It’s a universally shared notion: Russian pronunciation is particularly charming, especially as concerns the rolling of the ‘r’s!
This particular accent is often a delight to behold, even when someone is speaking English as a foreign language.
There are many different reasons to learn Russian - a desire to teach the language yourself, plans to travel to Russia, interest is studying in a Russian speaking country, communicating with your spouse’s family in a cross-cultural marriage, expatriation…or a general love for Russian culture.
It’s this last subject that we will be talking about today, as we examine Slavic culture via the lens of literature.
This journey through time to examine Russia and its Slavic heritage through its favorite authors and books should at the very least give you a desire to become truly bilingual and read the texts in their original Russian!
The heritage of ancient Russia
Medieval Russia had only a small bed of vernacular literature from which the literary scene could evolve. Most written texts at the time were religious and in Slavonic (the Russian liturgical language).
This time period gives us our first sample of written texts that were neither legal nor religious. They are written in Old Russian.
But literature is not just confined to the written word. During this period there was a proliferation of oral stories that Russian families transmitted from generation to generation.
These family stories became bylines, stories rich with a syncretic mix of Christianity, Byzantism, and pagan traditions.
These folktales later became the basis of Russian literature (or what’s also known as, Словесность - the art of words).
It was only later, during the Age of Enlightenment, that the term Литература, began to be used to describe Russian literature. It had previously been a word reserved for written texts.
Most popular works from Old Russian are anonymous, as was described in the Story of Igor’s Campaign (at the end of the 12th century).
The religious monk Avvakoum broke through boundaries in the modern Russian vernacular when he wrote his autobiography in the seventeenth century. His book is an early example of what would become modern Russian.
It was around this time that the first wave of Westernization occurred, with the introduction of theater under the management of Natalia Narychina, mother of Tsar Peter I!
The modern Russian works and the height of the Russian novel
The Russias, as they used to say, seemed to completely change their faces under the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725).
Not only did the country become Westernized, but it also reached back and examined its own history and roots, and especially its language. The famous grammar guide written by the poet Lomonosov (1711-1765) is a masterpiece in its own right, as well as a grammatical founding stone of the modern Russian language.
Lomonosov also founded Russia’s first university and was part of Russia’s first literary wave.
You can clearly see traces in the architecture of the ‘new city’ of St Petersburg, and in the first Russian newspapers, the simplification of the letters in use as the Cyrillic alphabet gives way to a Russian alphabet, designed and influenced a bit by the West’s Latin alphabet.
The gradual secularisation of the arts and sciences also gave space for the arrival of new literary genres.
Love songs begin to appear, as do novels concerning themes like chivalry or telling stories of adventures.
In the world of these unpublished Повести, we often find traditional and popular elements that are 100% Russian, but which also include adaptations of foreign works to great success.
The characters are often gentlemen and sailors, while the action takes place more often than not in a foreign land, to add a touch of exoticism to the story.
During the same period, Russian-language poetry is enjoying immense success within the borders of the empire.
The top authors and poets to remember and research are Trediakovski (1703-1769) and Derjavine (1743-1816) for the verses; Cantemir (1708-1744), Radishchev (1749-1802) and Karamzin (1766-1826) for prose; and Soumarokov (1717-1777) and Fonvizine (1745-1792) for the beginnings of the national theater.
The modern Russian language began to develop, first thanks to Lomonosov and his grammar, as well as to the works of these authors. The language is an arranged marriage between the popular spoken language and the Slavonic church version and occurred in 1755.
It was the first time in Russian history that the national language was standardized!
With the opening of the tsars to the rest of the world, many concepts and new technologies were imported from Europe to describe technical or conceptual realities which were hitherto unknown to the Eastern Slavs.
With this new knowledge, do not hesitate to test yourself and your language skills in Russia. But first, make sure you’ve taken all the necessary steps to obtain a visa for Russia!
The 19th century - the golden age for the Russian language
Contrary to what is commonly believed, the Russian novel was born as early as the eighteenth century, based on the French novels that were being translated into modern Russian.
The first Russian-speaking novelist was Emine (1735-1770) ... but he was not from Russia!
The craze that his works caused, now forgotten because of the very average quality of his writing style, was emulated by Choulkov (1743-1793) and the fabulist and playwright Krylov (1769-1844).
Unsurprisingly, it was the Muscovite dialect that was gradually adopted, little by little, on the elites of the entire nation.
Russian romanticism, like French, has its origins in Germany and spread eastward in the first half of the nineteenth century.
This unprecedented artistic movement brings to light a whole generation of Russian literary geniuses: and many of the works from this golden age are still fresh and modern examples of Russian literature today.
Some names are no longer as popular: the jack-of-all-trades Pushkin (1799-1837), the mystic Gogol (1809-1852) whose Dead Souls were inspired by Western works, the brilliant Dostoevsky (1821-1881) who is part of our ranking of the top 10 Russian celebrities, the Francophile Turgenev (1818-1883), the undisputed master of the Russian theater Chekhov (1860-1904) and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) whose War and Peace and Anna Karenina are some of the most famous titles.
All Russophiles studying Russian at university will have to read Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Demons and The Karamazov Brothers, as well as many other novels by Dostoevsky ...
The philosophical significance of his work is undeniable: it is one of the essential qualities of a great novel.
In addition to these giants of Russian literature, there are a myriad of lesser-known but talented writers: Zhukovsky (1783-1852) famous for his patriotic songs against Napoleon, the artist Lermontov (1814-1841) the classical-symbolist poet Tyutchev (1803-1873), Goncharov (1812-1891) with his novel of Oblomov mores applauded by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889), or the publicist Leskov (1831- 1895) …
Poetry is still very popular, as it was in the previous century, especially with the metaphysical poet Baratynsky (1800-1844), the elegant Alexis Tolstoy (1817-1875), (although infinitely less known than his cousin or his namesake), as well as Afanassi Fet (1820-1892), leader of art for art.
In other subjects, this list could also be supplemented with names like Herzen, Kropotkin, Nekrasov, Ostrovsky and ... Bakunin, political literature being a constant, in Russia as it has been elsewhere.
Ready to go? Discover whether it is better to go to Moscow or St Petersburg during a trip to Russia ...
Russian literature in the 20th century
Up until now, we have seen that poetry was one of the most greatly prized and celebrated Russian literary genres.
This is still true during the last century, which began at the apogee of symbolism, whose major contributors such as Bely, Khlebnikov, and Voloshin.
Now that Russian literature is nearly two centuries old and has had the time to prove itself by producing many talented authors, it was possible to take a critical look.
It is the Russian formalist movement which develops the most during this time and produces a number of Russian-bibliographies.
After the apogee of the nineteenth century, this period was known as a "silver age" but it was interrupted prematurely…
And for good reason: in 1917, the Bolshevik revolution shook Russia to its very core.
Lenin reformed the Russian alphabet he’d inherited from Peter the Great, but this was by no means the largest change of the Revolution.
It was, unfortunately, the establishment of ‘official’ art. Artists who weren’t willing to participate had to go into exile or to risk imprisonment, deportation, death.
The NEP had barely begun to allow the restructuring of Russian literature around the Oberiou and the movement of St. Serapion before the advent of Stalin and development of the USSR dealt a fatal blow to Russian writers.
Abstract art in all its forms was outlawed, unlike socialist realism, which became obligatory for all: licensed authors were required, under the supervision of commissioners, to praise the established order and its Soviet achievements.
Fortunately, samizdat (clandestine literary pamphlets) allowed writers to continue to write in secret, but at their own risk: Bulgakov and Vassili Grossman are probably the most prominent members of this clandestine group.
However, repeatedly threatened and buffeted by the regime, they both died of disease and not direct coercive methods.
The other great authors of the time were exiled: Bunin, Shmelov and Solzhenitsyn, world famous for having been among the first to describe the horrors of the Gulag Archipelago and the dark side of communism. He was considered by many to be a philosopher and a prophet rather than a novelist in the classic sense of the term.
What about Russian literature today?
With the collapse of the USSR, a wind of freedom is once again sweeping through Russian literary circles.
This event is still relatively recent (just a quarter of a century has passed since the fall of the soviet union), so we do not have enough distance to really take the full measure.
However, the national-Bolshevik party leader Limonov is known to us thanks to the biography written by Emmanuel Carrère d’Encausse.
But Russia must not hide its other current budding and proven talents: Elena Tchoudinova who wrote science fiction and historical novels in France and England, Mikhail Shishkin, Vladimir Sorokin ...
One thing is certain: the extreme vitality of Russian literature has shown that despite the Stalinist period, it has not yet breathed its last.
Russia is again drawing on its traditions, and there is no doubt that it will still give birth to further literary geniuses. All people who learn to speak Russian will continue to read their literary works for many years to come!