History of Literature

Russian literature



Old Russian literature. (10th–17th centuries)

The 18th century

The 19th century

The Silver Age. (From the 1890s to 1917)

Post-Revolutionary literature

Thaws and freezes


Russian literature

The 18th century

Mikhail Lomonosov
Vasily Trediakovsky
Antiokh Kantemir
Aleksandr Sumarokov
Nikolay Novikov
Aleksandr Radishchev
Ivan Khemnitser
Ivan Krylov
Mikhail Kheraskov
Ippolit Bogdanovich
Gavrila Derzhavin
Vladislav Ozerov
Denis Fonvizin
Nikolay Karamzin


The 18th century

The 18th century was a period of codification, imitation, and absorption of foreign models. The century’s major contribution was the development of a literary language. Under the pressure of new subject matter and the influx of foreign expressions, Church Slavonic proved inadequate, and the resulting linguistic chaos required the standardization of literary Russian. In 1758 Mikhail Lomonosov published “Predisloviye o polze knig tserkovnykh v rossiyskom yazyke” (“Preface on the Use of Church Books in the Russian Language”) in which he classified Russian and Church Slavonic words, assigning their use to three styles, and correlated these styles with appropriate themes, genres, and tones. Thus the Russian literary language was to be established by a combination of Russian and Church Slavonic.

Verse also changed decisively. The old syllabic verse, based on qualities of the Polish language, gave way to syllabotonic verse (i.e., verse in which the number of stressed syllables in each line becomes the dominant prosodic element), more suitable to Russian. Theories of versification were advanced by Vasily Trediakovsky in 1735 and 1752 and, especially, by Lomonosov in 1739 (the date Belinsky chose as the beginning of Russian literature). It is also noteworthy that the Petrine assault on the church decisively ended the role of the clergy in Russian literature.

Throughout the 18th century Russian writers imitated, adapted, and experimented with a wide variety of European genres, thus grafting them onto the Russian tradition and making them available for later, more original, use. Much classical and western European literature was translated, read, and assimilated, thus producing a kind of telescopic effect, as works and movements that were centuries apart were absorbed at the same time. Four writers dominate the period from the death of Peter to the ascension of Catherine II the Great in 1762. Antiokh Kantemir is best known for his verse satires. In addition to his treatises and poems in various genres, Trediakovsky produced a poetic psalter. Lomonosov, who was also a scientist and played a key role in founding Moscow State University (1755), achieved his greatest poetic success in panegyric and spiritual odes, especially “Oda na vzyatiye Khotina” (1739; “Ode on the Seizure of Khotin”), “Vecherneye razmyshleniye o Bozhiyem velichestve” (1743; “Evening Meditation on the Majesty of God”), and “Utrenneye razmyshleniye o Bozhiyem velichestve” (1743; “Morning Meditation on the Majesty of God”). Whereas Baroque poetics strongly influenced Trediakovsky and Lomonosov, the younger Aleksandr Sumarokov, a poet and dramatist, stood for a rigorous and lucid classicism.

Mikhail Lomonosov

born Nov. 19 [Nov. 8, old style], 1711, near Kholmogory, Russia
died April 15 [April 4, O.S.], 1765, St. Petersburg

Russian poet, scientist, and grammarian who is often considered the first great Russian linguistic reformer. He also made substantial contributions to the natural sciences, reorganized the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Sciences, established in Moscow the university that today bears his name, and created the first coloured glass mosaics in Russia.

Lomonosov was the son of a poor fisherman. At the age of 10 he too took up that line of work. When the few books he was able to obtain could no longer satisfy his growing thirst for knowledge, in December 1730, he left his native village, penniless and on foot, for Moscow. His ambition was to educate himself to join the learned men on whom the tsar Peter I the Great was calling to transform Russia into a modern nation.

The clergy and the nobility, attached to their privileges and fearing the spread of education and science, actively opposed the reforms of which Lomonosov was a lifelong champion. His bitter struggle began as soon as he arrived in Moscow. In order to be admitted to the Slavonic–Greek–Latin Academy he had to conceal his humble origin; the sons of nobles jeered at him, and he had scarcely enough money for food and clothes. But his robust health and exceptional intelligence enabled him in five years to assimilate the eight-year course of study; during this time he taught himself Greek and read the philosophical works of antiquity.

Noticed at last by his instructors, in January 1736 Lomonosov became a student at the St. Petersburg Academy. Seven months later he left for Germany to study at the University of Marburg, where he led the turbulent life of the German student. His work did not suffer, however, for within three years he had surveyed the main achievements of Western philosophy and science. His mind, freed from all preconception, rebelled at the narrowness of the empiricism in which the disciples of Isaac Newton had bound the natural sciences; in dissertations sent to St. Petersburg, he attacked the problem of the structure of matter.

In 1739, in Freiberg, Lomonosov studied firsthand the technologies of mining, metallurgy, and glassmaking. Also friendly with the poets of the time, he freely indulged the love of verse that had arisen during his childhood with the reading of Psalms. The “Ode,” dedicated to the Empress, and the Pismo o pravilakh rossiyskogo stikhotvorstva (“Letter Concerning the Rules of Russian Versification”) made a considerable impression at court.

After breaking with one of his masters, the chemist Johann Henckel, and many other mishaps, among which his marriage at Marburg must be included, Lomonosov returned in July 1741 to St. Petersburg. The Academy, which was directed by foreigners and incompetent nobles, gave the young scholar no precise assignment, and the injustice aroused him. His violent temper and great strength sometimes led him to go beyond the rules of propriety, and in May 1743 he was placed under arrest. Two odes sent to the empress Elizabeth won him his liberation in January 1744, as well as a certain poetic prestige at the Academy.

While in prison he worked out the plan of work that he had already developed in Marburg. The 276 zametok po fizike i korpuskulyarnoy filosofi (“276 Notes on Corpuscular Philosophy and Physics”) set forth the dominant ideas of his scientific work. Appointed a professor by the Academy in 1745, he translated Christian Wolff’s Institutiones philosophiae experimentalis (“Studies in Experimental Philosophy”) into Russian and wrote, in Latin, important works on the Meditationes de Caloris et Frigoris Causa (1747; “Cause of Heat and Cold”), the Tentamen Theoriae de vi Aëris Elastica (1748; “Elastic Force of Air”), and the Theoria Electricitatis (1756; “Theory of Electricity”). His friend, the celebrated German mathematician Leonhard Euler, recognized the creative originality of his articles, which were, on Euler’s advice, published by the Russian Academy in the Novye kommentari.

Battle of Poltava. M. Lomonosov's mosaic. Academy of Sciences. S.-Petersburg. 1762–1764

In 1748 the laboratory that Lomonosov had been requesting since 1745 was granted him; it then began a prodigious amount of activity. He passionately undertook many tasks and, courageously facing ill will and hostility, recorded in three years more than 4,000 experiments in his Zhurnal laboratori, the results of which enabled him to set up a coloured glass works and to make mosaics with these glasses. Slovo o polze khimi (1751; “Discourse on the Usefulness of Chemistry”), the Pismo k I.I. Shuvalovu o polze stekla (1752; “Letter to I.I. Shuvalov Concerning the Usefulness of Glass”), and the “Ode” to Elizabeth celebrated his fruitful union of abstract and applied science. Anxious to train students, he wrote in 1752 an introduction to the physical chemistry course that he was to set up in his laboratory. The theories on the unity of natural phenomena and the structure of matter that he set forth in the discussion on the Slovo o proiskhozhdeni sveta (1756; “Origin of Light and Colours”) and in his theoretical works on electricity in 1753 and 1756 also matured in this laboratory.

Encouraged by the success of his experiments in 1760, Lomonosov inserted in the Meditationes de Solido et Fluido (“Reflections on the Solidity and Fluidity of Bodies”) the “universal law of nature”—that is, the law of conservation of matter and energy, which, with the corpuscular theory, constitutes the dominant thread in all his research.

To these achievements were added the composition of Rossiyskaya grammatika and of Kratkoy rossiyskoy letopisets (“Short Russian Chronicle”), ordered by the Empress, and all the work of reorganizing education, to which Lomonosov accorded much importance.

From 1755 he followed very closely the development of Moscow State University (now Moscow M.V. Lomonosov State University), for which he had drawn up the plans. Appointed a councillor by the Academy in 1757, he undertook reforms to make the university an intellectual centre closely linked with the life of the country. To that end, he wrote several scholarly works including Rassuzhdeniye o bolshoy tochnosti morskogo puti (1759; “Discussion of the Great Accuracy of the Maritime Route”); Rassuzhdeniye o proiskhozhdenii ledyanykh gor v severnykh moryakh (1760; “Discussion of the Formation of Icebergs in the Northern Seas”); Kratkoye opisaniye raznykh puteshestviy po severnym moryam . . . (1762–63; “A Short Account of the Various Voyages in the Northern Seas”); and O sloyakh zemnykh (1763; “Of the Terrestrial Strata”), which constituted an important contribution both to science and to the development of commerce and the exploitation of mineral wealth.

Despite the honours that came to him, he continued to lead a simple and industrious life, surrounded by his family and a few friends. He left his house and the laboratory erected in his garden only to go to the Academy. His prestige was considerable in Russia, and his scientific works and his role in the Academy were known abroad. He was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and of that of Bologna. His theories concerning heat and the constitution of matter were opposed by the empiricist scientists of Germany, although they were analyzed with interest in European scientific journals.

The persecutions he suffered, particularly after the empress Elizabeth’s death in 1762 (1761, Old Style) exhausted him physically, and he died in 1765. The empress Catherine II the Great had the patriotic scholar buried with great ceremony, but she confiscated all the notes in which were outlined the great humanitarian ideas he had developed. Publications of his works were purged of the material that constituted a menace to the system of serfdom, particularly that concerned with materialist and humanist ideas. Efforts were made to view him as a court poet and an upholder of monarchy and religion rather than as an enemy of superstition and a champion of popular education. The authorities did not succeed in quenching the influence of his work, however. The publication of his Polnoye sobraniye sochineny (“Complete Works”) in 1950–83 by Soviet scholars has revealed the full contributions of Lomonosov, who has long been misunderstood by historians of science.

Luce-Andrée Langevin



Vasily Trediakovsky

born February 22 (March 5, New Style), 1703, Astrakhan, Russia
died August 6 [August 17], 1768, St. Petersburg

Russian literary theoretician and poet whose writings contributed to the classical foundations of Russian literature.

The son of a poor priest, Trediakovsky became the first Russian not of the nobility to receive a humanistic education abroad, at the Sorbonne in Paris (1727–30). Soon after his return to Russia he became acting secretary of the Academy of Sciences and de facto court poet. In 1735 Trediakovsky published Novy i kratky sposob k slozheniyu rossiyskikh stikhov (“A New and Concise Method for the Composition of Russian Verses”), which discussed for the first time in Russian literature such poetic genres as the sonnet, the rondeau, the madrigal, and the ode. In 1748 appeared his Razgovor ob ortografii (“A Conversation on Orthography”), the first study of the phonetic structure of the Russian language. He continued his advocacy of poetic reform in O drevnem, srednem i novom stikhotvorenii rossiyskom (1752; “On Ancient, Middle, and New Russian Poetry”). Trediakovsky was also a prolific translator of classical authors, medieval philosophers, and French literature. His translations frequently aroused the ire of the censors, and he fell into disfavour with his Academy superiors and conservative court circles. In 1759 he was dismissed from the Academy. His last major work was a translation of Fénelon’s Les aventures de Télémaque (1766; Tilemakhida), which he rendered in Russian hexameters.



Antiokh Kantemir


born Sept. 21 [Sept. 10, Old Style], 1708, Constantinople [now Istanbul], Tur.
died April 11 [March 31], 1744, Paris, Fr.

distinguished Russian statesman who was his country’s first secular poet and one of its leading writers of the classical school.

The son of Dmitry Kantemir, he was tutored at home and attended (1724–25) the St. Petersburg Academy. Between 1729 and 1731 he wrote several poems, the most important probably being two satires, “To His Own Mind: On Those Who Blame Education” and “On the Envy and Pride of Evil-Minded Courtiers.” These poems denounced the opposition to the reforms of the emperor Peter the Great and enjoyed great success when circulated in manuscript (they were not printed until 1762). As ambassador to England (1732–36), he took to London the manuscript of his father’s history of the Ottoman Empire, furnishing a biography of his father that appeared with the English translation of the history.

From 1736 until his death, Kantemir was minister plenipotentiary in Paris, where he formed friendships with Voltaire and Montesquieu and continued to write satires and fables. His Russian translations of several classical and contemporary authors include his 1740 translation of the French man of letters Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686; “Interviews on the Pluralitism of the World”), which was suppressed as heretical. He also wrote a philosophical work, O prirode i cheloveke (1742; “Letters on Nature and Man”), and a tract on the old syllabic system of Russian verse composition (1744).



Aleksandr Sumarokov

Aleksandr Petrovich Sumarokov (Russian: Александр Петрович Сумароков) (November 25, 1717 – October 12, 1777) was a Russian poet and playwright who single-handedly created classical theatre in Russia, thus assisting Mikhail Lomonosov to inaugurate the reign of classicism in Russian literature.


Life and works
Born of a good family of Muscovite gentry, Sumarokov was educated at the Cadet School in Petersburg, where he acquired an intimate familiarity with French polite learning. Neither an aristocratic dilettante like Antiokh Kantemir nor a learned professor like Vasily Trediakovsky, he was the first gentleman in Russia to choose the profession of letters. He consequently may be called the father of the Russian literary profession. His pursuits did not undermine his position in the family; indeed, his grandson was made a count and, when the Sumarokov family became extinct a century later, the title eventually passed to Prince Felix Yusupov, who also styled himself Count Sumarokov-Elston in memory of his illustrious ancestor.

Sumarokov wrote much and regularly, chiefly in those literary kinds neglected by Lomonosov. His principal importance rests in his plays, among which Khorev (1749) is regarded as the first regular Russian drama. He ran the first permanent public theatre in the Russian capital, where he worked with the likes of Fyodor Volkov and Ivan Dmitrievsky. His plays were based on the subjects taken from Russian history (Dmitry Samozvanets), proto-Russian legends (Khorev) or on Shakespearean plots (Makbet, Hamlet).

D.S. Mirsky believed that there could be no doubt "the good acting made the reputation of Sumarokov, as the literary value of his plays is small. His tragedies are a stultification of the classical method; their Alexandrine couplets are exceedingly harsh; their characters are marionettes. His comedies are adaptations of French plays, with a feeble sprinkling of Russian traits. Their dialogue is a stilted prose that had never been spoken by anyone and reeked of translation".

Sumarokov's non-dramatic work is by no means negligible. His fables are the first attempt in a genre that was destined to flourish in Russia with particular vigor. His satires, in which he occasionally imitates the manner of popular poetry, are racy and witty attacks against the government clerks and officers of law. His songs, of all his writings, still attract readers of poetry. They are remarkable for a prodigious metrical inventiveness and a genuine gift of melody. In subject matter they are entirely within the pale of classical, conventional love poetry.

Sumarokov's literary criticism is usually carping and superficial, but it did much to inculcate on the Russian public the canons of classical taste. He was a loyal follower of Voltaire, with whom he prided himself on having exchanged several letters. Vain and self-conscious, Sumarokov considered himself a Russian Racine and Voltaire in one. In personal relations he was irritable, touchy, and often petty. But his exacting touchiness contributed, almost as much as did Lomonosov's calm dignity, to raise the profession of the pen and to give it a definite place in society.

Catherine II the Great

Catherine began her reign as an enlightened despot. She corresponded with Voltaire
and Denis Diderot and sponsored the arts. Although her native language was German, she has to her credit a number of plays in Russian as well as a statement of legal principles, Nakaz (Instruction). In 1769 she established a satiric journal, Vsyakaya vsyachina (“All Sorts and Sundries”), which was soon followed by others, including the Truten (“Drone”), founded by Nikolay Novikov. In a curious exchange between journals, Novikov and Catherine disagreed with each other about the nature of satire—like the Kurbsky-Ivan correspondence in the 16th century, it was a case of a sovereign deigning to argue with a subject. Shocked by an uprising of Cossacks and peasants (1773–75), known from the name of its leader as the Pugachov Rebellion, and later by the French Revolution, Catherine turned increasingly conservative. Generally speaking, these events marked a turning point as the Russian autocracy switched from being a modernizing to a restraining force. When Aleksandr Radishchev published Puteshestviye iz Peterburga v Moskvu (1790; A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow), a work that was sharply critical of Russian society and serfdom, Catherine had him condemned to death, a sentence she commuted to Siberian exile. Offended by a posthumously published play by Yakov Knyazhnin (1742–91), Vadim Novgorodsky (“Vadim of Novgorod”), she had copies of the manuscript burned and the published text torn from the offending volume.

Nikolay Novikov

born April 27 [May 8, New Style], 1744, Bronnitsky, near Moscow, Russia
died July 31 [Aug. 12], 1818, Bronnitsky

Russian writer, philanthropist, and Freemason whose activities were intended to raise the educational and cultural level of the Russian people and included the production of social satires as well as the founding of schools and libraries. Influenced by Freemasonry, Novikov converted his journals and his ambitious publishing enterprise into vehicles of freethinking and even criticized Empress Catherine II the Great. She suspended publication of his journals and had him arrested in 1792. He was released by Emperor Paul in 1796 but was forbidden to resume his journalistic activities.


Nikolay Ivanovich Novikov (Russian: Никола́й Ива́нович Новико́в) (8 May [O.S. 27 April] 1744 - 12 August [O.S. 31 July] 1818) was a Russian writer and philanthropist most representative of his country's Enlightenment. Frequently considered to be the first Russian journalist, he aimed at advancing the cultural and educational level of the Russian public.

Together with Johann Georg Schwartz, Ivan Vladimirovich Lopukhin, and Semion Ivanovich Gamaleya he brought martinism and rosicrucianism to Russia.

Novikov belonged to the first generation of Russians that benefited from the creation of the Moscow University in 1755. He took an active part in the Legislative Assembly of 1767, which sought to produce a new code of laws. Inspired by this kind of freethinking activity, he took over editing the Moscow Gazette and launched satirical journals, patterned after The Tatler and The Spectator. His attacks on the existing social customs prompted jocund retorts from Catherine the Great, who even set her own journal called Vsyakaya vsyachina to comment on Novikov's articles.

By the 1780s, Novikov rose to the highest positions in Russian Freemasonry, which liberally funded his ambitious book-publishing ventures. Novikov's press produced a third part of contemporary Russian books and several newspapers. Novikov used his influence for various noble purposes, such as a large-scale project of promoting Shakespeare to Russian public.

When the French Revolution started, Catherine changed her attitude towards the likes of Novikov. His printing-house was confiscated. Three years later, without a formal trial, he was incarcerated in the Shlisselburg Fortress for 15 years. Much of his printed material was pulped, including 1,000 copies of Edward Young's The Last Day (1713). Emperor Paul set Novikov free, but the latter was too scared and broken-hearted to resume his journalistic activities.



Aleksandr Radishchev

born Aug. 20 [Aug. 31, New Style], 1749, Moscow, Russia
died Sept. 12 [Sept. 24], 1802, St. Petersburg

writer who founded the revolutionary tradition in Russian literature and thought.

Radishchev, a nobleman, was educated in Moscow (1757–62), at the St. Petersburg Corps of Pages (1763–66), and at Leipzig, where he studied law (1766–71). His career as a civil servant brought him into contact with people from all social strata. Under the influence of the cult of sentiment developed by such writers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he wrote his most important work, Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu (1790; A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow), in which he collected, within the framework of an imaginary journey, all the examples of social injustice, wretchedness, and brutality he had seen. Though the book was an indictment of serfdom, autocracy, and censorship, Radishchev intended it for the enlightenment of Catherine the Great, who he assumed was unaware of such conditions. Its unfortunate timing (the year after the French Revolution) led to his immediate arrest and sentence to death. The sentence was commuted to 10 years’ exile in Siberia, where he remained until 1797.

Radishchev’s harsh treatment chilled liberal hopes for reform. In 1801 he was pardoned by Alexander I and employed by the government to draft legal reforms, but he committed suicide a year later. Though his work has slight claim to literary quality, his fame was great and his thought inspired later generations, especially the Decembrists, an elite group of intellectuals and noblemen who staged an abortive rebellion against autocracy in 1825.


Alexander Nikolayevich Radishchev (Russian: Алекса́ндр Никола́евич Ради́щев; 31 August [O.S. 20 August] 1749 – 24 September [O.S. 12 September] 1802) was a Russian author and social critic who was arrested and exiled under Catherine the Great. He brought the tradition of radicalism in Russian literature to prominence with the publication in 1790 of his Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow. His depiction of socio-economic conditions in Russia earned him exile to Siberia until 1797.

Radishchev was born into a minor noble family on an estate just outside of Moscow. His youth was spent with a relative in Moscow, where he was allowed to spend time at the newly established Moscow University. His family connections provided him with an opportunity to serve as a page in Catherine's court, where his exceptional service and intellectual capabilities set him apart. Because of his exceptional academic promise, Radishchev was chosen of one of a dozen young students to be sent abroad to acquire Western learning. For several years he studied at the University of Leipzig. His foreign education influenced his approach to Russian society, and upon his return he hoped to incorporate Enlightenment philosophies such as natural law and the social contract to Russian conditions. He lauded revolutionaries like George Washington and praised the early stages of the French Revolution. His most famous work - A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow - is a critique of Russian society. He was especially critical of serfdom and the limits to personal freedom imposed by the autocracy.

Catherine the Great read the work, viewed Radishchev's calls for reform as evidence of Jacobin-style radicalism, and ordered copies of the text confiscated and destroyed. He was arrested and condemned to death. This sentence was later commuted to exile to Ilimsk in Siberia, though before his exile he underwent both physical and psychological torture.

Radishchev was freed by Catherine's successor Tsar Paul, and attempted again to push for reforms in Russia's government. Under the reign of Alexander I, Radishchev was briefly employed to help revise Russian law, a realization of his lifelong dream. Unfortunately, his tenure in this administrative body was short and unsuccessful. In 1802 a despondent Radishchev - possibly threatened with another Siberian exile - committed suicide by drinking poison.


The Journey From St. Petersburg to Moscow (in Russian: Путешествие из Петербурга в Москву), published in 1790, was the most famous work by the Russian writer Aleksandr Nikolayevich Radishchev.

The work, often described as a Russian Uncle Tom's Cabin, is a polemical study of the problems in the Russia of Catherine the Great - serfdom, the powers of the nobility, the issues in government and governance, social structure and personal freedom and liberty.

The book was immediately banned and Radishchev sentenced, first to death, then to banishment in eastern Siberia. It was not freely published in Russia until 1905.

In the book Radishchev takes an imaginary journey between Russia's two principal cities; each stop along the way reveals particular problems for the traveller through the medium of story telling.

The book itself represented a challenge to Catherine in Russia, despite the fact that Radishchev was no revolutionary - merely an observer of the ills he saw within Russian society and government at the time.

Published during the period of the French Revolution, the book borrows ideas and principles from the great philosophes of the day relating to an enlightened outlook and the concept of Natural Law.


Catherine’s reign saw real accomplishment in Russian poetry. Excellent verse was produced, and the canon as it is known today began to take shape. It is worth stressing the important role of tradition and the canon in Russian poetry. To a much greater extent than in many other traditions, including the English and American, Russian poetry typically relies on the reader’s detailed knowledge of earlier poems. The poems of the past constitute a sort of literary bible, a common culture known in detail by the literate public. Poets count on their readers being sufficiently familiar with the tradition to detect even faint allusions to earlier poems. Moreover, Russian poets also rely on readers to appreciate the semantic associations that specific verse forms have acquired, which is perhaps one reason why free (unrhymed and unmetered) verse has played a relatively small role in Russian poetry.

Three poets—Ivan Khemnitser, Ivan Dmitriyev, and Ivan Krylov—are known for their fables. Krylov’s fables rapidly became classics and some of his lines proverbial. Rossiyada (written 1771–79; “The Rossiad”), an epic by Mikhail Kheraskov, is a rather stilted effort that proved a literary dead end. It was the ode, rather than the epic, that was the successful high poetic genre of the age. But Vasily Maykov and Ippolit Bogdanovich wrote amusing mock epics. Maykov’s Elisey; ili, razdrazhenny Vakkh (1769; “Elisei; or, Bacchus Enraged”) cleverly parodies a Russian translation of the Aeneid with a narrative in which the Greek pantheon directs whores, drunks, and other low-lifes. In Dushenka: drevnyaya povest v volnykh stikhakh (1783; “Dushenka: An Ancient Tale in Free Verse”), Bogdanovich produced a light and witty updating of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche.

Gavrila Derzhavin is generally considered to be Russia’s greatest 18th-century poet. He is best known for his odes, including his chatty panegyric “Oda k Felitse” (1782; “Ode to Felitsa”), in which praise for the prosaic virtues of Empress Catherine alternates with depictions of the low amusements of courtiers. His poems “Bog” (1784; “God”) and “Vodopad” (1791–94; “The Waterfall”) daringly make the metaphysical concrete and the specific poetic. Derzhavin, who also served as a governor and as Catherine’s personal secretary, exemplifies the tendency of 18th-century writers to pursue government careers, a practice that was almost unthinkable a century later.

Ivan Khemnitser


Ivan Ivanovitch Chemnitzer or Khemnitzer (1745-84) was a Russian fabulist, born at Yenotayevsk, Astrakhan, the son of a German physician of Chemnitz, who had served in the Russian army under Peter the Great. He participated in the campaigns of the Seven Years' War and afterward devoted himself to mining engineering and subsequently visited Germany, Holland, and France. Upon his return he accepted a position as Consul to Smyrna, where an attack of melancholia hastened his death.

In contradistinction to Sumarokov and others among the earlier fabulists of Russia, whose works are essentially satires, Chemnitzer was the first to introduce the genuine fable into Russian literature. He was thus one of the predecessors of Krylov, having brought the Russian fable to its greatest perfection. Although to some extent translations or imitations of La Fontaine and Gellert, his works show considerable originality. Their good humor, vivacity of dialogue, simplicity, and distinctively national character have greatly endeared him to the Russian people. Among his best original fables are The Metaphysician, The Tree, The Peasant and his Load, and The Rich Man and the Poor Man. Grot produced the best edition of his works (St. Petersburg, 1873).



Ivan Krylov


Ivan Andreyevich Krylov (Russian: Ива́н Андре́евич Крыло́в) (February 13, 1769 – November 21, 1844) is Russia's best known fabulist. While many of his earlier fables were loosely based on Aesop and Jean de La Fontaine, later fables were original work.

Ivan Krylov was born in Moscow, but spent his early years in Orenburg and Tver. His father, a distinguished military officer, died in 1779, leaving the family destitute. A few years later Krylov and his mother moved to St.Petersburg in the hope of securing a government pension. There, Krylov obtained a position in the civil service, but gave it up after his mother's death in 1788. His literary career began already in 1783, when he sold a comedy he had written to a publisher. He used the proceeds to obtain the works of Molière, Racine, and Boileau. It was probably under the influence of these writers that he produced Philomela, which gave him access to the dramatic circle of Knyazhnin.


Krylov made several attempts to start a literary magazine. All met with little success, but, together with his plays, these magazine upstarts helped Krylov make a name for himself and gain recognition in literary circles. For about four years (1797-1801) Krylov lived at the country estate of Prince Sergey Galitzine, and when the prince was appointed military governor of Livonia, he accompanied him as a secretary. Little is known of the years immediately after Krylov resigned from this position, other than the commonly accepted myth that he wandered from town to town in pursuit of card games. His first collection of fables, 23 in number, appeared in 1809. From 1812 to 1841 he was employed by the Imperial Public Library, first as an assistant, and then as head of the Russian Books Department.

Honors were showered on Krylov even during his lifetime: the Russian Academy of Sciences admitted him as a member in 1811, and bestowed on him its gold medal; in 1838 a great festival was held under imperial sanction to celebrate the jubilee of his first publication, and the Tzar granted him a generous pension. By the time he died in 1844, 77,000 copies of his fables had been sold in Russia, and his unique brand of wisdom and humor gained popularity. His fables were often rooted in historic events, and are easily recognizable by their style of language and engaging story. Though he began as a translator and imitator of existing fables, Krylov soon showed himself an imaginative, prolific writer, who found abundant original material in his native land. In Russia his language is considered of high quality: his words and phrases are direct, simple and idiomatic, with color and cadence varying with the theme; many of them became actual idioms. "Krylov spent almost thirty years adding to this collection. The last edition, which he compiled shortly before his death and which appeared in print in December 1843, contained 197 fables."

Krylov's statue in the Summer Garden (1854-55) is one of the most notable monuments in St.Petersburg. It is also the first monument to a poet erected in Eastern Europe.[citation needed] All four sides of the pedestal represent scenes from Krylov's archetypal fables.



Mikhail Kheraskov

born Nov. 5 [Oct. 25, Old Style], 1733, Pereyaslav, Poltava province, Ukraine, Russian Empire [now Pereyaslav-Khmelnitsky, Ukraine]
died Oct. 9 [Sept. 27], 1807, Moscow, Russia

epic poet, playwright, and influential representative of Russian classicism who was known in his own day as the Russian Homer.

The son of a Walachian noble who had settled in Russia, Kheraskov became director of Moscow University in 1763. He determined to give Russia a national epic, then the sine qua non of an independently important literature. Rossiyada (1771–79; “Russian Epic”) is based on the capture of Kazan (1552) by Ivan the Terrible, and Vladimir vozrozhdyonny (1785; “Vladimir Reborn”) is concerned with St. Vladimir’s introduction of Christianity to Russia. Kheraskov composed 20 plays, including tragedies and comedies, embodying classical principles of dramaturgy. He also edited literary magazines. His didactic poem Plody nauk (1761; “The Fruits of the Sciences”) was a polemic against Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s attack on scientific progress. Though they were highly respected during the 18th century, Kheraskov’s works were rejected by the 19th century and now are read only by specialists.



Ippolit Bogdanovich

Ippolit Fyodorovich Bogdanovich (December 23, 1743, Perevolochna – January 18, 1803, Kursk) was a Russian classicist author of light poetry, best known for his long poem Dushenka (1778).


Coming from a noble Ukrainian family, Bogdanovich studied in the Moscow University until 1761. His literary career started two years later with editing a literary journal. In 1766, he joined the Russian embassy in Dresden as a secretary. Three years later, he was back in Saint Petersburg, where he edited the only regular official newspaper, the Vedomosti, between 1775 and 1782. In 1788, Bogdanovich was appointed Director of State Archives, a post which he treated as a sinecure, translating Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau at loose hours.

It was in 1778 that Bogdanovich brought out his only work of lasting fame, Dushenka. This long poem, resembling a mock epic, was a reworking of La Fontaine's Psyche, a subject originating from Apuleius but ingeniously stylized by Bogdanovich as a Russian folk tale. The definitive edition followed in 1783 and instantly became popular for its mildly scurrilous passages. La Fontaine's conventional heroine was presented by Bogdanovich as "a living, modern girl from a gentry family of the middling sort". Following the publication, Bogdanovich was recognized as the foremost Russian practitioner of light poetry and gained admission into the literary circle of Princess Dashkova, while Catherine II of Russia engaged him to write several comedies for her Hermitage Theatre.

One of Tolstoy's Neoclassical illustrations to Dushenka (1820-33).By 1841, Bogdanovich's chef d'oeuvre went though 15 editions. Today, it is remembered primarily for Fyodor Tolstoy's Neoclassical illustrations and citations in Pushkin's works such as Eugene Onegin. Indeed, Dushenka was a major influence on young Pushkin, who avidly read the poem during his Lyceum years but later discarded Bogdanovich's verse as immature.

Nabokov summed up contemporary opinion about Dushenka in the following dictum: "The airiness of its tetrametric passages and its glancing mother-of-pearl wit are foregleams of young Pushkin's art; it is a significant stage in the development of Russian poetry; its naive colloquial melodies also influenced Pushkin's direct predecessors, Karamzin, Batyushkov, and Zhukovski.



Gavrila Derzhavin

born July 3 [July 14, New Style], 1743, Kazan province, Russia
died July 8 [July 20], 1816, Zvanka, Novgorod province, Russia

Russia’s greatest and most original 18th-century poet, whose finest achievements lie in his lyrics and odes.

Born of impoverished nobility, Derzhavin joined the army as a common soldier in 1762 and was made an officer in 1772. In 1777 he entered the civil service in St. Petersburg, and during the next 26 years his posts included those of provincial governor at Olonets and Tambov, senator, and minister of justice. His Oda k Felitse (1782; “Ode to Felicia”), addressed to Catherine the Great, gained her favour, and he was briefly her private secretary. His liberal political inclinations put an end to his career in 1803, at which time he retired to his estate at Zvanka.

Derzhavin preserved the grandeur and solemnity of the classical ode as practiced in Russia but made it less restrictive and more lyrical and personal in its tone and subject matter. His odes are notable for passages of magnificent imagery. Derzhavin worked in many other poetic genres, and his poems express both lofty and idealistic moralism and his strongly sensual appreciation of life. His work helped to break down the strictures of the classical poetic genres. His lyrics and odes include “Na smert knyazya Meshcherskogo” (1779; “On the Death of Prince Meshchersky”), Bog (1784; Ode to the Deity), and Vodopad (1794; “The Waterfall”).

16-year-old Pushkin reciting his poem before old Derzhavin in the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum (1911 painting by Ilya Repin).

Gavriil (Gavrila) Romanovich Derzhavin (Russian: Гаврии́л (Гаври́ла) Рома́нович Держа́вин, July 14, 1743 – July 20, 1816) was arguably one of the greatest Russian poets before Alexander Pushkin, as well as a statesman. Although his works are traditionally considered literary classicism, his best verse is rich with antitheses and conflicting sounds in a way reminiscent of John Donne and other metaphysical poets.

Derzhavin was born in Kazan. His distant ancestor Morza Bagrim, who relocated from the Great Horde in the 15th century to Moscow, was baptized and became a vassal of the Russian Grand Prince Vasily II. Nevertheless, by the 18th century Derzhavin's father was just a poor country squire who died when Gavrila was still young. He received a little formal education at the gymnasium there but left for Petersburg as a private in the guards. There he rose from the ranks as a common soldier to the highest offices of state under Catherine the Great. He first impressed his commanders during Pugachev's Rebellion. Politically astute, his career advanced when he left the military service for civil service. He rose to the position of governor of Olonets (1784) and Tambov (1785), personal secretary to the Empress (1791), President of the College of Commerce (1794), and finally the Minister of Justice (1802). He was dismissed from his post in 1803 and spent the rest of his life in the country estate at Zvanka near Novgorod, writing idylls and anacreontic verse. He died in 1816 and was buried in the Khutyn Monastery near Zvanka, reburied by the Soviets in the Novgorod Kremlin, and then reinterred at Khutyn.



Monument of Gavrila Derzhavin in KazanDerzhavin is best remembered for his odes, dedicated to the Empress and other courtiers. He paid little attention to the prevailing system of genres, and many a time would fill an ode with elegiac, humorous, or satiric contents. In his grand ode to the Empress, for instance, he mentions searching for fleas in his wife's hair and compares his own poetry with lemonade.

Unlike other Classicist poets, Derzhavin found delight in carefully chosen details, such as a colour of wallpaper in his bedroom or a poetic inventory of his daily meal. He believed that French was a language of harmony but that Russian was a language of conflict. Although he relished harmonious alliterations, sometimes he deliberately instrumented his verse with cacophonous effect.

Derzhavin's major odes were the impeccable "On the Death of Prince Meschersky" (1779); the playful "Ode to Felica" (1782); the lofty "God" (1785), which was translated into many European languages; "Waterfall" (1794), occasioned by the death of Prince Potemkin; and "Bullfinch" (1800), a poignant elegy on the death of his friend Suvorov. He also provided lyrics for the first Russian national anthem, Let the sound of victory sound!

According to D.S. Mirsky, "Derzhavin's poetry is a universe of amazing richness; its only drawback was that the great poet was of no use either as a master or as an example. He did nothing to raise the level of literary taste or to improve the literary language, and as for his poetical flights, it was obviously impossible to follow him into those giddy spheres." Nevertheless, Nikolai Nekrasov professed to follow Derzhavin rather than Pushkin, and Derzhavin's line of broken rhythms was continued by Marina Tsvetaeva in the 20th century.

Drama and prose fiction

Although the theatrical repertoire in the late 18th and early 19th centuries continued to be dominated by translations and adaptations, numerous, if not very distinguished, tragedies were written by Sumarokov, Kheraskov, Vladislav Ozerov, and others. Of greater merit were two comedies by Denis Fonvizin, Brigadir (1769; The Brigadier), a satire on Gallomania, and Nedorosl (1783; “The Minor”). Prose fiction began to appear in print only in the mid-18th century. Mikhail Chulkov’s picaresque Prigozhaya povarikha (1770; “The Comely Cook”) is addressed to a popular audience. At the end of the 18th century, the dominant figure of Russian sentimentalism was Nikolay Karamzin, author of Pisma russkogo puteshestvennika (1792; Letters of a Russian Traveler, 1789–1790), describing a journey to western Europe in 1789–90, and of the very popular story “Bednaya Liza” (1792; “Poor Liza”), a tale of lovers separated because they belong to different social classes, which seems cloying to the modern reader. Appointed imperial historiographer, Karamzin later wrote the 12-volume Istoriya gosudarstva rossiyskogo (1818–26; “History of the Russian State”), which is a landmark of Russian literature. Karamzin’s importance also lies in his contribution to the Russian literary language. His writing reflected the language of high society, using a Gallicized vocabulary and syntax at the expense of Church Slavonic.


Vladislav Ozerov

Vladislav Aleksandrovich Ozerov (Russian: Владисла́в Алекса́ндрович О́зеров) (11 October 1769 – 17 September 1816) was the most popular Russian dramatist in the first decades of the 19th century.

Ozerov wrote five tragedies "in the stilted and sentimental manner of the Frenchified era". Their success was tremendous, largely owing to the remarkable acting of one of the greatest Russian tragediennes, Ekaterina Semyonova. What the public liked in these tragedies was the atmosphere of sensibility and the polished, Karamzinian sweetness that Ozerov infused into the classical forms.

Ozerov's first success was Oedipus in Athens (1804), a wry comment on Alexander I's rumoured privity to the murder of his father Paul. The public was ecstatic about his next tragedy, Fingal (1805), staged with effective sets representing sombre Scottish scenery. Dmitry Donskoy (1807) was staged within days after the Battle of Eylau, when its patriotic ethos was particularly apposite. His last play was Polyxena (1809), variously assessed as the finest sentimental tragedy in the language and the best Russian tragedy on the French classical model.

The production of Polyxena turned out to be a flop, largely due to intrigues of Ozerov's literary woes. He was forced to leave St. Petersburg for his country estate near Zubtsov, where he reportedly went mad and burnt all his papers. Ozerov's last years were spent in poverty, and his posthumous reputation was damaged by Pushkin's dismissal of his plays as "very mediocre".



Denis Fonvizin

Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin (Russian: Дени́с Ива́нович Фонви́зин, from German: von Wiesen; 14 April 1744 or 1745 – 1 December 1792) is a playwright of the Russian Enlightenment whose plays are still staged today. His main works are two satirical comedies which mock contemporary Russian gentry.


Born in Moscow, of a family of gentry of Livonian descent, he received a good education at the University of Moscow and very early began writing and translating. He entered the civil service, becoming secretary to Count Nikita Panin, one of the great noblemen of Catherine the Great's reign. Because of Panin's protection, Fonvizin was able to write critical plays without fear of being arrested, and, in the late 1760s, he brought out the first of his two famous comedies, The Brigadier-General.

A man of means, he was always a dilettante rather than a professional author, though he became prominent in literary and intellectual circles. In 1777-78 he traveled abroad, the principal aim of his journey being the medical faculty of Montpellier. He described his voyage in his Letters from France — one of the most elegant specimens of the prose of the period, and the most striking document of that anti-French nationalism which in the Russian elite of the time of Catherine went hand in hand with a complete dependence on French literary taste.

In 1782 appeared Fonvizin's second and best comedy The Minor, which definitely classed him as the foremost of Russian playwrights. His last years were passed in constant suffering and traveling abroad for his health. He died in Saint Petersburg in 1792.

Works and influence
Fonvizin's reputation rests almost entirely on his two comedies, which are beyond doubt the most popular Russian plays before Alexander Griboyedov's Woe from Wit. They are both in prose and adhere to the canons of classical comedy. Fonvizin's principal model, however, was not Molière, but the great Danish playwright Holberg, whom he read in German, and some of whose plays he had translated.

Both comedies are plays of social satire with definite axes to grind. The Brigadier-General is a satire against the fashionable French semi-education of the petits-maîtres. It is full of excellent fun, and though less serious than The Minor, it is better constructed. But The Minor, though imperfect in dramatic construction, is a more remarkable work and justly considered Fonvizin's masterpiece.

The point of the satire in The Minor is directed against the brutish and selfish crudeness and barbarity of the uneducated country gentry. The central character, Mitrofanushka, is the accomplished type of vulgar and brutal selfishness, unredeemed by a single human feature — even his fondly doting mother gets nothing from him for her pains. The dialogue of these vicious characters (in contrast to the stilted language of the lovers and their virtuous uncles) is true to life and finely individualized; and they are all masterpieces of characterization — a worthy introduction to the great portrait gallery of Russian fiction.

As a measure of its popularity, several expressions from The Minor have been turned into proverbs, and many authors (amongst whom Alexandr Pushkin) regularly cite from this play, or at least hint to it by mentioning the character's names.



Nikolay Karamzin

Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin (Russian: Никола́й Миха́йлович Карамзи́н) (December 1, 1766 – June 3, 1826) a Russian author credited with reforming the Russian literary language. He is best remembered for his History of the Russian State, a 12-volume national history modelled after the works of Gibbon.

Early life
Karamzin was born in the village of Mikhailovka, in the government of Orenburg on the 1st of December (old style) 1766. His father was an officer in the Russian army. He was sent to Moscow to study under Swiss-German Teacher Johann Matthias Schaden; he later moved to St Petersburg, where he made the acquaintance of Dmitriev, a Russian poet of some merit, and occupied himself with translating essays by foreign writers into his native language. After residing for some time in St Petersburg he went to Simbirsk, where he lived in retirement until induced to revisit Moscow. There, finding himself in the midst of the society of learned men, he again took to literary work.

In 1789 he resolved to travel, and visited Germany, France, Switzerland and England. On his return he published his Letters of a Russian Traveller, which met with great success. These letters, modelled after Irish-born Poet, Laurence Sterne´s , (1713 – 1768), Sentimental Journey, were first printed in the Moscow Journal, which he edited, but were later collected and issued in six volumes (1797-1801).

In the same periodical Karamzin also published translations from French and some original stories, including Poor Liza and Natalia the Boyar's Daughter (both 1792). These stories introduced Russian readers to sentimentalism, and Karamzin was hailed as "a Russian Sterne".

Karamzin as a writer
In 1794 Karamzin abandoned his literary journal and published a miscellany in two volumes entitled Aglaia, in which appeared, among other stories, The Island of Bornholm and Ilya Muromets, the latter a story based on the adventures of the well-known hero of many a Russian legend. From 1797 to 1799 he issued another miscellany or poetical almanac, The Aonides, in conjunction with Derzhavin and Dmitriev. In 1798 he compiled The Pantheon, a collection of pieces from the works of the most celebrated authors ancient and modern, translated into Russian. Many of his lighter productions were subsequently printed by him in a volume entitled My Trifles. Admired by Alexander Pushkin and Vladimir Nabokov, the style of his writings is elegant and flowing, modelled on the easy sentences of the French prose writers rather than the long periodical paragraphs of the old Slavonic school.

In 1802 and 1803 Karamzin edited the journal the European Messenger (Vestnik Evropy). It was not until after the publication of this work that he realized where his strength lay, and commenced his 12 volume History of the Russian State. In order to accomplish the task, he secluded himself for two years at Simbirsk, the Volga river town where Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, a.k.a. Lenin, (1870 - 1924), was born. This town was known then, after Lenin, for some 60 years as Ulianovsk, while Saint Petersburg became Leningrad till around 1990.

When emperor Alexander learned the cause of his retirement, Karamzin was invited to Tver, where he read to the emperor the first eight volumes of his history. He was a strong supporter of the anti-Polish policies of the Russian Empire, and expressed hope that there would be no Poland under any shape or name In 1816 he removed to St Petersburg, where he spent the happiest days of his life, enjoying the favour of Alexander I and submitting to him the sheets of his great work, which the emperor read over with him in the gardens of the palace of Tsarskoye Selo.

He did not, however, live to carry his work further than the eleventh volume, terminating it at the accession of Michael Romanov in 1613. He died on the 22nd of May (old style) 1826, in the Tauride Palace. A monument was erected to his memory at Simbirsk in 1845.

Karamzin as a historian
Karamzin is well regarded as a historian[citation needed]. Until the appearance of his work little had been done in this direction in Russia. The preceding attempt of Tatishchev was merely a rough sketch, inelegant in style, and without the true spirit of criticism. Karamzin was most industrious in accumulating materials, and the notes to his volumes are mines of interesting information. Perhaps Karamzin may justly be criticized for the false gloss and romantic air thrown over the early Russian annals; in this respect his work is reminiscent of that of Sir Walter Scott, whose writings were at that time creating a great sensation throughout Europe and probably influenced upon him.

Karamzin wrote openly as the panegyrist of the autocracy; indeed, his work has been styled the Epic of Despotism, and considered Ivan III as the architect of Russian greatness, a glory that he had earlier (perhaps while more under the influence of Western ideas) assigned to Peter the Great. (The deeds of Ivan the Terrible are described with disgust, though.)

In the battle pieces he demonstrates considerable powers of description, and the characters of many of the chief personages in the Russian annals are drawn in firm and bold lines. As a critic Karamzin was of great service to his country; in fact he may be regarded as the founder of the review and essay (in the Western style) among the Russians.

Also, Karamzin is sometimes considered a founding father of Russian conservatism. Upon appointing him a state historian, Alexander I greatly valued Karamzin's advice on political matters. His conservative views were clearly expounded in The Memoir on Old and New Russia, written for Alexander I in 1812. This scathing attack on reforms proposed by Mikhail Speransky was to become a cornerstone of official ideology of imperial Russia for years to come.



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