Genesis of Russian Literature (Lomonosov)
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. He was born in 1720 or 21. We already mentioned him as one of the most famous personalities in Russian history, a physicist, astronomer, mosaicist, chemist, geographer, and poet. In 1755 he wrote a grammar of the Russian language – the first of its kind, which was also the foundation for the modern language as it formally combined Church Slavonic and the vernacular into a cohesive whole. He also wrote a treatise on what would be called today sound symbolism (how certain emotions should be expressed by words containing certain specific sounds). He also wrote long, formal odes based on Western European and Latin forms, as well as a history of Russia which was published in 1760. 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.
While he can never be considered a great poet, without him, modern Russian literature may never have exitsted, and Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, might never have written their novels.