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Church Influence and Old Russian Literature
August 7, 2008 18:59

As compared to West European countries Rus’ adopted Christianity rather late, not before the 10th century. Initial development of Russian literature was under the influence of Byzantium, i.e. the Eastern Roman Empire with the capital of Constantinople.

The oldest literary monuments date back to the 11th century and are written in the ancient Church Slavonic language. The earliest extant manuscripts were created in Kiev, which was then situated at the crossroads of most important international trading routes and was one of the most prosperous and cultural cities of medieval Europe.


Chronicles, hagiographies of saints and monks, sermons, and a few secular stories written in the Kievan period (1030–1240) have come down to us. The most famous chronicle is The Story of the Passing Years telling about the prehistory of the Eastern Slavs and describing both historical and half-legendary events of the period of 860–1240. It was created by several monks, by Nestor and Nikon first of all. The chronicle contains important data that helps to reconstruct the history of ancient Russia, as well as stories integrated into annalistic narration and remarkable for their originality and amusing character. It also boasts splendid examples of ecclesiastical eloquence: Word on Law and Grace (11th c.) by Ilarion, the Metropolitan of Kiev, and Homily for the First Sunday after Easter (12th c.) by Cyril, the Bishop of Turov. Yet, the most common readings for dwellers of the medieval Rus’ were the saints’ lives. The most famous authors of such hagiographies were Nestor and Father Simeon.

The highest literary achievement of the Kievan period was The Lay of Igor's Warfare. This prosaic poem tells about Prince Igor’s unlucky campaign of 1185 against the militant nomadic tribe of Polovtsy who inhabited the steppes of the Southern Rus’. Rich imagery, lofted lyrical harmony and perfect style make it an unsurpassed creation of Old Russian literature.

So, the most important scriptures of the Kievan period are the teachings by metropolitan Ilarion, The Story of the Passing Years (Povest vremennykh let; the oldest chronicle), teaching by Prince Vladimir Monomakh (11th - early 12th cc), Lay of Igor's Warfare (Slovo o polku Igoreve), and Wanderings of Daniel (12th century). All these texts are examples of vivid poetic creation. This was the epoch of extensive literary activities, which gave rise to patterns of literary forms and genres for the following centuries.




Manuscripts in Church-Slavonic Language
    (in Cyrillic and Glagolitic scripts)


The Mongol-Tatar invasion of 1238–1240 put an end to the cultural dominion of Kiev. This once powerful city along with other ones was ruined and ravaged and the Tatars, how the invaders were called, made Russian princedoms their tributaries for more than two hundred years.

The hard situation was aggravated by forays of the Polish, Lithuanian, and Swedish forces, as well as by internecine strife among Russian princes. Only in the Battle at Kulikovo Field (1380) the Russians headed by the Grand Prince Dmitry Donskoy of Muscovy defeated the Tatars. This great event inspired Sophoni Ryazanets for the prosaic poem Zadonshina, a writing of high artistic value, though not so impressive, as The Lay of Igor's Warfare.

Those troubled centuries gave birth to works of literature mainly dedicated to the fighting of Rus against its invaders. Many of them are marked with the impact of florid and pompous style adopted from Byzantium and Poland. One of the interesting exceptions is The Story of Pyotr and Fevronia the Muromski (15th c), an ingenuous and chaste love story imbued with folk motifs.

By 1480 the Mongol-Tatar Yoke had been overthrown and Rus united by Ivan III (reigning from 1462 to 1505) under the aegis of Muscovy (the city of Moscow and the neighboring lands). A characteristic feature of the literary process of the peaceful decades of the 16th century was compiling of grand encyclopedic treatises: Great Martirologies, The Book of Degrees of Czar’s Genealogy, and a multivolume history treatise – Nikon’s Illuminated Annalistic Collection.

Russian literature of the late Middle Ages is remarkable for its feeling of Russia being the chosen one (the theory of Moscow as the third Rome). Inner upheavals of the 16th - 17th centuries imparted to literature certain features of religious and political journalism. In some cases these works arise to a high artistic level. The most popular genres of the 16th century were military stories and political polemics. The most well-known example of the first ones was The Story of Stephan Batori’s Coming on City of Pskov written in an extremely florid style. The correspondence of Ivan IV the Terrible with his voivode Prince Andrei Kurbski who escaped to Lithuania is a sample of written polemics. In a laconic and caustic way Andrei Kurbski protests against the czar’s extirpation of the boyars, whereas Ivan IV with no less sarcasm but with more words exposes the boyars’ predominance.

The late 16th century saw rapid development of the secular story of manners, which often interpreted the 'wandering' plots of the western and oriental literatures. According to historians the medieval period of Russian literature development finishes in the 17th century, when new foreign tendencies had a serious impact on both the content and form of writings. A noteworthy evidence of changes was the life story of the Old Believers' head. His autobiography Life of Archpriest Avvakum,originally blending the church and bookish language with lively folk speech, abounds in realistic descriptions of modern reality.



Tags: Russian Literature Old Russian Literature Russian Orthodox Church History of Russian Literature  

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