050 "Sermon on Law and Grace"), written by Metropolitan Illarion, the head of the Orthodox Church in Russia at that time. Old Russian literature consists of several masterpieces written in the Old Russian language.
The chronicle "Povest' Vremennykh Let" (1113 "The Tale of Bygone Years," also known as "The Russian Primary Chronicle"), anonymous works of this nature include "The Tale of Igor's Campaign" and "Praying of Daniel the Immured". The so-called "lives of the saints" formed a popular genre of the Old Russian literature. (for example "Life of Alexander Nevsky"). Other Russian literary monuments include Zadonschina, Physiologist, Synopsis and A Journey Beyond the Three Seas. Bylinas - oral folk epics - fused Christian and pagan traditions.
Medieval Russian literature had mainly religious character. Most prominent works of this period include: "Messages of Ivan the Terrible" and the autobiography of Arch Priest Avvakum. One of the most important and notable literary works of the 16th century was "Domostroi" ("House-Orderer"). It set the rules for moral behaviour and gave instructions for running a household.
The modernization of Russia, started in the 17th century and is commonly associated with Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, who affected the Russian literature as well. This period was characterised by reform of the Russian alphabet and employing the popular language for general literary purposes as well as the influence by Western European values. Modern Russian literature started to emerge as more and more writers began to develop their own unconventional style. By the 18th century written Russian finally came into wide use, replacing Old Church Slavonic.
The acknowledged masters of this period were authors like Antiochus Kantemir, Vasily Trediakovsky, and Mikhail Lomonosov (important figure of Russian intellectual life in the 18th century) poet Gavrila Derzhavin, playwrights Alexander Sumarokov and Denis Fonvizin, and prose writers Alexander Radishchev (the author of non-fiction works of the period was "Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu") and Nikolay Karamzin the latter is often credited with creation of the modern Russian literary language.
The 19th century was probably the most fruitful period in the history of Russian literature, often referred to as "Golden Era" of Russian literature. This period granted such geniuses as Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolay Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov.
The century began with the rise of Romanticism, which was most vivid in poetry. Zhukovsky was perhaps the first great poet of the nineteenth century, but it was his protege Aleksandr Pushkin, who is most closely identifiedd with the rise of Russian Romanticism and Russian poetry in general. Pushkin's first triumph was the poem Ruslan and Lyudmila (1820).
It was followed by a number of romantic poems imbued with impressions of his staying in the South of Russia, and finally Pushkin created his genius "Eugene Onegin" (finished in 1830). This splendid work is a unique "novel in verse" and presents a narration about contemporary Russian life. The images of the main characters, Eugene and Tatiana, and the story of their ruined love have had a great impact on all the latest Russian literature.
In it he depicts the life of the Russian gentry of his time and introduces Onegin as the "superfluous man." This "superfluous man" is the subject of many 19th-century Russian works. One of these, "A Hero of Our Time", was the first Russian psychological novel. It was written by Russia's second great poet, Mikhail Lermontov. He also wrote "The Demon" and "The Novice".
Pushkin created several big poetic works, among them the inimitable poem "The Bronze Horseman" (1833), a whole range of prosaic writings and several hundreds of verses notable for their classical fine simplicity of form and deep lyrical feeling.
An entire new generation of poets including Mikhail Lermontov, Evgeny Baratynsky, Konstantin Batyushkov, Nikolay Nekrasov, Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, Fyodor Tyutchev, and Afanasy Fet followed in Pushkin's steps.
Especially notable is a fable author, poet Ivan Andreyevich Krylov, whose witty fables gained wide popularity as lessons of wisdom and paragons of language mastery. The name of Fedor Tyutchev must be mentioned as that of a "modern" poet before his time, an anticipator of the Russian school of symbolism.
After Pushkin's death in 1837 the Golden Age of Russian poetry drew to an end. Leadership in letters fell gradually to the prose writers, with a more realistic approach to life. Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol is the most puzzling and the most frequently misinterpreted figure between the romantic and the realistic periods of Russian literature. His prose progressed from the romantic tales and the folklore of his native Ukraine ("Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka") to the searching, aggressive, sarcastic realism of "Dead Souls".
Before the 19th century, drama received very little attention from Russian writers. It continued until two pillars of Russian drama Aleksandr Griboedov("Gore ot Uma" 1833 "The Woes of Wit") and Aleksandr Ostrovsky ("Groza" 1860 "The Thunderstorm") stepped into the spotlight.
But by the end of the century, several timeless plays were written by Anton Chekhov, for example "Chaika" (1896 The Seagull).
The Golden Age of Russian prose reached its climax in the works of the two greatest representatives of Russian fiction. They were Fedor Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoi. Fedor Dostoyevsky's novels examined political and social issues as well as philosophical and moral problems of Russian society. His "Crime and Punishment" (1866) is considered to be one of the best novels of all time.
Leo Tolstoy, like his contemporary Dostoyevsky, was not just a brilliant novelist but a political thinker and philosopher as well. His novel "Voina i Mir" (1865-1869 "War and Peace") is a family and a historical novel in one and is said to be one of the greatest literary works in the history of world literature.
Tolstoi's novels are counted among the world's greatest. Another best known novel is "Anna Karenina", a vast work of psychological analysis and social observation.
There were other important figures in this period. Among them was the civic poet Nikolai Nekrasov, Nikolai Leskov, a novelist and short-story writer.
After the great age of prose there was a resurgence of poetry. This is called the Silver Age. It began at the end of the 19th century with the emergence in Russia of the school of symbolism. A new breed of Russian poets was inspired by Western European cultures, while Russian culture was gaining in popularity in Europe.
Valeri Bryusov and Dmitri Merezhkovski are symbolism's most illustrious exponents in prose. Aleksandr Blok (His greatest work, "Dvenadtsat" (1918 "The Twelve," 1920), described the mood of Petrograd in the winter of 1918 in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.), Andrei Bely (Boris Bugaev), Nikolai Gumiliev, Konstantin Balmont, and Fedor Sologub (Teternikov) were the chief poets of this school.
Some of the greatest poets of the 20th century who opposed the Bolshevik Revolution and Soviet rule were Anna Akhmatova ("Requiem", 1964), Maria Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam. The last of these was arrested in the 1930s and died in a labour camp.
Among those who supported the 1917 Revolution was a prominent Soviet novelist and playwright, Maksim Gorky ("Mother" 1907). He was also a founder of socialist realism.
After the Revolution, many writers left Russia for Europe and the West. Perhaps one of the most gifted among them was novelist Vladimir Nabokov who emigrated to the United States in 1940 and began writing in English.
Another Russian writer in exile that achieved a considerable degree of recognition before the Revolution and continued his work abroad was Nobel prize-winner Ivan Bunin. In his masterful novels and short stories Bunin carried on the literary tradition of Turgenev, Goncharov, Leo Tolstoi, and Chekhov.
The first years of the Soviet regime were marked by the works of Nikolay Zabolotsky, Alexander Vvedensky, Konstantin Vaginov and the most famous Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms. Other famous authors of that period were novelists Andrei Platonov and Yuri Olesha and short story writers Isaac Babel and Mikhail Zoschenko.
In the 1930's Socialist realism became the officially approved style, its guidelines was enforced even more strictly after the end of WW2. Thus the period from 1946 until the death of Stalin in 1953 was probably the bleakest in Russian literature of the 20th century. It however added such brillinat names to the Ryussian literature as, Nobel Prize winner Mikhail Sholokhov, and Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy and poets Konstantin Simonov and Aleksandr Tvardovsky are being read in Russia to this day. Other Soviet celebrities, such as Alexander Serafimovich, Nikolai Ostrovsky, Alexander Fadeyev, Fyodor Gladkov have never been published by mainstream publishers after 1989.
However, the decades after Stalin's death saw several thaws. Restrictions over literature were eased. Boris Pasternak finally published his legendary novel "Doctor Zhivago," although outside the Soviet Union. He was awarded a noble prize in literature, yet forced to refuse by the Sovuiet authorties.
The Khrushchev Thaw brought some fresh wind to the literature. Poetry became a mass cultural phenomenon: Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrey Voznesensky, Robert Rozhdestvensky and Bella Akhmadulina read their poems in stadiums and attracted huge crowds.
Some writers dared to oppose Soviet ideology, like short story writer Varlam Shalamov and Nobel Prize winning novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote about life in the gulag camps, or Vasily Grossman, with his description of World War II events countering the Soviet official historiography. They were dubbed "dissidents" and could not publish their major works until the 1960s.
Among other prominent anti-Soviet authors was the poet Joseph Brodsky, who left the Soviet Union in 1972. In 1987 Brodsky too was awarded the Nobel Prize. Like Solzhenitsyn, he moved to the United States.
In the 1970s there appeared a relatively independent Village Prose, whose most prominent representatives were Viktor Astafiyev and Valentin Rasputin. Detective fiction and spy fiction was also popular, thanks to authors like brothers Arkady and Georgy Vayner and Julian Semenov.
The Soviet Union produced an especially large amount of Science fiction literature, inspired by the country's space pioneering. Early science fiction authors, such as Alexander Belayev, Grigory Adamov, Vladimir Obruchev, Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Alexander Kazantsev, stack to hard science fiction, being influenced by H. G. Wells and Jules Verne
Soviet science fiction developed in its own manner with Social science fiction being its the most popular subgenre. Books of brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and Kir Bulychov, among others, are reminiscent of social problems and often include satire on contemporary Soviet society.
The early 1990s saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it the end of 70 years of state control over literature. Official censorship was over and the government proclaimed freedom of the press. This long-awaited independence had profound effects on Russian literature. Works by writers which had previously been banned reappeared in major editions.
Up-and-coming, promising and controversial writers such as Liudmila Petrushevskaya, Ludmila Ulitskaya, Vladimir Sorokin and Viktor Erofeev, to name a few, appeared on the Russian scene.
Fantasy and Science fiction literature is still among best-selling with authors like Sergey Lukyanenko, Nick Perumov and Maria Semenova.
Detective stories and thrillers have proven a very successful genre of new Russian literature: in the 90s serial detective novels by Alexandra Marinina, Polina Dashkova and Darya Dontsova were published in millions of copies. In the next decade a more highbrow author Boris Akunin with his series about the 19th century sleuth Erast Fandorin became widely popular.
There are many beautiful women in different nations, but Russian beauty has its own peculiarities and distinctive features. Since ancient times, many artists and poets admired the extraordinary beauty and intelligence of a Russian girl, and It's not just that she is very beautiful by nature. Russian girls are able to downcast eyes like delinquent children, it seems they are about to cry, their eyes barely restrain turquoise tears that came out of the permafrost, centuries of grief.
Many ordinary Russian traditions evoke surprise and incomprehension of foreigners. Russian women love to dress up. For example, a nice dress and high heels they consider appropriate attire for a simple stroll or even for ordinary trip to the store. Russian girl is a flower, leaning over the weak men, they forgive them and twirl them as they wish.
True love feeling will evolve if you find the right partner. It's not easy and it takes a lot of time. Joint travel can greatly help with this. Almost everyone loves to travel, and the young, attractive girls, probably more than anyone else. This is, perhaps, not only because they are the most receptive to everything new, beautiful and unknown, not hamstrung by conventions and stereotypes, but also due to the fact that unlike others may travel not only to something see but also be seen.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only. The author provides no warranty about the content or accuracy of content enclosed.
Please be advised that this is not "dating site" nor "dating personals site" nor "Russian mail order brides sites" in any way. This is not "date single person" nor "free dating online" nor "friendfinder" nor any other sort of "matrimonial" or "marriage" sites either. We don't offer any matchmaking services. We only offer information as we know it and show you some pictures. It's all free - no fees, no charges.
Periods in the History of Old Russian Literature
The literature of Old Russia bears testimony to Russian life. This is why history itself to a considerable extent dictates the periods of literature. Literary changes coincide mainly with historical ones. What periods can we distinguish in the history of Russian literature from the eleventh to seventeenth centuries?
The first period in the history of Old Russian literature is that of the relative unity of literature, when literature developed mainly in two centres (connected by cultural links): Kiev in the south and Novgorod in the north. It lasted for one century, the eleventh, and included the beginning of the twelfth. This was the period of the formation of the monumental-historical style in literature, in which monumental forms were combined with important content, when it was felt that every event and every personage was connected with world history and with the whole of mankind. It was the period of the first Russian vitae, the Lives of SS Boris and Gleb and the monks of the Kiev Crypt Monastery, and the first Russian chronicle to have survived—The Tale of Bygone Years. It was the period of the united Old Russian Kievan-Novgorodian state.
The second period, from the mid-twelfth to the first third of the thirteenth century, saw the emergence of new literary centres in Vladimir-Zalessky and Suzdal, Rostov and Smolensk, Galich and Vladimir-Volynsky. During this period local features and themes appeared, the genres became more varied, and a strong topical and publicistic stream emerged in literature. This period marks the beginning of feudal disunity.
A number of features common to these two periods enable us to examine them together (particularly bearing in mind the difficulty of dating certain translated and original works). These first two periods are both characterised by a prevalence of the monumental-historical style.
Then comes the comparatively short period of the terrible Mongol invasion, followed by many long years of Mongol overlordship. This short period saw the creation of tales about the invasion of Russia by the Mongols, the battle on the Kalka, the capture of Vladimir-Zalessky, The Lay of the Ruin of the Russian Land and The Life of Alexander Nevsky. Literature concentrates on a single theme, but this theme manifests itself with unusual intensity, and the monumental-historical style acquires a tragic imprint and the lyrical fervour of deep patriotic feeling. This brief, but vivid period should be examined separately. It is easily distinguished.
The following period, from the end of the fourteenth to the middle of the fifteenth century, is the age of the Pre-Renaissance, which coincides with the economic and cultural rebirth of the Russian land in the period immediately preceding and following the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380. It is a period of the expressive, emotional style and profound patriotism in literature, a period of the rebirth of chronicle-writing, the historical tale and panegyric hagiography.
In the second half of the fifteenth century new phenomena appeared in Russian literature: translations of secular tales (fiction) began to circulate and original works of the same type, such as The Tale of Dracula and The Tale of Basarga, appeared. These phenomena were linked with the reformationist and humanist movements at the end of the fifteenth century. However, the insufficient development of the towns (which were centres of the Renaissance in Western Europe), the subjection of the Novgorod and Pskov republics, and the suppression of heretical movements impeded the advance towards the Renaissance. The conquest of Byzantium by the Turks (Constantinople fell in 1458), with which Russia had close cultural ties, left Russia isolated within its own cultural borders. The Florence-Ferrara Union of the Greek and Catholic churches, which was flatly rejected in Russia, created mistrust of the West and its culture. The organisation of a united Russian centralised state absorbed most of the people’s spiritual energy. Literature became increasingly publicistic: the domestic policy of the state and the transformation of society increasingly occupied the attention of writers and readers.
From the middle of the sixteenth century an official current becomes increasingly evident in literature. The period of “second monumentalism” arrived, which saw the production of impressive chronicles, lengthy chronographs, and a huge compilation of all the works read in Russia, known as The Great Menology. Traditional forms of literature dominated, suppressing the personal element that had begun to emerge in the age of the Russian Pre-Renaissance. The events of the second half of the sixteenth century produced by the despotic rule of Ivan the Terrible impeded the development of secular literature.
The seventeenth century is the century of the transition to the literature of the modern age. It is the century of the development of the personal element in everything: in the actual type of writer and in his work the century of the development of personal tastes and styles, of literary professionalism and the sense of authorship, of individual, personal protest connected with tragic events in a writer’s biography. The personal element promoted the emergence of syllabic poetry and drama. It is from the seventeenth century that most Russian historians and Lenin date the beginning of the modern period in Russian history. 1
Great Russian Classics Collection
With the advent of Orthodox Christianity in 988 Russia was open to the best samples of Byzantine culture. They laid the foundation for active development of religious literature. In the early 12th century (1113) Nestor, the monk of Kiev Monastery of the Caves, wrote the Primary Chronicle, which is by right is one of the most brilliant pieces of ancient Russian culture. &ldquoThe Tale of Igor&rsquos Campaign&rdquo was another monument of ancient Russian literature, which was created in the late 12th century.
The 15th century was the time of hagiography. This genre depicts the lives of saints, patriarchs, and monks. The legend of St. Peter and Fevronya of Murom was transformed into this genre in the late 15th or early 16th century. This is a moving story about love between a Duke (knyaz) and a daughter of an ordinary wild-hive beekeeper, which later turned into the symbol of eternal love. The same period is known for the rising interest for stories about travels to faraway lands. The most interesting and original work in this genre is &ldquoA Journey Beyond the Tree Seas&rdquo by Athanasius Nikitin, the merchant from Tver, who wrote about his impressions of the Caucasus, Persia, India, Turkey and Crimea in simple and fascinating language. The invention of book printing was an important development for Russia. Ivan Fyodorov and Pyotr Mstislavets printed the first exactly dated book, &ldquoApostle&rdquo, in 1564.
The Blossoming of Russian Culture in the 18th Century
The 18th century was the Golden Age for Russian Literature. It split the literature into three branches. The first was classicism &ndash the style in art and literature characterized by high civic subjects as well as integrity of place, time and action. Classicism reached its peak in works of Mikhail Lomonosov, Gavriil Derzhavin, Sumarokov and others. Another trend in Russian literature was realism, the most prominent representative of which was Denis Fonvizin, the author of immortal comedy &ldquoThe Minor&rdquo. The third direction was sentimentalism, which is characterized by increased interest to human emotions, emotional perception of the surrounding world. In Russian literature sentimentalism was represented by N. Karamzin who was not only a great historian but also popular writer. In the early 19th century Karamzin became a conservative. His new outlooks were reflected in his «History of the Russian State».
Russian Literature of the 19th Century.
Russian literature throve in the 19th century as well thanks to such famous names as Alexander Griboyedov, Ivan Krylov, Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol and many others.
The central development in Russian foreign policy was to move away from Germany and toward France. Russia had never been friendly with France, and remembered the wars in the Crimean and the Napoleonic invasion it saw Paris as a dangerous font of subversion and ridiculed the weak governments there. France, which had been shut out of the entire alliance system by Bismarck, decided to improve relations with Russia. It lent money to the Russians, expanded trade, and began selling warships after 1890. Meanwhile, after Bismarck lost office in 1890, there was no renewal of the Reinsurance treaty between Russia and Germany. The German bankers stopped lending to Russia, which increasingly depended on Paris banks.  In 1894 a secret treaty stipulated that Russia would come to the aid of France if France was attacked by Germany. Another stipulation was that in a possible war against Germany, France would immediately mobilize 1.3 million men, while Russia would mobilize 700,000 to 800,000. It provided that if any one or more of the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria, Italy) mobilized their reserves in preparation for war, then both Russia and France would mobilize theirs. "The mobilization is the declaration of war," the French chief of staff told Tsar Alexander III in 1892. "To mobilize is to oblige one's neighbor to do the same." This set up the tripwire for July 1914.   George F. Kennan argues that Russia was primarily responsible for the collapse of Bismarck's alliance policy in Europe, and starting the downward slope to the First World War. Kennan blames poor Russian diplomacy centered on its ambitions in the Balkans. Kennan says Bismarck's foreign policy was designed to prevent any major war even in the face of improved Franco-Russian relations. Russia left Bismarck's Three Emperors' League (with Germany and Austria) and instead took up the French proposal for closer relationships and a military alliance. 
Russia gained room to maneuver in Asia because of its friendship with France and the growing rivalry between Britain and Germany. By 1895 Germany was competing with France for Russia's favour, and British statesmen hoped to negotiate with the Russians to demarcate spheres of influence in Asia. This situation enabled Russia to intervene in northeastern Asia after Japan's victory over China in 1895. In the negotiations that followed, Japan was forced to make concessions in the Liaotung Peninsula and Port Arthur in southern Manchuria. The next year, Sergei Witte used French capital to establish the Russo-Chinese Bank. The goal of the bank was to finance the construction of a railroad across northern Manchuria and thus shorten the Trans-Siberian Railway. Within two years, Russia had acquired leases on the Liaotung Peninsula and Port Arthur and had begun building a trunk line from Harbin in central Manchuria to Port Arthur on the coast. At the same time Great Britain occupied Wei-Hai-Wei, and Germany Kiaochao.
In 1900, China reacted to foreign encroachments on its territory with an armed popular uprising, the Boxer Rebellion. Russian military contingents joined forces from Europe, Japan, and the United States to restore order in northern China. A force of 150,000 Russian troops occupied Manchuria to secure its railroads. After the suppression of the rebellion, Russia did not withdraw its troops from Manchuria. Consequently, friction grew between Russia and Japan, and the latter opened hostilities at Port Arthur in January 1904, without any formal declaration of war.
In counterpoint to the Japanese strategy of gaining rapid victories to control Manchuria, Russian strategy focused on fighting delaying actions to gain time for reinforcements to arrive via the long Trans-Siberian railway. In January 1905, after several unsuccessful attacks which cost them 60,000 troops killed and wounded and an eight-month siege, the Japanese captured Port Arthur. In March, the Japanese forced the Russians to withdraw north of Mukden, but were unable to pursue the Russians because Japanese troops suffered heavy casualties. Because strategically the possession of the city meant little, the final victory was dependent on the navy. In May, at the Tsushima Straits, the Japanese destroyed Russia's last hope in the war, a fleet assembled from the navy's Baltic and Mediterranean squadrons. Theoretically, Russian army reinforcements could have driven the Japanese from the Asian mainland, but revolution at home and diplomatic pressure forced the tsar to seek peace. Russia accepted mediation by United States president Theodore Roosevelt, ceded southern Sakhalin Island to Japan, and acknowledged Japan's ascendancy in Korea and southern Manchuria.
Russia's systems for agricultural production influenced the attitudes of peasants and other social groups to reform against the government and promote social changes. “At the beginning of the twentieth century, agriculture constituted the single largest sector of the Russian economy, producing approximately one-half of the national income and employing two-thirds of Russia’s population”.  This illustrates the tremendous role peasants played economically thus making them detrimental to the revolutionary ideology of the populist and social democrats. At the end of the 19th century, Russian agriculture as a whole was the worst in Europe. The Russian system of agriculture lacked capital investment and technological advancement. Livestock productivity was notoriously backwards and the lack of grazing land such as meadows forced livestock to graze in fallow uncultivated land. Both the crop and livestock system failed to be adequate to withstand the Russian winters. During the Tsarist rule, the agricultural economy diverged from subsistence production to production directly for the market. Along with the agricultural failures, Russia had a rapid population growth, railroads expanded across farmland, and inflation attacked the price of commodities. Restrictions were placed on the distribution of food and ultimately lead to famines. Agricultural difficulties in Russia limited the economy, influencing social reforms and assisting the rise of the Bolshevik party.
The Russo-Japanese War accelerated the rise of political movements among all classes and the major nationalities, including propertied Russians. By early 1904, Russian liberal activists from the zemstva and from the professions had formed an organization called the Union of Liberation. In the same year, they joined with Finns, Poles, Georgians, Armenians, and Russian members of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party to form an antiautocratic alliance.
The revolution of 1905, an unprecedented empire-wide social and political upheaval, was set in motion by the violent suppression on January 9 (Bloody Sunday) in St. Petersburg of a mass procession of workers, led by the radical priest Georgiy Gapon, with a petition for the tsar. Bloody Sunday was followed, nationwide, by workers’ and students’ strikes, street demonstrations, spates of vandalism and other periodic violence, assassinations of government officials, naval mutinies, nationalist movements in the imperial borderlands, and anti-Jewish pogroms and other reactionary protest and violence. In a number of cities, workers formed Soviets, or councils. At the end of the year, armed uprisings occurred in Moscow, the Urals, Latvia, and parts of Poland. Activists from the zemstva and the broad professional Union of Unions formed the Constitutional Democratic Party, whose initials lent the party its informal name, the Kadets. Some upper-class and propertied activists called for compromise with opposition groups to avoid further disorders.
The outcome of the revolution was contradictory. In late 1905, Nicholas agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to issue the so-called October Manifesto, which promised Russia a reformed political order and basic civil liberties for most citizens. New fundamental laws in 1906 established the legislative State Duma, or parliament, but also restricted its authority in many ways — not least of which was the complete lack of parliamentary control over the appointment or dismissal of cabinet ministers. Trade unions and strikes were legalised, but police retained extensive authority to monitor union activities and to close unions for engaging in illegal political activities. Press freedom was guaranteed.
Those who accepted the new arrangements formed a center-right political party, the Octobrists. Meanwhile, the Kadets held out for a truly responsible ministerial government and equal, universal suffrage. Because of their political principles and continued armed uprisings, Russia's leftist parties were undecided whether to participate in the Duma elections, which had been called for early 1906. At the same time, rightist factions actively opposed the reforms. Several new monarchist and protofascist groups also arose to subvert the new order. Nevertheless, the regime continued to function through the chaotic year of 1905, eventually restoring order in the cities, the countryside, and the army. In the process, terrorists murdered hundreds of officials, and the government executed much greater number of terrorists. Because the government had been able to restore order and to secure a loan from France before the first Duma met, Nicholas was in a strong position that enabled him to replace Witte with the much more conservative Petr Stolypin.
The First Duma was elected in March 1906. The Kadets and their allies dominated it, with the mainly nonparty radical leftists slightly weaker than the Octobrists and the nonparty center-rightists combined. The socialists had boycotted the election, but several socialist delegates were elected. Relations between the Duma and the Stolypin government were hostile from the beginning. A deadlock of the Kadets and the government over the adoption of a constitution and peasant reform led to the dissolution of the Duma and the scheduling of new elections. In spite of an upsurge of leftist terror, radical leftist parties participated in the election, and, together with the nonparty left, they gained a plurality of seats, followed by a loose coalition of Kadets with Poles and other nationalities in the political center. The impasse continued, however, when the Second Duma met in 1907.
In June 1907, The Tsar dissolved the Second Duma and promulgated a new electoral law, which vastly reduced the electoral weight of lower-class and non-Russian voters and increased the weight of the nobility. This political coup (Coup of June 1907) had the desired short-term result of restoring order. New elections in the autumn returned a more conservative Third Duma, which Octobrists dominated. Even this Duma quarreled with the government over a variety of issues, however, including the composition of the naval staff, the autonomous status of Finland, the introduction of zemstva in the western provinces, the reform of the peasant court system, and the establishment of workers' insurance organizations under police supervision. In these disputes, the Duma, with its appointed aristocratic-bureaucratic upper house, was sometimes more conservative than the government, and at other times it was more constitutionally minded. The Fourth Duma, elected in 1912, was similar in composition to the third, but a progressive faction of Octobrists split from the right and joined the political center.
Stolypin's boldest measure was his peasant reform program. It allowed, and sometimes forced, the breakup of communes as well as the establishment of full private property. Stolypin hoped that the reform program would create a class of conservative landowning farmers loyal to the Tsar. Most peasants did not want to lose the safety of the commune or to permit outsiders to buy village land, however. By 1914 only about 10 percent of all peasant communes had been dissolved. Nevertheless, the economy recovered and grew impressively from 1907 to 1914, both quantitatively and through the formation of rural cooperatives and banks and the generation of domestic capital. By 1914 Russian steel production equaled that of France and Austria-Hungary, and Russia's economic growth rate was one of the highest in the world. Although external debt was very high, it was declining as a percentage of the gross national product, and the empire's overall trade balance was favorable.
In 1911 Stolypin was assassinated by Dmitry Bogrov whilst watching an opera. Finance Minister Vladimir Kokovtsov replaced him. The cautious Kokovtsov was very able and a supporter of the tsar, but he could not compete with the powerful court factions that dominated the government.
Historians have debated whether Russia had the potential to develop a constitutional government between 1905 and 1914. The failure to do so was partly because the tsar was not willing to give up autocratic rule or share power. By manipulating the franchise, the government obtained progressively more conservative, but less representative, Dumas. Moreover, the regime sometimes bypassed the conservative Dumas and ruled by decree.
Russia's earlier Far Eastern policy required holding Balkan issues in abeyance, a strategy Austria-Hungary also followed between 1897 and 1906. Japan's victory in 1905 had forced Russia to make deals with the British and the Japanese. In 1907 Russia's new foreign minister, Aleksandr Izvol'skiy, concluded agreements with both nations. To maintain its sphere of influence in northern Manchuria and northern Persia, Russia agreed to Japanese ascendancy in southern Manchuria and Korea, and to British ascendancy in southern Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet. The logic of this policy demanded that Russia and Japan unite to prevent the United States from establishing a base in China by organizing a consortium to develop Chinese railroads. After China's republican revolution of 1911, Russia and Japan recognized each other's spheres of influence in Inner Mongolia. In an extension of this reasoning, Russia traded recognition of German economic interests in the Ottoman Empire and Persia for German recognition of various Russian security interests in the region. Russia also protected its strategic and financial position by entering the informal Triple Entente with Britain and France, without antagonizing Germany.
In spite of these careful measures, after the Russo-Japanese War Russia and Austria-Hungary resumed their Balkan rivalry, focusing on the Kingdom of Serbia and the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which Austria-Hungary had occupied since 1878. In 1881 Russia secretly had agreed in principle to Austria's future annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But in 1908, Izvol'skiy consented to support formal annexation in return for Austria's support for revision of the agreement on the neutrality of the Bosporus and Dardanelles—a change that would give Russia special navigational rights of passage. Britain stymied the Russian gambit by blocking the revision, but Austria proceeded with the annexation. Then, backed by German threats of war, Austria-Hungary exposed Russia's weakness by forcing Russia to disavow support for Serbia.
After Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia became a major part of the increased tension and conflict in the Balkans. In 1912 Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro defeated the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War, but the putative allies continued to quarrel among themselves. Then in 1913, the alliance split, and the Serbs, Greeks, and Romanians defeated Bulgaria in the Second Balkan War. Austria-Hungary became the patron of Bulgaria, which now was Serbia's territorial rival in the region, and Germany remained the Ottoman Empire's protector. Russia tied itself more closely to Serbia than it had previously. The complex system of alliances and Great Power support was extremely unstable among the Balkan parties harboring resentments over past defeats, the Serbs maintained particular animosity toward the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In June 1914, a Serbian terrorist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, which then held the Serbian government responsible. Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum to Serbia. Serbia submitted to the first 2 of 3 cases of the ultimatum the last one, which was rejected, demanded Serbia allow 100,000 Austrio-Hungarian troops to occupy their country. After Serbian rejection of the third clause of the ultimatum, Austria-Hungary responded forcefully. Russia supported Serbia. Once the Serbian response was rejected, the system of alliances began to operate automatically, with Germany supporting Austria-Hungary and France backing Russia. When Germany invaded France through Belgium as dictated by the Schliffen Plan, the conflict escalated into a world war and they were not prepared.
At the outbreak of the war, Tsar Nicholas yielded to pressure and appointed Grand Duke Nicholas as commander in chief of the Russian armies. The Grand Duke, a cousin of the tsar, was competent but had no part in formulating the strategy or appointing commanders.
In the initial phase of the war, Russia's offensives into East Prussia drew enough German troops from the western front to allow the French, Belgians, and British to stop the German advance. One of Russia's two invading armies was almost totally destroyed, however, at the disastrous Battle of Tannenberg—the same site at which Lithuanian, Polish, and Moldovan troops had defeated the German Teutonic Knights in 1410. Meanwhile, the Russians turned back an Austrian offensive and pushed into eastern Galicia, the northeastern region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Russians halted a combined German-Austrian winter counteroffensive into Russian Poland, and in early 1915 they pushed more deeply into Galicia. Then in the spring and summer of that year, a German-Austrian offensive drove the Russians out of Galicia and Poland and destroyed several Russian army corps. In 1916 the Germans planned to drive France out of the war with a large-scale attack in the Verdun area, but a new Russian offensive against Austria-Hungary once again drew German troops from the west. These actions left both major fronts stable and both Russia and Germany despairing of victory—Russia because of exhaustion, Germany because of its opponents' superior resources. Toward the end of 1916, Russia came to the rescue of Romania, which had just entered the war, and extended the eastern front south to the Black Sea.
Wartime agreements among the Allies reflected the Triple Entente's imperialist aims and the Russian Empire's relative weakness outside Eastern Europe. Russia nonetheless expected impressive gains from a victory: territorial acquisitions in eastern Galicia from Austria, in East Prussia from Germany, and northeastern Anatolia from the Ottoman Empire, which joined the war on the German side control of Constantinople and the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits and territorial and political alteration of Austria-Hungary in the interests of Romania and the Slavic peoples of the region. Britain was to acquire the middle zone of Persia and share much of the Arab Middle East with France Italy—not Russia's ally Serbia—was to acquire Dalmatia along the Adriatic coast Japan, another ally of the Entente, was to control more territory in China and France was to regain Alsace-Lorraine, which it had lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, and to have increased influence in western Germany.
The onset of World War I exposed the weakness of Nicholas II's government. A show of national unity had accompanied Russia's entrance into the war, with defense of the Slavic Serbs the main battle cry. In the summer of 1914, the Duma and the zemstva expressed full support for the government's war effort. The initial conscription was well organized and peaceful, and the early phase of Russia's military buildup showed that the empire had learned lessons from the Russo-Japanese War. But military reversals and the government's incompetence soon soured much of the population. German control of the Baltic Sea and German-Ottoman control of the Black Sea severed Russia from most of its foreign supplies and potential markets. In addition, inept Russian preparations for war and ineffective economic policies hurt the country financially, logistically, and militarily. Inflation became a serious problem. Because of inadequate material support for military operations, the War Industry Committees were formed to ensure that necessary supplies reached the front. But army officers quarreled with civilian leaders, seized administrative control of front areas, and refused to cooperate with the committee. The central government distrusted the independent war support activities that were organized by zemstva and cities. The Duma quarreled with the war bureaucracy of the government, and center and center-left deputies eventually formed the Progressive Bloc to create a genuinely constitutional government.
After Russian military reversals in 1915, Nicholas II went to the front to assume nominal leadership of the army, leaving behind his German-born wife, Alexandra, government and Duma.
While the central government was hampered by court intrigue, the strain of the war began to cause popular unrest. Since 1915 high food prices and fuel shortages caused strikes in some cities.  Workers, who had won the right to representation in sections of the War Industries Committee, used those sections as organs of political opposition. The countryside also was becoming restive. Soldiers were increasingly insubordinate, particularly the newly recruited peasants who faced the prospect of being used as cannon fodder in the inept conduct of the war.
The situation continued to deteriorate. Increasing conflict between the tsar and the Duma weakened both parts of the government and increased the impression of incompetence. In early 1917, deteriorating rail transport caused acute food and fuel shortages, which resulted in riots and strikes. Authorities summoned troops to quell the disorders in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg had been called since September 1914, to Russianize the Germanic name). In 1905 troops had fired on demonstrators and saved the monarchy, but in 1917 the troops turned their guns over to the angry crowds. Public support for the tsarist regime simply evaporated in 1917, ending three centuries of Romanov rule.
Andrew Kahn, St Edmund Hall, Oxford, Mark Lipovetsky, University of Colorado-Boulder, Irina Reyfman, Columbia University, and Stephanie Sandler, Harvard University
Andrew Kahn is Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Oxford. He has published widely on Russian Enlightenment literature and on Russian poetry, including Pushkin's Lyric Intelligence (OUP, 2008, pbk. 2012). His studies often focus on the interplay between the history of ideas and how writers think with literature.
Mark Lipovetsky is Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder (USA). He is the author of seven books on Russian literature and culture including Russian Postmodernist Fiction: Dialogue with Chaos (1999), Paralogies: Transformations of the (Post)Modernist Discourse in Russian Culture of the 1920s-2000s (2008), and Performing Violence: Literary and Theatrical Experiments of New Russian Drama (with Birgit Beumers). He has co-edited the volume of Dictionary of Literary Biography: Russian Writers Since 1980 (Gale Group in 2003), an anthology of Russian and Soviet wondertales, Politicizing Magic (2005), Veselye chelovechki: Cult Heroes of Soviet Childhood (2008) , and A Non-Canonical Classic: D. A. Prigov (2010), Charms of Cynical Reason: the Trickster's Transformations in Soviet and post-Soviet Culture (2011), and edited (with Evgeny Dobrenko) Russian Literature since 1991 (CUP, 2015).
Irina Reyfman is professor of Russian Language and Literature at Columbia University. In her studies, Reyfman focuses on the interaction of literature and culture, examining both how literature reacts to cultural phenomena and how it contributes to the formation of cultural biases and forms of behavior. Reyfman is the author of How Russia Learned to Write: Literature and the Imperial Table of Rannks (Madison, Wisconsin, 2016), Vasilii Trediakovsky: The Fool of the `New' Russian Literature (Stanford, 1990), and Ritualized Violence Russian Style: The Duel in Russian Culture and Literature (Stanford, 1999) the latter book also appeared in Russian (Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe obozrenie, 2002). She is also a co-editor (with Catherine T. Nepomnyashchy and Hilde Hoogenboom) of Mapping the Feminine: Russian Women and Cultural Difference (Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2008).
Stephanie Sandler is the Ernest E. Monrad Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University. She has written on Pushkin and later myths about him, including Distant Pleasures: Alexander Pushkin and the Writing of Exile (1989) and Commemorating Pushkin: Russia's Myth of a National Poet (2004). Other interests include ideas of selfhood and identity in Russian literature and film, which led to a co-edited volume, Self and Story in Russian History (2000, with Laura Engelstein) and questions of sex and gender, subject of another edited volume, Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture (1993, 1998, with Jane Costlow and Judith Vowles). She has co-edited a pioneering collection of essays on the contemporary poet Olga Sedakova, published in Russia in 2017 and due out in English with University of Wisconsin Press.
The myriad references to other thinkers serve a purpose: to weave Russia back into the wider Western cultural fabric. As Ms Stepanova sees it, in the 19th and early 20th centuries Russian culture was part of a shared dialogue and exchange of ideas. Her search for traces of her great-grandmother leads her to Paris, where Sarra studied medicine in the 1910s—as Franz Kafka and Amedeo Modigliani were roaming the same city’s streets.
But from the late 1930s an “invisible curtain” divided Russian culture from the West, Ms Stepanova says, and the country became an “exporter of a kind of borderline experience”. Its literature, from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Varlam Shalamov, came to be seen primarily as “confessional or reportorial material”. By linking writers from across that curtain, she aims to refute the idea that the Russian experience is separate and unique. A passage in which she visits a museum in New York evokes this sense of connection. Coming upon an image of autumn woods, “I begin to cry, very quietly, under my breath, because it’s the very same Moscow wood where I used to walk with my parents once, many thousands of miles ago, and we are now looking at each other again.” As Mr Saprykin puts it, the book “returns us to the sensation of Russia being a part of world culture”.
Struggles over memory, Ms Stepanova notes, are not exclusive to Russia. In essays elsewhere, she reflected on the appeals to past greatness that, in 2014, fuelled Russia’s war with Ukraine her observations could just as well apply to the rhetoric of Trump-era America and Brexit Britain. “The virus has somehow spread around the world,” she laments. (Her output is formid able. She is editor-in-chief of Colta.ru, an online cultural journal a collection of her essays and verse has been published this year as “The Voice Over” another book of poetry is out in English as “War of the Beasts and the Animals”.)
When the past is prosecuted in this way, suggests Ms Stepanova, it becomes an opportunity “for settling scores, for a kind of conversation about the present that for some reason cannot happen in real time”. This seepage across time is the underlying theme of “In Memory of Memory”, says Stanislav Lvovsky, a Russian poet and critic: “It’s not a story about history, but about how the past lives on in the present.”
These disparate battles over memory may be part of the same war, but in Russia they tend to rage at a higher pitch. Her country, Ms Stepanova says, has long had competing channels for memory: an official, state-endorsed narrative, and family stories, which “like lace, have more holes than threads”. Vladimir Putin has made a glorious version of the past, in particular victory in the second world war, a pillar of his statist ideology. Last week, in a meeting with senior officials, Mr Putin declared that “all kinds of Russophobic individuals and unscrupulous politicians are trying to attack Russian history”. He promised “to ensure the continuity of historical memory in Russian society, so that decades and centuries from now, future generations will cherish the truth about the war”.
Ms Stepanova makes the dissonance between these ways of thinking clear in a poignant chapter about the siege of Leningrad. A distant relative of hers perished in battle there, writing quaint letters home until his death. She quotes Lydia Ginzburg, a critic who noted from behind the Nazi blockade how the Soviet system “dehumanised the individual to such an extent that he had learnt to sacrifice himself without even realising it”.
By contrast, Ms Stepanova imbues individual lives with meaning independent of the collective fate. For her, writing “is always a rescue operation”. Her family’s relics are safely preserved in their sekretik. ■
This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline "Secrets and lies"
Condition: Good. Ships from the UK. Former Library book. Shows some signs of wear, and may have some markings on the inside.
Published by Progress Publishers, 1980
Used - Hardcover
Condition: Fair. This is an ex-library book and may have the usual library/used-book markings inside.This book has hardback covers. In fair condition, suitable as a study copy. Please note the Image in this listing is a stock photo and may not match the covers of the actual item,550grams, ISBN:
Condition: Good. Ships from the UK. Former Library book. Shows some signs of wear, and may have some markings on the inside.
Published by Progress Publishers, 1980
Used - Hardcover
Condition: Fair. This is an ex-library book and may have the usual library/used-book markings inside.This book has hardback covers. In fair condition, suitable as a study copy. Please note the Image in this listing is a stock photo and may not match the covers of the actual item,550grams, ISBN:
A History of Russian Literature
The History of Russian Literature provides a comprehensive account of Russian writing from its earliest origins in the monastic works of Kiev up to the present day, still rife with the creative experiments of post-Soviet literary life. Five chronological parts by design unfold in diachronic histories they can be read individually but are presented as inseparable across the span of a national literature. Throughout its course, this History follows literary processes as they worked in respective periods and places, whether in monasteries, at court, in publishing houses, in the literary marketpl . More
The History of Russian Literature provides a comprehensive account of Russian writing from its earliest origins in the monastic works of Kiev up to the present day, still rife with the creative experiments of post-Soviet literary life. Five chronological parts by design unfold in diachronic histories they can be read individually but are presented as inseparable across the span of a national literature. Throughout its course, this History follows literary processes as they worked in respective periods and places, whether in monasteries, at court, in publishing houses, in the literary marketplace, or the Writers’ Union. Evolving institutional practices used to organize literature are themselves a part of the story of literature told in poetry, drama, and prose including diaries and essays. Equally prominent is the idea of writers’ agency in responding to tradition and reacting to larger forces such as church and state that shape the literary field. Coverage strikes a balance between extensive overview and in-depth thematic discussion, addressing trans-historical questions through case studies detailing the importance of texts, figures, and notions. The book does not follow the decline model often used in accounts of the nineteenth century as a change-over between ages of prose and poetry. We trace in the evolution of literature two interrelated processes: changes in subjectivities and the construction of national narratives. It is through categories of nationhood, literary politics, and literary life, forms of selfhood, and forms of expression that the intense influence of literature on a culture as a whole occurs.
What Makes the Russian Literature of the 19th Century So Distinctive?
Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Francine Prose and Benjamin Moser discuss the great Russian writers and their approach to the human heart and soul.
By Francine Prose
I could cite the wild imaginings of Gogol, who can make the most unlikely event seem not only plausible but convincing.
Trying to answer this difficult question in 650 words or less, I could say that part of what makes the 19th-century Russian writers so distinctive — why we still read them with such pleasure and fascination — is the force, the directness, the honesty and accuracy with which they depicted the most essential aspects of human experience. Not the computer-dating experience, obviously, or the airplane-seat-rage experience, or the “Where is the takeout I ordered an hour ago?” experience. But plenty of other crucial events and emotions appear, unforgettably, in their work: childbirth, childhood, death, first love, marriage, happiness, loneliness, betrayal, poverty, wealth, war and peace.
I could mention the breadth and depth of their range, their success at making the individual seem universal, the fact that — though they inhabited the same country and century — each of “the Russians” is different from the others. I could applaud their ability to persuade us that there is such a thing as human nature, that something about the human heart and soul transcends the surface distinctions of nationality, social class and time. I could cite the wild imaginings of Gogol, who can make the most unlikely event — a man wakes up to discover that his nose has gone missing — seem not only plausible but convincing the way in which Dostoyevsky’s people seem real to us, vivid and fully present, even as we suspect that no one ever really behaved as they do, flinging themselves at each other’s feet, telling their life stories at extraordinary length and in excruciating detail to a stranger in a bar the mournful delicacy of Chekhov, his uncanny skill at revealing the deepest emotions of the men, women and children who populate his plays and short stories the ambition and insight that suffuses Tolstoy’s small moments (jam-making and mushroom-picking) and epic set pieces (a disastrous horse race, the Battle of Borodino) the subtlety with which Turgenev portrays the natural landscape and his meticulously rendered but ultimately mysterious characters.
Alternately, I could suggest that anyone seeking a more complete answer to this question read Nabokov’s “Lectures on Russian Literature.” Certain aspects of the book can be irritating: Nabokov’s aristocratic prejudices, his contempt for Dostoyevsky’s “neurotics and lunatics,” his dismissal of almost all Soviet-era literature. (What about Akhmatova, Platonov and Babel?) On the other hand, no one has written more perceptively about two of Chekhov’s most affecting stories, “The Lady With the Little Dog” and “In the Gully,” nor presented such a persuasive argument for the brilliance of “Anna Karenina.” And however we may bristle at his suggestion that if we can’t read Gogol in Russian, we probably shouldn’t read him at all, our admiration for Gogol is heightened by Nabokov’s explanation of how he replaced the conventions “inherited from the ancients. The sky was blue, the dawn red, the foliage green” — with fresh and precise descriptive language. “It was Gogol . . . who first saw yellow and violet at all.”
Better even than reading Nabokov on the Russians is to read the Russians. Or reread them, since their books so often strike us as more beautiful and meaningful each time we return to them they seem to age and change along with us, to surprise us much as we are surprised to meet a dear friend, grown older. If I were to tell someone where to start, I’d advise beginning with Gogol’s “The Overcoat” or Turgenev’s “First Love” or Chekhov’s “The Black Monk” or “Ward No. 6,” “The Bishop” or “The Duel” or that greatest of all page-turners, Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” I’d say read Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” which is perhaps my favorite novel, or his “The Three Hermits,” which is to my mind the best story ever written about the limits of pedagogy. I’d say read them all, discover your own favorites, and when you reach the last sentence of the last book on your shelf, start over and read them again.
Francine Proseis the author of 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, among them the novel “Blue Angel,” a National Book Award nominee, and the guide “Reading Like a Writer,” a New York Times best seller. Her new novel is “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.” Currently a distinguished visiting writer at Bard College, she is the recipient of numerous grants and awards a contributing editor at Harper’s, Saveur and Bomb a former president of the PEN American Center and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
By Benjamin Moser
Dostoyevsky depicted humans as beings whose lunacy and lust and terror were held in check by only the gauziest of veils.
An odd characteristic of Russian literature is that the first novel to appear in the vernacular was not an original work but a translation from the French — and not until the 18th century. This was at least 200 years after the rest of Europe had shelved their churchy tongues: Dante praised the “eloquence of the vernacular” at the beginning of the 14th century Du Bellay offered a “Defense and Illustration of the French Language” in the 16th and languages with far fewer speakers — Dutch, Portuguese, Polish — had broad and distinguished literatures when all the Russians had were a scattering of medieval epics and devotional works written in the ecclesiastical language, Church Slavonic.
Even at the end of the 19th century, Russian, as readers of Tolstoy know, still reeked of bog and tundra. Classy people spoke French, and the relation of French to Russian in the 19th-century Russian novel offers an uncomfortable metaphor for the society as a whole: an elegant foreign language stretched like a glistening membrane atop the “real” language of the people. As the classical colonnades of St. Petersburg never quite hid the destitute swamp upon which they were built, the language of Descartes never supplanted the hallucinated utopias that populated the dreams of the Slavonic saints.
French was civilization Russian, its discontents. A generation before Freud, Dostoyevsky — a favorite of Freud’s — depicted humans as beings whose lunacy and lust and terror were held in check by only the gauziest of veils. The village idiot admonishes the magnificent czar the pretty princess, back from Baden-Baden, brushes gigglingly past the soothsaying hag. In a land that knew no Renaissance, the superstitious medieval village, with its thunderclaps and forebodings, inevitably swamps the Gallic palace. The Russia of Dostoyevsky and Pushkin lurks in the alleyway behind the mansion, a materialization of the id.
The experiences of the Russian writers echoed their particular national history, but there is nothing particularly national about the volcanic passions that threaten to burst through the carefully maintained surfaces of every human life. That they explored the depths did not mean that the great Russians neglected their brilliant surfaces, whose Fabergé luster makes them irresistibly romantic, and makes us feel the pathos of their destruction.
When that destruction came, the surface — the heritage of Cartesian formalism — would keep the demons at bay. If, a century before, French seemed like a froufrou frill, the vision of humane culture of which it was a symbol now offered consolation, however meager. Amid the Stalinist terror, nothing is more self-consciously classical than the poems of Akhmatova, who wrote sonnets in besieged Leningrad of Tsvetayeva, who looked longingly, insistently, to Greece or of Mandelstam, who, in an instance unique in literary history, committed suicide by ode. If Dostoyevsky insisted on the enduring reality of the irrational, the 20th-century poets described — but refused to reflect — the chaos swallowing them, and clung to form as to a vital lie.
Joseph Brodsky wrote that Russia combined “the complexes of a superior nation” with “the great inferiority complex of a small country.” In a nation so tardily arrived at the banquet of European civilization, its mentality makes the world’s biggest country strangely provincial. But its smallness and its bigness offer an obvious metaphor for the extremes of the human psyche. “I can be led only by contrast,” Tsvetayeva wrote. In the eight time zones sprawling between the galleries of the Hermitage and the frozen pits of Magadan, there is contrast enough. Awareness of this unbridgeable distance makes Russian books, at their greatest, reflections of all human life — and suggests that the old cliché, the “Russian soul,” could lose the adjective.
Benjamin Moser is the author of “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector,” a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and the general editor of the new translations of Clarice Lispector at New Directions. A former New Books columnist at Harper’s Magazine, he is currently writing the authorized biography of Susan Sontag. He lives in the Netherlands.