Ideals and Realities in Russian Literature : Chapter 1 : Introduction: The Russian Language
(1842 - 1921) ~ Russian Father of Anarcho-Communism : As anarchism's most important philosophers he was in great demand as a writer and contributed to the journals edited by Benjamin Tucker (Liberty), Albert Parsons (Alarm) and Johann Most (Freiheit). Tucker praised Kropotkin's publication as "the most scholarly anarchist journal in existence." (From : Spartacus Educational Bio.)
• "The communes of the next revolution will proclaim and establish their independence by direct socialist revolutionary action, abolishing private property. When the revolutionary situation ripens, which may happen any day, and governments are swept away by the people, when the middle-class camp, which only exists by state protection, is thus thrown into disorder, the insurgent people will not wait until some new government decrees, in its marvelous wisdom, a few economic reforms." (From : "The Commune of Paris," by Peter Kropotkin, Freedo....)
• "ANARCHISM, the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government - harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being." (From : "Anarchism," by Peter Kropotkin, from the Encyclop....)
• "Which side will you take? For the law and against justice, or for justice and against the law?" (From : "An Appeal to the Young," by Peter Kropotkin, 1880.)
Together with Czech and Polish, Moravian, Serbian and Bulgarian, as also several minor tongues, the Russian belongs to the great Slavonian family of languages which, in its turn--together with the Scandinavo--Saxon and the Latin families, as also the Lithuanian, the Persian, the Armenian, the Georgian-belongs to the great Indo-European, or Aryan branch. Some day--soon, let us hope: the sooner the better--the treasures of both the folk-songs possessed by the South Slavonians and the many centuries old literature of the Czechs and the Poles will be revealed to Western readers. But in this work I have to concern myseif only with the literature of the Eastern, i. e., the Russtan, branch of the great Slavonian family; and in this branch I shall have to omit both the South-Russian or Ukraïnian literature and the White or West-Russian folk-lore and songs. I shall treat only of the literature of the Great-Russians; or, simply, the Russians. Of all the Slavonian languages theirs is the most widely spoken. It is the language of Púshkin and Lermontoff, Turguéneff and Tolstóy.
Like all other languages, the Russian has adopted many foreign words Scandinavian, Turkish, Mongolian and lately, Greek and Latin. But notwithstanding the assimilation of many nations and stems of the Ural-Altayan or Turanian stock which has been accomplished in the course of ages by the Russian nation, her language has remained remarkably pure. It is striking indeed to see how the translation of the bible which was made in the ninth century into the Ianguage currently spoken by the Moravians and the South Slavonians remains comprehensible, down to the present time, to the average Russian. Grammatical forms and the construction of sentences are indeed quite different now. But the roots, as well as a very considerable number of words remain the same as those which were used in current talk a thousand years ago.
It must be said that the South-Slavonian had attained a high degree of perfection, even at that early time. Very few words of the Gospels had to be rendered in Greek and these are names of things unknown to the South Slavonians; while for none of the abstract words, and for none of the poeticaI images of the original, had the translators any difficulty in finding the proper expressions. Some of the words they used are, moreover, of a remarkable beauty, and this beauty has not been lost even to-day. Everyone remembers, for instance, the difficulty which the learned Dr. Faust, in Goethe's immortal tragedy, found in rendering thesentence: "In the beginning was the Word." "Word," in modern German seemed to Dr. Faust to be too shallow an expression for the idea of "the Word being God." In the old Slavonian translation we have "Slovo," which also means "Word," but has at the same time, even for the modern Russian, a far deeper meaning than that of das Wort. In old Slavonian "Slovo" included also the meaning of "Intellect"--German Vernunft; and consequently it conveyed to the reader an idea which was deep enough not to clash with the second part of the Biblical sentence.
I wish that I could give here an idea of the beauty of the structure of the Russian language, such as it was spoken early in the eleventh century in North Russia, a sample of which has been reserved in the sermon of a Nóvgorod bishop (1035). The short sentences of this sermon, calculated to be understood by a newly christened flock, are really beautiful; while the bishop's conceptions of Christianity, utterly devoid of Byzantine gnosticism, are most characteristic of the manner in which Christianity was and is still understood by the masses of the Russian folk.
At the present time, the Russian language (the Great Russian) is remarkably free from patois. Litttle-Russian, or Ukraïnian,* which is spoken by nearly 15,000,000 people, and has its own literature--folk-lore and modern--is undoubtedly a separate language, in the same sense as Norwegian and Danish are separate from Swedish, or as Portugueese and Catalonian are separate from Castilian or Spanish. White-Russian, which is spoken in some provinces of Western Russia, has also the characteristic of a separate branch of the Russian, rather than those of a local dialect. As to Great-Russian, or Russian, it is spoken by a compact body of nearly eighty million people in Northern, Central, Eastern, and Southern Russia, as also in Northern Caucasia and Siberia. Its pronunciation slightly varies in different parts of this large territory; nevertheless the literary language of Púshkin, Gógol, Turguéneff, and Tolstóy is understood by all this enourmous mass of people. The Russian clasics circulate in the vilages by millions of copies, and when, a few years ago, the literary property in Púshkins works came to an end (fifty years after his death), complete editions of his works--some of them in ten volumes--were circulated by the hundred-thousand, at the almost incredibly low price of three shillings (75 cents) the ten volumes; while millions of copies of his separate poems and tales are sold now by thousands of ambulant booksellers in the villages, at the price of from one to three farthings each. Even the complete works of Gógol, Turguéneff, and Goncharóff, in twelve-volume editions, have sometimes sold to the number of 200,000 sets each, in the course of a single year. The advantages of this intellectual unity of the nation are self-evident.
The early folk-literature of Russia, part of which is still preserved in the memories of the people alone, is wonderfully rich and full of the deepest interest. No nation of Western Europe possesses such an astonishing wealth of traditions, tales, and lyric folk-songs some of them of the greatest beauty--and such a rich cycle of archaic epic songs, as Russia does. Of course, all European nations have had, once upon a time, an equally rich folk-literature; but the great bulk of it was lost before scientific explorers had understood its value or begun to collect it. In Russia, this treasure was preserved in remote villages untouched by civilization, especially in the region round Lake Onéga; and when the folklorists began to collect it, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they found in Northern Russia and in Little Russia old bards still going about the villages with their primitive string instruments, and reciting poems of a very ancient origin.
Besides, a variety of yery old songs are sung still by the village folk themselves. Every annual holiday--Christmas, Easter, Midsummer Day--has its own cycle of songs, which have been preserved, with their melodies, even from pagan times. At each marriage, which is accompanied by a very complicated ceremonial, and at each burial, similarly old songs are sung by the peasant women. Many of them have, of course, deteriorated in the course of ages; of many others mere fragments have survived; but, mindful of the popular saying that "never a word must be cast out of a song," the women in many localities continue to sing the most antique songs in full, even though the meaning of many of the words has already been lost.
There are, moreover, the tales. Many of them are certainly the same as we find among all nations of Aryan origin: one may read them in Grimm's collection of fairy tales; but others came also from the Mongols and the Turks; while some of them seem to have a purely Russian origin. And next come the songs recited by wandering singers--the Kalíki--also very ancient. They are entirely borrowed from the East, and deal with heroes and heroines of other nationalities than the Russian, such as "Akib, the Assyrian King," the beautiful Helen, Alexander the Great, or Rustem of Persia. The interest which these Russian versions of Eastern legends and tales offer to the explorer of folk-lore and mythology is self-evident.
Finally, there are the epic songs: the bylíny, which correspond to the Icelandic sagas. Even at the present day they are sung in the villages of Northern Russia by special bards who accompany themselves with a special instrument, also of very ancient origin. The old singer utters in a sort of recitative one or two sentences, accompanying himself with his instrument; then follows a melody, into which each individual singer introduces modulations of his own, before he resumes next the quiet recitative of the epic narrative. Unfortunately, these old bards are rapidly disappearing; but some five-and-thirty years ago a few of them were still alive in the province of Olónets, to the north-east of St. Petersburg, and I once heard one of them, whom A. Hilferding had brought to the capital, and who sang before the Russian Geographical Society his wonderful ballads. The collecting of the epic songs was happily begun in good time--during the eighteenth century--and it has been eagerly continued by specialists, so that Russia possesses now perhaps the richest collection of such songs--about four hundred--which has been saved from oblivion.
The heroes of the Russian epic songs are knights-errant, whom popular tradition unites round the table of the Kíeff Prince, Vladímir the Fair Sun. Endowed with supernatural physical force, these knights, Ilyiá of Múrom, Dobrýnia Nikítich, Nicholas the Villager, Alexéi the Priest's Son, and so on, are represented going about Russia, clearing the country of giants, who infested the land, or of Mongols and Turks. Or else they go to distant lands to fetch a bride for the chief of their schola, the Prince Vladimir, or for themselves; and they meet, of course, on their journeys, with all sorts of adventures, in which witchcraft plays an important part. Each of the heroes of these sagas has his own individuality. For instance, Ilyiá, the Peasant's Son, does not care for gold or riches: he fights only to clear the land from giants and strangers. Nicholas the Villager is the personification of the force with which the tiller of the soil is endowed: nobody can pull out of the ground his heavy plow, while he himself lifts it with one hand and throws it above the clouds; Dobrýnia embodies some of the features of the dragon-fighters, to whom belongs St. George; Sádko is the personification of the rich merchant, and Tchurílo of the refined, handsome, urbane man with whom all women fall in love.
At the same time, in each of these heroes, there are doubtless mythological features. Consequently, the early Russian explorers of the bylíny, who worked under the influence of Grimm, endeavored to explain them as fragments of an old Slavonian mythology, in which the forces of Nature are personified in heroes. In Iliyá they found the features of the God of the Thunders. Dobrýnia the Dragon-Killer was supposed to represent the sun in its passiive power-the active powers of fighting being left to Iliyá. Sádko was the personification and the Sea-God whom he deals with was Neptune. Tchúrilo was taken as a representative of the demonical element. And so on. Such was, at least, the interpretation put upon the sagas by the early explorers.
V.V. Stásoff, in his Origin of the Russian Bylíny (1868), entirely upset this theory. With a considerable wealth of argument he proved that these epic songs are not fragments of a Slavonic mythology, but represent borrowings from Eastern tales. Iliyá is the Rustem of the Iranian legends, placed in Russian surroundings. Dobrýnia is the Krishna of Indian folk-lore; Sádko is the merchant of the Eastern tales, as also of a Norman tale. All the Russian epic heroes have an Eastern origin. Other explorers went still further than Stásoff. They saw in the heroes of Russian epics insignificant men who had lived in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (Iliyá of Múrom is really mentioned as a historic person in a Scandinavian chronicle), to whom the exploits of Eastern heroes, borrowed from Eastern tales, were attributed. Consequently, the heroes of the bylíny could have had nothing to do with the times of Vladímir, and still less with the earlier Slavonic mythology.
The gradual evolution and migration of myths, which are successively fastened upon new and local persons as they reach new countries, may perhaps aid to explain these contradictions. That there are mythological features in the heroes of the Russian epics may be taken as certain; only, the mythology they belong to is not Slavonian but Aryan altogether. Out of these mythological representations of the forces of Nature, human heroes were gradually evolved in the East.
At a later epoch when these Eastern traditions began to spread in Russia, the exploits of their heroes were attributed to Russian men, who were made to act in Russian surroundings. Russian folk-lore assimilated them; and, while it retained their deepest semi-mythological features and leading traits of character, it endowed, at the same time, the Iranian Rustem, the Indian dragon-killer, the Eastern merchant, and so on, with new features, purely Russian. It divested them, so to say, of the garb which had been put upon their mystical substances when they were first appropriated and humanized by the Iranians and the Indians, and dressed them now in a Russian garb--just as in the tales about Alexander the Great, which I heard in Transbaikalia, the Greek hero is endowed with Buryate features and his exploits are located on such and such a Transbaikalian mountain. However, Russian folk-lore did not simply change the dress of the Persian prince, Rustem, into that of a Russian peasant, Iliyá. The Russian sagas, in their style, in the poetical images they resort to, and partly in the characteristics of their heroes, were new creations. Their heroes are thoroughly Russian: for instance, they never seek for blood-vengence, as Scandinavian heroes would do; their actions, especially those of "the elder heroes," are not dictated by personal aims, but are imbued with a communal spirit, which is characteristic of Russian popular life. They are as much Russians as Rustem was Persian. As to the time of composition of these sagas, it is generally believed that they date from the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, but that they received their definite shape-the one that has reached us in the fouteenth century. Since that time they have undergone but little alteration.
In these sagas Russia has thus a precious national inheritance of a rare poetical beauty, which has been fully appreciated in England by Ralston, and in France by the historian Rambaud.
And yet Russia has not her Iliad. There has been no poet to inspire himself with the expolits of Iliyá', Dobrýnia, Sádko, Tchúrilo, and the others, and to make out of them a poem similar to the epics of Homer, or the "Kalevála " of the Finns. This has been done with only one cycle of traditions: in the poem, The Lay of Igor's Raid (Slóvo o Polkú Igoreve).
This poem was composed at the end of the twelfth century, or early in the thirteenth (its full manuscript, destroyed during the conflagration of Moscow in 1812, dated from the fourteenth or the fifteenth century). It was undoubtedly the work of one author, and for its beauty and poetical form it stands by the side of the Song of the Nibelungs, or the Song 0f Roland. It relates a real fact that did happen in 1185. Igor, a prince of Kíeff; starts with his druacute;zhina (schola) of Warriors to make a raid on the Pólovtsi, who occupied the prairies of South-eastern Russia, and continually railded the Russian villages. All sorts of bad omens are seen on the march through the prairies--the sun is darkened and casts its shadow on the band of Russian warriors; the animals give different warnings; but Igor exclaims: "Brothers and friends: Better to fall dead than be prisoners of the Pólovtsi! Let us march to the blue waters of the Don. Let us break our lances against those of the Pólovtsi. And either I leave there my head, or I will drink the water of the Don from my golden helmet." The march is resumed, the Pólovtsi are met with, and a great battle is fought.
The description of the battle, in which all Nature takes part--the eagles and the wolves, and the foxes who bark after the red shields of the Russians--is admirable. Igor's band is defeated. "From sunrise to sunset, and from sunset to sunrise, the steel arrows flew, the swords clashed on the helmets, the lances were broken in a far-away land--the land of the Pólovtsi." "The black earth under the hoofs of the horses was strewn with bones, and out of this sowing affliction will rise in the land of the Russians."
Then comes one of the best bits of early Russian poetry--the lamentations of Yaroslávna, Igor's wife, who waits for his return in the town of Putívl:
"The voice of Yaroslávna resounds as the complaint of a cuckoo; it resounds at the rise of the sunlight.
"I will fly as a cuckoo down the river. I will wet my beaver sleeves in the Káyala; I will wash with them the wounds of my prince--the deep wounds of my hero."
"Yaroslávna laments on the walls of Putívl.
Oh, Wind, terrible Wind! Why dost thou, my master, blow so strong? Why didst thou carry on thy light wings the arrows of the Khan against the warriors of my hero? Is it not enough for thee to blow there, high up in the clouds? Not enough to rock the ships on the blue sea? Why didst thou lay down my beloved upon the grass of the Steppes?
"Yaroslávna laments upon the walls of Putívl.
"Oh, glorious Dniéper, thou hast pierced thy way through the rocky hills to the land of Póovtsi. Thou hast carried the boats of Svyatosláv as they went to fight the Khan Kobyák. Bring, oh, my master, my husband back to me, and I will send no more tears through thy tide towards the sea.
"Yaroslávna laments upon the walls of Putívl.
"Brilliant Sun, thrice brilliant Sun! Thou givest heat to all, thou shinest for all. Why shouldest thou send thy burning rays upon my husband's warriors? Why didst thou, in the waterless steppe, dry up their bows in their hands? Why shouldest thou, making them suffer from thirst, cause their arrows to weigh so heavy upon their shoulders?
This little fragment gives some idea of the general charter and beauty of the Saying ahout Igor's Raid.*
*English readers will find the translation of this poem in full the excellent anthology of Russian Literature from the Early Period to the Present Time, by Leo Wiener, published in two volumes in 1902, by G. P. Putnam & Sons, at New York. Professor Wiener knows Russian literature perfectly well, and has made a very happy choice of a very great number of the most characteristic passages from Russian writers, beginning with the oldest period (911), and ending with our contemporaries, Górkiy and Merezhkóvskiy.
Surely this poem was not the only one that was composed and sung in those times. The introduction itself speaks of bards, and especially of one, Bayán, whose recitations and songs are compared to the wind that blows in the tops of the trees. Many such Bayáns surely went about and sang similar "Sayings" during the festivals of the princes and their warriors. Unfortunately, only this one has reached us. The Russian Church, especially in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, pitilessly proscribed the singing of all the epic songs which circulated among the people: it considered them "pagan," and inflicted the heaviest penalties upon the bards and those who sang old songs in their rings. Consequently, only small fragments of this early folk-lore have reached us.
And yet even these few relics of the past have exercised a powerful influence upon Russian literature, ever since it has taken the liberty of treating other subjects than purely religious ones. If Russian versification took the rhythmical form, as against the syllabic, it was because this form was imposed upon the Russian poets by the folk-song. Besides, down to quite recent times, folk-songs constituted such an important item in Russian country life, in the homes alike of the landlord and the peasant, that they could not but deeply influence the Russian poets; and the first great poet of Russia, Púshkin, began his career by re-telling in verse his old nurse's tales to which he used to listen during the long winter nights. It is also owing to our almost incredible wealth of most musical popular songs that we have had in Russia, since so early a date as 1835, an opera (Verstóvskiy's Askóld's Grave), based upon popular tradition, of which the purely Russian melodies at once catch the ear of the least musically-educated Russian. This is also why the operas of Dargomýzhsky and the younger composers are now successfully sung in the villages to peasant audiences and with local peasant choirs.
The folk-lore and the folk-song have thus rendered to Russia an immense service. They have maintained a certain unity of the spoken language all over Russia, as also a unity between the literary language and the language spoken by the masses; between the music of Glínka, Tchaykóvoky, Rímsky Kórsakoff, Borodín, etc., and the music of the peasant choir--thus rendering both the poet and the composer accessible to the peasant
And finally, whilst speaking of the early Russian literature, a few words, at least, must be said of the Annals.
No country has a richer collection of them. There were, in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries, several centers of development in Russia, Kíeff, Nóvgorod, Pskov, the land of Volhýnia, the land of Súzdal (Vladímir, Moscow*) Ryazán, etc., represented at that time independent republics, linked together only by the unity of language and religion, and by the fact that all of them elected their Princes--military defenders and judges--from the house of Rúrik. Each of these centers had its own annals, bearing the stamp of local life and local character. The South Russian and Volhýnian annals-of which the so-called Nestor's Annals are the fullest and the best known, are not merely dry records of facts: they are imaginative and poetical in places. The annals of Nóvgorod bear the stamp of a city of rich merchants: they are very matter-of-fact, and the annalist warms to his subject only when he describes the victories of the Nóvgorod republic over the Land of Súzdal. The Annals of the sister-republic of Pskov, on the contrary, are imbued with a democratic spirit, and they relate with democratic sympathies and in a most picturesque manner the struggles between the poor of Pskov and the rich--the "black people" and the "white people." Altogether, the annals are surely not the work of monks, as was supposed at the outset; they must have been written for the different cities by men fully informed about their political life, their treaties with other republics, their inner and outer conflicts.
The Russian name of the first capital of Russia is Moskvá. However, "Moscow," like "Warsaw," etc., is of so general a use that it would be affectation to use the Russian name.
Moreover, the annals, especially those of Kíeff, or Nestor's Annals, are something more than mere records of events; they are, as may be seen from the very name of the latter (From whence and How came to be the Land of Russia), attempts at writing a history of the country, under the inspiration of Greek models. Those manuscripts which have reached us--and especially is this true of the Kíeff annals--have thus a compound structure, and historians distinguish in them several superposed "layers" dating from different periods. Old traditions; fragments of early historical knowledge, probably borrowed from the Byzantine historians; old treaties; complete poems relating certain episodes, such as Igor's raid; and local annals from different periods, enter into their composition. Historical facts, relative to a very early period and fully confirmed by the Constantinople annalists and historians, are consequently mingled together with purely mythical traditions. But this is precisely what makes the high literary value of the Russan annals, especially those of Southern and South-western Russia, which contain most precious fragments of early literature.
Such, then, were the treasuries of literature which Russia possessed at the beginning of the thirteenth century.
The Mongol invasion, which took place in 1223, destroyed all this young civilization, and threw Russia into quite new channels. The main cities of South and Middle Russia were laid waste. Kíeff, which had been a populous city and a center of learning, was reduced to the state of a straggling settlement, and disappeared from history for the next two centuries. Whole populations of large towns were either taken prisoners by the Mongols, or exterminated, if they had offered resistance to the invaders. As if to add to the misfortunes of Russia, the Turks soon followed the Mongols, invading the Balkan peninsula, and by the end of the fifteenth century the two countries from which and through which learnina used to come to Russia, namely Servia and Bulgaria, fell under the rule of the Osmanlis. All the life of Russia underwent a deep transformation.
Before the invasion the land was covered with independent republics, similar to the mediæval city-republics of Western Europe. Now, a military State, powerfully supported by the Church, began to be slowly built up at Moscow, which conquered, with the aid of the Mongol Khans, the independent principalities that surrounded it. The main effort of the statesmen and the most active men of the Church was now directed towards the building up of a powerful kingdom which should be capable of throwing off ihe Mongol yoke. State ideals were substituted for those of local autonomy and federation. The Church, in its effort to constitute a Christian nationality, free from all intellectual and moral contact with the abhorred pagan Mongols, became a stern centralized power which pitilessly persecuted everything that was a reminder of a pagan past. It worked hard, at the same time, to establish upon Byzantine ideals the unlimited authority of the Moscow princes. Serfdom was introduced in order to increase the military power of the State. All independent local life was destroyed. The idea of Moscow becoming a center for Church and State was powerfully supported by the Church, which preached that Moscow was the heir to Constantinople--"a third Rome," where the only true Christianity was now to develop. And at a later epoch, when the Mongol yoke had been, thrown off, the work of consolidating the Moscow monarchy was continued by the Czars and the Church, and the struggle was against the intrusion of Western influences, in order to prevent the "Latin" Church from extending its authority over Russia.
These new conditions necessarily exercised a deep influence upon the further development of literature. The freshness and vigorous youthfulness of the early epic poetry was gone forever. Sadness, melancholy, resignation became the leading features of Russian folk-lore. The continually repeated raids of the Tartars, who carried away whole villages as prisoners to their encampments in the South-eastern Steppes; the sufferings of the prisoners in slavery; the visits of the baskáks, who came to levy a high tribute and behaved as conquerors in a conquered land; the hardships inflicted upon the populations by the growing military State--all this impressed the popular songs with a deep note of sadness which they have never since lost. At the same time the gay festival songs of old and the epic songs of the wandering bards were strictly forbidden, and those who dared to sing them were cruelly persecuted by the Church, which saw in these songs not only a reminiscence of a pagan past, but also a possible link of union with the Tartars.
Learning was gradually concentrated in the monasteries, every one of which was a fortress built against the invaders; and it was limited, of course, to Christian literature. It became entirely scholastic. Knowledge of nature was "unholy," something of a witchcraft. Asceticism was preached as the highest virtue, and became the dominant feature of written literature. Legends about the saints were widely read and repeated verbally, and they found no balance in such learning as had been developed in Western Europe in the mediæval universities. The desire for a knowledge of nature was severely condemned by the Church, as a token of self-conceit. All poetry was a sin. The annals lost their animated character and became dry enumerations of the successes of the rising State, or merely related unimportant details concerning the local bishops and superiors of monasteries.
During the twelfth century there had been, in the northern republics of Nóvgorod and Pksov, a strong current of opinion leading, on the one side, to Protestant rationalism, and on the other side to the development of Christianity on the lines of the early Christian brotherhoods. The apocryphal Gospels, the books of the Old Testament, and various books in which true Christianity was discussed, were eagerly copied and had a wide circulation. Now, the head of the Church in Central Russia violently antagonized all such tendencies towards reformed Christianity. A strict adherence to the very letter of the teachings of the Byzantine Church was exacted from the flock. Every kind of interpretation of the Gospels became heresy. All intellectual life in the domain of religion, as well as every criticism of the dignitaries of the Moscow Church, was treated as dangerous, and those who had ventured this way had to flee from Moscow, seeking refuge in the remote monasteries of the far North. As to ihe great movement of the Renaissance, which gave a new life to Western Europe, it did not reach Russia: the Church considered it a return to paganism, and cruelly exterminated its forerunners who came within her reach, burning them at the stake, or putting them to death on the racks of her torture chambers.
I will not dwell upon this period, which covers nearly five centuries, because it offers very little interest for the student of Russian literature; I will only mention the two or three works which must not be passed by in silence.
One of them is the letters exchanged between the Czar John the Terrible (John IV.), and one of his chief vassals, Prince Kúrbskiy, who had left Moscow for Lithuania. From beyond the Lithuanian border he addressed to his cruel, half lunatic ex-master Iong letters of reproach, which John answered, developing in his epistles the theory of the divine origin of the Czar's authority. This correspondence is most characteristic of the political ideas that were current then, and of the learning of the period.
After the death of John the Terrible (who occupies in Russian history the same position as Louis XI. in French, since he destroyed by fire and sword--but with a truly Tartar cruelty--the power of the feudal princes), Russia passed, as is known, through years of great disturbance. The pretender Demetrius who proclaimed himself a son of John, came from Poland and took possession of the throne at Moscow. The Poles invaded Russia, and were the masters of Moscow, Smolénsk, and all the western towns; and when Demetrius was overthrown, a few months after his coronation, a general revolt of the peasants broke out, while all Central Russia was invaded by Cossack bands, and several new pretenders made their appearance. These "Disturbed Years" must have left traces in popular songs, but all such songs entirely disappeared in Russia during the dark period of serfdom which followed, and we know of them only through an Englishman, Richard James, who was in Russia in 1619, and who wrote down some of the songs relating to this period. The same must be said of the folk-literature, which must have come into existence during the later portion of the seventeenth century. The definite introduction of serfdom under the first Romanoff (Mikhail, 1612-1640); the wide-spread revolts of the peasants which followed--culminating in the terrific uprising of Stepán Rázin, who has become since then a favorite hero with the oppressed peasants; and finally the stern and cruel persecution of the Non-conformists and their migrations eastward into the depths of the Uráls--all these events must have found their expression in folk-songs; but the State and the Church so cruelly hunted down everything that bore trace of a spirit of rebellion that no works of popular creation from that period have reached us. Only a few writings of a polemic character and the remarkable autobiography of an exiled priest have been preserved by the Non-conformists.
The first Russian Bible was printed in Poland in 1580. A few years later a printing office was established at Moscow, and the Russian Church authorities had now to decide which of the written texts then in circulation should be taken for the printing of the Holy Books. The handwritten copies which were in use at that time were full of errors, and it was evidently necessary to revise them by comparing them with the Greek texts before committing any of them to print. This revision was undertaken at Moscow, with the aid of learned men brought over partly from Greece and partly from the Greco-Latin Academy of Kieff; but for many different reasons this revision became the source of a widely spread discontent, and in the middle of the seventeenth century a formidable split (raskól) took place in the Church. It hardly need be said that this split was not a mere matter of theology, nor of Greek readings. The seventeenth century was a century when the Moscow church had attained a formidable power in the State. The head of it, the Patriarch Níkon, was, moreover, a very ambitious man, who intended to play in the East the part which the Pope played in the West, and to that end he tried to impress the people by his grandeur and luxury--which meant, of course, heavy impositions upon the serfs of the Church and the lower clergy. He was hated by both, and was soon accused by the people of drifting into "Latinism"; so that the split between the people and the clergy-especially the higher clergy-took the character of a wide-spread separation of the people from the Greek Church.
Most of the Non-conformist writings of the time are purely scholastic in character and consequently offer no literary interest. But the memoirs of a Non-conformist priest, AVVAK&UACUTE;M (died 1681), who was exiled to Siberia and made his way on foot, with Cossack parties, as far as the banks of the Amúr, deserve to be mentioned. By their simplicity, their sincerity, and absence of all sensationalism, they have remained the prototype of Russian memoirs, down to the present day. Here are a few quotations from this remarkable work:
When I came to Yeniséisk," Avvakúm wrote, "another order came from Moscow to send me to Daúria, 2,000 miles from Moscow, and to place me under the orders of Páshkoff. He had with him sixty men, and in punishment of my sins he proved to be a terrible man. Continually he burnt, and tortured, and flogged his men, and I had often spoken to him, remonstrating that what he did was not good, and now I fell myself into his hands. When we went along the Angará river he ordered me, 'Get out of your boat, you are a heretic, that is why the boats don't get along. Go you on foot, across the mountains.' It was hard to do. Mountains high, forests impenetrable, stony cliffs rising like walls--and we had to cross them, going about with wild beasts and birds; and I wrote him a little letter which began thus: 'Man, be afraid of God. Even the heavenly forces and all animals and men are afraid of Him. Thou alone carest naught about Him.' Much more was written in this letter, and I sent it to him. Presently I saw fifty men coming to me, and they took me before him. He had his sword in his hand and shook with fury. He asked me: 'Art thou a priest, or a priest degraded?' I answered, 'I am Avvakúm, a priest, what dost thou want from me?' And he began to beat me on the head and he threw me on the ground, and continued to beat me while I was lying on the ground, and then ordered them to give me seventy-two lashes with the knout, and I replied: 'Jesus Christ, son of God, help me!' and he was only the more angered that I did not ask for mercy. Then they brought me to a small fort, and put me in a dungeon, giving me some straw, and all the winter I was kept in that tower, without fire. And the winter there is terribly cold; but God supported me, even though I had no furs. I lay there as a dog on the straw. One day they would feed me, another not. Rats were swarming all around. I used to kill them with my cap--the poor fools would not even give me a stick."
Later on Avvakúm was taken to the Amúr, and when he and his wife had to march, in the winter, over the ice of the great river, she would often fall down from sheer exhaustion. "Then I came," Avvakúm writes, "to lift her up, and she exclaimed in despair: 'How long, priest, how long will these sufferings continue?' And I replied to her: 'Until death even'; and then she would get up saying: 'Well, then, priest; let us march on.'" No sufferings could vanquish this great man. From the Amúr he was recalled to Moscow, and once more made the whole journey on foot. There he was accused of resistance to Church and State, and was burned at the stake in 1681.
The violent reforms of Peter I., who created a military European State out of the semi-Byzantine and semi-Tartar State which Russia had been under his predecessors, gave a new turn to literature. It would be out of place to appreciate here the historical significance of the reforms of Peter I., but it must be mentioned that in Russian literature one finds, at least, two forerunners of Peter's work.
One of them was KOTOSHÍKHIN (1630-1667), an historian.* He ran away from Moscow to Sweden, and wrote there, fifty years before Peter became Czar, a history of Russia, in which he strenuously criticized the condition of ignorance prevailing at Moscow, and advocated wide reforms. His manuscript was unknown till the nineteenth century, when it was discovered at Upsala. Another writer, imbued with the same ideas, was a South Slavonian, KRYZHÁNITCH, who was called to Moscow in 1659, in order to revise the Holy Books, and wrote a most remarkable work, in which he also preached the necessity of thorough reforms. He was exiled two years later to Siberia, where he died.
* In all names the vowels a, e, i, o, u have to be pronounced as in Italian (father, then, in, on, push).
Peter I., who fully realized the importance of literature, and was working hard to introduce European learning among his countrymen, understood that the old Slavonian tongue, which was then in use among Russian writers, but was no longer the current language of the nation, could only hamper the development of literature and learning. Its forms, its expressions, and grammar were already quite strange to the Russians. It could be used still in religious writings, but a book on geometry, or algebra, or military art, written in the Biblical Old Slavonian, would have been simply ridiculous. Consequently, Peter removed the difficulty in his usual trenchant way. He established a new alphabet, to aid in the introduction into literature of the spoken but hitherto unwritten language. This alphabet, partly borrowed from the Old Slavonian, but very much simplified, is the one now in use.
Literature proper little interested Peter I.: he looked upon printed matter from the strictly utilitarian point of view, and his chief aim was to familiarize the Russians with the first elements of the exact sciences, as well as with the arts of navigation, warfare, and fortification. Accordingly, the writers of his time offer but little interest from the literary point of view, and I need mention but a very few of them.
The most interesting writer of the time of Peter I. and his immediate successors was perhaps PROCOPÓVITCH, a priest, without the slightest taint of religious fanaticism, a great admirer of West-European learning, who founded a Greco-Slavonian academy. The courses of Russian literature also make mention of KANTEMIR (1709-1744), the son of a Moldavian prince who had emigrated with his subjects to Russia. He wrote satires, in which he expressed himself with a freedom of thought that was quite remarkable for his time* TKRETIAÓVSKY (1703-1769) offers a certain melancholy interest. He was the son of a priest, and in his youth ran away from his father, in order to study at Moscow. Thence he went to Amsterdam and Paris, traveling mostly on foot. He studied at the Paris University and became an admirer of advanced ideas, about which he wrote in extremely clumsy verses. On his return to St. Petersburg he lived all his afterlife in poverty and neglect, persecuted on all sides by sarcasms for his endeavors to reform Russian versification. He was himself entirely devoid of any poetical talent, and yet he rendered a great service to Russian poetry. Up to that date Russian verse was syllabic; but he understood that syllabic verse does not accord with the spirit of the Russian language, and he devoted his life to prove that Russian poetry should be written according to the laws of rhythmical versification. If he had had even a spark of talent, he would have found no difficulty in proving his thesis; but he had none, and consequently resorted to the most ridiculous artifices. Some of his verses were lines of the most incongruous words, strung together for the sole purpose of showing how rhythm and rhymes may be obtained. If he could not otherwise get his rhyme, he did not hesitate to split a word at the end of a verse, beginning the next one with what was left of it. In spite of his absurdities, he succeeded in persuading Russian poets to adopt rhythmical versification, and its rules have been followed ever since. In fact, this was only the natural development of the Russian popular song.
* In the years 1730-1738 he was ambassador at London.
There was also a historian, TATÍSCHFF (1686-1750), who wrote a history of Russia, and began a large work on the geography of the Empire--a hard-working man who studied a great deal in many sciences, as well as in Church matters, was superintendent of mines in the Uráls, and wrote a number of political works as well as history. He was the first to appreciate the value of the annals, which he collected and systematized, thus preparing materials for future historians, but he left no lasting trace in Russian literature. In fact, only one man of that period deserves more than a passing mention. It was LOMONÓSOFF (1712-1765). He was born in a village on the White Sea, near Archángel, in a fisherman's family. He also ran away from his parents, came on foot to Moscow, and entered a school in a monastery, living there in indescribable poverty. Later on he went to Kíeff, also on foot, and there he very nearly became a priest. It so happened, however, that at that time the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences applied to the Moscow Theological Academy for twelve good students who might be sent to study abroad. Lomonósoff was chosen as one of them. He went to Germany, where he studied natural sciences under the best natural philosophers of the time, especially under Christian Wolff,--always in terrible poverty, almost on the verge of starvation. In 1741 he came back to Russia, and was nominated a member of the Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg.
The Academy was then in the hands of a few Germans who looked upon all Russian scholars with undisguised contempt, and consequently received Lomonósoff in a most unfriendly manner. It did not help him that the great mathematician, Euler, wrote that the work of Lomonósoff in natural philosophy and chemistry revealed a man of genius, and that any Academy might be happy to possess him. A bitter struggle soon began between the German members of the Academy and the Russian who, it must be owned, was of a very violent character, especially when he was under the influence of drink. Poverty, his salary being confiscated as a punishment; detention at the police station; exclusion from the Senate of the Academy; and, worst of all, political persecution--such was the fate of Lomonósoff, who had joined the party of Elizabeth, and consequently was treated as an enemy when Catharine II. came to the throne. It was not until the nineteenth century that "Lomonósoff was duly appreciated.
"Lomonósoff was himself a university," was Púshkins remark, and this remark was quite correct: so varied were the directions in which he worked. Not only was he a distinguished natural philosopher, chemist, physical geographer, and mineralogist: he laid also the foundations of the grammar of the Russian language, which he understood as part of a general grammer of all languages, considered in their natural evolution. He also worked out the different forms of Russian versification, and he created quite a new literary language, of which he could say that it was equally appropriate for rendering "the powerful oratory of Cicero, the brilliant earnestness of Virgil and the pleasant talk of Ovid, as well as the subtlest imaginary conceptions of philosophy, or discussing the various properties of matter and the changes which are always going on in the structure ot the universe and in human affairs." This he proved by his poetry, by his scientific writings, and by his "Discourses," in which he combined Huxley's readiness to defend science against blind faith with Humboldt's poetical conception of Nature.
His odes were, it is true, written in the pompous style which was dear to the pseudo-classicism then reigning, and he retained Old Slavonian expressions "for dealing with elevated subjects, but in his scientific and other writings he used the commonly spoken language with great effect and force. Owing to the very variety of sciences which he had to acclimate in Russia, he could not give much time to original research; but when he took up the defense of the ideas of Corpernicus, Newton, or Huyghens against the opposition which they met with on theological grounds, a true philosopher of natural science, in the modern sense of the term, was revealed in him. In his early boyhood he used to accompany his father--a sturdy northern fisherman--on his fishing exxpcditions, and there he got his love of Nature and a fine comprehension of natural phenomena, which made of his Memoir on Arctic Exploration a work that has not lost its value even now. It is well worthy of note that in this last work he had stated the mechanical theory of heat in such definite expressions that he undoubtedly anticipated by a full century this great discovery of our own time--a fact which has been entirely overlooked, even in Russia.
A contemporary of Lomonósoff, SUMARÓKOFF (1717-1777,) who was described in those years as a "Russian Racine," must also be mentioned in this place. He belonged to the higher nobility, and had received an entirely French education. His dramas, of which he wrote a great number, were entirely immitated from the French pseudo-classical school; but he contributed very much as will be seen from a subsequent chapter, to the development of the Russian theater. Sumarókoff wrote also lyrical verses, elegies, and satires--all of no great importance; but the remarkably good style of his letters, free of the Slavonic archaisms, which were habitual at that time, deserves to be mentioned.
With Catherine II who reigned from 1752 till 1796, commenced a new era in Russian literature. It began to shake off its previous dullness, and although the Russian writers continued to imitate French models--chiefly pseudo-classical--they began also to introduce into their writings various subjects taken from direct observation of Russian life. There is, altogether, a frivolous youthfulness in the literature of the first years of Catherine's reign, when the Empress, being yet full of progressive ideas borrowed from her intercourse with French philosophers, composed--basing it on Montesquieu--her remarkable Instruction (Nakáz) to the deputies she convoked; wrote several comedies, in which she ridiculed the old-fashioned representatives of Russian nobility; and edited a monthly review in which she entered into controversy both with some ultraconservative writers and with the more advanced young reformers. An academy of belles-letters was founded, and Princess VORONTSÓVA-DÁSHKOVA (1743-1819)--who had aided Catherine II. in her coup d'état against her husband, Peter III., and in taking possession of the throne was nominated president of the Academy of Sciences. She assisted the Academy with real earnestness in compiling a dictionary of the Russian language, and she also edited a review which left a mark in Russian literature; while her memoirs, written in French (Mon Histoire) are a very valuable, though not always impartial, historical document.* Altogether there began at that time quite a literary movement, which produced a remarkable poet, DERZHÁVIN (1743-1816); the writer of comedies, VON WÍZIN (1745-1792); the first philosopher, NÓVIKOFF (1742-18I8); and a political writer, RADÍSCHEFF (1749-1802).
* In 1775-1782 she spent a few years at Edinburgh for the education of her son.
The poetry of Derzhávin certainly does not answer our modern requirements. He was the poet laureate of Catherine, and sang in pompous odes the virtues of the ruler and the victories of her generals and favorites. Russia was then taking a firm hold on the shores of the Black Sea, and beginning to play a serious part in European affairs; and occasions for the inflation of Derzhávin's patriotic feelings were not wanting. However, he had some of the marks of the true poet; he was open to the feeling of the poetry of Nature, and capable of expressing it in verses that were positively good (Ode to God, The Waterfall). Nay, these really poetical verses, which are found side by side with unnatural, heavy lines stuffed with obsolete pompous words, are so evidently better than the latter, that they certainly were an admirable object-lesson for all subsequent Russian poets. They must have contributed to induce our poets to abandon mannerism. Púshkin, who in his youth admired Derzhávin, must have felt at once the disadvantages of a pompous style, illustrated by his predecessor, and with his wonderful command of his mother-tongue he was necessarily brought to abandon the artificial language which formerly was considered "poetical,"--he began to write as we speak.
The comedies of VON WÍZIN (of FONVIZIN), were quite a revelation for his contemporaries. His first comedy, The Brigadier, which he wrote at the age of twenty-two, created quite a sensation, and till now it has not lost its interest; while his second comedy, Nédorosl (1782), was received as an event in Russian literature, and is occasionally played even at the present day. Both deal with purely Russian subjects, taken from every-day life; and although Von Wízin too freely borrowed from foreign authors (the subject of The Brigadier is borrowed from a Danish comedy of Holberg, Jean de France), he managed nevertheless to make his chief personages truly Russian. In this sense he certainly was a creator of the Russian national drama, and he was also the first to introduce into our literature the realistic tendency which became so powerful with Púshkin, Gógol and their followers. In his political opinions he remained true to the progressive opinions which Catherine 11. patronized in the first years of her reign, and in his capacity of secretary to Count Pánin he boldly denounced serfdom, favoritism, and want of education in Russia.
I pass in silence several writers of the same epoch, namely, BOGDANÓVITCH (1743-18O3), the author of a pretty and light poem, Dusheñka; HEMNITZER (1745-1784), a gifted writer of fables, who was a forerunner of Krylóff; KAPNÍST (1757-1809), who wrote rather superficial satires in good verse; Prince SCHERBÁTOFF (1733-1790), who began with several others the scientific collecting of old annals and folklore, and undertook to write a history of Russia, in which we find a scientific criticism of the annals and other sources of information; and several others. But I must say a few words upon the masonic movement which took place on the threshold of the nineteenth century.
The looseness of habits which characterized Russian high society in the eighteenth century the absence of ideals, the servility of the nobles, and the horrors of serfdom, necessarily produced a reaction among the better minds, and this reaction took the shape, partly of a widely spread Masonic movement, and partly of Christian mysticism, which originated in the mystical teachings that had at that time widely spread in Germany. The freemasons and their Society of Friends undertook a serious effort for spreading moral education among the masses, and they found in NÓVIKOFF (1744-1818) a true apostle of renovation. He began his literary career very early, in one of those satirical reviews of which Catherine herself took the initiative at the beginning of her reign, and already in his amiable controversy with "the grandmother" (Catherine) he showed that he would not remain satisfied with the superficial satire in which the empress delighted, but that, contrary to her wishes, he would go to the root of the evils of the time: namely, serfdom and its brutalizing effects upon society at large. Nóvikoff was not onIy a well-educated man: he combined the deep moral convictions of an idealist with the capacities of an organizer and a business man; and although his review (from which the net income went entirely for philanthropic and educational purposes) was soon stopped by "the grandmother," he started in Moscow a most successful printing and book-selling business, for editing and spreading books of an ethical character. His immense printing office, combined with a hospital for the workers and a chemist's shop, from which medicine was given free to all the poor of Moscow, was soon in business relations with booksellers all over Russia; while his influence upon educated society was growing rapidly, and working in an excellent direction. In 1787, during a famine, he organized relief for the starving peasants-guite a fortune having been put for this purpose at his disposal by one of his pupils. Of course, both the Church and the Government looked with suspicion upon the spreading of Christianity, as it was understood by the freemason Friends; and although the metropolitan of Moscow testified that Nóvikoff was "the best Christian he ever knew," Nóvikoff was accused of political conspiracy.
He was arrested, and in accordance with the personal wish of Catherine, though to the astonishment of all those who knew anything about him, was condemned to death in 1792. The death-sentence, however, was not fulfilled, but he was taken for fifteen years to the terrible fortress of Schüsselburg, where he was put in the secret cell formerly occupied by the Grand Duke Ivan Antonovitch, and where his freemason friend, Doctor Bagryinskiy, volunteered to remain imprisoned with him. He remained there till the death of Catherine. Paul I. released him, in 1796, on the very day that he became emperor; but Nóvikoff came out of the fortress a broken man, and fell entirely into mysticism, towards which there was already a marked tendency in several lodges of the freemasons.
The Christian mystics were not happier. One of them, LÁBZIN (1766-1825), who exercised a great influence upon society by his writings against corruption, was also denounced, and ended his days in exile. However, both the mystical Christians and the freemasons (some of whose lodges followed the Rosenkreuz teachings) exercised a deep influence on Russia. With the advent of Alexander I. to the throne the freemasons obtained more facilities for spreading their ideas; and the growing conviction that serfdom must be abolished, and that the tribunals, as well as the whole system of administration, were in need of complete reform, was certainly to a great extent a result of their work. Besides, quite a number of remarkable men received their education at the Moscow Institute of the Friends-founded by Nóvikoff--including the historian Karamzín, the brothers Turguéneff, uncles of the great novelist, and several political men of mark.
RADÍSCHEFF (1749-1802), a political writer of the same epoch, had a still more tragic end. He received his education in the Corps of Pages, and was one of those young men whom the Russian Government had sent in 1766 to Germany to finish there their education. He followed the lectures of Hellert and Plattner at Leipzig, and studied very earnestly the French philosophers. On his return, he published, in 1790, a Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, the idea of which seems to have been suggested to him by Sterne's Sentimental Journey. In this book he very ably intermingled his impressions of travel with various philosophical and moral discussions and with pictures from Russian life.
He insisted especially upon the horrors of serfdom, as also upon the bad organization of the administration, the venality of the law-courts, and so on, confirming his general condemnations by concrete facts taken from real life. Catherine, who already before the beginning of the revolution in France, and especially since the events of 1789, had come to regard with horror the liberal ideas of her youth, ordered the book to be confiscated and destroyed at once. She described the author as a revolutionist, "worse than Pugatchóff"; he ventured to "Speak with approbation of Franklin" and was infected with French ideas! Consequently, she wrote herself a sharp criticism of the book, upon which its prosecution had to be based. Radíscheff was arrested, confined to the fortress, later on transported to the remotest portions of Eastern Siberia, on the Olenek. He was released only in 1801. Next year, seeing that even the advent of Alexander the First did not mean the coming of a new reformatory spirit, he put an end to his life by suicide. As to his book, it still remains forbidden in Russia. A new edition of it, which was made in 1872, was confiscated and destroyed, and in 1888 the permission was given to a publisher to issue the work in editions of a hundred copies only, which were to be distributed among a few men of science and certain high functionaries.*
*Two free editions of it were made, one by Herzen at London: Prince Scherbátoff and A. Radischeff, 1858; and another at Leipzig: Journey, in 1876. See A. Pypin's History of Russian Literature, vol. iv.
These were, then, the elements out of which Russian literature had to be evolved in the nineteenth century. The slow work of the last five hundred years had already prepared that admirable, pliable, and rich instrument--the literary language in which Púshkin would soon be enabled to write his melodious verses and Turguéneff his no less melodious prose. From the autobiography of the Non-conformist martyr, Avvakúm, one could already guess the value of the spoken language of the Russian people for literary purposes.
Tretiakóvskiy, by his clumsy verses, and especially "Lomonósoff and Derzhávin by their odes, had definitely repelled the syllabic form that had been introduced from France and Poland, and had established the tonic, rhythmical form which was indicated by the popular song itself. Lomonósoff had created a popular scientific language; he had invented a number of new words, and had proved that the Latin and Old Slavonian constructions were hostile to the spirit of Russian, and quite unnecessary. The age of Catherine II. further introduced into written literature the forms of familiar everyday talk, borrowed even from the peasant class; and Nóvikoff had created a Russian philosophical language--still heavy on account of its underlying mysticism, but splendidly adapted, as it appeared a few decades later, to abstract metaphysical discussions. The elements for a great and original literature were thus ready. They required only a vivifying spirit which should use them for higher purposes. This genius was Púshkin. But before speaking of him, the historian and novelist Karamzín and the poet Zhukóvskiy* must be mentioned, as they represent a link between the two epochs.
*Pronounce Zh as a French j (Joukóvskiy in French).
KARAMZÍN (1766-1826), by his monumental work, The History of the Russian State, did in literature what the great war of 18l2 had done in national life. He awakened the national consciousness and created a lasting interest in the history of the nation, in the making of the empire, in the evolution of national character and institutions. Karamzín's History was reactionary in spirit. He was the historian of the Russian State, not of the Russian people; the poet of the virtues of monarchy and the wisdom of the rulers, but not an observer of the work that had been accomplished by the unknown masses of the nation. He was not the man to understand the federal principles which prevailed in Russia down to the fifteenth century, and still less the communal principles which pervaded Russian life and had permitted the nation to conquer and to colonize an immense continent. For him, the history of Russia was the regular, organic development of a monarchy, from the first appearance of the Scandinavian varingiar down to the present times, and he was chiefly concerned with describing the deeds of monarchs in their conquests and their building up of a State; but, as it often happens with Russian writers, his foot-notes were a work of history in themselves. They contained a rich mine of information concerning the sources of Russia's history, and the suggested to the ordinary reader that the early centuries of mediæval Russia, with her independent city-republics, were far more interesting than they appeared in the book.* Karamzín was not the founder of a school, but he showed to Russia that she has a past worth knowing. Besides, his work was a work of art. It was written in a brilliant style, which accustomed the public to read historical works. The result was, that the first edition of his eight-volume History--3,000 copies--was sold in twenty-five days.
*It is now know how much of the prepartory work which rendered Karamzín's History possible was done by the Academicians Schlötzer, Müller, and Stritter, as well as by the above-mentioned historian Scherbátoff, who had thoroughly studied the annals and whose views Karamzín closely followed in his work.
However, Karamzín's influence was not limited to his History: it was even greater through his novels and his Letters of a Russian Travelier Abroad. In the letter he made an attempt to bring the products of European thought, philosophy, and political life into circulation amid a wide public; to spread broadly humanitarian views, at a time when they were most needed as a counterpoise to the sad realities of political and social life; and to establish a link of connection between the intellectual life of our country and that of Europe. As to Karamzín's novels, he appeared in them as a true follower of sentimental romanticism; but this was precisely what was required then, as a reaction against the would-be classical school. In one of his novels, Poor Liza (1792), he described the misfortunes of a peasant girl who fell in love with a nobleman, was abandoned by him, and finally drowned herself in a pond. This peasant girl surely would not answer to our present realistic requirements. She spoke in choice language and was not a peasant girl at all; but all reading Russia cried about the misfortune of "Poor Liza," and the pond where the heroine was supposed to have been drowned became a place of pilgrimage for the sentimental youths of Moscow. The spirited protest against serfdom which we shall find later on in modern literature was thus already born in Karamzin's time.
ZHUKÓVSKIY (1783-1852) was a romantic poet in the true sense of the word, and a true worshiper of poetry, who fully understood its elevating power. His original productions were few. He was mainly a translator and rendered in most beautiful Russian verses the poems of Schiller, Uhland, Herder, Byron, Thomas Moore, and others, as well as the Odyssey, the Hindu poem of Nal and Ramayanti, and the songs of the Western Slavonians. The beauty of these translations is such that I doubt whether there are in any other language, even in German, equally beautiful renderings of foreign poets. However, Zhukóvskiy was not a mere translator: he took from other poets only what was agreeable to his own nature and what he would have liked to sing himself. Sad reflections about the unknown, an aspiration towards distant lands, the sufferings of love, and the sadness of separation--all lived through by the poet--were the distinctive features of his poetry. They reflected his inner self. We may object now to his ultra-romanticism, but this direction, at that time, was an appeal to the broadly humanitarian feelings, and it was of first necessity for progress. By his poetry, Zhukóvskiy appealed chiefly to women, and when we deal later on with the part that Russian women played half a century later in the general development of their country we shall see that his appeal was not made in vain. Altogether, Zhukóvskiy appealed to the best sides of human nature. One note, however, was missing entirely in his poetry: it was the appeal to the sentiments of freedom and citizenship. This appeal came from the Decembrist poet, Ryléeff.
The Czar Alexander I. went through the same evolution as his grandmother, Catherine II. He was educated by the republican, La Harpe, and began his reign as a quite liberal sovereign, ready to grant to Russia a constitution. He did it in fact, for Poland and Finland, and made a first step towards it in Russia. But he did not dare to touch serfdom, and gradually he fell under the influence of German mystics, became alarmed at liberal ideas, and surrendered his will to the worst reactionaries. The man who ruled Russia during the last ten or twelve years of his reign was General Arakchéeff--a maniac of cruelty and militarism, who maintained his influence by means of the crudest flattery and simulated religiousness.
A reaction against these conditions was sure to grow up, the more so as the Napoleonic wars had brought a great number of Russians in contact with Western Europe. The campaigns made in Germany, and the occupation of Paris by the Russian armies, had familiarized many officers with the ideas of liberty which reigned still in the French capital, while at home the endeavors of Nóvikoff were bearing fruit, and the freemason Friends continued his work. When Alexander I., having fallen under the influence of Madame Krüdener and other German mystics, concluded in 1815 the Holy Alliance with Germany and Austria, in order to combat all liberal ideas, secret societies began to be formed in Russia--Chiefly among the officer's--in order to promote the ideas of liberty, of abolition of serfdom, and of equality before the law, as the necessary steps towards the abolition of absolute rule. Everyone who has read Tolstóy's War and Peace must remember "Pierre" and the impression produced upon this young man by his first meeting with an old freemason. "Pierre" is a true representative of many young men who later on became known as "Decembrists." Like "Pierre," they were imbued with humanitarian ideas; many of them hated serfdom, and they wanted the introduction of constitutional guarantees; while a few of them (Péstel, Ryléef), despairing of monarchy, spoke of a return to the republican federalism of old Russia. With such ends in view, they created their secret societies.
It is known how this conspiracy ended. After the sudden death of Alexander I. in the South of Russia, the oath of allegiance was given at St. Petersburg to his brother Constantine, who was proclaimed his successor. But when, a few days later, it became known in the capital that Constantine had abdicated, and that his brother Nicholas was going to become emperor, and when the conspirators learned that they had been denounced in the meantime to the State police, they saw nothing else to do but to proclaim their program openly in the streets, and to fall in an unequal fight. They did so, on December I4 (26) 1825, in the Senate Square of St. Petersburg, followed by a few hundred men from several regiments of the guard. Five of the insurgents were hanged by Nicholas I., and the remainder, i. e., about a hundred young men who represented the flower of Russian intelligence, were sent to hard labor in Siberia, where they remained till 1856. One can hardly imagine what it meant in a country which was not over-rich in educated and well-intentioned men, when such a number of the best representatives of a generation were taken out of the ranks and reduced to silence. Even in a more civilized country of Western Europe the sudden disappearance of so many men of thought and action would have dealt a severe blow to progress. In Russia the effect was disastrous--the more so as the reign of Nicholas I. lasted thirty years, during which every spark of free thought was stifled as soon as it appeared.
One of the most brilliant literary representatives of the "Decembrists" was RYLÉEF (1795-1826), one of the five who were hanged by Nicholas I. He had received a good education, and in 1814 was already an officer. He was thus by a few years the elder of Púshkin. He twice visited France, in 1814 and 1815 and after the conclusion of peace became a magistrate at St. Petersburg. His earlier productions were a series of ballads dealing with the leading men of Russian history. Most of them were merely patriotic, but some already revealed the sympathies of the poet for freedom. Censorship did not allow these ballads to be printed, but they circulated all over Russia in manuscript. Their poetical value was not great; but the next poem of Ryléef and especially some fragments of unfinished poems, revealed in him a powerful poetical gift, which Ryléef's great friend, Púshkin, greeted with effusion. It is greatly to be regretted that the poem has never been translated into English. Its subject is the struggle of Little Russia for the recovery of its independence under Peter I. When the Russian Czar was engaged in a bitter struggle against the great northern warrior, Charles XII., then the ruler of Little Russia, the hétman Mazépa conceived the plan of joining Charles XII. against Peter I. for freeing his mother country from the Russian yoke. Charles XII., as is known, was defeated at Poltáva, and both he and thehétman had to flee to Turkey. As to Voinaróvsky, a young patriot friend of Mazapa, he was taken prisoner, and transported to Siberia. There, at Yakútsk, he was visited by the historian Miiller, and Ryléeff makes him tell his story to the German explorer. The scenes of nature in Siberia, at Yakútsk, with which the poem begins; the preparations for the war in Little Russia and the war itself; the flight of Charles XII. and Mazépa; then the sufferings of Voinaróvsky at Yakútsk, when his young wife came to rejoin him in the land of exile, and died there--all these scenes are most beautiful, while in places the verses, by their simplicity and the beauty of their images, evoked the admiration even of Púshkin. Two or three generations have now read this poem, and it continues to inspire each new one with the same love of liberty and hatred of oppression.
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