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The satirical literature of the seventeenth century


Who wrote the works of democratic satire? To what sections of the population did the anonymous authors of these works belong? We can assume that at least some of the satirical works came from the lower clergy. In The Kalyazin Petition we read that a Moscow priest served as a “model” for the merry brotherhood of this provincial monastery: “In Moscow … an inspection was made of all the monasteries and taverns, and after the inspection the best revellers were found, the old clerk Sulim and Kolotila the priest from the Intercession who has no certificate of ordination, and they were sent forthwith to the Kalyazin Monastery as models.” What is a “priest without a certificate”? We know that in the seventeenth century by the Church of the Intercession of the Virgin in Moscow there was a patriarchal office where priests who had no certificates of ordination were appointed to parishes. The sources say that these “priests without certificates” used to assemble by the SpasskyBridge causing “great disorders” and disseminating satirical works.52 In this restless, half-drunk crowd rumours and gossip were rife and proscribed manuscript books were sold surreptitiously. In the late 1670s and early 1680s by the SpasskyBridge you could easily get hold of the writings of the pustozersk prisoners, Avvakum and his followers, that contained “great abuse of the tsar’s house”. And satirical works were sold here too.

Russian satire did not arise in the seventeenth century. Daniel the Exile, a writer of the pre-Mongol period, also belongs to it. However, in the Middle Ages satire rarely got as far as manuscripts, remaining within the confines of the oral tradition, and only at the beginning of the seventeenth century did it acquire to a certain extent its rightful place in literature. After that the number of satirical texts grew rapidly. In the eighteenth century they were printed on wood-cut pictures and wall-sheets. What was the reason for this late activity of satire?

The Time of Troubles was a period of “freedom of speech”. It created conditions for the writing down of comic and satirical works. The Polish influence clearly accelerated this process, because the flowering of Polish satirical literature took place in the first half of the seventeenth century. But the main reason for this late activity was the state of affairs in Muscovy.

In the seventeenth century the masses were so poor that the burlesque anti-world became too much like real life and could no longer be apprehended only aesthetically, as a world of make- believe. Traditional comic situations were present in everyday life. For many the tavern became a home, the fool’s nakedness became real nakedness, and the fool’s bast clothes the usual attire for both workdays and holidays. “He who is drunk boasts of riches,” wrote the author of The Tavern Service. And indeed only in his cups could a poor man imagine himself to be rich. “We have come to love our homeless life,” they sing in The Tavern Service. “No matter if you are naked, your birthday suit does not fall into tatters, and your navel is bare. Cover yourself with your hand, if you are ashamed. Praise be to God, that’s the end of it. Nothing to think about now. Just sleep, don’t stand. Just fight off the bugs. It’s a merry life, and a hungry one.” In the seventeenth century this comic situation had also become a reality: crowds of carousers who had neither a home nor possessions wandered around the towns and villages of Muscovite Russia. The comic, absurd, distorted world became the tragic world of everyday life. Hence the keen sense of despair that breaks through the drunken laughter. Hence also the bitter ridicule of naive Utopias.

Let us recall The Tale of the Good Life and Merrymaking. It is an anti-Utopia, i.e., a parody on the genre of the Utopia. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this genre was cultivated by such distinguished European thinkers as Campanella and Thomas More (it was More’s book Utopia that gave the genre its name). Russian literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not create or master the Utopias. Right up to the reign of Peter the Great the reader continued to make use of the mediaeval legends about an earthly paradise, the empire of Presbyter John, and the Brahmin ascetics, which were still in circulation. What then is parodied in The Tale of the Good Life and Merrymaking on Russian soil? For a parody in itself makes no sense. It always exists together with that which is parodied.

Although seventeenth-century Russian literature was not familiar with the genre of the Utopia, Russian oral culture was. In seventeenth-century Russia there were many rumours of distant free lands, of Mangazey, the “gold and silver isles”, Dauria, and a rich island “on the Eastern ocean”. There you could find “grain and horses, and cattle, and pigs, and hens, and they make liquor there and weave and spin as folk do in Russia, and there is much unploughed land and no one levies taxes”.53 The belief in these legends was so strong that in the second half of the seventeenth century thousands of poor people, whole villages, would leave hearth and home and flee they knew not where. These flights assumed such proportions that the government became alarmed: special pickets stopped the fugitives after they had crossed the Urals, and the Siberian governors made fugitives who had become Cossacks swear on the cross not to go to the land of Dauria without permission.

Against the background of these legends The Tale of the Good Life and Merrymaking stands out particularly clearly. The land described in it is a caricature of the fantasies about a free country. Naive and ignorant people believe in this land, but the author of the Tale destroys this belief. The author is a hungry man, an outcast, an unfortunate insulted by life and excluded from the world of the well-fed. Nor does he try to enter this world, knowing that is impossible. But he takes his revenge by ridiculing it. After beginning with a deliberately serious description of fabulous abundance, he then takes this description to absurd lengths only to prove that it was all make-believe. “The taxes levied there are light, for merchandise, bridges and ferrying—a horse for every shaft-bow, a man for every cap, and the people from every cart train.” It is the illusory wealth that the tavern carousers dreamt of in their drunken haze. In the image of comic illusory wealth we find real poverty, the eternal “nakedness and barefootedness”.

The satirical literature of the seventeenth century stands in sharp contrast not only to the official untruth about the world but also to folklore with its Utopian dreams. It tells the “naked truth” through the mouth of a “poor and naked” man.