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Classic Russian Literature | Characteristics, Books & Authors

Instructor: Spencer Linford

Spencer holds a bachelor's of literature and a bachelor's of environmental studies from the University of California Santa Cruz. He works as a freelance writer and editor.

Learn about classic Russian literature. Explore the history of Russian literature, discover its characteristics, and review the famous Russian authors and books. Updated: 09/22/2022

Classic Russian Literature

Classic Russian literature consists of timeless works produced by Russian writers that explore themes that remain relevant to contemporary audiences. Russian literature classics often inspect characters' emotions, thinking, and actions in detail by placing them in existential crises caused by moral, ethical, political, social, or religious dilemmas raised by organized society. Russian literature is also heavily influenced by Russia's political, social, and economic evolution.

History of Russian Literature

Literary scholars divide Russian literature into four periods: pre-Petrine (old Russian), Imperial, post-revolutionary, and post-Soviet, according to drastic political and social changes that changed the course of Russia's development. These periods are historical markers but do not reflect literary genres or eras of Russian literature.

Pre-Petrine Russian Literature

Pre-Petrine Russian literature concerns work written before Peter the Great formed Imperial Russia. Pre-Petrine works consisted of chronicles written in Old East Slavic like The Tale of Igor's Campaign, hagiographies, biographies of religious or ecclesiastical leaders, like Life of Alexander Nevsky, and bylinas or epics. The pre-Petrine era ended with the throning of Peter the Great in the late 17th century.

Imperial Russian Literature

Peter the Great encouraged Russian creatives to invest in their craft, take risks, and develop an artistic culture to export to Europe. Literature flourished under Peter the Great, and his influence allowed Russian literature's themes, structure, and organization to evolve. Catherine II succeeded and was less tolerant of artistic expression. Works that openly criticized the Empress's rule were scrutinized. Catherine II exiled authors bold enough to critique the absolute monarchy and Russian society, such as Alexander Radischev. However, the threat of exile did not deter Russia's writers from critiquing their country. If anything, censorship fueled the rise of social, political, and philosophical radicalism in Russian literature.

Shortly after the death of Catherine II, 19th-century Imperial Russia witnessed the Golden Age of Russian literature. The Golden Age began during the Romantic period with Alexander Pushkin's works. Historians and scholars consider Alexander Pushkin to be Russia's greatest poet because he elevated the themes and style of Russian poetry to new heights, thereby modernizing the Russian language. Pushkin's verse-novel Eugene Onegin ushered in a new generation of Russian writers, including Mikhail Lermontov and Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, who concerned themselves with topical issues of Russian society and mastery of the Russian language.

While Pushkin ascended the ranks of Russia's poetic greats, Nikolai Gogol lamented over his novel Dead Souls which would become the first great Russian novel. Although technically incomplete, Dead Souls is considered a masterpiece that crystallized social and political critique as facets of great Russian literature. Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Leo Tolstoy emerged soon after Gogol's literary success as the megastars of Russian literature. At the close of the 19th century, Anton Chekov emerged as a master of the short story, earning himself a place among the Golden Age greats.

20th-century Imperial Russia saw a marked decline in literary talent. As a result, literary scholars refer to the early 20th century as the Silver Age of Russian literature. While the Silver Age's literary merit pales in comparison to the Golden Age, it did importantly witness the inclusion of female writers into the Russian canon, including poets Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva. Other famous writers from the Silver Age include two of Russia's Nobel Prize winners for literature: Boris Pasternak and Ivan Bunin.

Post-Revolutionary Russian Literature

The Silver Age ended with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, marking the beginning of the post-revolutionary era of Russian literature. Post-revolutionary Russian literature started with the birth of the Oberiu movement, also known as Russian futurism. Famous Oberiu writers include Daniil Kharms, Konstantin Vaginov, and Nikolay Zabolotsky. The Lenin era also saw the birth of the Opojaz movement, also known as Russian formalism. Famous Opojaz writers include Viktor Shklovsky and Yury Tynyanov. Other famous Russian writers pushing the possibilities of language during the Lenin era include Boris Pilnyak and Isaak Babel.

In 1922, Joseph Stalin deposed Lenin and took control of Russia. From 1922 to 1930, state censorship of literary work increased dramatically. During the 1930s, socialist realism emerged as Russia's predominant literary form. Socialist realism depicted the USSR and communist values in an idealized light and acted as literary propaganda to steer Russia's culture toward a communist future. Many Russian writers, including Mikhail Bulgakov and Andrei Platonov, wrote in constant fear of persecution from the Soviet government, while others, like Isaak Babel, were executed. Other writers like Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Sholokhov embraced Socialist Realism with great success. Sholokhov won the Nobel Prize in literature for his work Don Cossacks which surveyed the life and fate of the cossacks during World War 1 and the Russian Revolution.

While Sholokhov enjoyed literary fame under Stalin, other writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Vladislav Khodasevich, and Ayn Rand wrote in exile well after World War 2. The Soviet Union's censorship reached a fever pitch when Soviet authorities forced Boris Pasternak to decline his Nobel Prize. In 1953, to the relief of the Russian creative intelligentsia, Stalin died. Initially, Stalin's successor, Khruschev, relaxed state censorship. But relative literary freedom only lasted until the 70s, when the Soviet authorities resumed persecuting anti-soviet writers such as Nobel Prize winner Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

Post-Soviet Russian Literature

In 1991, the Soviet Union fell, making way for the post-Soviet period of Russian literature. The economic and social turmoil caused by the Soviets heavily impacted literature during the late 20th century. The publishing industry was in shambles, and many Russians focused on more immediate concerns than literature, like food, shelter, and financial stability. Notable Russian writers of the late 20th century are Victor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin, and Dmitry Prigov.

Post-Soviet Writers of the 21st century fared slightly better than those of the late 20th century. The Russian publishing industry grew at a slow but steady pace, and the lack of state censorship led to the development of a new literary movement called New Realism. New Realism writers like Mikhail Shishkin and Alexander Karasyov write about everyday Russian life like the authors before them but without the surrealist elements employed by writers like Bulgakov.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the major themes of Russian literature?

The major themes of Russian literature include political corruption, spiritual enlightenment through suffering, and social instability. Russian literature also deals with the moral, ethical, and philosophical dilemmas of humanity that arise in organized society.

Why is Russian literature unique?

Russian literature is unique because it has explored the same themes for hundreds of years. Russian literature has also always had an intimate psychological quality that provides keen insight into salient real-world problems and deeper philosophical questions about existence.

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