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The Cambridge History of Russian Literature
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An updated edition of this comprehensive narrative history, first published in 1989, incorporating a new chapter on the latest developments in Russian literature and additional bibliographical information. The individual chapters are by well-known specialists, and provide chronological coverage from the medieval period on, giving particular attention to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and including extensive discussion of works written outside the Soviet Union. The book is accessible to students and non-specialists, as well as to scholars of literature, and provides a wealth of information.


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  • 1 - The literature of old Russia, 988–1730
    pp 1-44
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    The story of Russian literature begins with the year 988, when the ruler of Kievan Rus officially accepted Christianity as the new faith of the principality. Since the church and the state were closely intertwined in medieval Russia, and since most literature was linked to the church, literature naturally supported the purposes of the state. Old Russian literature takes its origins from the work of the two Thessalonian brothers Constantine-Cyril and Methodius, the Greek apostles to the Slavs. In the first place, most old Russian literature was not considered fictional, or at least it presented itself as dealing with fact and reality. From the literature of this period, a number of tales have reached people, either in translations or original Russian versions belonging to the international repertoire of medieval story telling. Much of the charm of the Russian folk tales is due to their verbal artistry, in particular their use of dialogue and their incorporation of other, smaller folkloric genres.
  • 2 - The eighteenth century: neoclassicism and the Enlightenment, 1730–90
    pp 45-91
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    This chapter discusses the concepts of neclassicism and the Enlightenment in Russian literature during the period 1730-90. After largely rejecting the legacy of medieval Russia, the creators of eighteenth-century Russian literature went back to classical models. Neoclassicism in literature was common to all peoples in all places at all times. Most outstanding writers were also important government officials: Antiokh Kantemir was a leading diplomat; Vasily Trediakovsky derived much of his livelihood from the state, as did Mikhail Lomonosov; Denis Fonvizin was a government bureaucrat; Gavriil Derzhavin gave unsolicited advice to Catherine; and Catherine herself had literary ambitions. Kantemir wrote satires, which set forth his Enlightenment viewpoint. The Minor displays with special force one of the most acute internal contradictions to afflict the Russian Enlightenment of the second half of the eighteenth century. In his odes of the 1780s and 1790s, Derzhavin evaluated people and events from a viewpoint which seemed to him to express the general opinion of the nation.
  • 3 - The transition to the modern age: sentimentalism and preromanticism, 1790–1820
    pp 92-135
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    In the literature of sentimentalism, man is viewed and depicted as an individual, as an independent personality of value in and of itself, defining its own fate and behavior. If sentimentalism treated the peaceful and slightly idyllic existence of the individual, preromanticism is generally seen as dealing with the exploration of man's tragic sense of the world. These developments in European literary life began to have an impact on Russian cultural life toward the end of the eighteenth century. In addition to prose, Russian sentimentalist writers also produced poetic works. Karamzin and Radishchev, Shalikov and Izmaylov and many others wrote poetry. The introduction of Masonic ideas in Russia and the founding of numerous Masonic lodges provided ready-made organizational structures for more formal literary associations. By his pioneering experiments in the field of multivalency of the Russian poetic word, Zhukovsky paved the way for other Russian symbolists. Griboedov's comedy is linked structurally to the traditions of classicism.
  • 4 - The nineteenth century: romanticism, 1820–40
    pp 136-188
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    The decades between 1820 and 1840 witnessed simultaneously the zenith of Russian romanticism and the first stages of Russian literature's greatest period, which extended from approximately 1820 to the time of the First World War. In terms of genres, Russian romanticism began with a strong emphasis on poetry, but in the course of its development shifted toward prose. It was also during the romantic period that the Russian writer began to view himself as normally an adversary of the existing order. Another important change occurred in the writer's status. Atmospheric nature descriptions, intriguing dialogues between Maria and Mazeppa, and an effective impressionistic description of the battle of Poltava are highpoints of Pushkin's Poltava. Although some may hold that Pushkin's narrative poetry, especially Eugene Onegin and The Bronze Horseman, are his most significant achievements, he possibly made his greatest contribution to Russian literature through his lyrics. Mikhail Lermontov's death in 1841 marks the end of the Golden Age of Russian poetry.
  • 5 - The nineteenth century: the natural school and its aftermath, 1840–55
    pp 189-247
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    The adepts of the natural school displayed a keen interest in literary sociology, examining the hitherto neglected 'little men' of urban society such as clerks and janitors. With the death of Nicholas I in 1855, the repressed forces of Russian literature burst forth to create what is no doubt the finest quarter-century of achievement that any modern literature has ever witnessed. If Grigorovich was successful in shifting the focus of the natural school, which had tended to concentrate on the city, it was nevertheless Turgenev who first came to real prominence through his treatment of the village. The period 1840-55 is important in Russian life and literature. It is a period of paradoxes: a time when ideas were officially discouraged, but one which nevertheless produced the great debates of the Slavophiles and westernizers, as well as the peasant socialism of that cosmopolitan aristocrat Herzen. National self-examination laid the firm foundations of a national literature.
  • 6 - The nineteenth century: the age of realism, 1855–80
    pp 248-332
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    This chapter presents details of the zenith of Russian realistic prose, beginning in 1855, a year of literary importance as it saw the publication of Chernyshevsky's Esthetic Relations of Art to Reality. The next three decades were one when radical critics set forth their own definition of realism as the straightforward, almost scientific description of the underside of existing social reality, an extreme extension of the principles upon which the natural school had operated. The age of realism in Russian nineteenth-century literature was the age of the realistic novel. No greater examples of the genre are to be found than those created by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the 1860s and the 1870s. The vitality of such realism was due to two factors: the conviction felt by both that there were religious grounds for humanity's redemption and the general expectation in Russia during the 1870s, particularly among the intelligentsia, that society should be morally rejuvenated after centuries of serfdom.
  • 7 - The nineteenth century: between realism and modernism, 1880–95
    pp 333-386
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    After the powerful impetus given Russian literature by the flowering of realism from 1855 to 1880, the period from 1880 to 1895 stands out as a transitional period in Russian literature. This period, dominated by modernism and symbolism, was dominated ideologically by the late Tolstoy, who turned to moral didacticism in literature, and developed a viewpoint which came to be known as Tolstoyanism. Along with his prose fiction Tolstoy also experimented with play writing in the 1880s. Although the legacy of Solovyov's work had a considerable influence on the second generation of Russian symbolists, the writer himself viewed with some skepticism the early efforts of the first generation of writers who introduced a bold new esthetic program and who called themselves symbolists. Whereas this period had begun with a generation of writers trying to accept the disappointments of an ongoing socio-political struggle, the new period seemed to have other and very different concerns.
  • 8 - Turn of a century: modernism, 1895–1925
    pp 387-457
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    The period from 1895 to 1925, may be characterized as the era of modernism in its various manifestations. The epoch of modernism began as a clear rebellion against the materialist legacy of the 1860s. In the early 1920s those living abroad thought the political situation might change sufficiently soon that they could return, or else believed they could maintain a dialogue with those they had left behind through the written word. The European literary world was split between two opposing movements, realism and symbolism, neither of which was powerful enough to prevail over the other. Symbolism and decadence sprang from what had once been an undercurrent in the nineteenth century. In general, after 1925 modernist and experimentalist tendencies in literature were on the wane as the pressure mounted for literature which would serve the purpose of the state through the 'social command', pressures which would culminate in the formation of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1932.
  • 9 - The twentieth century: the era of socialist realism, 1925–53
    pp 458-519
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    Socialist realism has dominated the field of Soviet culture ever since its introduction in the early 1930s. The Literary Center of Constructivists founded in 1924, advocated ideas close to those of Lef, the journal of the avant-garde. last. Some prominent writers and poets, such as Nikolay Klyuev, Sergey Klychkov, Alexey Chapygin, and Fyodor Panfyorov, were considered to belong to All-Union Association of Peasant Writers movement. If the year which begins this period 1925 has both literary and political significance, as the year when the newly established communist regime asserted its authority over literature and culture, the ending date is primarily of political significance: it is the year of Joseph Stalin's death. Soviet drama lagged behind other literary genres, so much so that ambitious directors such as Meyerhold actively solicited plays from Soviet-writers. The victorious conclusion of the war did not bring about any positive developments in Soviet life, least of all in literature and the arts.
  • 10 - The twentieth century: in search of new ways, 1953–80
    pp 520-594
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    The period from 1953 to 1980 saw Russian literature develop in many different directions both inside and outside the Soviet Union. With Stalin's death the intense cultural pressures which the guardians of literature had exerted after the Second World War diminished, and literature sought to strike out in unfamiliar channels during the period of the so-called thaw. The deepest phase of the thaw owed something both to continued pressure from writers and to party policy. It coincided with the height of Khrushchev's second wave of 'de-Stalinization' in 1961-62, and with the formulation of his new party program. In the early stages of the thaw, lyric poetry seemed best to answer the public need for renewed sincerity. Of all the poets of the older generation, probably Alexander Tvardovsky was best placed to reflect the popular mood during the late 1950s. Joseph Brodsky's work expresses the struggles, the peripeteia, and also the arrogance of a self-taught generation.
  • 11 - Afterword: Russian literature in the 1980s
    pp 595-614
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    The decade of the 1980s divides neatly into two equal halves. The first half hung the shadow of the gloomy 'period of stagnation'. After the events of April 1985, Russian literature experienced an upheaval surpassing anything known to the history not only of Russian culture, but of world culture generally. During the latter half of the 1980s, Russian readers first made the acquaintance of Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, the creator of other innovative works, an original writer quite unlike his predecessors. There is one poet whom Russian readers will now have the opportunity to investigate more profoundly: Vyacheslav Ivanov, that 'dangerous' idealist philosopher, religious thinker, and Symbolist theoretician, who has not been published for decades. The second half of the 1980s will go down in history as the time when all the artificial barriers came down between the Russian literatures of East and West, modernism and realism, underground and the world of legality, between socialist and antisocialist, party and non-party tendencies.

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Vladimir Alexandrov , Andrei Bely: The Major Symbolist Fiction (Cambridge, Mass., 1985).

Jean Bonamour , Le Roman russe (Paris, 1978).

Herbert Bowman , Vissarion Belinsky, 1811–1848: a Study on the Origins of Social Criticism in Russia (Cambridge, Mass., 1954).

Deming Brown , Soviet Russian Literature Since Stalin (Cambridge, 1978).

Samuel Cioran , The Apocalyptic Symbolism of Andrej Belyj (The Hague and Paris, 1973).

Laurie Clancy , The Novels of Vladimir Nabokov (New York, 1984).

Raymond Cooke , Velemir Khlebnikov: A Critical Study (Cambridge and New York, 1987).

Jane Costlow , Worlds within Worlds: The Novels of Ivan Turgenev (Princeton, 1990).

J. A. E. Curtis , Bulgakov’s Last Decade: The Writer as Hero (Cambridge, 1987).

J. D. Elsworth , Andrey Bely: a Critical Study of the Novels (Cambridge, London, New York etc., 1983).

Donald Fanger , The Creation of Nikolai Gogol (Cambridge, Mass., 1979).

Lazar Fleishman , Boris Pasternak: The Poet and His Politics (Cambridge, Mass., 1990).

C. Vaughan James , Soviet Socialist Realism: Origins and Theory (London, 1973).

W. Gareth Jones , Nikolay Novikov: Enlightener of Russia (Cambridge, 1984).

Lauren Leighton , Russian Romanticism (The Hague, 1975).

Martin Malia , Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism 1812–1855 (Cambridge, Mass., 1961).

Allen McConnell , A Russian Philosophe: Alexander Radishchev 1749–1802 (The Hague, 1964).

Hugh McLean , Nikolai Leskov: the Man and His Art (Cambridge, Mass., 1977).

Charles Moser , Esthetics as Nightmare: Russian Literary Theory 1855–1870 (Princeton, 1989).

Charles Moser , Pisemsky: a Provincial Realist (Cambridge, Mass., 1969).

Rudolf Neuhäuser , Towards the Romantic Age: Essays on Sentimental and Preromantic Literature (The Hague, 1974).

Patrick O’Meara , K. F. Ryleev: a Political Biography of the Decembrist Poet (Princeton, 1984).

Ellen Pifer , Nabokov and the Novel (Cambridge, Mass, and London, 1980).

Renato Poggioli , The Poets of Russia 1890–1930 (Cambridge, Mass., 1960).

Spencer Roberts , Soviet Historical Drama: its Role in the Development of a National Mythology (The Hague, 1965).

Bernice Rosenthal , Dmitri Sergeevich Merezhkovsky and the Silver Age: the Development of a Revolutionary Mentality (The Hague, 1975).

Ernest Simmons , Pushkin (Cambridge, Mass., 1937).

Leonid Strakhovsky , Craftsmen of the Word: Three Poets of Modern Russia: Gumilyov, Akhmatova, Mandelstam (Cambridge, Mass., 1949).

Harold Swayze , Political Control of Literature in the USSR 1946–1959 (Cambridge, Mass., 1962).

Reuel Wilson , The Literary Travelogue: a Comparative Study with Special Relevance to Russian Literature from Fonvizin to Pushkin (The Hague, 1973).


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