Kiev was destroyed in Russia’s literary Dark Age under the Tartars, and Russian culture was dominated by the Grand Duchy of Moscow, whose ruler Dmitri won a victory over the Tartars at Kulikovo, memorialized in the fifteenth century Cossack epic Zadónina (beyond the river Don). Ivan II at last drove the Tartars from a unified Russia in 1480, less than a generation after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople, and Moscow became the “third Rome.” Imperial power was inseparable from Orthodox belief, and Ivan II, wed to a Byzantine princess, regarded himself as the sole genuine defender of the Orthodox faith. His grandson and namesake, Ivan IV, popularly known in the West as Ivan the Terrible (more accurately, the Awesome), a talented political polemicist, practiced heinous excesses in the name of personal absolutism. After Ivan murdered his oldest son, his line died out, and for the next generation civil disorder was exacerbated by crop failures, famine, and plague. Finally, in 1613, delegates from all the Russias elected Mikhail, the first of the Romanov czars.
During the post-Ivan Time of Troubles, literature in Russia was confined to Old Church Slavonic, though the people clung to folktales and Russianized Western romances. Under the first Romanovs, every Western form of literature except theology began to be translated and widely promulgated with the advent of Russian printing in 1564. In 1678, Simeon Polotsky, tutor to Czar Alexei’s children, introduced a syllabic verse system, solemn and even pompous, that dominated Russian poetry for a century.
Westernization accelerated under Peter the Great, who during his reign from 1682 to 1725 reformed every aspect of Russian civilization. The czar personally directed this mammoth invasion of Western thought, but he enforced its adoption by ruthless, even barbaric means. Peter’s unprecedented debasement of the Church removed schools and literature from religious control, and from 1708, all nonreligious texts were published in a simplified Russian alphabet rather than in Old Church Slavonic. West Russian syllabic verse, originally panegyric or didactic, became fashionable among Peter’s courtiers as an instrument of amatory and pastoral poetry, in imitation of French and German models. Peter’s reformations were implemented at enormous cultural cost. The secularization of literature contributed to the dangerous rift opening between the general population and Peter’s sophisticated nobility, who largely abandoned the language and the folklore of the exploited populace.
In the thirty-seven years of political upheaval that followed Peter’s death in 1725, the first four greats of Russian literature imposed French classical standards on Peter’s simplified Russian language. All writers imported Western literary forms and theories while employing at the same time traditional Russian materials.
Prince Antioch Kantemir (1708-1744) is widely considered the first Russian writer to “blend life and poetry in his works.” Kantemir served as Russian ambassador to London and Paris, and as a confirmed neoclassicist concurred with Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux that the highest of literary forms were the ode and the satire, which he used to attack reactionary Russian political and social elements. Kantemir’s language is realistic, but his satires are framed in the imported syllabic verse dependent on fixed accents, a form of versification unnatural to the Russian language. Kantemir’s less talented and nonnoble contemporary Vasily Trediakovsky (1703-1769) freed Russian poetry from these unnatural constraints by introducing a syllabo-tonic system based on equal bisyllabic metrical feet, a rhythm found in the Russian popular ballad.
Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765), a peasant poet, achieved scientific fame abroad and returned to found the University of Moscow in 1756. Lomonosov’s Pismo o pravilakh rossiyskogo stikhotvorstva (1739; letter concerning the rules of Russian prosody) set stylistic criteria for poetry: a “Noble Style,” employing Old Church Slavonic elements, used for heroic poetry and tragedy; a “Middle Style,” for ordinary drama; and a colloquial “Low Style,” for correspondence, farce, and everyday usage. Lomonosov’s syllabotonic odes exhibit conventional patriotic themes, but as Marc Slonim has noted, Lomonosov’s meditations are “still living poetry.” With Lomonosov, the aristocratic poet Aleksandr Petrovich Sumarokov (1718-1777) established the principles of Boileau and Voltaire as paramount in Russian letters.
Russia’s most famous empress, Catherine the Great, who ruled from 1762 to 1796, ranked herself with Peter the Great and consciously patterned her dazzling reign upon his. After the abortive Cossack uprising (1773-1775) under Emelian Pugachev and the sobering example of the French Revolution in 1789, Catherine tempered enlightenment with political conservatism. She extended education into the middle class and encouraged a fivefold increase in published translations from the major European languages. She also imported many foreign artists and sponsored secular music.
Catherine, who wrote widely herself, indelibly marked Russian literature by naming Gavrila Derzhavin (1743-1816) as her poet laureate. Nikolai Gogol called Derzhavin “the poet of greatness” who dominated Russian literature for more than thirty years. Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), however, accused Derzhavin of thinking “in Tartar,” a pungent assessment of Derzhavin’s sacrifice of Russian syntax in favor of voicing his deistic and epicurean love of the sublime. Derzhavin’s stylistic duality presaged the dismemberment of the Russian classical order; he pioneered Russian civic poetry, which burgeoned in the nineteenth century with Kondraty Rylevyev and Nikolai Nekrasov, and he left a...