Apr 272012

The genesis of Russian Literature

In Muscovite Russia, the spoken language differed from the written language – or more specifically written languages.

Speaking was done in a common, and probably dialectically varied, form of Russian. Not so much what we’d consider “colloquial” today, as “ordinary” or “normal”. The written language, on the other hand, was highly formal and often archaic, both in vocabulary and in structure. There was Slavonic, or more specifically Church Slavonic, used for Church services and religious texts. Then there was the chancellary Russian, a stiff, formal, and often awkward style used for official and business documents.

Church Slavonic had always been used for religious texts, for translations of the Bible, and for much of Church writing and correspondence. It is, with very few changes that are due to the passage of time and to travels in space, the same Slavonic that was used by Cyrill and Methodius – an early medieval form of Macedonian, with many Greek grammatical forms, and many Russian words. While Church Slavonic in some form or other has been used by all Slavic Orthodox Churches, it did acquire local flavor.

Everyday language in Kievan Russia was the same spoken or written, and the Birch-Bark letters attest to the fact that literacy was widespread in the cities, at the very least, and that writing wasn’t reserved to specially trained clerks. In Muscovite Russia, on the other hand, the fact that the simplest documents were written in a convoluted, elaborate style that required the knowledge not only of writing but a mastery of business-letter-writing, indicates that specialists were charged with the task.

Peter’s reforms affected the use of language as much as every other aspect of Russian life and culture. For one thing, by introducing foreign craftsmen and artists to Russian and by making Russians learn from them, he also introduced a foreign terminology for areas that were unknown or little-used until then. For instance, the naval vocabulary is mostly of Dutch origin. Philosophy, literature, and the arts, as well as science, have many German, French, and Latin loan words.

But change didn’t end there. Whether pushed, encouraged, or merely inspired by Peter, written Russian also underwent a revolution. The three distinct categories of writing and speaking – religious, everyday, and official – merged into one cohesive language with one grammar and one syntax. Spoken expressions made their way into writing and official formulas became part of the vernacular. This blendinc, one could say, paved the way for the rise of Russian fiction, with the appearance of a written language that could reflect in a realistic fashion the manners and speech of actual people.

But “realism” is still far away, although the “Life, written by himself” of the Archpriest Avvakum could be considered “realistic literature” – if it wasn’t a memoir.

Avvakum lived in the second half of the 17th century. He was an Orthodox priest who got caught in the Church reforms undertaken by the Moscow patriarchs. These reforms mainly centered around the revision of translated texts and the alignment of rituals with other Orthodox Churches, especially the Greek Church. Some of these reforms seem trivial, like how to fold one’s fingers when crossing oneself, until one considers that these differences have symbolic and therefore dogmatic meaning.

Avvakum was one of many Russians who opposed the reforms (ironically, in the matter of the translated texts, later scholarship actually showed that the Russian books were more accurate copies of earlier texts than the contemporary Greek ones, which had undergone numerous revisions over the centuries). Avvakum was exiled to Siberia, and according to his autobiography, he suffered persecution throughout his life, but never deviated from his convictions. His Life is written in a relatively informal style, and is usually considered the first work of modern Russian literature.

But the first, formal, and methodical work dedicated to the modernization and reformation of the Russian language was written by Lomonosov.

Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov 1711 – 1765

Russian scientist and writer, who made important contributions to literature, education, and science.

Among his discoveries was the atmosphere of Venus and the Law of Mass Conservation in chemical reactions. His spheres of science were natural science, chemistry, physics, mineralogy, history, art, philology, optical devices and others.

Lomonosov was also a poet and influenced the formation of the modern Russian literary language.

Early life and family

Born in the village of Denisovka (later renamed Lomonosovo in his honor) in Archangelgorod Governorate, in the far north of Russia.

His father, Vasily Dorofeyevich Lomonosov, was a prosperous peasant fisherman turned ship owner, who amassed a small fortune transporting goods from Arkhangelsk to Pustozyorsk, Solovki, Kola, and Lapland.

Lomonosov’s mother was Vasily’s first wife, a deacon’s daughter, Elena Ivanovna Sivkova.

He remained at Denisovka until he was ten, when his father decided that he was old enough to participate in his business ventures, and Lomonosov began accompanying Vasily on trading missions.

Lomonosov had been taught to read as a boy by his neighbor Ivan Shubny, and he spent every spare moment with his books.

He continued his studies with the village deacon, S.N. Sabelnikov; for many years the only books he had access to were religious texts.

When he was fourteen, he was given copies of Meletius Smotrytsky’s Modern Church Slavonic (a grammar book) and Leonty Magnitsky’s Arithmetic.

In 1724, his father married for the third and final time. Lomonosov and his stepmother Irina had an acrimonious relationship.

Education in Moscow and Kiev

In 1730, at nineteen, Lomonosov went to Moscow on foot (over 700 miles).

Not long after arriving, Lomonosov obtained admission into the Slavic Greek Latin Academy by falsely claiming to be a priest’s son.

Lomonosov lived on three kopecks a day, living off only black bread and kvass, but he made rapid progress scholastically. After three years in Moscow he was sent to Kiev to study for one year.

He quickly became dissatisfied with the education he was receiving there, and returned to Moscow several months ahead of schedule, resuming his studies there.

He completed a twelve-year study course in only five years, graduating at the top of his class.

In 1736, Lomonosov was awarded a scholarship to St. Petersburg Academy, then he was rewarded with a two-year grant to study abroad at the University of Marburg, in Germany.

Education abroad

The University of Marburg was among Europe’s most important universities in the mid-18th century due to the presence of the philosopher Christian Wolff, a prominent figure of the German Enlightenment.

Lomonosov became one of Wolff’s personal students while at Marburg.

Both philosophically and as a science administrator, this connection would be the most influential of Lomonosov’s life.

Between 1739–1740 he studied mineralogy, metallurgy, and mining at Bergrat Henckel’s laboratories in Freiberg, Saxony; there he intensified his studies of German literature.

During his residence in Marburg, Lomonosov boarded with Catharina Zilch, a brewer’s widow.

He fell in love with Catharina’s daughter Elizabeth Christine Zilch. They were married in June 1740.

Lomonosov found it extremely difficult to maintain his growing family on the scanty and irregular allowance granted him by the Russian Academy of Science. As his circumstances became desperate, he resolved to return to Saint Petersburg.

Return to Russia

Lomonosov returned to Russia in 1741. A year later he was named adjutant to the Russian Academy of Science in the physics department.

In May 1743, Lomonosov was accused, arrested, and held under house arrest for eight months, after he supposedly insulted various people associated with the Academy.

He was released and pardoned in January 1744 after apologizing to all involved.

Lomonosov was made a full member of the Academy, and named professor of chemistry, in 1745.

He established the Academy’s first chemistry laboratory.

Eager to improve Russia’s educational system, in 1755, Lomonosov joined his patron Count Ivan Shuvalov in founding Moscow University.

In 1761, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

In 1764, Lomonosov was appointed to the position of secretary of state. He died one year later in Saint Petersburg. Most of his accomplishments were unknown outside Russia until long after his death.


In 1756, Lomonosov tried to replicate Robert Boyle’s experiment of 1673 and discovered the Law of Mass Conservation in chemical reaction. Lomonosov, together with Lavoisier, is regarded as the one who discovered the law of mass conservation.

He stated that all matter is composed of corpuscles (molecules) that are “collections” of elements (atoms).

He regarded heat as a form of motion, suggested the wave theory of light, contributed to the formulation of the kinetic theory of gases, and stated the idea of conservation of energy.


Lomonosov was the first person to hypothesize the existence of an atmosphere on Venus based on his observation of the transit of Venus of 1761 in a small observatory near his house in Petersburg.

In 1762, Lomonosov presented an improved design of a reflecting telescope to the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Chemist and geologist

Lomonosov was the first person to record the freezing of mercury. Believing that nature is subject to regular and continuous evolution, he demonstrated the organic origin of soil, peat, coal, petroleum and amber. In 1745, he published a catalogue of over 3,000 minerals, and in 1760, he explained the formation of icebergs.

In 1763 he published On The Strata of the Earth – his most significant geological work.


Lomonosov’s observation of iceberg formation led to his pioneering work in geography. Lomonosov got close to the theory of continental drift, theoretically predicted the existence of Antarctica (he argued that icebergs of the South Ocean could be formed only on a dry land covered with ice), and invented sea tools which made writing and calculating directions and distances easier.

In 1764, he organized an expedition (led by Admiral Vasili Chichagov) to find the Northeast Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by sailing along the northern coast of Siberia.


Lomonosov worked to restore the ancient art of mosaics.

In 1754, in his letter to Leonhard Euler, he wrote that his three years of experiments on the effects of chemistry of minerals on their colour led to his deep involvement in the art of mosaics.

In 1763, he set up a glass factory that produced the first stained glass mosaics outside of Italy.

There were forty mosaics attributed to Lomonosov, with only twenty-four surviving to the present day. Among the best is the portrait of Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltava, measuring 4.8 × 6.4 meters.

Grammarian, poet, historian

In 1755 Lomonosov wrote a grammar that reformed the Russian literary language by combining Old Church Slavonic with the vernacular tongue.

To further his literary theories, he wrote more than 20 solemn ceremonial odes, notably the Evening Meditation on God’s Grandeur.

He applied an idiosyncratic theory to his later poems – a version of what is now called sound symbolism.

In 1760 Lomonosov published a History of Russia (probably the first ever).

In addition, he attempted to write a grand epic about Peter the Great, to be based on the Aeneid by Vergil, but he died before he could finish it.


His granddaughter Sophia Konstantinova (1769–1844) married the statesman General Nikolay Raevsky. His great-granddaughter was Princess Maria (Raevskaya) Volkonskaya, the wife of the Decembrist Prince Sergei Volkonsky.

A lunar crater bears his name, as does a crater on Mars.

In 1948, the underwater Lomonosov Ridge in the Arctic Ocean was named in his honor. Moscow State University was renamed ‘’M. V. Lomonosov Moscow State University’’ in 1940.

The Lomonosov Gold Medal was established in 1959 and is awarded annually by the Russian Academy of Sciences to a Russian and a foreign scientist.

The street “Lomonosova iela” in the Maskavas Forštate district of Riga is named in honor of Lomonosov.

The Akademik Lomonosov, the first of a series of Russian floating nuclear power stations, is named for him. It is expected to be operational at Vilyuchinsk, Kamchatka Peninsula, in 2018.


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