1. The Language.—2. Literature in the Reign of Peter the Great; of Alexander; of Nicholas; Danilof, Lomonosof, Kheraskof, Derzhavin, Karamzin.—3. History, Poetry, the Drama: Kostrof, Dmitrief, Zhukoffski, Krylof, Pushkin, Lermontoff, Gogol.—4. Literature in Russia since the Crimean War: School of Nature; Turgenieff; Ultra-realistic School; Science: Mendeleeff.
1. THE LANGUAGE.—In the Russian language three principal dialects are to be distinguished; but the Russian proper, as it is spoken in Moscow and all the central and northern parts of European Russia, is the literary language of the nation. It is distinguished by its immense copiousness, the consequence of its great flexibility in adopting foreign words, merely as roots, from which, by means of its own resources, stems and branches seem naturally to spring. Another excellence is the great freedom of construction which it allows, without any danger of becoming ambiguous. It is clear, euphonious, and admirably adapted to poetry.
The germs of Russian civilization arose with the foundation of the empire by the Varegians of Scandinavia (862 A.D.), but more particularly with the introduction of Christianity by Vladimir the Great, who, towards the close of the tenth century, established the first schools, introduced the Bible of St. Cyril, called Greek artists from Constantinople, and became the patron, and at the same time the hero of poetry. Indeed, he and his knights are the Russian Charlemagne and his peers, and their deeds have proved a rich source for the popular tales and songs of succeeding times. Jaroslav, the son of Vladimir, was not less active than his father in advancing the cause of Christianity; he sent friars through the country to instruct the people, founded theological schools, and continued the translation of the church books. To this age is referred the epic, “Igor's Expedition against the Polovtzi,” discovered in the eighteenth century, a work characterized by uncommon grace, beauty, and power.
From 1238 to 1462 A.D. the Russian princes were vassals of the Mongols, and during this time nearly every trace of cultivation perished. The invaders burned the cities, destroyed all written documents, and demolished the monuments of national culture; but at length Ivan I. (1462- 1505) delivered his country from the Mongols, and prepared a new era in the history of Russian civilization.
At this early period the first germs of dramatic art were carried from Poland to Russia. In Kief the theological students performed ecclesiastical dramas, and traveled about, during the holidays, to exhibit their skill in other cities. The tragedies of Simeon of Polotzk (1628- 1680), in the old Slavic language, penetrated from the convents to the court, where they were performed in the middle of the seventeenth century. At this time the first secular drama, a translation from Moliere, was also represented.
2. THE LITERATURE.—Peter the Great (1689-1725) raised the Russian dialect to the dignity of a written language, introduced it into the administration and courts of justice, and caused many books to be translated from foreign languages. He rendered the Slavic characters more conformable to the Latin, and these letters, then generally adopted, continue in use at the present time. Among the writers of the age of Peter the Great may be mentioned Kirsha Danilof, who versified the popular traditions of Vladimir and his heroes; and Kantemir, a satirist, who translated many epistles of Horace, and the work of Fontenelle on the plurality of worlds.
Peter the Great laid the corner-stone of a national literature, but the temple was not reared above the ground until the reign of Elizabeth and of Catharine II. Lomonosof (1711-1765), a peasant, born in the dreary regions of Archangel, has the honor of being the true founder of the Russian literature. In his Russian grammar he first laid down the principles and fixed the rules of the language; he first ventured to draw the boundary line between the old Slavic and the Russian, and endeavored to fix the rules of poetry according to the Latin standard. Among his contemporaries may be mentioned Sumarokof (1718-1777) and Kheraskof (1733-1807), both very productive writers in prose and verse, and highly admired by their contemporaries.
In the middle of the eighteenth century the dramatic talent of the Russians was awakened, through the establishment of theatres at Jaroslav, St. Petersburg, and Moscow; and several gifted literary men employed themselves in dramatic compositions; but of all the productions of this time, those of Von Wisin (1745-1792) only have continued to hold possession of the stage.
Among the poets of the eighteenth century, Derzhavin (1743-1816) sang the glory of Catharine II., and of the Russian arms. His “Ode to God” has obtained the distinction of being translated into several European languages, and also into Chinese, and hung up in the Emperor's palace, printed on white satin in golden letters.
The reign of Alexander I. (1801-1825) opened a new era in the literature. He manifested great zeal for the mental elevation of his subjects; he increased the number of universities, established theological seminaries and institutions for the study of oriental languages, and founded gymnasia and numerous common schools for the people; he richly endowed the Asiatic museum of St. Petersburg, and for a time patronized the Russian Bible Society, and promoted the printing of books on almost all subjects. But toward the close of his reign, in consequence of certain political measures, literature sank with great rapidity.
Karamzin (1765-1826), the representative of this age, undertook to shake off the yoke of the classical rules established by Lomonosof, and introduced more simplicity and naturalness. His reputation rests chiefly upon his “History of the Russian Empire,” which, with many faults, is a standard work in Slavic literature. The reign of the Emperor Nicholas opened with a bloody tragedy, which exhibited in a striking manner the dissatisfied and unhealthy spirit of the literary youth of Russia. Several poets and men of literary fame were among the conspirators; and to awaken patriotism and to counteract the tendencies of the age, the government promoted historical and archaeological researches, but at the same time abolished professorships of philosophy, increased the vigilance of its censorship of the press, lengthened the catalogue of forbidden books, and reduced the term of lawful absence for its subjects. It took the most energetic measures to promote national education, and to cultivate those fields of science where no political tares could be sown.
The leading idea of the time was Panslavism, the object of which was the union of the Slavic race, an opposition to all foreign domination, and the attainment of a higher intellectual and political condition in the general march of mankind. Panslavism rose to a special branch of literature, and its principal writers were Kollar, Grabowski, and Gurowski.
3. HISTORY, POETRY, THE DRAMA.—History is a department of letters which has been treated very successfully in Russia; critical researches have been extended to all branches of archaeology, philology, mythology, and kindred subjects, and valuable works have been produced.
Dmitrief (1760-1827) combined in his poems imagination, taste, correctness, and purity of language. Zhukoffski (b. 1785) a poet of deep feeling, took his models from the Germans.
The fables of Krylof (b. 1768) are equally celebrated among all classes and ages, and are among the first books read by Russian children.
Above all the others, Pushkin (1799-1835) must be considered as the representative of Russian poetry in the nineteenth century. He was in the service of the government, when an ode “to Liberty,” written in too bold a spirit, induced Alexander I. to banish him from St. Petersburg. The Emperor Nicholas recalled him, and became his patron. Though by no means a mere imitator, his poetry bears strong marks of the influence of Byron.
Lermontoff (d. 1841) was a poet and novelist whose writings, like those of Pushkin, were strongly influenced by Byron. Koltsoff (d. 1842) is the first song writer of Russia, and his favorite theme is the joys and sorrows of the people. Through the influence of Pushkin and Gogol (d. 1852), Russian literature became emancipated from the classic rule and began to develop original tendencies. Gogol in his writings manifests a deep sentiment of patriotism, a strong love of nature, and a fine sense of humor.
The Russians have few ballads of great antiquity, and these rarely have any reference to the subjects of the heroic prose tales which are the delight of Russian nurseries, the favorite subjects of which are the traditions of Vladimir and his giant heroes, which doubtless once existed in the form of ballads. The Russians have ever been a singing race. Every festival day and every extraordinary event has its accompanying song. Though these songs have been modernized in language and form, that they date from the age of paganism is evident from their frequent invocations of heathen deities and allusions to heathen customs. Allied to these songs are the various ditties which the peasant girls and lads sing on certain occasions, consisting of endless repetitions of words or syllables; yet through this melodious tissue, apparently without meaning, sparks of real poetry often shine.
The Russian songs, like the language, have a peculiar tenderness, and are full of caressing epithets, which are often applied even to inanimate objects. Russian lovers are quite inexhaustible in their endearing expressions, and the abundance of diminutives which the language possesses is especially favorable to their affectionate mode of address. With this exquisite tenderness of the love-song is united a pensive feeling, which, indeed, pervades the whole popular poetry of Russia, and which may be characterized as melancholy musical, and in harmony with the Russian national music, the expressive sweetness of which has been the admiration of all foreign composers to whom it has been known.
In the rich and fertile steppes of the Ukraine, where every forest tree seems to harbor a singer, and every blade of grass on the boundless plains seems to whisper the echo of a song, this pensive character of Russian poetry deepens into a melancholy that finds expression in a variety of sweet elegiac melodies. A German writer says of them, “they are the sorrows of whole centuries blended in one everlasting sigh.” The spirit of the past indeed breathes through their mournful strains. The cradle of the Kozak was rocked to the music of clashing swords, and for centuries the country, on both banks of the Dnieper to the northwestern branch of the Carpathian Mountains, the seat of this race, was the theatre of constant warfare. Their narrative ballads, therefore, have few other subjects than the feuds with the Poles and Tartars, the Kozak's parting with his beloved one, his lonely death on the border or on the bloody field of battle.
These ballads have sometimes a spirit and boldness which presents noble relief to the habitual melancholy of this poetry in general. Professional singers, with a kind of guitar in their hand, wander through the country, sure to find a willing audience in whatever village they may stop. Their ballads are not confined to the scenes of their early history, but find subjects in the later wars with the Turks and Tartars, and in the campaigns of more modern times; they illustrate the warlike spirit, as well as the domestic relations of the Kozaks, and their skill in narrative, as well as their power of expressing in lyric strains the unsophisticated emotions of a tender heart.
The poets of the present age exercise little or no influence on a society distracted and absorbed by the political questions of the day.
Although the history of Russia is rich in dramatic episodes, it has failed to inspire any native dramatist. Count Tolstoi has been one of the most successful writers in this line, but, with great merits, he has the fault common to the Russian drama in general, that of great attention to the study of the chief character, to the neglect of other points which contribute to secure interest.
4. LITERATURE IN RUSSIA SINCE THE CRIMEAN WAR.—After the Crimean War, in 1854, the Russian government took the initiative in an onward movement, and by the abolition of serfdom the country awoke to new life. In literature this showed itself in the rise of a new school, that of Nature, in which Turgenieff (1818-1883) is the most prominent figure, a place which he still holds in contemporary Russian literature. The publication of his “Diary of a Sportsman” first made the nobility of Russia aware that the serf was a man capable of feeling and suffering, and not a brute to be bought and sold with the soil, and this work was not without its effect in causing the emancipation. No writer has studied so faithfully and profoundly the Russian peasant and better understood the moral needs of the time and the great questions which agitate it.
Within the last twenty years the new theory of Nihilism has begun to find expression in literature, particularly in fiction. Rejecting all authority in religion, politics, science, and art, this school is the reaction from long ages of oppression. The school of nature lent itself to this new movement until at last it reached the pessimistic standpoint of Schopenhauer.
Of late, the ultra-realistic school has appeared in Russia, the writers of which devote themselves to the study of a low realism in its most repulsive aspects. While it boasts of not idealizing the peasant, like Turgenieff and others, it presents him in an aspect to excite only aversion. Art being thus excluded, and the school having neither authority, principle, nor object, whatever influence it may have cannot but be pernicious.
SCIENCE.—In mathematics and in all the natural sciences Russia keeps pace with the most advanced European nations. In chemistry Mendeleeff formulated the theory relating to atoms and their chemical properties and relations, not then discovered to be the law by which they were governed, as later experiments proved.