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Search for National Identity - Russian Literature of the 18th Century
August 16, 2008 19:10

The inevitable consequence of Russian and West European literatures drawing together was that the former, being less mature fell under the influence if the latter as a more developed one. With the introduction of a more refined lifestyle in the courts of the post-Peter the First epoch the encouraging of sciences and arts became sort of a fashion. Subtle poetry starts to be appreciated. A type of the court writer takes shape.

By the end of the 17th century religious plots and characters gave way to imaginary personages and worldly subjects. The most valuable out of those works is Story of Savva Grudtsyn, in a vivid and realistic manner describing the hero’s adventures in the merchants’ and military environment; Story of Frol Skobeyev, in which a trickster draws a picture of how he fraudulently wormed himself into the top-drawer; and the best of them is Story of Grief and Misfortune in verse: it tells about a dissipated life of a youth and his following moral revival.

Peter the Great’s many-sided interest in the West Europe had practical rather than cultural grounds and so literary activities did not see much of official support during his reigning (1682–1725). The great reformer, however, abandoned the Church Slavic script and initiated introducing common everyday speech into writing.

 M.V. Lomonosov

The reign of Peter’s descendants Anna Ioannovna (1730–1740) and Elizaveta Petrovna(1741–1762) was not marked with any special blossom of literature either. The first signs of French neoclassicism influencing the development of Russian literature of this period can be seen in satires by Prince Antiokh Dmitrievich Kantemir (1708–1744) and odes by Vasily Kirillovich Trediakovsky (1703–1768). The leading role in literature was certainly played by Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov (1711–1765), who in his odes praised the Russian tsars and the grace of God and extolled science, industry and the Enlightenment. He also produced significant treatises in the linguistics, stylistics and scansions, which greatly purported the shaping of the Russian literary language.

Catherine II the Great in her long reigning (1762–1796) in all ways tried to inculcate a taste for literature and arts in her lieges. Translations of French writers such as Pierre Corneille, Jean-Baptiste Racine, Molière Voltaire served as paragons of poetry, prose and drama. Historic and epic poems, Horace-like odes, poetic tales and moral stories were composed by numerous poets, among them Gavriil (Gavrila) Romanovich Derzhavin (1743–1816).

Remarkable for his strong and independent character and outstanding talent he was undoubtedly the greatest Russian poet of the 18th century. Mighty inspiration of his numerous odes and other poetic works is fully expressed, for example in his famous Waterfall. Especially appealing is his blending of lofty moral pathos with happy enjoyment of everyday living.

 A.P. Sumarokov

Aleksandr Petrovich Sumarokov (1717–1777), known as “the father of Russian drama” was one of the founders and directors of the first permanent theatre established in Saint Petersburg in 1756. This year marked the beginning of Russia’s continuing theatrical history, which was probably more notable for its stage productions and acting rather than for the plays as they were. Sumarokov’s tragedies written in rhymed couplets mainly interpreted the conflict of “feeling and duty” typical for French neoclassicism. Noteworthy are comedies by Sumarokov’s son-in-law Yakov Borisovich Knyazhnin (1740–1791), especially his libretto for Vasily Alexeyevich Pashkevich’ comic opera Misfortune from a Carriage (1779) exposing serfdom; and by Vasily Vasilievich Kapnist (1757–1823), in particular his comedy Tattler (1798) mocking at judges and lawmakers.

 D.I. Fonvizin

A very well-known playwright of the 18th century was Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin (1744–1792) who attained his fame with two brilliant comedies. One of them, Brigadier (1766) is a biting satire on slavish imitating of the Frenchmen. In Nedorosl (1782; “The Minor”) Fonvizin creates a range of vivid characters illustrating the dull existence of the Prostakov’s (translated as the Simpletons’) family.

The aspiration for national originality can be observed throughout the whole period: V.K.Trediakovsky and M.V. Lomonosov create the theory of Russian prosody; A.V. Sumarokov, along with the tendency to be the Russian Racine and Voltaire, creates folk-style songs; D.I.Fonvisin writes comedies on Russian everyday life and uses lively colloquial speech; Derzhavin anticipates the 'sacred genre' of the later Russian lyric poetry. Drama and poetry firmly stand first in the hierarchy of genres.

Catherine II encouraged prosaic literary experiments by having established the first Russian satirical journal Hotchpotch (1769), inspired by the famous English Chatter and Spectator known here in French translations. Other satirical journals also came to be, the best of them issued by Nikolay Ivanovich Novikov (1764–1816). However, the Empress banned them once they turned too critical about her reigning of the last years that were quite reactive.

She also banned the book of great historic significance, namely Journey from Petersburg to Moscow (1790) by Aleksandr Nikolayevich Radishchev (1749–1802), who was exiled to Siberia for his bold exposing of political and social situation in this country.

As for Russian novels, not many of them were published under Catherine II; some of them were imitative of English novels of the 18th century, in particular works by Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne. The most popular work of literature back then was the sentimental story of a peasant girl enticed by a nobleman, Poor Lisa (1792) by Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin (1766–1826). This story as well as other prosaic works by Karamzin, especially his Letters of a Russian Traveler (1791),

heralded the coming of sentimentalism into Russian literature that was under a powerful impact of French and English poets and novelists. Yet the most considerable achievement of Nikolai Karamzin was the introduction of a new literary style of Russian prose, which was cleared of slavisms and oriented at French language culture, syntaxes and style. His famed twelve-volume History of the Russian State (1818–1829) served as an example of that new style and in many ways predetermined the development of Russian literary language. The Russian language found its definite form in the creations of V.A.Zhukovsky and A.S.Pushkin.


Tags: Russian Literature History of Russian Literature    

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