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Russian literature refers to the literature of Russia or its émigrés, and to the Russian-language literature of several independent nations once a part of what was historically Russia or the Soviet Union. Prior to the nineteenth century, the seeds of the Russian literary tradition were sown by the poets, playwrights and writers as Gavrila Derzhavin, Denis Fonvizin, Alexander Sumarokov, Vasily Trediakovsky, Nikolay Karamzin and Ivan Krylov.

From the early 1830s, Russian literature underwent an astounding golden age, beginning with the poet Alexander Pushkin and culminating in two of the greatest novelists in world literature, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. A second wave followed, led by prosaists Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky. In the Twentieth Century leading figures of Russian literature included internationally recognised poets such as Alexander Blok, Sergei Yesenin, Anna Achmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Joseph Brodsky, Vladimir Mayakovsky and prose writers Ivan Bunin, Andrei Bely, Vladimir Nabokov, Mikhail Sholokhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Andrey Platonov, Vassily Grossman and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Early historyEdit

Old Russian literature consists of several masterpieces written in the Old Russian language (not to be confused with the contemporaneous Church Slavonic). Anonymous works of this nature include The Tale of Igor's Campaign and Praying of Daniel the Immured. The so-called "lives of the saints" (Russian: жития святых, zhitiya svyatykh) formed a popular genre of the Old Russian literature. Life of Alexander Nevsky offers a well-known example. Other Russian literary monuments include Zadonschina, Physiologist, Synopsis and A Journey Beyond the Three Seas. Bylinas – oral folk epics – fused Christian and pagan traditions. Medieval Russian literature had an overwhelmingly religious character and used an adapted form of the Church Slavonic language with many South Slavic elements. The first work in colloquial Russian, the autobiography of the archpriest Avvakum, emerged only in the mid-17th century.

Petrine eraEdit

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The modernization of Russia, commonly associated with Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, coincided with a reform of the Russian alphabet and increased tolerance of the idea of employing the popular language for general literary purposes. Authors like Antiochus Kantemir, Vasily Trediakovsky, and Mikhail Lomonosov in the earlier 18th century paved the way for poets like Gavrila Derzhavin, playwrights like Alexander Sumarokov and Denis Fonvizin, and prose writers like Alexander Radishchev and Nikolay Karamzin; the latter is often credited with creation of the modern Russian literary language.

Golden AgeEdit


Alexander Pushkin

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The 19th century is traditionally referred to as the "Golden Era" of Russian literature. Romanticism permitted a flowering of especially poetic talent: the names of Vasily Zhukovsky and later that of his protégé Alexander Pushkin came to the fore. Pushkin is credited with both crystallizing the literary Russian language and introducing a new level of artistry to Russian literature. His best-known work is a novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. An entire new generation of poets including Mikhail Lermontov, Yevgeny Baratynsky, Konstantin Batyushkov, Nikolay Nekrasov, Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, Fyodor Tyutchev, and Afanasy Fet followed in Pushkin's steps.

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Prose was flourishing as well. The first great Russian novelist was Nikolai Gogol. Then came Nikolai Leskov, Ivan Turgenev, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, all mastering both short stories and novels, and novelist Ivan Goncharov. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky soon became internationally renowned to the point that many scholars such as F.R. Leavis have described one or the other as the greatest novelist ever. In the second half of the century Anton Chekhov excelled in writing short stories and became perhaps the leading dramatist internationally of his period.

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Other important nineteenth-century developments included Ivan Krylov the fabulist; non-fiction writers such as Vissarion Belinsky and Alexander Herzen; playwrights such as Aleksandr Griboyedov and Aleksandr Ostrovsky and Kozma Prutkov (a collective pen name) the satirist.


Nineteenth century Russian literature perpetuated disparate ideas of suicide; it became another facet of culture and society in which men and women were regarded and treated differently. A woman could not commit the noble, heroic suicide that a man could; she would not be regarded highly or as a martyr, but as a simple human who, overcome with feelings of love gone unfulfilled and having no one to protect her from being victimized by society, surrendered herself.[1] Many of the 19th century Russian heroines were victims of suicide as well as victims of the lifestyle of St. Petersburg, which was long argued to have imported the very idea of and justifications for suicide into Russia. St. Petersburg, which was built as a Western rather than a Russian city was long accused by supporters of traditional Russian lifestyles as importing Western ideas—the ideas of achieving nobility, committing suicide and, the synthesis of these two ideas, the nobility of suicide being among them.[2]

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Novels set in Moscow in particular, such as Anna Karenina, and Bednaia Liza (Poor Liza),[3] follow a trend of female suicides which suggest a weakness in character which exists only because they are women; they are said by readers to be driven by their emotions into situations from which suicide seems to be the only escape. These instances of self-murder have no deeper meaning than that and, in the case of Bednaia Liza, the setting of Moscow serves only to provide a familiarity which will draw the reader to it, and away from Western novels.[3]

Contrastingly, many novels set in St. Petersburg viewed suicide primarily through the lens of a male protagonist (as in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment) as opposed to the females who held the spotlight in the aforementioned titles. Beyond that, instead of the few females who commit suicide in these Petersburg texts[3] being propelled to such lengths by a love so powerful and inescapable that it consumed them, financial hardships and moral degradation which they faced in the Imperial Capital[3] contaminated or destroyed their femininity; related to this, prostitution became markedly more prominent in popular literature in the 19th century.[1]

Another new aspect of literary suicides introduced in the Petersburg texts is that authors have shifted their gazes from individuals and their plot-driving actions to presentations of broad political ideologies, which are common to Greek and Roman heroes—this step was taken in order to establish a connection between Russian male protagonists who take their own lives and Classic tragic heroes, whereas the women of the literature remained as microcosms for the stereotyped idea of the female condition. The idea of suicide as a mode of protecting one’s right to self-sovereignty was seen as legitimate within the sphere of St. Petersburg, a secular and “Godless…”[3] capital. Unlike Classic tragic heroes, the deaths of male protagonists, such as in Nikolai Gogol’s Nevskii Prospekt and Dmitry Grigorovich’s Svistul’kin, did not bring about great celebrations in their honor, or even faint remembrances amongst their comrades. In fact, both protagonists die lonely deaths, suffering quietly and alone in their final hours. Until the Russian revolution in 1917, such themes remained prominent in literature.[3]

Silver AgeEdit

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The beginning of the 20th century ranks as the Silver Age of Russian poetry. Well-known poets of the period include: Alexander Blok, Sergei Yesenin, Valery Bryusov, Konstantin Balmont, Mikhail Kuzmin, Igor Severyanin, Sasha Chorny, Nikolay Gumilyov, Maximilian Voloshin, Innokenty Annensky, Zinaida Gippius. The poets most often associated with the "Silver Age" are Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak.

While the Silver Age is considered to be the development of the 19th century Russian literature tradition, some avant-garde poets tried to overturn it: Velimir Khlebnikov, David Burliuk, Aleksei Kruchenykh and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Though the Silver Age is famous mostly for its poetry, it produced some first-rate novelists and short-story writers, such as Aleksandr Kuprin, Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin, Leonid Andreyev, Fedor Sologub, Aleksey Remizov, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Andrei Bely, though most of them wrote poetry as well as prose.

XX Century: Soviet and "White émigré" literatureEdit

The first years of the Soviet regime were marked by the proliferation of avant-garde literature groups. One of the most important was the Oberiu movement that included Nikolay Zabolotsky, Alexander Vvedensky, Konstantin Vaginov and the most famous Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms. Other famous authors experimenting with language were novelists Andrei Platonov and Yuri Olesha and short story writers Isaak Babel and Mikhail Zoshchenko.

In the 1930s Socialist realism became the officially approved style. Several acclaimed Soviet novelists of the time were Maxim Gorky, Nobel Prize winner Mikhail Sholokhov, and Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy; and poets Konstantin Simonov and Aleksandr Tvardovsky are being read in Russia to this day. Other Soviet celebrities, such as Alexander Serafimovich, Nikolai Ostrovsky, Alexander Fadeyev, Fyodor Gladkov or Demyan Bedny have never been published by mainstream publishers after 1989.(Citation needed)

Few of the pre-World War II Soviet writers could be published without strictly following the Socialist realism guidelines. A notable exception were satyrics Ilf and Petrov, with their picaresque novels about a charismatic con artist Ostap Bender.

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Writers like those of Serapion Brothers group, who insisted on the right of an author to write independently of political ideology, were forced by authorities to reject their views and accept Socialist realism principles. Some 1930's writers, such as Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita, and Nobel-prize winning Boris Pasternak with his novel Doctor Zhivago continued the classical tradition of Russian literature with little or no hope of being published. Their major works would not be published until the Khrushchev Thaw and Pasternak was forced to refuse his Nobel prize.

Meanwhile, émigré writers, such as poets Vyacheslav Ivanov, Georgy Ivanov and Vladislav Khodasevich; novelists such as Gaito Gazdanov, Mark Aldanov and Vladimir Nabokov and short story Nobel Prize winning writer Ivan Bunin, continued to write in exile.

The Khrushchev Thaw brought some fresh wind to the literature. Poetry became a mass cultural phenomenon: Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky, Robert Rozhdestvensky and Bella Akhmadulina read their poems in stadiums and attracted huge crowds.


Some writers dared to oppose Soviet ideology, like short story writer Varlam Shalamov and Nobel Prize winning novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote about life in the gulag camps, or Vasily Grossman, with his description of World War II events countering the Soviet official historiography. They were dubbed "dissidents" and could not publish their major works until the 1960s.

But the thaw did not last long. In the 1970s, some of the most prominent authors were not only banned from publishing, but were also prosecuted for their Anti-Soviet sentiments or parasitism. Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the country. Others, such as Nobel prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky, novelists Vasily Aksyonov, Eduard Limonov and Sasha Sokolov, and short story writer Sergei Dovlatov, had to emigrate to the US, while Venedikt Yerofeyev and Oleg Grigoriev "emigrated" to alcoholism. Their books were not published officially until perestroika, although fans continued to reprint them manually in a manner called "samizdat" (self-publishing).

In the 1970s there appeared a relatively independent Village Prose, whose most prominent representatives were Viktor Astafyev and Valentin Rasputin. Detective fiction and spy fiction was also popular, thanks to authors like brothers Arkady and Georgy Vayner and Yulian Semyonov.

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The Soviet Union produced an especially large amount of Science fiction literature, inspired by the country's space pioneering. Early science fiction authors, such as Alexander Belyayev, Grigory Adamov, Vladimir Obruchev, Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Alexander Kazantsev, stack to hard science fiction, being influenced by H. G. Wells and Jules Verne.

Since the thaw in the 1960s Soviet science fiction began to form its own style. Philosophy, ethics, utopian and dystopian ideas became its core, and Social science fiction was the most popular subgenre.[4] Books of brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and Kir Bulychev, among others, are reminiscent of social problems and often include satire on contemporary Soviet society. Ivan Yefremov, on the contrary, arose to fame with his utopian views on future as well as on Ancient Greece in his historical novels. Strugatskies are also credited for the Soviet's first science fantasy, the Monday Begins on Saturday trilogy.

Space opera subgenre was less developed, since both state censors and "serious" writers watched it unfavorably. Nevertheless, there were moderately successful attempts to adapt space westerns to Soviet soil. The first was Alexander Kolpakov with "Griada", after came Sergey Snegov with "Men Like Gods", among others. Bulychov, along with his adult books, created children's space adventure series about Alisa Seleznyova, a teenage girl from the future.

Post-Soviet eraEdit

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End of the 20th century has proven a difficult period for Russian literature, with relatively few distinct voices. Among the most discussed authors of this period were Victor Pelevin, who gained popularity with first short stories and then novels, novelist and playwright Vladimir Sorokin, and the poet Dmitry Prigov.

A relatively new trend in Russian literature is that female short story writers Tatyana Tolstaya or Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, and novelists Lyudmila Ulitskaya or Dina Rubina have come into prominence.

Detective stories and thrillers have proven a very successful genre of new Russian literature: in the 90s serial detective novels by Alexandra Marinina, Polina Dashkova and Darya Dontsova were published in millions of copies. In the next decade a more highbrow author Boris Akunin with his series about the 19th century sleuth Erast Fandorin became widely popular.

Fantasy and Science fiction literature is still among best-selling with authors like Sergey Lukyanenko, Nick Perumov and Maria Semenova. A good share of modern Russian science fiction is produced in Ukraine, especially in Kharkiv, home to H. L. Oldie, Alexander Zorich, Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, Yuri Nikitin and Andrey Valentinov. Significant contribution to Russian horror literature has been done by another Ukrainian author Andrey Dashkov.

The tradition of the classic Russian novel continues with such authors as Mikhail Shishkin and Vasily Aksyonov.

The leading poets of the young generation are arguably Dmitry Vodennikov and Andrey Rodionov, both famous not only for their verses, but also for their ability to artistically recite them.

Trent Johnson was a leading critic of Russian literature during this time.

External influencesEdit

British romantic poetryEdit

Robert Burns became a ‘people’s poet’ in Russia. In Imperial times the Russian aristocracy were so out of touch with the peasantry that Burns, translated into Russian, became a symbol for the ordinary Russian people. In Soviet Russia Burns was elevated as the archetypical poet of the people – not least since the Soviet regime slaughtered and silenced its own poets. A new translation of Burns, begun in 1924 by Samuil Marshak, proved enormously popular selling over 600,000 copies.[5][6] In 1956, the Soviet Union became the first country in the world to honour Burns with a commemorative stamp. The poetry of Burns is taught in Russian schools alongside their own national poets. Burns was a great admirer of the egalitarian ethos behind the French Revolution. Whether Burns would have recognised the same principles at work in the Soviet State at its most repressive is moot. This didn’t stop the Communists from claiming Burns as one of their own and incorporating his work into their state propaganda. The post communist years of rampant capitalism in Russia have not tarnished Burns' reputation.[7]

Lord Byron was a major influence on almost all Russian poets of the Golden Era, including Pushkin, Vyazemsky, Zhukovsky, Batyushkov, Baratynsky, Delvig and, especially, Lermontov.[8]

French LiteratureEdit

Writers such as Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac were widely influential.


Russian literature is not only written by Russians. In the Soviet times such popular writers as Belarusian Vasil Bykaŭ, Kyrgyz Chinghiz Aitmatov and Abkhaz Fazil Iskander wrote some of their books in Russian. Some renowned contemporary authors writing in Russian have been born and live in Ukraine (Andriy Kurkov, Marina and Sergey Dyachenko) or Baltic States (Garros and Evdokimov).

A number of prominent Russian authors such as novelists Mikhail Shishkin, Rubén Gallego, Svetlana Martynchik and Dina Rubina, poets Alexei Tsvetkov and Bakhyt Kenjeev, though born in USSR, live and work in West Europe, North America or Israel.

Themes in Russian booksEdit

Suffering, often as a means of redemption, is a recurrent theme in Russian literature. Fyodor Dostoyevsky in particular is noted for exploring suffering in works such as Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment. Christianity and Christian symbolism are also important themes, notably in the works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov. In the 20th century, suffering as a mechanism of evil was explored by authors such as Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. A leading Russian literary critic of the 20th century Viktor Shklovsky, in his book, Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, wrote, "Russian literature has a bad tradition. Russian literature is devoted to the description of unsuccessful love affairs."

Russian Nobel Prize in Literature winnersEdit

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 Higonnet, M. “Suicide: Representations of the Feminine in the Nineteenth Century.” Poetics Today 6, no. ½ (1985): 103–18
  2. Morrissey, S. “Patriarchy on Trial: Suicide, Discipline, and Governance in Imperial Russia.” The Journal of Modern History 75, no. 1 (Mar., 2003): 23–58
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Lilly, I. K. “Imperial Petersburg, Suicide, Russian Literature.” The Slavonic and Eastern European Review 72, no. 3 (1994): 401–23
  4. Encyclopedia Britannica. Science fiction

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