Let us now attempt to sum up Russian literary development.
Like most other European peoples, Russia bypassed the slave-owning stage. For this reason Russia did not have an antique stage in the development of its culture. The Eastern Slavs went straight from the communal-patriarchal stage to feudalism. This transition took place remarkably quickly over the vast territory inhabited by Eastern Slav tribes and various Finno- Ugrian peoples.
The absence of this or that stage in historical development demands “compensation”. This is usually provided by ideology and culture that draw strength from the experience of neighbouring peoples.
The emergence of literature, moreover, a literature highly developed for its day, could take place only with the cultural assistance of the neighbouring countries of Byzantium and Bulgaria. The special importance of the cultural experience of Bulgaria must be stressed. The written language and literature appeared in Bulgaria a century earlier in similar conditions: Bulgaria did not have a slave-owning formation either and assimilated the cultural experience of Byzantium. Bulgaria assimilated Byzantine culture in circumstances similar to those that obtained a century later in Russia when Russia assimilated Byzantine and Bulgarian culture: Russia acquired Byzantine cultural experience not only in its direct state, but also in a form “adapted” by Bulgaria to the needs of a society that was becoming feudal.
The need for accelerated cultural development explains why Russia was able to assimilate the cultural phenomena of Byzantium and Bulgaria. It was not just a matter of necessity, but of the fact that Old Russian culture of the tenth and eleventh centuries was young and flexible, and therefore, had little trouble in assimilating the experience of other cultures. The absence of deep-rooted traditions of class culture during the rapid development of class relations compelled Russian society to absorb and assimilate outside elements of class culture and to create its own. The genre system of Bulgarian literature, both that which had been translated from the Greek and that which was Bulgarian in origin, was reorganised in Russia. This reorganisation took two forms: the selection of those genres that were essential and the creation of new genres. The former took place in the actual transfer of literary works to Old Russia. The latter required considerable time and took several centuries.
The system of Byzantine genres was transferred to Russia in an interesting, “condensed” form. Russia needed only those genres that were directly connected with the Church or of a general philosophical nature in keeping with the new attitude to nature.
On the other hand, however, genres were needed that did not exist in either Byzantine or Bulgarian literature.
The genres of mediaeval Russian literature were closely connected with their use in everyday life, both secular and religious. This distinguishes them from the literary genres of the modern age.
In the Middle Ages all the arts, literature included, were of an “applied” nature. Divine service required specific genres for specific parts of the religious worship. Certain genres were intended for the complex monastic life. Even the monks’ private reading was strictly regulated. Hence certain types of vitae, certain types of canticles, certain types of books regulating Divine service, church and monastic life, etc. The genre system even included such unique works as the Gospels, the Psalms, the Epistles of the Apostles, and so on.
Even from this brief and extremely generalised list of religious genres it will be clear that some of them could develop new works (for example, the vitae, which were required to be written in connection with the canonisation of new saints), whereas some genres were strictly limited to the existing works and the creation of new works within them was impossible. Both the former and the latter, however, could not change: the formal features of the genres were strictly determined by their use and by tradition.
The secular genres that came to Russia from Byzantium and Bulgaria were somewhat less constrained by external formal and traditional requirements. These secular genres were not connected with special uses in everyday life and were therefore freer in their external, formal features.
The genre system transferred to Russia from Byzantium and Bulgaria served the highly regulated and ceremonial life of the Middle Ages, but did not satisfy all demands for the artistic word.
The upper layers of feudal society had at their disposal both bookish and oral genres. The illiterate mass of the people satisfied their need for the artistic word with oral genres. Books were accessible to the mass of the people only through Divine service.
The literary-folkloric genre system of mediaeval Russia was in some respects more rigid, in others less, but taken as a whole it was very traditional, highly formalised, closely connected with ritual and not susceptible to change. The more rigid it was, the more it was subjected to change in connection with changes in historical reality, everyday life, ritual and practical requirements. It had to react to all the changes in real life.
The early feudal states were very insecure. The unity of the state was constantly threatened by the internecine strife of the feudal lords that reflected the centrifugal forces of society. In order to maintain its unity a high level of public morality was needed, a strong sense of honour, loyalty and self-sacrifice, deep patriotism and a highly developed literature—the genres of political writing, genres that extolled love of one’s country, lyrical-epic genres.
In the absence of strong economic and military relations, the unity of the state could not exist without the intensive development of personal patriotism. What was needed were works that would testify clearly to the historical and political unity of the Russian people. Works that would strongly condemn princely strife. One striking feature of Old Russian literature of this period is the awareness of the unity of the Russian land without any tribal differences, the awareness of the unity of Russian history and the Russian state.
These features of the political life of Old Russia differ from the political life of Byzantium and Bulgaria. The ideas of unity differed albeit in the fact that they concerned the Russian land, and not Bulgaria or Byzantium. This is why Russia needed its own works and its own genres.
This explains why, in spite of the existence of two mutually complementary systems of genres, the literary and the folkloric, Russian literature of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries was in a process of genre formation. In various ways and from different sources works constantly emerged that stood apart from the traditional genre systems and violated or creatively combined them. As a result of the search for new genres in Russian literature and folklore many works appeared that cannot easily be ascribed to any of the firmly established traditional genres. They stand outside the genre traditions.
Breaking with traditional forms was quite customary in Old Russia. All the more or less outstanding literary works based on profound inner needs broke out of the confines of traditional forms.
In this process of intensive genre formation certain works are unique in respect of genre (Daniel the Exile’s Supplication and Vladimir Monomachos’ Instruction, Autobiography and Letter to Oleg Svyatoslavich), while others were steadily continued (The Primary Chronicle in Russian chronicle-writing, and The Tale of the Blinding of Vasilko of Terebovl in subsequent tales of princely misdeeds), and a third group was followed by isolated attempts to continue them in respect of genre (The Lay of Igor’s Host in The Trans-Doniad).
The absence of strict genre limits promoted the appearance of many interesting and highly artistic works.
The processes of genre formation led to the intensive use in this period of the experience of folklore (in The Tale of Bygone Years and other chronicles, The Lay of Igor’s Host, The Lay of the Ruin of the Russian Land, Daniel the Exile’s Supplication and Sermon, etc.). The process of genre formation that took place from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries was resumed in the sixteenth century and fairly intensive in the seventeenth century as well.
The absence of the antique stage in cultural development increased the importance of literature and art in the development of the Eastern Slavs. Literature and the other arts, as we have seen, acquired a most responsible role, that of supporting the accelerated development of Russian society from the eleventh to the early thirteenth century and of mitigating the negative aspects of this accelerated development, namely, princely strife and the disintegration of the Russian state. This is why the social role of all forms of art was extremely great in that period for all the Eastern Slavs.
The sense of historical unity, appeals for political alliance, condemnation of the abuse of power spread over this vast territory with its large and variegated population and its numerous semi-independent principalities.
The level of the arts corresponded to the level of social responsibility that fell to their lot. But these arts did not have their own antique stage, only echoes of an alien one via Byzantium. Therefore, when in the Russia of the fourteenth and the early fifteenth century the socio-economic conditions were created for the emergence of the Pre-Renaissance, and this Pre-Renaissance did in fact appear, it was immediately faced with unusual and unfavourable conditions from the historico-cultural viewpoint. The role of “Russian Antiquity” was ascribed to pre-Mongol Russia, Russia of the period of its independence.
The literature of the late fourteenth and the early fifteenth century turned to the works of the eleventh to the early thirteenth century. Certain works of this period are a mechanical imitation of Metropolitan Hilarion’s Sermon on Law and Grace, The Tale of Bygone Years, The Tale of Batu’s Capture of Ryazan and, above all, The Lay of Igor’s Host (in The Trans-Doniad). In architecture we find a similar return to the monuments of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries (in Novgorod, Tver and Vladimir). The same phenomenon is found in painting, political thought (the desire to revive the political traditions of Kiev and Vladimir Zalessky), and folk art (it was this period that witnessed the intensive formation of the Kiev cycle of bylinas). But all this was insufficient for the Pre-Renaissance, and therefore the strengthening of relations with countries that had been through the antique stage of culture acquired great importance. Russia revived and strengthened its links with Byzantium and the countries of Byzantine cultural influence, first and foremost, the Southern Slavs.
One of the most characteristic and significant features of the Pre-Renaissance, and later, to an even greater extent, the Renaissance itself, was the emergence of historical awareness. The static nature of the earlier perception of the world was replaced by a dynamic attitude in this period. This historicism is connected with all the main features of the Pre-Renaissance and the Renaissance proper.
First and foremost, this historicism is organically connected with the discovery of the value of the individual and with a special interest in the historical past. The idea of the historical changeability of the world is linked with interest in man’s inner life, with the idea of the world as motion, and with dynamism of style. Nothing is finished, so it cannot be expressed in words; passing time cannot be caught. It can only be reproduced to some extent by a stream of words, by a dynamic and prolix style, a mass of synonyms, shades of meaning, associative sequences.
The Pre-Renaissance in Russian representational art is associated, first and foremost, with the work of Theophanes the Greek and Andrei Rublev. They are two radically different artists, but precisely because of this they are most characteristic of the Pre-Renaissance when the role of the artist’s personality came into its own and individual differences became typical phenomena of the age. The Pre-Renaissance is felt less strongly in literature. Characteristic of this period are the “philological” interests of the scribes, the “braiding of words”, the emotional style, etc. When, in the middle of the fifteenth century, the main prerequisites for the formation of the Renaissance began to collapse one after another, and the Russian Pre-Renaissance did not develop into Renaissance, the struggle against heresy ended in a victory for the official Church. The formation of the centralised state took up a great deal of spiritual strength. Relations with Byzantium and Western Europe weakened as a result of the fall of Constantinople and the conclusion of the Florence Union, which heightened mistrust of Catholic countries.
Every great style and every world movement has its own historical functions, its own historical mission. The Renaissance was connected with the liberation of the human individual from the mediaeval corporation. Without this liberation there could have been no modern age in culture and, particularly, in literature.
The fact that the Pre-Renaissance did not develop into the Renaissance in Russia had serious consequences: the as yet immature style soon began to grow formal and rigid, and the turning to “antiquity”, the constant returning to the experience of pre-Mongol Russia, to the period of independence, soon acquired features of that special conservatism that played a negative role in the development not only of Russian literature, but of Russian culture in general in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The transition to the modern age became slow and drawn-out. There was no Renaissance in Russia, but there were certain features of the Renaissance throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and part of the eighteenth century.
The main difference between the Renaissance and the Pre-Renaissance was the former’s secular nature, the liberation from the all-pervading religiousness of the Middle Ages.
In the sixteenth century the theological view of human society gradually and cautiously began to recede into the past. The “Divine laws” still retained their authority, but alongside references to the Holy Scriptures there appeared Renaissance-type references to natural laws. Several sixteenth-century writers refer to the order of things in nature as a model for imitation by man in his social and political life. The projects of Ermolai-Erasmus rested on the idea that bread was the basis of economic, social and spiritual life. Ivan Peresvetov makes hardly any use of theological arguments in his writings. The development of polemical writing in the sixteenth century is connected with belief in the power of argument, the power of the written word. Never before had there been so much disputing in Old Russia, as in the late fifteenth and the sixteenth century. The development of polemical writing rode the crest of the upsurge of belief in reason.
The development of publicistic thought led to the emergence of new forms of literature. The sixteenth century is characterised by complex and many-sided searchings in the sphere of artistic form, genres. The set scheme of genres collapsed. Forms employed in official documents began to enter literature, and literary elements found their way into official documents. The new themes are those of vital, concrete political struggle. Many of the themes, before finding their way to lilerature, had formed the content of official documents. Diplomatic epistles, council resolutions, petitions, and lists of enactments became the forms of literary works.
The use of official document genres for literary purposes meant both the development of fantasy, previously very limited in literary works, and also the endowing of this fantasy with the outer appearance of authenticity. The emergence of fantasy in sixteenth-century chronicles was connected with the inner requirements of the development of literature as it broke away from practical functions and was stimulated by the insistent publicistic demands made upon the chronicle at the time. The chronicle had to convince readers of the infallibility and sanctity of state power, and not only register (albeit in most biassed form) individual historical facts. The chronicle became a school of patriotism, a school of respect for state power.
The political legend made itself felt most powerfully in history. Russian people began to meditate more and more on questions of the world-wide importance of their country. In particular, Philotheus’ theory of Moscow as the third and last Rome became extremely widespread.
The political legend was one of the manifestations of the strengthening of artistic fantasy in literature. Old Russian literature of the preceding period feared the fantastic and imaginary as lies and falsehood. It sought to write about real fact, or at least what was taken to be real fact. The fantastic could come from outside, in translations of the Alexandreid, The Tale of the Indian Empire, Stefanit and Ikhnilat, and others. Moreover the fantastic was regarded either as the truth or as a fable, a parable, genres that also existed in the Gospels.
The development of Old Russian literature throughout all its stages is the gradual struggle for the right to artistic “untruth”. Artistic truth gradually ousted the truth of everyday reality. Literary fantasy became legitimate, permissible from the viewpoint of the new attitude to literature and the world. But while coming into its rights fantasy wore the guise for a long time of that which had really existed or did really exist. This is why in the sixteenth century the genre of the official document as a form of literary work entered literature at the same time as fantasy.
The movement of literature towards the document and the document towards literature was the natural process of “breaking down” the borders between literature and official writing. This process in literature was linked with the administrative life of the Russian state, with the concurrent process of the growth and development of genres of state correspondence and record keeping and the appearance of archives. It was highly necessary for the breaking down of the old and development of the new system of genres, for the “emancipation” and secularisation of literature.
All the changes in literary styles are linked with the developments in the ideological and genre aspects of literature. The emotional style that appeared in the late fourteenth and the early fifteenth century was unable to develop into the style of the Renaissance in the late fifteenth and the sixteenth century. Therefore the fate of this style, that had been artificially arrested in its development, was an unfortunate one. It became highly formal, individual devices grew rigid and were used and repeated automatically, literary convention became extremely involved, and as a result ceased to be used properly. A certain “conventional mannerism” appeared. Everything was very elaborate, but also dry and lifeless. This coincided with the increased official nature of literature. The conventional and stylistic formulae and canons were used not because the content of the work demanded them, but depending on the official, i.e., state and church, attitude to this or that phenomenon described in the work. Works and their individual parts became very large. Beauty was replaced by dimensions. There developed a taste for monumentality, which, unlike that of the pre-Mongol period, was distinguished primarily by large dimensions. The authors sought to impress their readers by the size of their works, the length of their eulogies, the amount of repetitions and the complexity of their style.
The seventeenth century was an age of preparation for radical changes in Russian literature. A reorganisation of the structure of literature as a whole began. The number of genres increased greatly due to the introduction into literature of forms of official documents, which were given purely literary functions, at the expense of folklore and translated literature. The works became more entertaining and descriptive, with a wider range of themes and plot. All this is explained mainly by the enormous growth in the social experience of literature, the richer social themes and the widening of the social range of readers and writers.
Literature spread out in all directions and the centripetal forces that lay at the basis of its stability grew weaker. Centrifugal forces developed in literature. It became more flexible and ready for reorganisation and the creation of a new system, the literary system of the modern age.
Of particular importance in this reorganisation were historical changes. The events of the Time of Troubles shook and changed Russian people’s view of historical events as dependent on the will of princes and sovereigns. At the end of the sixteenth century the Moscow ruling dynasty came to an end, the peasant war began, and with it came the Polish and Swedish intervention. The participation of the common people in the fate of their country was unusually strong in this period. They made themselves felt not only by revolting, but also by taking part in the discussions about who should accede to the throne.
The historical works about the Time of Troubles testify to the rapid growth in the social experience of all classes of society. This new social experience made itself felt in the secularisation of historical literature. It was at this time that the theological view of human history, state power and man himself was finally ousted from political practice, although it still remained in the sphere of official declarations. Although historical writings on the Time of Troubles speak of this period as the punishment of people for their sins, firstly, the sins themselves are seen on a very broad social scale (the main fault with the Russian people is their “wordless silence” and their social tolerance of crimes by the authorities), and secondly, there is a desire to discover the real reasons behind these events, primarily in the characters of historical personages. In the descriptions of these personages one finds a hitherto unusual mixture of good and evil features and the idea emerges that a person’s character is formed under the influence of external circumstances and is able to change. This type of new attitude to man is not only reflected unconsciously in literature, but also begins to be defined. The author of the Russian articles in the 1617 Chronograph states openly his new attitude to the individual as a complex combination of good and bad qualities.
One more feature marks the new approach to themes by the writers of the early seventeenth century: it is their subjective interpretation of events. These writers were for the most part active participants in the Time of Troubles. Therefore their works are in part memoires. They write about what they have seen and seek to justify the standpoint which they adopted at this or that time. In their works we find the beginning of the writer’s interest in himself which was to become very strong throughout the seventeenth century.
There can be no doubt that the features of Renaissance which made themselves felt in the sixteenth century influenced historical narrative of the first quarter of the seventeenth century. It was not the only element that affected seventeenth-century Russian literature, however. There were also earlier ones. The weak pulse of lyrical feeling for man continued to throb in the seventeenth century. This lyrical attitude continued from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, from the Pre-Renaissance elements that had “survived” in Russian culture reappearing in The Tale of Martha and Mary, The Tale of Juliana Osorgina and The Tale of the Page Monastery of Tver. This is perfectly natural: after being artificially checked, lyrical element continued to be felt for another three centuries, challenging the pressure of the hard and “cold” sentiments of the “second monumentalism”.
The social spread of literature affected both its readers and writers. In the middle of the seventeenth century democratic literature appeared. It was the literature of the exploited class. Thus, the differentiation of literature began.
The so-called “literature of the townsfolk (posad)” was written by democratic writers, read by democratic readers, and dealt with subjects of interest to the democratic milieu. It was close to folklore, to colloquial and business speech. It was often anti-government and anti-clerical and belonged to the burlesque culture of the people. In many respects it was similar to the popular book in the Western Europe, but it contained a very powerful explosive element that destroyed the mediaeval system of literature.
Democratic works of the seventeenth century are important for the historico-literary process in another respect also. Literary development, even when it is very slow, is never smooth. It proceeds in fits and starts, and these fits and starts are always connected with an extension of its field of activity.
The first major extension of this kind took place in the fifteenth century with the invention of a cheaper writing material than parchment. Paper led to the appearance of mass forms of literature: collections intended for widespread individual reading. The reader and the scribe were often one and the same person: the scribe copied works that he liked, compiling miscellanies for private, “unofficial” reading.
In the seventeenth century works of a democratic nature provided a new stimulus towards mass literature. They were read so widely that literary historians of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century considered them cheap and unworthy of study. They were written in an untidy or office cursive and rarely bound straightway, remaining in quires and circulating among people of little means. This was the second “stimulus towards mass literature”. The third came in the eighteenth century, when literature began to be printed on a large scale and journalism developed with its new, European genres.
The features typical of seventeenth-century democratic literature can also be observed outside these limits. There are many echoes of it in translated literature, in particular, translations of pseudo-tales of chivalry. Democratic literature does not stand apart in the historico-literary process of the time.
The changes in foreign influences that took place in Russian literature of the seventeenth century are also characteristic of this period of transition to the literature of the modern age. It is usually considered that the original orientation of Russian literature on Byzantine literature was replaced in the seventeenth century by orientation on Western Europe. But the orientation on the West European countries is less important than the orientation on certain types of literatures.
Russian literature, like any great literature, was always closely connected with the literatures of other countries. In Old Russia this connection was just as considerable as in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We can even say that until the seventeenth century Russian literature formed a kind of unity with the literatures of the Southern Slavs, although this unity was limited to certain genres, mainly religious ones. With the development of national principles in all the Slavonic literatures by the seventeenth century South Slavonic and Byzantine-Slavonic connections with Russian literature became somewhat weaker and literary relations with the Western Slavs grew more intense, although of a different type. These relations developed not so much along the line of religion, as along the line of fiction and literature intended for individual reading. Consequently, the type of foreign work to which Russian literature turned also changed. Formerly it had turned primarily to works of the mediaeval type, to genres already traditional in Russian literature. Now interest grew in works characteristic of the modern age. This is particularly evident in drama and poetry. However, initially it was not the finest works that were translated, not the literary innovations, but works that were old and to some extent of local value (in drama, for example). But it was not long before Russian literature entered into direct contact with literature of a higher order, with first-rate writers and their works. This was in the eighteenth century.
It was not just a question of the types of literature to which Russia turned, but of how it turned to them. We have seen that in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries literary works of the Byzantine sphere of influence were transplanted to Russia and continued to develop there. It cannot be said that this type of foreign influence disappeared in the seventeenth century, but a new type of influence also appeared, typical of the literature of the modern age. In the seventeenth century not so much works, as style, literary devices, trends, aesthetic tastes and ideas were transplanted.
Russian Baroque can be seen as one of the manifestations of the new type of influence. Russian Baroque was not just individual works translated from Polish or brought from the Ukraine and Byelorussia. It was, first and foremost, a literary trend that emerged under Polish-Ukrainian-Byelorussian influence. It consisted of new ideological trends, new themes, new genres, new intellectual interests and, of course, a new style.
Any more or less significant influence from outside makes itself felt only when inner requirements arise that shape this influence and incorporate it in the historico-literary process. Baroque, too, came to Russia as a consequence of national requirements, and fairly strong ones at that. Baroque, which in other countries had replaced the Renaissance as its antithesis, was close to the Renaissance in its historico-literary role in Russia. It was of an enlightening nature, in many respects promoted the liberation of the individual and was connected with the process of secularisation, unlike in Western Europe, where in some cases in its initial stages Baroque signified precisely the opposite—a return to the Church.
Nevertheless Russian Baroque was not the Renaissance. It could not be compared with the West European Renaissance in scale or importance. Its temporal and social limitations are no accident. They are due to the fact that the preparations for the Russian Renaissance, which took Baroque forms, went on too long. Individual Renaissance features began to appear in literature before they could merge into a definite cultural movement. The Renaissance “lost” some of its features on the way to its emergence.
Therefore the importance of Russian Baroque as a kind of Renaissance, a transition to the literature of the modern age, is limited to the role of the “final stimulus” that brought Russian literature close to the type of literature of the modern age. The personal element in literature, which prior to Baroque had appeared sporadically and in various spheres, developed into a definite system. The secularisation of literature that had been taking place throughout the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth century and manifested itself in different aspects of literary creativity, was completed in the Baroque period. It was in the Baroque period that the new genres which had been accumulating and the changing significance of the old genres led to the development of a new system of genres, the system of the modern age.
The emergence of a new system of genres was the main feature of the transition of Russian literature from the mediaeval type to the type of the modern age.
Not all historians and specialists in literature and the arts recognise the existence of the Pre-Renaissance and subsequent individual Renaissance phenomena in Old Russia.This is primarily because the Italian Renaissance is regarded as the “ideal model”. It is considered to be unique. But in fact the Renaissance as an age or the Renaissance phenomena that spread over a long period of time, were the natural transition from the Middle Ages to the modern age, a transition which is traditionally regarded as the crowning phase of the Middle Ages. Moreover, the Renaissance is not an evaluatory category. There is not only the Italian Renaissance, but the North European Renaissance, the Czech Renaissance, the Polish Renaissance and many others. In its classical mediaeval period, the eleventh to the early thirteenth century (prior to the Mongol invasion), Russia was on the same level as other European cultures, whereas in the period of the Pre-Renaissance and the subsequent period, when individual Renaissance elements gradually emerged in Russian literature preparing its transition to the modern age, we can say it was “lagging behind”. We use the term “lagging behind” conventionally, since cultures cannot be compared and each culture has its own lasting values.
All in all we can sum up as follows: the whole historico-literary process from the eleventh to the early eighteenth century is a process of the formation of literature, but of literature that exists not for itself, but for society.
Literature is an essential component of a country’s history.
The uniqueness of Old Russian literature lies not only in the character of its individual works, but also in its special path of development, a path that is very closely linked with Russian history and in keeping with the requirements of Russian reality. Old Russian literature was always concerned with the broad social problems of its day.