The poetry of Russia’s youth
The earliest ancestors of the modern Russians, the agricultural East Slavs, settled the inland plateau of the thirteen-hundred-mile Dnieper River and were preyed on during the ninth century by the Varangians, piratical Scandinavian merchants who founded petty principalities around Kiev. Under Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev, their loose confederation was converted to Byzantine Christianity in 988 c.e., an immense religio-cultural invasion that consolidated its position in Russia by introducing the Old Church Slavonic alphabet based on the spoken dialect, importing Byzantine Greek forms as literary models, and assimilating native pagan elements into religious ritual. Although Old Church Slavonic served as the chief vehicle of Russian literature from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries, it choked off exposure to the classical Humanistic heritage of the West and rigidly identified church with state, fortifying the autocracy of Russian rulers.
Russia’s earliest poetic form was the vernacular and formulaic bylina (plural byliny; literally, things-that-have-been). These oral epics celebrated mythological figures and, more frequently, human heroes in groupings that resembled the Arthurian cycles. In the Kievan byliny cycle centered on Grand Prince Vladimir, the hero Ilya becomes “a symbol of the self-consciousness of the people,” according to Felix J. Oinas in Heroic Epic and Saga (1978)....
(The entire section is 520 words.)