Russia Literature – From the Origins to the 19th Century

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to mark the moment of origin of Russian literature proper (i.e. the literature of the Slavic lineage that was called Great-Russian, to distinguish it from the other two forming the Eastern Slavic group: Ukrainian or small-Russian and white-Russian) because in the first centuries (XI-XIII) the links between the literary productions (especially of popular poetry) of the three lineages are too intimate and undifferentiated and the common paleoslav background is still too dominant. The present tendency of Ukrainian scholars to consider these first centuries of commonality more specifically Ukrainians would give Russian literature proper (i.e. according to the territorial boundaries of the later Great-Russian language) a very late origin, without sufficient justification, because if differences are noted in this epoch between the various linguistic groups, none of them actually dominates, precisely foretelling further independent development. We therefore consider the first centuries as centuries of origin of a Russian literature that we will call general, with a further development of the central trunk (Grand Russian or Russian) and of two lateral branches (the Ukrainian and the White-Russian), with later affirmations in the latter in comparison with the former.

Russia had its first rudimentary literature with the introduction of Christianity. The first written document, of this strictly religious literature, dates back several years to the official conversion (988) and that is the so-called Gospel of Ostromir, written in Novgorod in 1056-57, in Paleoslavian of Russian editing. Stronger is the Russian element in the so-called Chronicles of Byzantium of the century. XIII, and in the History of the Jewish War by Josephus, in which the lexical material is indeed already so different from the traditional one that it can be considered at least partial mirror of what was the spoken language of the time.

Fundamentally religious literature and mainly of translations, alongside which, however, they will develop quite soon, to keep themselves alive until almost the century. XVII, also a relatively independent apocryphal literature and a hagiographic literature; both are important, the first because the beginning of Russian narrative literature can be traced back to it, the second because, despite imitation, the moral conceptions of primitive Russia can largely be reconstructed on it. Alongside the hagiographic literature we must therefore remember the first moral and didactic works of an independent nature, such as the Life and pilgrimage of Daniil of the century. XII, the first Russian narration of a pilgrimage to Palestine, and the Admonition to Fiji, by Prince Vladimir Monomaco, the first Russian example of autobiography for edification purposes and testimony of the rapid moral evolution of the Russian people converted to Christianity.

The domination of the religious style in the first centuries was not undisputed, because already during the period of Kiev, prior to the Tatar domination, and even more afterwards, even the not entirely religious, sometimes indeed profane, narrative had life and flourish with different manifestations, from the didactic story (Varlaam and Josaphat) to the historical story (Alexandria), from the war story (The song of Igor’s host) to the story of everyday life (Daniii’s prayer), etc.; to which manifestations can also be added the Chronicles, of which ancient Russia was very rich, from the first known to us, that is the Tale of the past years orChronicle of Nestor, important for Russian history and literature, up to others of a local nature, inside the large bodies in which all the chronicles are now gathered, under the name of the city or monastery in which they were kept (Novgorodsky Spisok, Lavrentevskij Spisok, Ipatevskij Spisok).

The Chronicle of Nestor and the Song of the Host of Igor (v.) Can be considered the most important monuments of the Kiev period, not only for their intrinsic value, but also for the high sense of national dignity, civil in the Chronicle, warlike in the Song, of which both are animated. Despite its isolation the Cantoit presupposes a cultural tradition of which other traces are preserved in oral literature, handed down over the centuries and altered by them. Unfortunately, a further development of these literary products of the Kievian civilization was made impossible by the Mongol-Tatar invasion which had to stop almost totally for over two hundred years starting from the first third of the century. XIII the intellectual life of the country. Precisely where the foreboding of the new life had taken place, with the conversion to Christianity, in Kiev, the darkness of servitude thickened, and only further north, in Novgorod, the only center outside the direct influence of the invaders, could to preserve a land favorable to a culture, no matter if it is closely linked to the influences of other races, due to relations with the German and Scandinavian lands. The two centuries XIII and XIV and good half of the century. XV give us almost no evidence of intellectual life, or at least only monuments have been preserved, such as the Paterik Kiev-Pechersk, the sermons of the Bishop of Vladimir, Serapion, the Prayer of Daniil Zatočnik, the said or tale of the downfall of the Russian land and the tale around S. Mercury of Smolensk, who feel the desire to give expression to their sufferings, and to find comfort in them in the Christian faith, but artistically they say nothing new. If one thing is to be noted is the flowering of stories with a historical background, perhaps proof of a continuity, at least ideal, between the period of Kiev and those that followed until the revival of Moscow. The most important among them are those of the end of the fourteenth century, which have as their center the first victory of the Russians against the Tatars, the battle of Kulikovo in 1380, with which some historians want to initiate the proper Muscovite literature.

Given the historical importance of the struggle undertaken by the Muscovite principality, it is not surprising that the first literature of the national revival is a literature reflecting the political and social events of the time. Both the Florentine Union of 1439, for which the authority of Greek Orthodoxy fell in the eyes of the Russians, and the subjugation of the two centers of Pskov and Novgorod in Moscow, had literary echoes of notable importance in the story of The Way as Pope Eugene reunited the eighth council with its partisans, in that of the foundation and fall of Cargrad (Constantinople), in that of the white monk hood of Novgorod, and so on. In this same period (second half of the fourteenth century and beginning of the fifteenth century), writings aimed at combating sectarian movements and those of the heretics themselves, especially the so-called “Judaizers”, also had a place to themselves. The sec. XV saw other completely new manifestations, such as the travel reports, which, if they are mainly descriptions of pilgrimages, also include among them a very original document of enterprise and spirit of observation together, the relation that is to the journey of A. Nikitin to the East Indies in the years 1466-1472; and the so-called rationalistic polemical literature that followed and expanded the struggle against the heretics in the two camps that were headed by Nil Sorski (1433-1508) and Josef Volockij.

The sec. XVI already has some characteristic literary monuments which reveal the possibility of a development if not original, at least responding to the spirit of the times. We refer to the Stoglav or Book of Hundred Chapters, to the Domostroj or organization of the family, to the Č eti – Minei or lives of the Saints according to the calendar, to the Stepennaja Kniga (Book of degrees), to the epistolary controversy between Ivan the Terrible and Prince Kurbsky. The Stoglavit is a precious document for the study of Russian culture in the sixteenth century with its precepts of ecclesiastical discipline, the exposition of the questions posed by the Tsar to the Council and the relative answers, from which a rather gloomy picture of spiritual and moral backwardness emerges; in the Domostroj to the principles of ecclesiastical discipline are added those of family discipline, also mirroring a backward level of morals that the author of the treatise evidently aimed to discipline, not to correct and improve. Only a little later, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, will we find literally another aspect of family and female life reflected in the moving narration of the Life of Juliana Lazarevna. With the correspondence between Ivan the Terrible and Prince Kurbsky on the rights of the absolute sovereign, it can be said that the struggle that the currents of new life lead to the established powers, fed not only by spontaneous discontent and the formation of an independent thought, is becoming aware of oneself., but also from the accentuation of Western influence. The path of penetration of this influence as far as Moscow was twofold: Poland and polonized south-western Russia. In the sixteenth century Kiev had resumed an avant-garde position in ecclesiastical studies with the foundation of a college which was later transformed into an Academy and also became the center of studies and theatrical poetic art.

The sec. XVII in Moscow must have been, much more than has been thought, a battlefield between tradition and new currents. Even events such as the foundation by Patriarch Filarete of the Slavic-Greek-Latin Academy, in which teachers of the Kiev Academy came, and the schism (raskol) caused by the correction of sacred books, were no less part of this ferment than the love that was increasingly spreading for fictional literature with a realistic and sometimes satirical background. To the arrival of masters from Kiev, Moscow owed the impetus to the theater, since among them was in fact the learned Simone Polockij (1629-1680), writer of religious dramas that were staged in the court theater built by Tsar Alexis Michailovich; one of the most personal and characteristic literary works of the time is linked to the schism, the autobiography of the protopop Avvakum (1620-81). It is characteristic that this document of humanity and art came to Russia from a simple man who had no aspiration to make a profession of art. After all, even shortly after is another work,On Russia during the reign of Alessio Michajlovi è, where the accuracy of the historical exposition is coupled with the passionate participation of the author in the narrated facts. On the other hand, those numerous tales have less artistic value which, referring in part to the apocryphals, formed the spiritual nourishment of the educated class of the time: The tale of Savva Grudcyn, The tale of Frol Skobeev, The tale of Pain – misfortune (O Gore zlo è astij), in which the traditional fantastic elements are only partially modified by realistic elements, especially satirical ones.

Russia Literature - From the Origins to the 19th Century