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CHAPTER XX. RUSSIAN LITERATURE

Middle Ages. Some Epic Narratives. Renaissance in the Seventeenth Century. Literature Imitative of the West in the Eighteenth Century. Original Literature in the Nineteenth Century.

THE MIDDLE AGES.—Russia possessed a literature even in the Middle Ages. In the eleventh century the metropolitan Hilarion wrote a discourse on the Old and the New Testament. In the twelfth century, the Chronicle that is said to be by Nestor is the first historical monument of Russia. At the same period Vladimir Monomaque, Prince of Kief, who devoted his life to fighting with all his neighbours, left his son an autobiographic instruction, which is very interesting for the light it throws on the events and, especially, on the customs of his day. At the same time the hegumen (abbot) Daniel left an account of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In the thirteenth century (probably) another Daniel, Daniel the prisoner, wrote from his distant place of exile to his prince a supplicatory letter, which is astonishing because in it is found a remarkable and wholly unexpected degree of literary talent. In the thirteenth or fourteenth century two epic pieces, The Lay of the Battle of Igor and The Zadonstchina, of which it is uncertain which imitated the other, alike present vigorous and vivid accounts of battles. In the fifteenth or sixteenth century there is a didactic work, The Domostroi, which is a moral treatise, a handbook of domestic economy, a manual of gardening, and a cookery book, etc. The Tzar Ivan the Terrible (sixteenth century) was a dexterous diplomatist and a precise, nervous, and ironical writer. He left highly curious letters.

RENAISSANCE.—Kutochikine (seventeenth century), who was minister in his own land, then disgraced and exiled in Sweden, wrote an extremely interesting book on the habits of his contemporaries. The “Renaissance,” if it may be so termed, that is, the contact between the Russian spirit and Western genius, occurred in the eighteenth century. Prince Kantemir, Russian ambassador in London, who knew Montesquieu, Maupertuis, the Abbe Guasco, etc., wrote satires in the manner of Horace and of Boileau. Trediakowski took on himself to compose a very tedious Telemachidus, but he knew how to unravel the laws of Russian metre and to write odes which at least were indicative of the right direction.

LOMONOSOV.—Lomonosov is regarded as the real father of Russian literature, as the Peter the Great of literature—a great man withal, engineer, chemist, professor, grammarian. Regarding him solely as a literary man, he made felicitous essays in tragedy, lyrical poetry, epic poetry, polished the Russian versification, established its grammar, and imparted a powerful impulse in a multitude of directions.

CREATION OF THE DRAMA.—Soumarokoff founded the Russian drama. He was manager of the first theatre opened in St. Petersburg (1756). In the French vein he wrote tragedies, comedies, fables, satires, and epigrams. He corresponded with Voltaire. The latter wrote to him in 1769: “Sir, your letter and your works are a great proof that genius and taste pertain to all lands. Those who said that poetry and music belonged only to temperate climates were deeply in error. If climate were so potent, Greece would still produce Platos and Anacreons, just as she produces the same fruits and flowers; Italy would have Horaces, Virgils, Ariostos, and Tassos.... The sovereigns who love the arts change the climates; they cause roses to bud in the midst of snows. That is what your incomparable monarch has done. I could believe that the letters with which she has honoured me came from Versailles and yours from one of my colleagues in the Academy.... Over me you possess one prodigious advantage: I do not know a word of your language and you are completely master of mine.... Yes, I regard Racine as the best of our tragic poets.... He is the only one who has treated love tragically; for before him Corneille had only expressed that passion well in The Cid, and The Cid is not his. Love is ridiculous or insipid in nearly all his other works. I think as you do about Quinault; he is a great man in his own way. He would not have written theArt of Poetry, but Boileau would not have written Armida. I entirely agree with what you write about Moliere and of the tearful comedy which, to the national disgrace, has succeeded to the only real comic type brought to perfection by the inimitable Moliere. Since Regnard, who was endowed with a truly comic genius and who alone came near Moliere, we have only had monstrosities.... That, sir, is the profession of faith you have asked of me.” This letter is quoted, despite its errors, because it forms, as it were, a preface to Russian literature, and also a patent of nobility granted to this literature.

CATHERINE II.—The Empress wrote in Russian advice as to the education of her grandson, very piquant comedies, and review articles. Von Vizin, a comic author, was the first to look around and to depict the custom of his country, which means that he was the earliest humorous national writer. The classic works of Von Vizin were The Brigadier and The Minor. Whilst pictures of contemporaneous manners, they were also pleadings in favour of a reformed Russia against the Russia that existed before Peter the Great, which still in part subsisted, as was only natural. He made a journey to France and it will be seen from his correspondence that he brought back a highly flattering impression.

RADISTCHEF.—Radistchef was the first Russian political writer. Under the pretext of a Voyage from Petersburg to Moscow, he attacked serfdom, absolute government, even religion, for which he was condemned to death and exiled to Siberia. He was pardoned later on by Paul I, but soon after committed suicide. He was verbose, but often really eloquent.

ORATORS AND POETS.—The preacher Platon, whose real name was Levchine, was an orator full of sincerity, unction, and sometimes of real power. He was religious tutor to the hereditary Grand Duke, son of Catherine II. Another preacher, and his successor at the siege of Moscow, Vinogradsky, was likewise a really great orator. It was he who, after the French retreat from Russia, delivered the funeral oration on the soldiers killed at Borodino. Ozerov was a classical tragedy writer after the manner of Voltaire, and somewhat hampered thereby. Batiouchkov, although he lived right into the middle of the nineteenth century, is already a classic. He venerated and imitated the writers of antiquity; he was a devout admirer of Tibullus, and wrote elegies which are quite exquisite. Krylov was a fabulist: a dexterous delineator of animals and a delicate humourist. Frenchmen and Italians have been alike fascinated by him, and his works have often been translated; until the middle of the nineteenth century he enjoyed European popularity.

THE GOLDEN AGE: PUSHKIN.—The true Russian nineteenth century and its golden age must be dated from Pushkin. He wrote from his earliest youth. He was an epic poet, novelist, and historian. His principal poems were Ruslan and Liudmila, Eugene Onegin, Poltava ; his most remarkable historical essay was The Revolt of Pugachev. He possessed a fertile and vigorous imagination, which he developed by continual and enthusiastic study of Byron. He did not live long enough either for his own fame or for the welfare of Russian literature, being killed in a duel at the age of thirty-eight. Merimee translated much by Pushkin. The French lyric stage has mounted one of his most delicate inspirations, La Rousalka (the water nymph). He was quite conscious of his own genius and, freely imitating the Exegi monumentum of Horace, as will be seen, he wrote: “I have raised to myself a monument which no human hand has constructed.... I shall not entirely perish ... the sound of my name shall permeate through vast Russia.... For long I shall be dear to my race because my lyre has uttered good sentiments, because, in a brutal age, I have vaunted liberty and preached love for the down-trodden. Oh, my Muse, heed the commands of God, fear not offence, claim no crown; receive with equal indifference eulogy and calumny, but never dispute with fools.”

LERMONTOV.—Lermontov was not inferior to his friend Pushkin, whom he closely resembled. Like him he drew inspiration from the romantic poets of the West. He loved the East, and his short, glorious suggestions came to him from the Caucasus. Among his finest poetic works may be cited The Novice Ismael Bey, The Demon, The Song of the Tzar Ivan. He wrote a novel, perhaps autobiographical, entitled A Hero of Our Own Time, the hero of which is painted in highly Byronic colours.

GOGOL.—Russian taste was already veering to the epic novel or epopee in prose, of which Gogol was the most illustrious representative until Tolstoy. He was highly gifted. In him the feeling for Nature was acutely active, and recalling his descriptions of the plains of the Crimea, its rivers and steppes, he must be regarded as the Rousseau and Chateaubriand of Russia. Further, he was a close student of village habits, and a painter in astonishing hues. He eminently possessed the sense of epic grandeur, and added a sarcastic vein of delightful irony. His Taras Bulba, King of the Dwarfs, History of a Fool, andDead Souls, have the force of arresting realism, his Revisor (inspector of finances) is a caustic comedy which has been a classic not only in Russia but in France, where it was introduced in translation by Merimee.

TURGENEV.—Turgenev, less epical than Gogol, was also studious of local habits and dexterous in describing them. He began with exquisite Huntsman's Tales impregnated with truth and precision, as well as intimate and picturesque details; then he extended his scope and wrote novels, but never at great length, and therefore suited to the exigencies or habits of Western Europe (such as Smoke). He had selected Paris as his abode, and he mixed with the greatest thinkers of the day: Taine, Flaubert, Edmond About. In the eyes of his fellow-countrymen he became ultimately too Western and too Parisian. His was a delicate, sensitive soul, prone to melancholy and perpetually dreaming. He had a cult of form in which he went so far as to make it a sort of scruple and superstition.

TOLSTOY.—Tolstoy, so recently dead, was a great epic poet in prose, a very powerful and affecting novelist, and in some measure an apostle. He began with Boyhood Adolescence and Youth, in itself very curious and particularly valuable because of the idea it conveys of the life of the lords of the Russian soil, and for its explanation of the formation of the soul and genius of Tolstoy; then came The Cossacks, full of magnificent descriptions of the Caucasus and of interesting scenes of military and rural life; subsequently that masterpiece of Tolstoy's, War and Peace, narratives dealing with the war of Napoleon with Russia and of the subsequent period of peaceful and healthy rural life. It is impossible to adequately admire the power of narration and descriptive force, the fertility of incidents, characterisations, and dramatic moments, the art or rather the gift of portraiture, and finally, the grandeur and moral elevation, in fact, all the qualities, not one of which he appeared to lack, of which Tolstoy gave proof and which he displayed in this immense history of the Russian soul at the commencement of the nineteenth century; for it is thus that it is meet to qualify this noble creation. The only analogy is with Les Miserables of Victor Hugo, and it must be admitted that despite its incomparable merits, the French work is the more unequal. Anna Karenina is only a novel in the vein of French novels, but very profound and remarkable for its analysis of character and also impassioned and affecting, besides having considerable moral range. The Kreutzer Sonata is a romance rather than a novel, but cruelly beautiful because it exposes with singular clairvoyance the misery of a soul impotent for happiness. Resurrection shows that mournful and impassioned pity felt by Tolstoy for the humble and the “fallen,” to use the phrase of Pushkin; it realises a lofty dramatic beauty. Tolstoy, in a thousand pamphlets or brief works, preached to his own people and to mankind the strict morality of Christ, charity, renunciation, peace at all price, without taking into account the necessities of social life; and he denounced, as had Jean Jacques Rousseau, the culpability of art and literature, being resigned to recognising his own works as condemnable. His was the soul of an exalted poet and a lofty poetical mind; from a poet must not be demanded practical common sense or that feeling for reality which is demanded, often unavailingly, from a statesman.

DOSTOEVSKY.—Dostoevsky, with a tragic genius as great as that of Tolstoy, may be said to have been more restricted because he exclusively delineated the unhappy, the miserable, and those defeated in life. He knew them personally because, after being arrested in 1849 at the age of fifty for the crime of belonging to a secret society, he spent years in the convict prisons of Siberia. Those miseries he describes in the most exact terms and with heart-rending eloquence in Buried Alive: Ten Years in Siberia, and in the remarkable novel entitled Crime and Punishment. He has lent invaluable aid in the propagation of two sentiments which have created some stir in the West and which, assuredly, we desire to foster: namely, “the religion of human suffering” and the cult of “expiation.”