Russian Literature During the 18th Century

By | March 2, 2022

The Western Influence

The period of Peter I the Great marks a radical turning point in literature as well as in Russian history, but in literature its scope will only become visible in the following period. On the death of Peter I, the cultural gap between the Russia and the West, still abysmal when he ascended the throne, was enormously reduced. If until the previous century the religious element had had a decisive weight in a literary system which, despite the numerous innovations, had its roots in Byzantine culture, the literature of the new century is inspired by Western models. By building his new capital, St. Petersburg, Peter founds a great literary myth and begins the Petersburg period of Russian literature, which will last until the revolution of 1917. ● In 1710 Peter introduces the civil alphabet, a graphic simplification of the cursive script that brings it closer to the Latin alphabet, drawing a clear functional distinction between Russian and Church Slavonic. The creation of the new Russia, in the design of the Tsar, also requires the creation of a new literary language. Supporter of Peter’s reforms is Feofan Prokopovič, an expert in rhetoric, theology and philosophy, author of a poetic in Latin and an abcedary thanks to which children learn to read in ‘simple’ Russian and no longer in the language of the liturgy. V. Tredjakovskij, at first, defended the primacy of the spoken language in the formation of a modern Russian literary language, similar to the Western ones; proposes a type of versification more in keeping with the characters of the Russian language and exposes a system of poetic genres. ● A. Na chuljaščich učenie (“Against the enemies of education”, 1729); translator of N. Boileau and B. Fontenelle, he contributes to the formation of a new theoretical-literary consciousness, of a modern secular literature. M. Lomonosov, brilliant chemist, physicist, linguist, poet, offers a decisive contribution to the renewal of science and literature: he elaborates a new metric, participates in the linguistic debate of the time with normative works such as the Rossiyskaja grammatika (“Russian grammar”, 1757) and the treatise O pol  ´ ze knig cerkovnych v Rossijskom jazyke (“Of the utility of ecclesiastical books for the Russian language”, 1757), in which he exposes the classical theory of the three styles. He is the author of epistles, also of scientific content, and of odes, some of which offer a notable example of philosophical poetry. The prolific A. Sumarokov, theatrical author, also writes an epistle about poetry, fables, satires against bureaucracy, songs, following the dictates of classicism. ● The profound influence of French classicism favors the elaboration of a system of literary genres: M. Cheraskov, author of highly successful epic poems such as Rossijada (“Rossiade”, 1779) and Vladimir (1785), introduces the genres of elegy and epistle in verse, new to Russian literature; the anacreontic ode spreads, especially thanks to the Ukrainian V. Kapnist, who in the comedy Jabeda («The deception», 1793) denounces the corruption of the judicial system ; the heroic- comic poem finds a scholar in V. Majkov, with his Elisej ili razdražënnyj Vakch («Elisha or Enraged Bacchus», 1771). M. Murav´ëv and I. Bogdanovič introduce la poésie fugitive (lëgkaja poezija), which N. Karamzin’s followers will employ against classical rhetoric. The fable enjoys the favor of the classicists, from Cheraskov to Majkov, and finds a faithful scholar in I. Chemnicer. Prince M. Ščerbatov, critic of the Westernization desired by Peter and of the corruption of customs of which it would have been the cause, writes the utopian tale Putešestvie v zemlju Ofirskuju g. S. švedskogo dvorjanina («Journey to the land of Ophir by Mr. S., Swedish nobleman», 1783-84), picture of an ideal state and implicit critique of the Russian state.

The reign of Catherine II

Cultural institutions, the education system, journalism and the theater experienced a great development during the reign of Catherine II, who, having ascended the throne in 1762, embarked on a work of reorganization and legislative reforms, visibly influenced by Montesquieu’s thought.. Good propagandist of his reforms, Catherine presents herself as an enlightened sovereign, entertains a lively correspondence with the French Enlighteners, buys Diderot’s library, offering him the financial help he needs. ● Great development receives journalism. In 1759 Sumarokov had published at his own expense the Trudoljubivaja pčela (“The Busy Bee”), a literary and satirical magazine. In Moscow, Cheraskov imprints his classicist conception of literature on the Poleznoe uveselenie magazines(“Useful entertainment”, 1760-62) and Svobodnye časy (“Free hours”, 1763). A literary audience is also beginning to be created in the provinces. However, it is with the release of Vsjakaja vsjačina (“A little bit of everything”, 1769) that the situation changes; the magazine has a satirical slant, the empress herself collaborates with anonymous articles, encouraging the birth of other satire magazines with a didactic tone. Much more lively is the satire in the magazines of N. Novikov Truten  ´ (“The drone”, 1769-70), Pustomelja (“The chatterbox”, 1770) and Živopisec (“The painter”, 1772-73), inspired by the Spectator by J. Addison. Among the magazines of the time they should also be remembered Adskaja počta (“The post of hell”, 1769) by F. Emin, written in the form of correspondence between two devils, and the lively controversial magazines of M. Čulkov. ● The future Catherine II founds (1756) in Saint Petersburg the Rossijskij Teatr, the first Russian permanent theater, directed by Sumarokov, promotes the translation of texts, opens a school for actors; the theater has a didactic intent, and foreign texts are adapted to the Russian environment so that the public can grasp its educational message. D. Fonvizin, while Russifying foreign models, demonstrates great originality in his plays Brigadir (“The Brigadier”, 1769), satire on the Gallomania of the new generation and the bigoted obscurantism of the old, and Nedorosl´ («Il minorenne», 1782) which transposes the tradition of European comic theater into a typically Russian situation. ● Classicism considers the novel a low genre, unless it has clear didactic purposes. Until the middle of the 18th century. there are no Russian love or adventure novels; Emin and Čulkov are the first to spread the genre. Emin is responsible for Nepostojannaja fortuna, ili pochoždenija Miramonda (“The inconstant luck or the adventures of Miramondo”, 1763), inspired by the adventurous life of the author, while Čulkov, in his unfinished novel Prigožaja povaricha ili pochoždenie razvratnoj ženščiny (“The comely cook or the adventure of a dissolute woman”, 1770), refers to ‘low’ genres such as the comic and the picaresque. ● In the context of poetry, the personality of G. Deržavin, the most original poet of his century, stands out, capable of boldly mixing comedy and sublime, of giving space to the ‘low’ language in a ‘high’ genre such as the ode, transgressing the Lomonosovian idea of ​​high style. Alongside his most famous odes, we should mention the Anakreontičeskie pesni (“Anacreontic songs”, 1804), whose personal and domestic themes precede sentimentality, and the works of old age, still full of vigor and a joyful epicureanism.

Russian Literature During the 18th Century