Russian literature

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Russian literature refers to the literature of Russia and its émigrés and to the Russian-language literature of several independent nations once a part of what was historically Rus', Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. Roots of Russian literature can be traced to the Middle Ages, when epics and chronicles in Old Russian were composed. By the Age of Enlightenment, literature had grown in importance, and from the early 1830s, Russian literature underwent an astounding golden age in poetry, prose and drama. Romanticism permitted a flowering of poetic talent: Vasily Zhukovsky and later his protégé Alexander Pushkin came to the fore. Prose was flourishing as well. The first great Russian novelist was Nikolai Gogol. Then came Ivan Turgenev, who mastered both short stories and novels. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky soon became internationally renowned. In the second half of the century Anton Chekhov excelled in short stories and became a leading dramatist. The beginning of the 20th century ranks as the Silver Age of Russian poetry. The poets most often associated with the "Silver Age" are Konstantin Balmont, Valery Bryusov, Alexander Blok, Anna Akhmatova, Nikolay Gumilyov, Osip Mandelstam, Sergei Yesenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak. This era produced some first-rate novelists and short-story writers, such as Aleksandr Kuprin, Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin, Leonid Andreyev, Fedor Sologub, Aleksey Remizov, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Andrei Bely.

After the Revolution of 1917, Russian literature split into Soviet and white émigré parts. While the Soviet Union assured universal literacy and a highly developed book printing industry, it also enforced ideological censorship. In the 1930s Socialist realism became the predominant trend in Russia. Its leading figure was Maxim Gorky, who laid the foundations of this style. Nikolay Ostrovsky's novel How the Steel Was Tempered has been among the most successful works of Russian literature. Alexander Fadeyev achieved success in Russia. Various émigré writers, such as poets Vladislav Khodasevich, Georgy Ivanov and Vyacheslav Ivanov; novelists such as Mark Aldanov, Gaito Gazdanov and Vladimir Nabokov; and short story Nobel Prize winning writer Ivan Bunin, continued to write in exile. The Khrushchev Thaw brought some fresh wind to literature and poetry became a mass cultural phenomenon. This "thaw" did not last long; in the 1970s, some of the most prominent authors were banned from publishing and prosecuted for their anti-Soviet sentiments.

The end of the 20th century was a difficult period for Russian literature, with few distinct voices. Among the most discussed authors of this period were Victor Pelevin, who gained popularity with short stories and novels, novelist and playwright Vladimir Sorokin, and the poet Dmitry Prigov. In the 21st century, a new generation of Russian authors appeared, differing greatly from the postmodernist Russian prose of the late 20th century, which lead critics to speak about “new realism”. Leading "new realists" include Ilja Stogoff, Zakhar Prilepin, Alexander Karasyov, Arkadi Babchenko, Vladimir Lorchenkov, Alexander Snegiryov and the political author Sergej Shargunov.

Russian authors significantly contributed almost to all known genres of the literature. Russia had five Nobel Prize in literature laureates. As of 2011, Russia was the fourth largest book producer in the world in terms of published titles.[1] A popular folk saying claims Russians are "the world's most reading nation".[2][3]

Early history

Old Russian literature consists of several masterpieces written in the Old Russian language (i.e. the language of Rus', not to be confused with the contemporaneous Church Slavonic or modern Russian). Main type of Old Russian historical literature were chronicles, most of them were anonymous.[4] Anonymous works also include The Tale of Igor's Campaign and Praying of Daniel the Immured. Hagiographies (Russian: жития святых, zhitiya svyatykh, "lives of the saints") formed a popular genre of the Old Russian literature. Life of Alexander Nevsky offers a well-known example. Other Russian literary monuments include Zadonschina, Physiologist, Synopsis and A Journey Beyond the Three Seas. Bylinas – oral folk epics – fused Christian and pagan traditions. Medieval Russian literature had an overwhelmingly religious character and used an adapted form of the Church Slavonic language with many South Slavic elements. The first work in colloquial Russian, the autobiography of the archpriest Avvakum, emerged only in the mid-17th century.

18th century

After taking the throne at the end of the 17th century, Peter the Great's influence on the Russian culture would extend far into the 18th century. Peter's reign during the beginning of the 18th century initiated a series of modernizing changes in Russian literature. The reforms he implemented encouraged Russian artists and scientists to make innovations in their crafts and fields with the intention of creating an economy and culture comparable. Peter's example set a precedent for the remainder of the 18th century as Russian writers began to form clear ideas about the proper use and progression of the Russian language. Through their debates regarding versification of the Russian language and tone of Russian literature, the writers in the first half of the 18th century were able to lay foundation for the more poignant, topical work of the late 18th century.

Satirist Antiokh Dmitrievich Kantemir, 1708–1744, was one of the earliest Russian writers not only to praise the ideals of Peter I's reforms but the ideals of the growing Enlightenment movement in Europe. Kantemir's works regularly expressed his admiration for Peter, most notably in his epic dedicated to the emperor entitled Petrida. More often, however, Kantemir indirectly praised Peter's influence through his satiric criticism of Russia's “superficiality and obscurantism,” which he saw as manifestations of the backwardness Peter attempted to correct through his reforms.[5] Kantemir honored this tradition of reform not only through his support for Peter, but by initiating a decade-long debate on the proper syllabic versification using the Russian language.

Vasily Kirillovich Trediakovsky, a poet, playwright, essayist, translator and contemporary to Antiokh Kantemir, also found himself deeply entrenched in Enlightenment conventions in his work with the Russian Academy of Sciences and his groundbreaking translations of French and classical works to the Russian language. A turning point in the course of Russian literature, his translation of Paul Tallemant's work Voyage to the Isle of Love, was the first to use the Russian vernacular as opposed the formal and outdated Church-Slavonic.[6] This introduction set a precedent for secular works to be composed in the vernacular, while sacred texts would remain in Church-Slavonic. However, his work was often incredibly theoretical and scholarly, focused on promoting the versification of the language with which he spoke.

While Trediakovsky's approach to writing is often described as highly erudite, the young writer and scholarly rival to Trediakovsky, Alexander Petrovich Sumarokov, 1717–1777, was dedicated to the styles of French classicism. Sumarokov's interest in the form of French literature mirrored his devotion to the westernizing spirit of Peter the Great's age. Although he often disagreed with Trediakovsky, Sumarokov also advocated the use of simple, natural language in order to diversify the audience and make more efficient use of the Russian language. Like his colleagues and counterparts, Sumarokov extolled the legacy of Peter I, writing in his manifesto Epistle on Poetry, “The great Peter hurls his thunder from the Baltic shores, the Russian sword glitters in all corners of the universe”.[7] Peter the Great's policies of westernization and displays of military prowess naturally attracted Sumarokov and his contemporaries.

Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov, in particular, expressed his gratitude for and dedication to Peter's legacy in his unfinished Peter the Great, Lomonosov's works often focused on themes of the awe-inspiring, grandeur nature, and was therefore drawn to Peter because of the magnitude of his military, architectural and cultural feats. In contrast to Sumarokov's devotion to simplicity, Lomonosov favored a belief in a hierarchy of literary styles divided into high, middle and low. This style facilitated Lomonosov's grandiose, high minded writing and use of both vernacular and Church-Slavonic.[8]

The influence of Peter I and debates over the function and form of literature as it related to the Russian language in the first half of the 18th century set a stylistic precedent for the writers during the reign of Catherine the Great in the second half of the century. However, the themes and scopes of the works these writers produced were often more poignant, political and controversial. Alexander Nikolayevich Radishchev, for example, shocked the Russian public with his depictions of the socio-economic condition of the serfs. Empress Catherine II condemned this portrayal, forcing Radishchev into exile in Siberia.[9]

Others, however, picked topics less offensive to the autocrat. Nikolay Karamzin, 1766–1826, for example, is known for his advocacy of Russian writers adopting traits in the poetry and prose like a heightened sense of emotion and physical vanity, considered to be feminine at the time as well as supporting the cause of female Russian writers. Karamzin's call for male writers to write with femininity was not in accordance with the Enlightenment ideals of reason and theory, considered masculine attributes. His works were thus not universally well received; however, they did reflect in some areas of society a growing respect for, or at least ambivalence toward, a female ruler in Catherine the Great. This concept heralded an era of regarding female characteristics in writing as an abstract concept linked with attributes of frivolity, vanity and pathos.

Some writers, on the other hand, were more direct in their praise for Catherine II. Gavrila Romanovich Derzhavin, famous for his odes, often dedicated his poems to Empress Catherine II. In contrast to most of his contemporaries, Derzhavin was highly devoted to his state; he served in the military, before rising to various roles in Catherine II's government, including secretary to the Empress and Minister of Justice. Unlike those who took after the grand style of Mikhail Lomonosov and Alexander Sumarokov, Derzhavin was concerned with the minute details of his subjects.

Denis Fonvizin, an author primarily of comedy, approached the subject of the Russian nobility with an angle of critique. Fonvizin felt the nobility should be held to the standards they were under the reign of Peter the Great, during which the quality of devotion to the state was rewarded. His works criticized the current system for rewarding the nobility without holding them responsible for the duties they once performed. Using satire and comedy, Fonvizin supported a system of nobility in which the elite were rewarded based upon personal merit rather than the hierarchal favoritism that was rampant during Catherine the Great's reign.[10]

Golden Age

The 19th century is traditionally referred to as the "Golden Era" of Russian literature. Romanticism permitted a flowering of especially poetic talent: the names of Vasily Zhukovsky and later that of his protégé Alexander Pushkin came to the fore. Pushkin is credited with both crystallizing the literary Russian language and introducing a new level of artistry to Russian literature. His best-known work is a novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. An entire new generation of poets including Mikhail Lermontov, Yevgeny Baratynsky, Konstantin Batyushkov, Nikolay Nekrasov, Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, Fyodor Tyutchev and Afanasy Fet followed in Pushkin's steps.

Prose was flourishing as well. The first great Russian novelist was Nikolai Gogol. Then came Nikolai Leskov, Ivan Turgenev, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, all mastering both short stories and novels, and novelist Ivan Goncharov. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky soon became internationally renowned to the point that many scholars such as F. R. Leavis have described one or the other as the greatest novelist ever. In the second half of the century Anton Chekhov excelled in writing short stories and became perhaps the leading dramatist internationally of his period.

Other important 19th-century developments included the fabulist Ivan Krylov; non-fiction writers such as Vissarion Belinsky and Alexander Herzen; playwrights such as Aleksandr Griboyedov, Aleksandr Ostrovsky and the satirist Kozma Prutkov (a collective pen name).

Nineteenth-century Russian literature perpetuated disparate ideas of suicide; it became another facet of culture and society in which men and women were regarded and treated differently. A woman could not commit the noble, heroic suicide that a man could; she would not be regarded highly or as a martyr, but as a simple human who, overcome with feelings of love gone unfulfilled and having no one to protect her from being victimized by society, surrendered herself.[11] Many of the 19th-century Russian heroines were victims of suicide as well as victims of the lifestyle of St. Petersburg, which was long argued to have imported the very idea of and justifications for suicide into Russia. St. Petersburg, which was built as a Western rather than a Russian city was long accused by supporters of traditional Russian lifestyles as importing Western ideas—the ideas of achieving nobility, committing suicide and, the synthesis of these two ideas, the nobility of suicide being among them.[12]

Novels set in Moscow in particular, such as Anna Karenina and Bednaia Liza (Poor Liza),[13] follow a trend of female suicides which suggest a weakness in character which exists only because they are women; they are said by readers to be driven by their emotions into situations from which suicide seems to be the only escape. These instances of self-murder have no deeper meaning than that and, in the case of Bednaia Liza, the setting of Moscow serves only to provide a familiarity which will draw the reader to it, and away from Western novels.[13]

Contrastingly, many novels set in St. Petersburg viewed suicide primarily through the lens of a male protagonist (as in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment) as opposed to the females who held the spotlight in the aforementioned titles. Beyond that, instead of the few females who commit suicide in these Petersburg texts[13] being propelled to such lengths by a love so powerful and inescapable that it consumed them, financial hardships and moral degradation which they faced in the Imperial Capital[13] contaminated or destroyed their femininity; related to this, prostitution became markedly more prominent in popular literature in the 19th century.[11]

Another new aspect of literary suicides introduced in the Petersburg texts is that authors have shifted their gazes from individuals and their plot-driving actions to presentations of broad political ideologies, which are common to Greek and Roman heroes—this step was taken in order to establish a connection between Russian male protagonists who take their own lives and Classic tragic heroes, whereas the women of the literature remained as microcosms for the stereotyped idea of the female condition. The idea of suicide as a mode of protecting one’s right to self-sovereignty was seen as legitimate within the sphere of St. Petersburg, a secular and “Godless…”[13] capital. Unlike Classic tragic heroes, the deaths of male protagonists, such as in Nikolai Gogol’s Nevskii Prospekt and Dmitry Grigorovich’s Svistul’kin, did not bring about great celebrations in their honor, or even faint remembrances amongst their comrades. In fact, both protagonists die lonely deaths, suffering quietly and alone in their final hours. Until the Russian revolution in 1917, such themes remained prominent in literature.[13]

Silver Age

The beginning of the 20th century ranks as the Silver Age of Russian poetry. Well-known poets of the period include: Alexander Blok, Sergei Yesenin, Valery Bryusov, Konstantin Balmont, Mikhail Kuzmin, Igor Severyanin, Sasha Chorny, Nikolay Gumilyov, Maximilian Voloshin, Innokenty Annensky, Zinaida Gippius. The poets most often associated with the "Silver Age" are Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak.

While the Silver Age is considered to be the development of the 19th-century Russian literature tradition, some avant-garde poets tried to overturn it: Velimir Khlebnikov, David Burliuk, Aleksei Kruchenykh and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Though the Silver Age is famous mostly for its poetry, it produced some first-rate novelists and short-story writers, such as Aleksandr Kuprin, Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin, Leonid Andreyev, Fedor Sologub, Aleksey Remizov, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Andrei Bely, though most of them wrote poetry as well as prose.

20th century

With the victory of Russia's Revolution, Mayakovsky worked on interpreting the facts of the new reality. His works, such as "Ode to the Revolution" and "Left March" (both 1918), brought innovations to poetry. In "Left March", Mayakovsky calls for a struggle against the enemies of the Russian Revolution. The poem "150,000,000" discusses the leading played by the masses in the revolution. In the poem "Vladimir Ilyich Lenin" (1924), Mayakovsky looks at the life and work at the leader of Russia's revolution and depicts them against a broad historical background. In the poem "It's Good", Mayakovsky writes about socialist society being the "springtime of humanity". Mayakovsky was instrumental in producing a new type of poetry in which politics played a major part.[14]

In the 1930s Socialist realism became the predominant trend in Russia. Its leading figure was Maxim Gorky, who laid the foundations of this style with his works The Mother and his play The Enemies (both 1906). His autobiographical trilogy describes his journey from the poor of society to the development of his political consciousness. His novel The Artamanov Business (1925) and his play Egor Bulyshov (1932) depict the decay and inevitable downfall of Russia's ruling classes. Gorky defined socialist realism as the "realism of people who are rebuilding the world," and points out that it looks at the past "from the heights of the future's goals". Gorky considered the main task of writers to help in the development of the new man in socialist society. Gorky's version of a heroic revolutionary is Pavel Vlasov from the novel The Mother, who displays selflessness and compassion for the working poor, as well as discipline and dedication. Gorky's works were significant for the development of literature in Russia and became influential in many parts of the world.[15]

Nikolay Ostrovsky's novel How the Steel Was Tempered has been among the most successful works of Russian literature, with tens of millions of copies printed in many languages around the world. In China, various versions of the book have sold more than 10 million copies.[16] In Russia, more than 35 million copies of the book are in circulation.[17] The book is a fictionalized autobiography of Ostrovsky's life, who had a difficult working-class childhood and became a Komsomol member in July 1919 and went to the front as a volunteer. The novel's protagonist, Pavel Korchagin, represented the "young hero" of Russian literature: he is dedicated to his political causes, which help him to overcome his tragedies. The novel has served as an inspiration to youths around the world and played a mobilizing role in Russia's Great Patriotic War.[18]

Alexander Fadeyev achieved noteworthy success in Russia, with tens of millions of copies of his books in circulation in Russia and around the world.[17] Many of Fadeyev's works have been staged and filmed and translated into many languages in Russia and around the world. Fadeyev served as a secretary of the Soviet Writers' Union and was the general secretary of the union's administrative board from 1946 to 1954. He was awarded two Orders of Lenin and various medals. His novel The Rout deals with the partisan struggle in Russia's Far East during the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Fadeyev described the theme of this novel as one of a revolution significantly transforming the masses. The novel's protagonist Levinson is a Bolshevik revolutionary who has a high level of political consciousness. The novel The Young Guard, which received the State Prize of the USSR in 1946, focuses on an underground Komsomol group in Krasnodon, Ukraine and their struggle against the fascist occupation.[19]

The first years of the Soviet regime were marked by the proliferation of avant-garde literature groups. One of the most important was the Oberiu movement that included the most famous Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms, Konstantin Vaginov, Alexander Vvedensky and Nikolay Zabolotsky. Other famous authors experimenting with language were novelists Yuri Olesha and Andrei Platonov and short story writers Isaak Babel and Mikhail Zoshchenko. The OPOJAZ group of literary critics, also known as Russian formalism, was created in close connection with Russian Futurism. Two of its members also produced influential literary works, namely Viktor Shklovsky, whose numerous books (e.g., Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, 1923) defy genre in that they present a novel mix of narration, autobiography, and aesthetic as well as social commentary, and Yury Tynyanov, who used his knowledge of Russia's literary history to produce a set of historical novels mainly set in the Pushkin era (e.g., Young Pushkin: A Novel).

Writers like those of the Serapion Brothers group, who insisted on the right of an author to write independently of political ideology, were forced by authorities to reject their views and accept socialist realist principles. Some 1930s writers, such as Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita, and Nobel Prize–winning Boris Pasternak with his novel Doctor Zhivago continued the classical tradition of Russian literature with little or no hope of being published. Their major works would not be published until the Khrushchev Thaw, and Pasternak was forced to refuse his Nobel prize.

Meanwhile, émigré writers, such as poets Vladislav Khodasevich, Georgy Ivanov and Vyacheslav Ivanov; novelists such as Mark Aldanov, Gaito Gazdanov and Vladimir Nabokov; and short story Nobel Prize winning writer Ivan Bunin, continued to write in exile.

The Khrushchev Thaw brought some fresh wind to literature. Poetry became a mass cultural phenomenon: Bella Akhmadulina, Robert Rozhdestvensky, Andrei Voznesensky, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, read their poems in stadiums and attracted huge crowds.

Some writers dared to oppose Soviet ideology, like short story writer Varlam Shalamov and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote about life in the gulag camps, or Vasily Grossman, with his description of World War II events countering the Soviet official historiography. They were dubbed "dissidents" and could not publish their major works until the 1960s.

But the thaw did not last long. In the 1970s, some of the most prominent authors were not only banned from publishing but were also prosecuted for their anti-Soviet sentiments, or parasitism. Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the country. Others, such as Nobel Prize–winning poet Joseph Brodsky; novelists Vasily Aksyonov, Eduard Limonov, Sasha Sokolov and Vladimir Voinovich; and short story writer Sergei Dovlatov, had to emigrate to the West, while Oleg Grigoriev and Venedikt Yerofeyev "emigrated" to alcoholism. Their books were not published officially until perestroika, although fans continued to reprint them manually in a manner called "samizdat" (self-publishing).

Popular genres

Children's literature in Soviet Union was considered a major genre, because of its educational role. A large share of early period children's books were poems: Korney Chukovsky, Samuil Marshak, Agnia Barto were among the most read. "Adult" poets, such as Mayakovsky and Sergey Mikhalkov, contributed to the genre as well. Some of the early Soviet children's prose was loose adaptations of foreign fairy tales unknown in contemporary Russia. Alexey N. Tolstoy wrote Buratino, a light-hearted and shortened adaptation of Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio. Alexander Volkov introduced fantasy fiction to Soviet children with his loose translation of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published as The Wizard of the Emerald City, and then wrote a series of five sequels, unrelated to Baum. Other notable authors include Nikolay Nosov, Lazar Lagin, Vitaly Bianki.

While fairy tales were relatively free from ideological oppression, the realistic children's prose of the Stalin era was highly ideological and pursued the goal to raise children as patriots and communists. A notable example is Arkady Gaydar, himself a Red Army commander (colonel) in Russian Civil War: his stories and plays about Timur describe a team of young pioneer volunteers who help the elderly and resist hooligans. There was a genre of hero pioneer story, that bore some similarities with Christian genre of hagiography. In Khrushov and Brezhnev times, however, the pressure lightened. Mid- and late Soviet children's books by Eduard Uspensky, Yuri Entin, Viktor Dragunsky bear no signs of propaganda. In the 1970s many of these books, as well as stories by foreign children's writers, were adapted into animation.

Soviet Science fiction, inspired by scientistic revolution, industrialisation, and the country's space pioneering, was flourishing, albeit in the limits allowed by censors. Early science fiction authors, such as Alexander Belyayev, Grigory Adamov, Vladimir Obruchev, Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy, stuck to hard science fiction and regarded H. G. Wells and Jules Verne as examples to follow. Two notable exclusions from this trend were Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of dystopian novel We, and Mikhail Bulgakov, who, while using science fiction instrumentary in Heart of a Dog, The Fatal Eggs and Ivan Vasilyevich, was interested in social satire rather than scientistic progress. The two have had problems with publishing their books in Soviet Union.

Since the thaw in the 1950s Soviet science fiction began to form its own style. Philosophy, ethics, utopian and dystopian ideas became its core, and Social science fiction was the most popular subgenre.[20] Although the view of Earth's future as that of utopian communist society was the only welcome, the liberties of genre still offered a loophole for free expression. Books of brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and Kir Bulychev, among others, are reminiscent of social problems and often include satire on contemporary Soviet society. Ivan Yefremov, on the contrary, arose to fame with his utopian views on future as well as on Ancient Greece in his historical novels. Strugatskies are also credited for the Soviet's first science fantasy, the Monday Begins on Saturday trilogy. Other notable science fiction writers included Vladimir Savchenko, Georgy Gurevich, Alexander Kazantsev, Georgy Martynov, Yeremey Parnov. Space opera was less developed, since both state censors and serious writers watched it unfavorably. Nevertheless, there were moderately successful attempts to adapt space westerns to Soviet soil. The first was Alexander Kolpakov with "Griada", after came Sergey Snegov with "Men Like Gods", among others.

A specific branch of both science fiction and children's books appeared in mid-Soviet era: the children's science fiction. It was meant to educate children while entertaining them. The star of the genre was Bulychov, who, along with his adult books, created children's space adventure series about Alisa Selezneva, a teenage girl from the future. Others include Nikolay Nosov with his books about dwarf Neznayka, Evgeny Veltistov, who wrote about robot boy Electronic, Vitaly Melentyev, Vladislav Krapivin, Vitaly Gubarev.

Mystery was another popular genre. Detectives by brothers Arkady and Georgy Vayner and spy novels by Yulian Semyonov were best-selling,[21] and many of them were adapted into film or TV in the 1970s and 1980s.

Village prose is a genre that conveys nostalgic descriptions of rural life. Valentin Rasputin’s 1976 novel, Proshchaniye s Matyoroy (Farewell to Matyora) depicted a village faced with destruction to make room for a hydroelectric plant.[22]

Historical fiction in the early Soviet era included a large share of memoirs, fictionalized or not. Valentin Katayev and Lev Kassil wrote semi-autobiographic books about children's life in Tsarist Russia. Vladimir Gilyarovsky wrote Moscow and Muscovites, about life in pre-revolutionary Moscow. The late Soviet historical fiction was dominated by World War II novels and short stories by authors such as Boris Vasilyev, Viktor Astafyev, Boris Polevoy, Vasil Bykaŭ, among many others, based on the authors' own war experience. Vasily Yan and Konstantin Badygin are best known for their novels on Medieval Rus, and Yury Tynyanov for writing on Russian Empire. Valentin Pikul wrote about many different epochs and countries in an Alexander Dumas-inspired style. In the 1970s there appeared a relatively independent Village Prose, whose most prominent representatives were Viktor Astafyev and Valentin Rasputin.

Any sort of fiction that dealt with the occult, either horror, adult-oriented fantasy or magic realism, was unwelcome in Soviet Russia. Until the 1980s very few books in these genres were written, and even fewer were published, although earlier books, such as by Gogol, were not banned. Of the rare exceptions, Bulgakov in Master and Margarita (not published in author's lifetime) and Strugatskies in Monday Begins on Saturday introduced magic and mystical creatures into contemporary Soviet reality to satirize it. Another exception was early Soviet writer Alexander Grin, who wrote romantic tales, both realistic and fantastic.

Post-Soviet era

The end of the 20th century proved a difficult period for Russian literature, with relatively few distinct voices. Although the censorship was lifted and writers could now freely express their thoughts, the political and economic chaos of the 1990s affected the book market and literature heavily. The book printing industry descended into crisis, the number of printed book copies dropped several times in comparison to Soviet era, and it took about a decade to revive.

Among the most discussed authors of this period were Victor Pelevin, who gained popularity with first short stories and then novels, novelist and playwright Vladimir Sorokin, and the poet Dmitry Prigov. A relatively new trend in Russian literature is that female short story writers Tatyana Tolstaya or Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, and novelists Lyudmila Ulitskaya or Dina Rubina have come into prominence. The tradition of the classic Russian novel continues with such authors as Mikhail Shishkin and Vasily Aksyonov.

Detective stories and thrillers have proven a very successful genre of new Russian literature: in the 1990s serial detective novels by Alexandra Marinina, Polina Dashkova and Darya Dontsova were published in millions of copies. In the next decade Boris Akunin who wrote more sophisticated popular fiction, e.g. a series of novels about the 19th century sleuth Erast Fandorin, was eagerly read across the country.

Science fiction was always well selling, albeit second to fantasy, that was relatively new to Russian readers. These genres boomed in the late 1990s, with authors like Sergey Lukyanenko, Nick Perumov, Maria Semenova, Vera Kamsha, Alexey Pekhov and Vadim Panov. A good share of modern Russian science fiction and fantasy is written in Ukraine, especially in Kharkiv,[23] home to H. L. Oldie, Alexander Zorich, Yuri Nikitin and Andrey Valentinov. Many others hail from Kiev, including Marina and Sergey Dyachenko and Vladimir Arenev. Significant contribution to Russian horror literature has been done by Ukrainians Andrey Dashkov and Alexander Vargo.

Russian poetry of that period produced a number of avant-garde greats. The members of the Lianosovo group of poets, notably Genrikh Sapgir, Igor Kholin and Vsevolod Nekrasov, who previously chose to refrain from publication in Soviet periodicals, became very influential, especially in Moscow, and the same goes for another masterful experimental poet, Gennady Aigi. Also popular were poets following some other poetic trends, e.g. Vladimir Aristov and Ivan Zhdanov from Poetry Club and Konstantin Kedrov and Elena Katsuba from DOOS, who all used complex metaphors which they called meta-metaphors. In St. Petersburg, members of New Leningrad Poetry School that included not only the famous Joseph Brodsky but also Victor Krivulin, Sergey Stratanovsky and Elena Shvarts, were prominent first in the Soviet-times underground - and later in mainstream poetry.

Some other poets, e.g. Sergey Gandlevsky and Dmitry Vodennikov, gained popularity by writing in a retro style, which reflected the sliding of newly-written Russian poetry into being consciously imitative of the patterns and forms developed as early as in the 19th century.

21st century

In the 21st century, a new generation of Russian authors appeared differing greatly from the postmodernist Russian prose of the late 20th century, which lead critics to speak about “new realism”.[24] Having grown up after the fall of the Soviet Union, the "new realists" write about every day life, but without using the mystical and surrealist elements of their predecessors.

The "new realists" are writers who assume there is a place for preaching in journalism, social and political writing and the media, but that “direct action” is the responsibility of civil society.[citation needed]

Leading "new realists" include Ilja Stogoff, Zakhar Prilepin, Alexander Karasyov, Arkadi Babchenko, Vladimir Lorchenkov, Alexander Snegiryov and the political author Sergej Shargunov.[25]

External influences

British romantic poetry

Scottish poet Robert Burns became a ‘people’s poet’ in Russia. In Imperial times the Russian aristocracy were so out of touch with the peasantry that Burns, translated into Russian, became a symbol for the ordinary Russian people. In Soviet Russia Burns was elevated as the archetypical poet of the people – not least since the Soviet regime slaughtered and silenced its own poets. A new translation of Burns, begun in 1924 by Samuil Marshak, proved enormously popular selling over 600,000 copies.[26][27] In 1956, the Soviet Union became the first country in the world to honour Burns with a commemorative stamp. The poetry of Burns is taught in Russian schools alongside their own national poets. Burns was a great admirer of the egalitarian ethos behind the French Revolution. Whether Burns would have recognised the same principles at work in the Soviet State at its most repressive is moot. This didn’t stop the Communists from claiming Burns as one of their own and incorporating his work into their state propaganda. The post communist years of rampant capitalism in Russia have not tarnished Burns' reputation.[28]

Lord Byron was a major influence on almost all Russian poets of the Golden Era, including Pushkin, Vyazemsky, Zhukovsky, Batyushkov, Baratynsky, Delvig and, especially, Lermontov.[29]

French literature

Writers such as Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac were widely influential. Also, Jules Verne inspired several generations of Russian science fiction writers.


Russian literature is not only written by Russians. In the Soviet times such popular writers as Belarusian Vasil Bykaŭ, Kyrgyz Chinghiz Aitmatov and Abkhaz Fazil Iskander wrote some of their books in Russian. Some renowned contemporary authors writing in Russian have been born and live in Ukraine (Andrey Kurkov, H. L. Oldie, Maryna and Serhiy Dyachenko) or Baltic States (Garros and Evdokimov, Max Frei). Most Ukrainian fantasy and science fiction authors write in Russian,[30] which gives them access to a much broader audience, and usually publish their books via Russian publishers such as Eksmo, Azbuka and AST.

A number of prominent Russian authors such as novelists Mikhail Shishkin, Rubén Gallego, Svetlana Martynchik and Dina Rubina, poets Alexei Tsvetkov and Bakhyt Kenjeev, though born in USSR, live and work in West Europe, North America or Israel.

Themes in Russian books

Suffering, often as a means of redemption, is a recurrent theme in Russian literature. Fyodor Dostoyevsky in particular is noted for exploring suffering in works such as Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment. Christianity and Christian symbolism are also important themes, notably in the works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov. In the 20th century, suffering as a mechanism of evil was explored by authors such as Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. A leading Russian literary critic of the 20th century Viktor Shklovsky, in his book, Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, wrote, "Russian literature has a bad tradition. Russian literature is devoted to the description of unsuccessful love affairs."

Russian Nobel Prize in Literature winners

See also


  1. Moscow International Book Fair. Retrieved on 2012-06-17.
  2. The Moscow Times The most reading country in the world?
  3. Rivkin-Fish, Michele R.; Trubina, Elena (2010). Dilemmas of Diversity After the Cold War: Analyses of "Cultural Difference" by U.S. and Russia-Based Scholars. Woodrow Wilson Center.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    "When mass illiteracy was finally liquidated in the first half of the twentieth century, the proud self-image of Russians as “the most reading nation in the world” emerged - where reading meant, and still means for many, the reading of literature".
  4. Letopisi // Literature of Old Rus'. Вiographical and Bibliographical Dictionary / ed. by Oleg Tvorogov. - Moscow: Prosvescheniye ("Enlightenment"), 1996. (Russian: Летописи // Литература Древней Руси. Биобиблиографический словарь / под ред. О.В. Творогова. - М.: Просвещение, 1996.)
  5. Terras, pp. 221–223
  6. Terras, pp. 474–477
  7. Lang, D. M. “Boileau and Sumarokov: The Manifesto of Russian Classicism.” The Modern Language Review, Vol. 43, No. 4, 1948, p. 502
  8. Lang, D. M. “Boileau and Sumarokov: The Manifesto of Russian Classicism.” The Modern Language Review, Vol. 43, No. 4, 1948, p. 500
  9. Terras, pp. 365–366
  10. Offord, Derek (2005). "Denis Fonvizin and the Concept of Nobility: An Eighteenth-century Russian Echo of a Western Debate". European History Quarterly. 35 (1): 10. doi:10.1177/0265691405049200.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. 11.0 11.1 Higonnet, M. (1985). "Suicide: Representations of the Feminine in the Nineteenth Century". Poetics Today. 6 (1/2): 103–18. doi:10.2307/1772124. JSTOR 1772124.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Morrissey, S. (2003). "Patriarchy on Trial: Suicide, Discipline, and Governance in Imperial Russia". The Journal of Modern History. 75 (1): 23–58. doi:10.1086/377748.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 Lilly, I. K. (1994). "Imperial Petersburg, Suicide, Russian Literature". The Slavonic and Eastern European Review. 72 (3): 401–23. JSTOR 4211549.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Soviet literature: problems and people K. Zelinsky, Progress Publishers. Moscow. 1970. P.167
  15. A. Ovcharenko. Socialist realism and the modern literary process. Progress Publishers. Moscow. 1978. p.120
  17. 17.0 17.1
  18. Soviet literature: problems and people K. Zelinsky, Progress Publishers. Moscow. 1970. P.135
  20. Encyclopædia Britannica. Science fiction
  21. Sofya Khagi, Toronto Slavic Quarterly, "Boris Akunin and Retro Mode in Contemporary Russian Culture", retrieved 11 September 2006.
  22. "Prose poem". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2012-05-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Аристов, Денис (Aristov, Denis) “О природе реализма в современной русской прозе о войне (2000-е годы)”. In: Journal Perm State Pedagogical University. 2011 (2). [1] Retrieved 24 April 2013.(PDF; 231 kB)
  25. Yevgeni Popov (2009). “Who can follow Gogol’s footsteps” in: Russia now , 21 April 2009 [2] Retrieved 22 April 2013
  26. Classical Music on CD, SACD, DVD and Blu-ray : Russian Settings of Robert Burns. Europadisc (2009-01-26). Retrieved on 2012-06-17.
  27. Peter Henry. Sure way of getting Burns all wrong at the Wayback Machine (archived December 11, 2004).
  28. From Rabbie with love – Travel – (2005-04-10). Retrieved on 2012-06-17.
  29. Розанов. Байронизм // Словарь литературных терминов. Т. 1. — 1925 (текст). Retrieved on 2012-06-17.
  30. Oldie, H.L.; Dyachenko, Marina and Sergey; Valentinov, Andrey (2005). Пять авторов в поисках ответа (послесловие к роману "Пентакль") (in Russian). Moscow: Eksmo. ISBN 5-699-09313-3. Украиноязычная фантастика переживает сейчас не лучшие дни. ... Если же говорить о фантастике, написанной гражданами Украины в целом, независимо от языка (в основном, естественно, на русском), — то здесь картина куда более радужная. В Украине сейчас работают более тридцати активно издающихся писателей-фантастов, у кого регулярно выходят книги (в основном, в России), кто пользуется заслуженной любовью читателей; многие из них являются лауреатами ряда престижных литературных премий, в том числе и международных.

    Speculative fiction in Ukrainian is living through a hard time today ... Speaking of fiction written by Ukrainian citizens, regardless of language (primarily Russian, of course), there's a brighter picture. More than 30 fantasy and science fiction writers are active here, their books are regularly published (in Russia, mostly), they enjoy the readers' love they deserve; many are recipients of prestigious literary awards, including international.
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  • Terras, Victor. Handbook of Russian Literature. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985 ISBN 0300048688

External links