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). Novgorod, a northern city belonging to the Hanseatic League, had a byliny cycle whose central figure was Aleksandr Nevsky, prince and saint, who repelled the Livonian and Teutonic knights. The Galician-Volhynian byliny cycle records the strife between this area and its western neighbors in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As Oinas remarks, the byliny of patriarchal Russia “captivated and thrilled people of all walks of life until the nineteenth century,” inspiring later poets with traditional Russian ideals.
During the twelfth century, the disintegration of feudal Russia set the bitter groundwork for the Mongol invasion of 1237 to 1240 and the imposition of the “Tartar yoke.” Slovo o polku Igoreve (c. 1187; The Tale of the Armament of Igor, 1915) is Russia’s first written poetic achievement, a stirring blend of the aristocratic warrior spirit and a call to self-sacrifice in defense of the Land of Rus. The poem poignantly and accurately predicts the great defeat to come: “O, how the Russian land moans, remembering her early years and princes!/in discord their pennons flutter apart.” Based on the Novgorod Prince Igor’s unsuccessful attempt in 1185 to dislodge Turkish Polovtsian usurpers from the lands near the Don, and startlingly modern in its complex imagery, allusion, and symbolism, The Tale of the Armament of Igor has sometimes been considered an imposture since its discovery in the early 1790’s. Alexander Pushkin claimed, however, that not enough poetry existed in the eighteenth century for anyone then to have written it, and more recent scholars concur.
Until 1480, the Mongol tribute was paid by a Russia brutally severed from the West and struggling to unite itself sufficiently to cast off the hated Tartar yoke. Little national strength was left for poetry. Looking back from 1827, the religious philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev observed, “At first, brutal barbarism, then crude superstition, then fierce and humiliating bondage whose spirit was passed on to our own sovereigns—such is the history of our youth.”
From Dark Age to Golden Age
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...
(The entire section is 11,028 words.)