Russian Literature


Russian Literature, literature of the Russian people, written from the 900s to the present. Russian literature includes some of the most beloved and influential plays, novels, and poems in world literature. Scholars generally divide Russian literature into four broad historical periods: Old Russian (10th century to 17th century), Modern Russian (18th century to 1917), Soviet Russian (1917 to 1991), and Post-Soviet (1991 to the present). Although most Russian literature is written in the Russian language, some works are in related Slavic languages such as Old Church Slavonic, which was the first written language in Russia.

Much of the earliest Russian literature consists of religious writings within the tradition of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Western European influences brought examples of nonreligious literature to Russia beginning in the late 17th century, and during much of the 18th century, French influence was especially strong. By the early 19th century, a native tradition had emerged in Russia, along with some of the greatest writers of all time, including Aleksandr Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Anton Chekhov. Strong political control over literature marked the period after the 1917 Russian Revolution and the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and the end of Communism in Russia and the former Soviet republics, a new period of literary freedom began. For information on the literature of former Soviet Republics.


Scholars generally divide the earliest Russian literature into two periods: the Kyiv (also spelled Kiev) and the Muscovite. The Kyiv period extends from the 10th century to the mid-13th century. During that time Kyiv (now the capital of Ukraine) served as Russia’s cultural hub and thrived as one of the most important religious and commercial cities of medieval Europe. In 1240 nomadic peoples from Asia called Tatars invaded and destroyed Kyiv, and Russian cultural and political activity gradually shifted north to Moscow. The Muscovite period, when Moscow became the new power, lasted from the late 13th century to the 17th century. Much of old Russian literature consists of historical chronicles and religious works prompted by Russian participation in the Orthodox Church.

A – The Kyiv Period

The earliest literary works of the Russians were not in the Russian language but in Old Church Slavonic, a related Slavic language that was the first written language in Russia. Old Church Slavonic was first written down in the 9th century ad by Greek missionaries Cyril and Methodius, who used it to convert Slavic peoples to Christianity. Old Church Slavonic became the liturgical language of the Orthodox Church, which directed literary activity in Russia. In 988 Vladimir I, Grand Duke of Kyiv, converted to Christianity and made it Russia’s official religion. With his conversion came the need for scribes to translate and compile biblical texts, sermons, lives of saints, and other instructive and inspirational writings from Greek originals. As literacy increased, so did the available reading matter: Compilations of knowledge, historical chronicles, and poems appeared, all translated into Old Church Slavonic. Old Church Slavonic remained the literary language of Russia until the 17th century.

Russia’s acceptance of Eastern Orthodox Christianity made available writings from the neighboring Byzantine Empire. Byzantine Greek writings provided models for the first texts produced during the Kyiv period: sermons, lives of saints, and historical chronicles. The most notable of the sermons, Slovo o zakone i blagodati (1050?; Sermon on Law and Grace), is an elaborate oration that was written by the head of the Orthodox Church in Russia at that time, Metropolitan Ilarion. It is generally accepted as the first original work of Russian literature. A number of accounts by anonymous authors of the martyrdom of the first native Russian saints, Boris and Gleb, appeared in the 11th century. The chronicle Povest’ vremennykh let (1113?; Tale of Bygone Years, also known as The Russian Primary Chronicle), attributed to the monk Nestor, surveys the history of the East Slavic peoples (Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians) to the year 1110. The most celebrated work of the period, Slovo o polku Igoreve (1185?; The Song of Igor’s Campaign), recounts in lyrical, rhythmic prose a failed raid undertaken by Prince Igor against an army of Asian nomads. A highly sophisticated work filled with striking, unusual imagery, it stands out so markedly from other literature of the period that a number of scholars have questioned its authenticity. Other scholars contend that its grammar and vocabulary distinguish it as genuine.

B – Muscovite Period

In 1240 a Tatar army occupied Kyiv, marking the end of a great period of culture. For the next 200 years the Tatars occupied most of Russia, and literature stagnated. Kyiv’s influence declined and was gradually replaced by that of a new power, Moscow. By the time Ivan IV (known as Ivan the Terrible) became tsar in 1547, Moscow had expelled the Tatars, consolidated its power, and expanded its rule as far east as the Ural Mountains. But in 1453 Russia had been cut off from the Byzantine Empire, the original source of its culture, when Ottoman Empire took control of Constantinople (now İstanbul), the Byzantine capital and the center of the Orthodox Church. With the Ottoman Empire separating it from the rest of Europe, Russia became isolated, just when the European continent was enjoying the Renaissance and a flourishing of the arts and humanities. Until the beginning of the 18th century, Russia remained largely outside developments in the West.

Russia continued to produce literature on both worldly and religious themes, but it increasingly reflected the power-hungry attitudes of the Muscovite state. Tales and poems such as the Zadonshchina (The Battle Beyond the Don, 1390?) celebrated victory over the Tatars. Other works tried to justify Moscow’s claim to leadership of the Orthodox Christian world by claiming that imperial and religious power had been transferred from Rome (capital of the Roman Empire) to Constantinople (capital of the Byzantine Empire) to Moscow (capital of the Russian Empire). Many existing literary works, such as saints’ lives and historical chronicles, were collected and consolidated, signifying the regime’s desire to systematize and regulate political, religious, and cultural life. One of the most interesting of these 16th-century compilations, Domostroi (House-Orderer), sets forth rules both for moral behavior and for the day-to-day running of a household. The Domostroi is not a purely literary work, but it does provide insight into the ideology and everyday culture of 16th-century Russia.

C – The 17th Century

A period of political chaos at the beginning of the 17th century marked the end of Muscovite Russia. In literature the new century saw the end of Old Russian culture, with literary efforts directed largely by the church or the tsar, and the beginnings of Western influence. This shift resulted from Russia’s westward expansion, its military conflicts with other European powers, and, late in the century, Tsar Peter the Great’s fascination with European culture. The first printed books appeared, although they were few in number. Almost all were religious in content. Translations (largely from Polish) of adventure tales and romances brought secular (nonreligious) Western culture to a small audience. The traditional genres of Old Russian literature—saints’ lives and historical chronicles—were still alive, although with distinctly secular features. The most notable example of this growing worldliness is Zhitie protopopa Avvakuma (1672-1673; The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum). In his biography, Avvakum forcefully defends the values of tradition in the face of change. He does so in a racy, vivid language that owes less to traditional Church Slavonic than to the spoken Russian of his day.

For the first time, Russian poets composed verses in imitation of Western models, and the first plays by a Russian, written by Symeon Polotsky, appeared in 1678 and 1679. In fiction the influence of Western adventure tales (such as Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes) is evident in works such as Povest’ o Savve Grudtsyne (The Tale of Savva Grudtsyn, 1660?) and Povest’ o Frole Skobeeve (The Tale of Frol Skobeev, late 17th century). The former is a moralistic story, but the latter is written purely for entertainment, presenting the adventures of a rogue in the manner of the picaresque novel.


Modern Russian literature emerged as writers began to develop a distinctly Russian style of writing. By the 18th century written Russian finally came into wide use, replacing Old Church Slavonic. Rulers such as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great made efforts to promote literature, and their efforts played an important role in enabling writers to flourish.

A – The 18th Century

Peter the Great, who reigned from 1682 to 1725, began a process of Europeanizing Russia’s upper class by introducing Western ideas and practices. This process continued under Peter’s successors in the remainder of the 18th century. As Western education spread among this small class of landed gentry, a taste for literature developed. Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great), who reigned from 1763 to 1796, was herself a playwright, and she made her court a center of literary activity. The most influential literary models were French, but as the century progressed, Russian writers began to find their own voice. The 18th century was not a period of great creativity in Russia, but it prepared a foundation for modern literature by introducing a variety of purely secular genres in prose and poetry and by producing these in Russian rather than in Old Church Slavonic.

The major figure in Russian intellectual life in the 18th century was Mikhail Lomonosov, who rose from peasant origins to become a scientist and writer. Lomonosov attempted to clarify the relations between Old Church Slavonic, which was the traditional written language of Russia, and the spoken Russian of the day. He proposed high, middle, and low styles, each to be used for different genres: for example, high for heroic poems and odes, middle for drama and pastoral poetry, and low for comedy and epigrams. The greatest poet of the age was Gavrila Derzhavin, whose sonorous lyrics mixed high and low literary language and combined elevated sentiments with prosaic details. Denis Fonvizin dominated the drama. His plays Brigadir (written 1768-1769; published 1790; The Brigadier) and Nedorosl’ (1782; The Minor) satirized the manners and morals of the upper classes.

Original prose fiction developed more slowly than poetry or drama, and most prose imitated European romances or adventure tales. One of the most interesting nonfiction works of the period was Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu (1790; Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow) by Aleksandr Radishchev. The work is a furious protest against landowners’ abuses of the peasants who farmed their land. It earned its author a ten-year exile to Siberia. Nikolay Karamzin established a Russian prose style in his travel writings and his Istoriia gosudarstva rossiiskogo (1818-1824; History of the Russian State). His sentimental story “Bednaia Liza” (1792; “Poor Liza”) largely imitated popular French stories, but it introduced psychological motivation to Russian fiction.

B – The 19th Century

The 19th century is the period of Russian literature most familiar to Western readers. It was during this century that such literary giants as Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolay Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Anton Chekhov wrote most of their masterpieces.

B1 – Pushkin and the Golden Age of Poetry

The first few decades of the 19th century saw an explosion of talent that propelled Russian literature to new heights. The advances of this period, which is known as the Golden Age of Poetry, are most vividly seen in the work of Aleksandr Pushkin. Pushkin knew the Western European literary movements of his time. He was educated in the tradition of 18th-century classicism, which set down strict rules for literary form and style. He later absorbed and then moved beyond romanticism, a movement that emphasized individual creativity and the imagination. At the same time, Pushkin captured the vitality of native Russian traditions, creating an expressive and natural literary language. Although his life was brief he left examples of nearly every literary genre of his day: lyric poetry, narrative poetry, the novel, the short story, the drama, the critical essay, and even the personal letter.

Pushkin’s most renowned work, the novel in verse Evgeny Onegin (1823-1831; Eugene Onegin), has a simple plot: It traces the unrequited love of a naive provincial girl, Tatiana, for a jaded sophisticate, Eugene. A memorable narrator provides ironic, witty, and wise commentary, not only on the love story itself, but also on Russian society, the nature of poetry, the Russian landscape, the narrator’s own biography, and his personal search for meaning in life. The novel is composed in a 14-line stanza form that gives order and structure to a work filled with digressions. For most Russians, however, it is Pushkin’s lyric poetry that conveys his true genius. The lyrics—complex and meticulously crafted to seem effortless, simple, and natural—continue to hold a central place in Russian culture.

Pushkin’s poetry did not appear out of nowhere, however. His predecessors included Vasily Zhukovsky, a representative of early romanticism who wrote original poetry and also translated or adapted Western verse into a precise and melodious Russian idiom. A number of Pushkin’s contemporaries were major poets, but only Evgeny Baratynsky, who produced mainly philosophical poetry, comes near to rivaling Pushkin. Mikhail Lermontov, who died in 1841, is considered the last of the Golden Age poets. The rebellious heroes and exotic settings of Lermontov’s lyric and narrative verse represent the peak of Russian romanticism. The best-known of his long poems, Demon (written 1829-1839; published 1841; The Demon), tells of a fallen angel’s love for a Georgian princess and is set within the dramatic scenery of the Caucasus Mountains.

The poets of stature in the decades that followed the Golden Age saw their efforts overshadowed by Russian novelists, who began to produce outstanding works in the 1830s (for more information, see the Prose Fiction section of this article). Fyodor Tiutchev, generally considered Russia’s greatest nature poet, was Pushkin’s contemporary but received recognition only in 1850, when a collection of his earlier poems was published. Tiutchev also wrote philosophical and love poetry. Many critics consider his short lyric poetry finer than Pushkin’s, and most rank him, with Pushkin and Lermontov, as one of the three greatest Russian poets of the 19th century. Afanasy Fet produced melodious love lyrics and nature and philosophical poetry. While Fet and Tiutchev were regarded as pure poets, several so-called civic poets sought to express contemporary political and social ideas in poetry. The most notable representative of this trend was Nikolay Nekrasov, who was an influential editor and publisher as well as a prolific poet. Much of his poetry focuses on peasant life and expresses great compassion for the tribulations of the common people. These poems are often cast in the form of folk songs and employ racy, vigorous language.

B2 – Prose Fiction

The 1830s began a period during which writers produced some of the greatest Russian fiction. Pushkin initiated this trend after 1830, when he largely turned away from poetry in favor of prose. The five short stories that form his Povesti pokoinogo Ivana Petrovicha Belkina (1831; The Tales of Belkin) and the story “Pikovaia dama” (1834; “The Queen of Spades”) are witty and sly parodies of current Russian prose as well as models of the short-story form. Pushkin’s only full-length prose novel, Kapitanskaia dochka (1836; The Captain’s Daughter), a historical novel set during a peasant rebellion in 1773, displays his characteristic economical and energetic prose style. Lermontov also wrote memorable prose during this period. His novel Geroi nashego vremeni (1837-1840; A Hero of Our Time) consists of five interconnected stories that paint a detailed psychological portrait of its protagonist, Pechorin. Pechorin is a romantic hero in Russian military uniform, whose sensitivity and nobility are hidden behind his assumed mask of snobbery and coldness.

B2a – Gogol

Nikolay Gogol was the most original master of Russian prose of the 19th century. Gogol’s early short stories, collected as Vechera na khutore bliz Dikanki (1831-1832; Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka), are comic masterpieces, full of the local color of the Ukraine of his origins. The dark, grotesquely humorous stories in his second collection, Mirgorod (1835), suggest a world built on absurdities. These and other stories, such as “Nos” (1836; “The Nose”), anticipate the 20th-century movement of surrealism with their illogical events. Gogol powerfully expressed his view of the dehumanization of human beings in what may be the most famous short story in Russian, “Shinel” (1842; “The Overcoat”). The story’s protagonist, Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, is a poor clerk whose only joy in life is the mechanical copying of official correspondence and whose only relationship is with the new overcoat he acquires. Gogol’s best-known work, the novel Mertvye dushi (1842; Dead Souls), satirizes not only the corruption of provincial Russia, but also human spiritual and intellectual corruption in general.

B2b – Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev refined both the short story and the novel, and he was the first Russian writer to build a substantial following outside Russia. His first fame came with Zapiski okhotnika (1852; A Sportsman’s Sketches), a collection of sketches and stories of rural life that focus not on plot but on vivid portraits of peasants and landowners or lyrical renderings of the overall atmosphere. Because of its sympathetic and sensitive portrayals of peasants as individuals, the book is often said to have contributed to ending serfdom, the agricultural system whereby landowners owned the peasants who worked their land.

Turgenev’s lasting fame comes from a series of compact and carefully crafted novels written in the late 1850s and early 1860s. These novels are more European in form than the sprawling philosophical and psychological works of his contemporaries, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky; the main actions take place over a short period of time, the novels have relatively few characters, and the plots are simple. Turgenev’s novels focus on characters he drew from Russian life, and their plots derive from these characters. He seldom engages in psychological inquiry, but his characters reveal themselves fully, most often in the course of a love affair. His Rudin (1856) exposes the emptiness of a liberal intellectual who is afraid to respond to the love of an idealistic young woman. Dvorianskoe gnezdo (1859; A House of Gentlefolk) portrays the unhappy love of a good-hearted but ineffectual landowner for a pure young woman. Turgenev attempted to create a stronger hero in his novel Nakanune (1860; On the Eve). Here, however, the hero is not a Russian, but a Bulgarian freedom fighter. He marries an idealistic Russian woman and then dies before he can return to take up the struggle in his homeland. Turgenev’s masterpiece, Ottsy i deti (1862; Fathers and Sons), presents the controversial hero Bazarov. As a young radical of the 1860s, Bazarov holds inflexible views that are challenged by life and love, and he dies prematurely and alone.

B2c – Goncharov, Saltykov, Pisemsky, and Leskov

Four writers who are less known outside Russia than their mid-century contemporaries nevertheless made lasting contributions to Russian prose: Ivan Goncharov, Mikhail Saltykov, Aleksei Pisemsky, and Nikolay Leskov. Ivan Goncharov is best known for his novel Oblomov (1859). The kind, gentle, and sensitive protagonist, Ilya Oblomov, wants only to live a life of absolute tranquility and contemplation, an idyllic existence conveyed by memories of childhood on his family’s estate. In order to hold on to this idyll, he avoids any interaction with the world around him. His energetic friend Stolz and his one true love, Olga, manage to rouse him to action for a time, but when he sees the ideal world of his dreams threatened by real life, he retreats to his couch and eventually dies a premature death.

Mikhail Saltykov, who wrote under the name N. Shchedrin, ranks as 19th-century Russia’s greatest satirist after Gogol. Although much of his work is closer to journalism than literature, his novel Gospoda Golovlevy (1875-1880; The Golovlyov Family) remains a powerful and gloomy family chronicle. The work turns upside-down the pastoral and family idyll celebrated by Goncharov and Turgenev. The members of the landowning Golovlyov family destroy one another and themselves through greed, stupidity, and alcoholism.

The stories and novels of Aleksei Pisemsky also deal with Russian provincial life, portraying it in colors almost as somber as those of Saltykov. The ambitious hero of his novel Tysiacha dush (1858; One Thousand Souls) achieves the success he dreamed of, but only by sacrificing both the woman he loves and many of his principles.

Nikolay Leskov is known primarily as a brilliant storyteller, but he also wrote notable satires. In vivid prose he depicted a broad range of Russian society and conveyed both the virtues and the flaws of his compatriots. Although his talents were not those of a novelist, his Soboriane (1872; The Cathedral Folk) is an entertaining and popular chronicle of provincial clergy. Leskov’s finest works feature individualized narrators who speak in their own often highly stylized language. These works include Ocharovanny strannik (1873; The Enchanted Wanderer), a picaresque novel told by its hero, and Zapechatlennyi angel (The Sealed Angel, 1873), a fascinating tale of a religious sect and its attempt to recover a cherished icon that has been confiscated by the authorities.

B2d – Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy, like his contemporary Fyodor Dostoyevsky, was more than a novelist: He was a social and political thinker and an enormous moral force. In his writings, as in his life, he tried to uncover essential truths to give meaning to existence. His first published work, Detstvo (1852; Childhood), reveals at least two traits that run through all his fiction: penetrating psychological analysis of individuals and moral judgment of their behavior. These trends continue in various sketches of military life, such as Sevastopolskie rasskazy (1855-1856; Sebastopol Tales) and Kazaki (1863; The Cossacks).

Tolstoy’s novel Voina i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace) is both a family novel and a historical novel, and these two parts are linked by a quest for meaning. The novel is vast in every respect. The story takes place over a span of 15 years; its settings range from the drawing rooms of Saint Petersburg and Moscow to country estates and battlefields in Europe and Russia; and it has a cast of more than 500 characters, both fictional and historical, all vivid and sharply drawn. The book’s two major heroes are the skeptical, intellectual Andrei Bolkonsky and the enthusiastic, weak-willed Pierre Bezukhov. Bolkonsky and Bezukhov look for meaning for their own lives amid the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars, which took place between France and other European nations from 1799 to 1815, and the French invasion of Russia in 1812. At the same time, Tolstoy looks for an explanation of the process of history itself. The meaning of both personal existence and the historical process, Tolstoy argues, lies in the spontaneous, irrational, day-to-day, natural living exemplified by his engaging heroine, Natasha Rostova.

Tolstoy’s second great novel, Anna Karenina (1875-1877) is narrower in focus, although it, too, is painted on a large canvas. Tolstoy here examines marriage and the family. Anna, a married woman of great charm and integrity with a high place in society, has an adulterous love affair with a young army officer. Torn by guilt over abandoning her son and unable to subscribe to the social hypocrisies of her circle that would have her hide her illicit relationship, she is eventually driven to suicide. In contrast to Anna’s tragic affair in the novel is the marriage of Konstantin Levin to Kitty Shcherbatsky. Although Levin and Kitty’s marriage is not uniformly smooth, and although Levin has gnawing doubts about the meaning of his life, the novel ends on a relatively happy note.

Both of these novels show Tolstoy at the peak of his artistry. His characters come alive through vivid descriptions of their external, physical lives and penetrating analysis of their emotions. But at the height of his powers as a novelist Tolstoy turned away from literature. After a spiritual crisis in the late 1870s he elaborated on a doctrine of what he believed to be the essence of Christianity—the practice of universal love and nonviolence. He conveyed his ideas through a large body of nonfiction, but he also produced powerful short fiction, such as Smert’ Ivana Ilicha (1886; The Death of Ivan Ilyich). In addition, he also produced a final novel, Voskresenie (1899; Resurrection), a much darker and more opinionated work that contains passages of great force.

B2e – Dostoyevsky

Tolstoy’s works depict a world that seems ordered, comprehensible, and normal. The world created by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is one of disorder and extremes of human behavior, a world in which characters act out dramas of ideas.

Dostoyevsky’s early writings include some remarkable psychological studies. It was only after 1860, however, when he returned from ten years of prison and exile in Siberia, that his works achieved real depth and power. Dostoyevsky’s novels examine the political and social issues of his day and explore eternal philosophical and moral problems. His Zapiski iz podpol’ia (1864; Notes from Underground), for example, is a deeply philosophical work that explores such questions as free will and determinism; it is also a profound psychological portrait of its alienated narrator. Prestuplenie i nakazanie (1866; Crime and Punishment) tells the gripping story of a young student, Raskolnikov, who tests his freedom by committing a murder. His intellectual justifications of the crime cannot prevent him from being haunted by what he has done. After terrible emotional and spiritual suffering, Raskolnikov begins a process of repentance that apparently will lead him to accept his place in the world.

Dostoyevsky’s novel Idiot (1868-1869; The Idiot) focuses on a Christlike figure, Prince Myshkin, whose goodness and innocence lead only to disaster. Myshkin finds himself in a society motivated by greed, passion, and jealousy and becomes involved in a complex love intrigue that ends with the murder of one heroine and his own mental collapse. Besy (1871-1872; Devils, also known as Demons or The Possessed), a dark political satire, attacks Russian liberals and radicals who wish to build a godless society without genuine moral principles. At the same time, through its enigmatic central character, Stavrogin, the novel explores the limits of human behavior and dramatizes the human potential for both good and evil.

Dostoyevsky’s last and longest novel, Brat’ia Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov), sums up and expands on the issues he had explored in his earlier fiction. The murder of the cynical and greedy head of the family, Fyodor Karamazov, implicates each of his three sons in different ways. Each son demands justice according to his own character. Dmitry, passionate and emotional, wants his fair share of the inheritance. Ivan rebels intellectually against the injustices of God’s world, presenting a powerful argument for his loss of faith in justice. Alyosha fails to love his unlovable father sufficiently and has his faith in justice shaken by the death of his spiritual father, the wise elder Zosima. By the end of the novel, the brothers are redeemed, as each begins to accept his own responsibility for the world’s injustices.

B2f – Chekhov

Late in the 19th century Anton Chekhov revolutionized the short story. Chekhov began as a humorist, churning out hundreds of brief comic stories for humor magazines and daily newspapers. Gradually he began to take his talent more seriously. He developed a coolly objective style that presents, in compact form, the specific circumstances of a character’s life and allows the reader to make final judgments about that character. The subject matter of his stories is the common and unexceptional in everyday life, related in ordinary yet poetic prose. The typical Chekhovian story has little external plot. The point of the story is most often found in what happens within a given character, and that is conveyed indirectly, by suggestion or by significant detail. The protagonist of one of his finest stories, “Dama s sobachkoi” (1899; “The Lady with the Little Dog”), for instance, begins to realize that what began as a brief, adulterous affair has become the great love of his life. Chekhov’s stories also present a panorama of Russian life in the last decades of the 19th century. They portray children (“Vanka,” 1886), clergymen (“Arkhierei,” 1902; translated as “The Bishop”), peasants (“Muzhiki,” 1897; “Peasants”), intellectuals (“Skuchnaia istoriia,” 1889; “A Dreary Story”), and other characters from a broad range of professions and social circumstances.

B3 – Drama

Before the 19th century, drama received little attention from Russian writers. By the end of the century, several memorable plays and the masterpieces of Anton Chekhov had been written.

Two genuine classics of Russian drama originated early in the century. Aleksandr Griboedov satirized Muscovite society in lively and witty verse in his Gore ot uma (1833; The Woes of Wit). His protagonist, Chatsky, belongs to a long line of alienated and cynical heroes. Gogol’s dramatic masterpiece, Revizor (1836; The Inspector General), uses the well-worn device of mistaken identity to create a brilliantly inventive satirical comedy. The play centers on Khlestakov, a young good-for-nothing who, while traveling through Russia’s provinces, is mistaken for a government inspector. Before escaping, Khlestakov cheerfully accepts the attention and the bribes that local officials lavish upon him. Pushkin and Lermontov also wrote several significant dramas in the 1830s. Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov (1831), a tragedy based on events from Russian history, is now seldom performed, but it survives as an opera by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. Pushkin’s “little tragedies” are brief but intense dramatic dialogues in verse that best reveal his dramatic talents. Lermontov produced Maskarad (1835; Masquerade), a melodrama of passion and murder.

Aleksandr Ostrovsky is the best known of Russia’s mid-century dramatists. The most famous of his 50 plays, Groza (1860; The Thunderstorm), focuses on a liaison between a young married woman and her lover in the tradition-bound merchant milieu of a town on the Volga River. Other authors who wrote dramas include Turgenev, Pisemsky, and Tolstoy. Turgenev’s play Mesiats v derevne (1850; A Month in the Country) was innovative in that it concentrated on the revelation of character rather than on plot. Its complex psychological currents and evocation of atmosphere anticipate the plays of Chekhov. Pisemsky’s most important play, Gor’kaia sud’bina (A Bitter Fate, 1859), details a tragic love affair between a landowner and a married peasant woman. Tolstoy’s grim and powerful Vlast’ tmy (1888; The Power of Darkness) dramatizes the brutality of peasant life.

Late in the century, Chekhov transformed drama, as he had done with the short story. Like his stories, Chekhov’s plays moved away from traditional ideas of plot and dramatic dialogue. The plays convey the feel of ordinary life unfolding, with seemingly haphazard dialogue and few conventionally dramatic scenes. True, his first real success on the stage, Chaika (1896; The Seagull), ends with the suicide of the central character, but the suicide happens offstage and the unconcerned chatter of the characters onstage undercuts its impact. Diadia Vanya (1899; Uncle Vanya), the bleakest of Chekhov’s four major plays, dramatizes the futility and waste of life in provincial Russia. Tri sestry (1901; Three Sisters), also set in the depths of the Russian provinces, focuses on tragic subject matter that is undercut by comic absurdities. Chekhov’s last play, Vishnevyi sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard), likewise blends pathos and humor, never allowing the audience to be dominated by one mood for long. Although the complex texture of Chekhov’s plays cannot be properly summarized in a single sentence, they all deal with the loss of illusions, a subject that can be both painful and enriching.

C – Turn of the Century: The Silver Age

In the 1880s the Russian literary temperament began to change. For the previous 40 years, literature had been dominated by social realism—the objective depiction of life as it is—expressed primarily through the form of the novel. Writers then began to rebel against the values and assumptions of realism. The era of the great novelists had passed: Dostoyevsky and Pisemsky died in 1881, Turgenev in 1883, and Tolstoy essentially abandoned the novel after his religious conversion in the 1880s. Although authors continued to write novels, short fiction and poetry became the dominant genres of Russian literature for the next several decades, which became known as the Silver Age. New types of prose fiction emerged in which innovative movements, such as impressionism and symbolism, gradually replaced the social realism of the previous age. Poetry in particular underwent revolutionary change. A new generation of Russian poets found inspiration in Western European literary movements, especially a revival of romanticism known as symbolism. Other arts also benefited from contact with cultural movements abroad: Music, ballet, theater, and painting flourished, often in very close contact with one another and with literature. Russian intellectual and cultural life became very lively, often experimental, and much more cosmopolitan. Russian culture, particularly music and ballet, became highly regarded in Europe.

C1 – Symbolism

Symbolism dominated Russian literature in the years between 1893 and 1914. Although it was a complex movement with many variations, the different strains shared some fundamental premises. Symbolism reacted against the realism of the previous age, arguing that art was not mimetic—that is, it did not imitate reality—but was symbolic by its very nature. The symbolists assigned highest value to the individual rather than to society generally, so their art paid little attention to social issues. Like the romantics of the early 19th century (to whom they often looked for inspiration), the symbolists sought to revive a religious sensibility in art. They saw art in general and poetry in particular as means to reveal the true essence of life.

Valery Bryusov, a poet, novelist, literary critic, and scholar, introduced symbolism to the Russian public and helped win it an audience through his essays and poetry. Poet and novelist Andrey Bely attempted to create a comprehensive theory of symbolism, not merely as a literary force but also as a spiritual movement. His poetry is marked by this spiritual quest and by its bold experiments with rhythm and sound. The poetry and essays of Vyacheslav Ivanov, the most scholarly of the symbolist poets, saw the poet as a mythmaker who sought to touch the divine and achieve cosmic harmony. The most gifted poet among this brilliant generation was Aleksandr Blok. His rhythmic and lyrical poetry blends the purely personal with the universal, combining elements of the everyday with mythological motifs. His greatest work, Dvenadtsat (1918; The Twelve, 1920), brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg) in the winter of 1918 as it follows a military squad through the icy streets of the city after the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Symbolism was not exclusively a poetic movement, however. Dmitry Merezhkovsky, a poet, literary critic, and religious philosopher, produced a series of notable historical novels in the symbolist style. Bryusov also wrote stylistically accomplished short stories and a historical novel. Fyodor Sologub, himself a symbolist poet, created a remarkable novel, Melkii bes (1907; The Petty Demon, 1983). It is an almost clinical study of the paranoia of a provincial schoolteacher. The most inventive and fully realized symbolist novel, Peterburg (1913-1922; Petersburg, 1959) by Andrey Bely, presents a harrowing yet satirical portrait of Saint Petersburg during a time of political and social unrest. It is simultaneously a political thriller, a family drama, a meditation on the fate of Russia, and a philosophy of history.

C2 – Acmeism

In 1909 and 1910 some reassessment of symbolism began. It eventually developed into an independent movement known as acmeism, which was led initially by poets Mikhail Kuzmin and Nikolay Gumilyov. The acmeists argued that the essence of poetry was beauty and clarity, not mysticism and vagueness. Although acmeism did not last long as an organized movement, it did produce two of the 20th century’s greatest poets: Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam. Akhmatova’s lyrics and the long poems she wrote later in her life, such as Rekviem (1963; Requiem, 1964) and Poema bez geroia (1962; Poem without a Hero, 1973), convey with deep emotion the tragedies of her own life within the context of the tragedies of Russian history. Mandelstam produced poetry of rich and dense verbal texture that affirms the values of human culture and individual fortitude as a response to the harshness of life and the power of time. His career was cut short by his arrest and death in a prison camp.

C3 – The Znanie Group

A group of writers who were not associated with the modernist movements of the Silver Age, but who continued to work more or less in the 19th-century realist tradition, grew up around the Znanie (Knowledge) publishing house. Aleksandr Kuprin’s colorful short stories often focus on contemporary social ills. Leonid Andreyev was immensely popular in his own time, but his pessimistic and morbid stories have since dwindled in popularity. Ivan Bunin produced lyrical poetry and short stories, often elegiac in mood, in which nature acts as a source of solace and constancy. In 1933 Bunin became the first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature.

The best-known writer to emerge from the Znanie Group, Maksim Gorky, achieved great prominence as an author of colorful tales about the socially dispossessed. He was also successful as a playwright, and his drama Na dne (1902; The Lower Depths, 1912) evokes sympathy for the humanity of the derelicts in the hostel in which it is set. Gorky became an active, although critical, supporter of revolutionaries who sought to make Russia a socialist state. Gorky’s 1907 novel Mat’ (Mother, 1907) is a work of propaganda as much as a work of literature. In it, Gorky attempted to create an ideal revolutionary hero. The work later became the prototype of the socialist realist novel, an art form glorifying the working class and supporting the Communist regime that came to power in 1917. Gorky’s most enduring literary works are the three volumes of his autobiography, Detstvo (1913-1914; Childhood, 1915), V liudiakh (1915-1916; In the World, 1917), and Moi universitety (1923; My University Days, 1923). They chronicle his difficult ascent from what he calls “the lower depths” of society (he was born into a lower-middle-class family) to maturity and responsibility.


In 1917 a series of events known as the Russian Revolution took place in Russia, transforming the country. The ruling monarch, Nicholas II, was overthrown, and a Communist government was put into place. By 1922, after a civil war, Russia had joined with several neighboring republics to formally establish the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), with Vladimir Lenin as its leader.

A – The Revolution of 1917 and Beyond

The seizure of power by Lenin and his Bolshevik Party and the civil war that ensued left Russian cultural life in chaos. Some established writers, such as Merezhkovsky, Kuprin, Bunin, and Andreyev, left the USSR when it became clear that the new regime intended to take control of literature. A new generation of talented writers who had at least some sympathy for the ideals of the revolution was emerging, however. The most ardent supporters of the new regime joined together in organizations such as the Proletarian Cultural and Educational Organization (Proletkult) and the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP). Their aim was to create a new and distinctive proletarian (working-class) culture appropriate to the new state. Such groups also sought to force their ideas of proletarian culture on independent writers. The government itself was not ready to adopt any comprehensive policies on literature, and through the 1920s it tolerated a relatively broad spectrum of literary activity. Beginning in the 1930s, however, the Soviet government began requiring writers to create literature that promoted the Communist way of life.

A1 – The Fellow Travelers

A group of mostly young writers of the 1920s accepted the ideals of the 1917 Revolution without becoming specifically Communist writers; this group was known loosely as fellow travelers. These writers represented a wide range of literary tendencies that created some of the most innovative and original prose of the period. In markedly different ways, most of their works deal with the problems of adjusting to the radical differences of life after the 1917 Revolution. Evgeny Zamiatin produced brilliantly crafted short stories and an antiutopian novel, My (1924; We, 1924), that anticipated the condemnations of utopian ideas in the novels of British writers Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Another meticulous craftsman, Isaac Babel, wrote compact stories that convey the violence of revolution through striking, often shocking images and irony. Yury Olesha is best known for Zavist’ (1927; Envy, 1936), a fresh and original novel about life in postrevolutionary Russia. The novels of Leonid Leonov likewise deal with dislocations in the wake of the revolution and civil war.

A2 – Poetry

Poets who had established their reputation before 1917, such as Akhmatova and Mandelstam, continued to write. They encountered increasing difficulty in the 1930s, however, as the Communist regime began pressuring writers to fall into line with its ideology. Akhmatova’s output decreased in the 1930s, and Mandelstam was arrested in 1938 and died in a prison camp shortly thereafter. One poet of great energy and originality, Vladimir Mayakovsky, did throw himself into serving the goals of the revolution. Mayakovsky had achieved a reputation before the revolution as the most talented and flamboyant member of the futurist movement, an avant-garde movement of artists and writers that noisily advocated a total break with tradition and the past. His verse includes both private and public motifs. Touching lyrics of unrequited love reveal a vulnerable, lonely person; these alternate with openly propagandistic declarations of support for the new regime from a loud and confident poetic persona. Mayakovsky’s poetry is always witty and both verbally and rhythmically inventive. He also produced two plays, Klop (1929; The Bedbug, 1960) and Bania (1930; The Bathhouse, 1965), both raucous satires of Soviet bureaucracy.

Boris Pasternak, one of the USSR’s great literary figures, also achieved a reputation before the Russian Revolution, at least among a small but discerning audience. His reputation among broader circles as a major modern poet came with the publication of his collection Sestra moia zhizn’ (1922; My Sister Life, 1983), a cycle of poems celebrating love and nature. Pasternak often used startling imagery and colloquial language, but his verse forms are controlled and disciplined. Apart from another volume of lyrics, Temy i variatsii (Themes and Variations, 1923), Pasternak wrote mainly epic or narrative verse in the 1920s. As the official Writers’ Union assumed control over literature in the 1930s, Pasternak received recognition as a major talent, but he resisted embracing the Soviet regime and virtually ceased to publish original verse for some years after 1935. Two new collections of poems appeared during World War II (1939-1945), when ideological controls over literature were relaxed. During the postwar period, when the government once more clamped down on literature, Pasternak again withdrew from publishing and worked privately on his novel Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958).

A3 – Émigré Literature

After the 1917 Revolution, many eminent writers, critics, philosophers, and scholars left Russia to set down new roots in Europe. Paris, France, became the center of émigré intellectual life, although lively émigré communities existed in Berlin, Germany, and other European capitals. Bunin, Kuprin, Merezhkovsky, Zamiatin, poets Viacheslav Ivanov and Marina Tsvetaeva, and many others continued to write in the tradition in which they had begun in Russia. The most original new talent among the émigrés was poet, essayist, and novelist Vladimir Nabokov, a brilliant stylist and highly perceptive and thoughtful artist. The most important of the nine Russian novels he published while living in Berlin are Dar (1937-1938; The Gift, 1963) and Priglashenie na kazn’ (1938; Invitation to a Beheading, 1959). The Gift satirizes émigré life but more importantly explores the nature of art and the process of creation. Invitation to a Beheading is a complex, surrealistic novel that deals with the ironic oppositions between the limited consciousness of a hero and the omniscience of the author. Nabokov immigrated to the United States in 1940, where he began a new career writing in English and became an American writer of great stature.

B – Socialist Realism

Through the 1920s, a relatively broad range of literary groupings enjoyed official tolerance. This tolerance came to an end with the consolidation of power under Joseph Stalin and his decision to establish a planned economy and a collectivized, disciplined society. In 1932 the Communist government abolished all independent literary groupings and replaced them with a single, centralized Union of Soviet Writers. Independent journals and publishing houses also disappeared. At the first Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, socialist realism was introduced as the only approved artistic method. Socialist realism meant, in practice, the portrayal of Soviet reality from the viewpoint of the Communist Party. It remained the official method in all the arts for the next 50 years.

Maksim Gorky, in his novel Mother in particular, was hailed as the founder of socialist realism, but officials also cited the works of other party-minded writers of the 1920s as examples of a correct socialist realist approach. Such works included Chapaev (1923; translated 1935) by Dmitry Furmanov, Tsement (1925; Cement, 1929) by Fyodor Gladkov, and Razgrom (1927; The Nineteen, 1929; also known as The Rout) by Aleksandr Fadeyev. The most notable of the works included in the canon of socialist realism was Tikhii Don (1928-1940) by Mikhail Sholokhov. This four-volume epic depicts life among people known as Cossacks from 1914 to the civil war. It was published in English in two volumes: And Quiet Flows the Don (1934) and The Don Flows Home to the Sea (1940). Sholokhov’s novel treats the civil war, in which the Cossacks fought against the Communist Red Army, with surprising impartiality. His later novel of agricultural collectivization, Podniataia tselina (1932-1960; Virgin Soil Upturned, 1935, and Harvest on the Don, 1960), conforms much more closely to Soviet political doctrine but is less successful as literature.

The regime’s strict enforcement of its literary guidelines led some established writers—including Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Olesha, and Babel—to turn to safer activities, such as translation or children’s literature, or to withdraw from literature altogether. The years during World War II saw some relaxation of controls. Although relatively little literature was produced, several significant novels and plays on patriotic themes appeared, including Dni i nochi (1943-1944; Days and Nights, 1945) by Konstantin Simonov and Molodaya gvardiya (1945; The Young Guard, 1958) by Aleksandr Fadeyev. After the war, however, the tenets of socialist realism were enforced even more strictly, and the period from 1946 to the death of Stalin in 1953 was the bleakest in Russian literature of the 20th century.

C – The Thaw

The decade after Stalin’s death saw several thaws, in which restrictions over literature were eased, and freezes, when they were reinstated and intensified. Political leader Nikita Khrushchev, in his efforts to cast off Stalin’s legacy, helped break the ice in 1956 and in 1961 by expanding the limits of what could be said in public. In doing so he encouraged writers seeking free expression.

Novels such as Ottepel’ (1954; The Thaw, 1955) by Ilya Ehrenburg and Ne khlebom edinym (1956; Not by Bread Alone, 1957) by Vladimir Dudintsev, while not of great literary merit, posed questions about Soviet society that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier. Works that had been banned, either because their authors had fallen victim to Stalin or had emigrated, were reinstated as literature and republished. In the 1960s a new generation of writers turned away from the heroic themes of socialist realism toward personal lyric poetry and short stories. These new works implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) questioned the fundamental tenets of Communist ideology and celebrated private life and small virtues. Some of these works appeared in official literary magazines; others could not be published in the Soviet Union and were circulated in manuscript copies, a phenomenon known as samizdat (self-publishing), or published abroad.

The milder climate of the period encouraged Boris Pasternak to try to publish a novel he had worked on for many years, Doctor Zhivago. It was accepted by a Soviet magazine, then rejected, and finally published in the West in 1957. Pasternak’s hero, a doctor and poet, dramatizes the fate of many intellectuals caught up by the momentous events of war and revolution. Zhivago’s experiences from 1905 to 1929 offer a sweeping panorama of Russian history, but the novel shows less concern with history and politics than with art. Zhivago’s allegiance is not to political systems but to his poetry, and the legacy of his brief but full life is a cycle of poems that form the novel’s concluding section. The novel received acclaim in the West, and Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1958, but a bitter campaign against him in the Soviet Union—a result of the novel’s critical attitude toward Communism—forced him to decline the award.

Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign also allowed the publication of another remarkable short novel, Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha (1962; A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. When it appeared in the leading Soviet literary magazine, the work caused a sensation with its revelations of the realities of life in prison camps, to which people suspected of anti-Soviet views—including Solzhenitsyn—were sent. The novel is much more than an exposé of the evils of Stalinism, however. Its point of view and colorful language give it enduring and universal value, vividly conveying the mentality of a humble and very human hero as he survives within an inhumane system. Solzhenitsyn’s subsequent novels, Rakovyi korpus (1968; Cancer Ward, 1968) and V kruge pervom (1968; The First Circle, 1968), could not be published in the Soviet Union, because restrictions on writers by then had intensified. Their publication abroad eventually led to an official campaign against Solzhenitsyn that resulted in his expulsion from the country. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1970.

Andrei Platonov and Mikhail Bulgakov are two other writers whose works of the 1920s and 1930s largely disappeared during the Stalin era, only to resurface in the 1960s. Platonov’s stories and novels convey the effects on peasants of collectivization—when farmland was forcibly taken over by the state—and industrialization. His utterly original language teasingly undermines the “official” prose of the period. Bulgakov had published plays and sharply satirical stories in the 1920s, but his masterpiece was the novel Master i Margarita (The Master and Margarita, 1967). He completed the work shortly before his death in 1940, but it remained unknown until it was published in 1966 and 1967. The novel is an inventive satirical fantasy that features a visit of the devil to Moscow in the 1930s; interconnected with this is a second novel, set in Jerusalem, about Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate.

One of the most interesting literary trends of the 1960s and 1970s was derevenskaia proza (country prose or village prose). Writers such as Vasily Belov, Vladimir Soloukhin, Vasily Shukshin, Valentin Rasputin, and others turned away from the standard subjects and methods of socialist realism to write sympathetically of life in rural, often isolated areas. The characters in their stories and sketches are typically misfits who are alienated from modern urban life, or who have simply been bypassed in the Soviet regime’s rush to develop a modern industrialized and planned society. In some cases, the writers evoke compassion for those who have not been able to share in the benefits of a modern life, but more often their attitude is one of admiration or nostalgia. The writers of country prose suggest that the peasants they write about have remained largely unaffected by modern civilization, and so have retained the traditional ways of life that have disappeared in the cities. More importantly, these peasants are thought to have preserved traditional virtues, which the writers hold up as superior to the wholesale materialism of modern urban life.

D – The End of the Soviet Union

The campaigns against Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn made it clear that the Soviet state would not abandon its efforts to impose its will on writers. A graphic demonstration of the regime’s determination to bring wayward writers into line came in 1966, when the talented critic and scholar Andrei Siniavsky and his colleague Yuly Daniel, a writer and translator, were tried for slandering the Soviet Union in their writings. Both were sentenced to hard labor in prison camps. Writers who refused to fall in line were expelled from the country (as Solzhenitsyn was in 1974) or allowed to emigrate. The most notable among the émigrés was the enormously gifted poet Joseph Brodsky, who left the Soviet Union in 1972 and eventually settled in the United States. His apolitical but pessimistic and ironic poetry draws on both the Russian tradition of Akhmatova and Mandelstam and the heritage of English-language poetry. In 1987 Brodsky was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, and in 1991 and 1992 served as poet laureate of the United States. Solzhenitsyn, too, moved to the United States.

Through the 1970s and 1980s Soviet critics and writers increasingly ignored the guidelines of socialist realism, except for a few who toed the Communist Party line. Established writers such as Yury Trifonov and Vladimir Tendriakov wrote novels and short stories that honestly and openly explored moral problems of contemporary urban life. Andrei Voznesensky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote poetry of merit while maintaining a generally critical attitude toward the regime.


The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the end of 60 years of state control over literature as the USSR moved toward its collapse in 1991. The Writers’ Union disintegrated under the impact of the policy of glasnost (openness) established by President Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. In 1990 official censorship ended and the government proclaimed freedom of the press. This new independence had profound effects on Russian literature. On the positive side, writers were now free to write as they pleased and about what they pleased without fear of reprimand or prison. They now had open access to foreign literatures and the possibility of publishing their writings abroad. Works of writers who had been previously banned, such as Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn, reappeared in large editions.

But there were also negative repercussions to the new freedom: The end of the dominance of the Writers’ Union also meant the end of lucrative publishing contracts and privileges for writers willing to publish within the limits set by the government. The loss of state subsidies for literary magazines and publishing houses, coupled with skyrocketing publishing costs, led to sharp price increases for books and magazines and a correspondingly sharp drop in sales and circulation. By the mid-1990s most of the established magazines had begun to adjust to the new realities of the marketplace. This often meant catering to the demand for lowbrow and middlebrow literature, a demand to which the Soviet regime had paid little attention. While an enormously broad range of books became available to readers, much of this variety consisted of translations of foreign detective novels, romances, and sensational literature. At the same time, however, new publishing houses and quality literary magazines appeared.

Some new writers appeared on the Russian scene and dealt frankly with controversial issues. The stories and novels of Oleg Ermakov present a grim picture of the brutalities of the Afghan war of the 1980s. Liudmila Petrushevskaia wrote of the pains and moral dilemmas of daily life among urban intellectuals. The relatively small output of Tatyana Tolstaya showcased her rich use of language and sympathy for the misfits of society. Viktor Erofeev made perhaps the most striking efforts to expand the limits of literature. His complex and controversial novel Russkaia krasavitsa (1990; Russian Beauty, 1992) blends stark realism with bizarre fantasy and, in its open defiance of literary taboos, presents a case for creative freedom.

Russian literature through almost all of its existence lived under some degree of state control and censorship. Despite this, it managed not only to survive but also to produce masterpieces of prose, poetry, and drama. How literature would thrive under the radical changes in political, social, and economic conditions near the end of the 20th century remained to be seen. Many promising new writers had begun to make their mark on literature. As conditions in Russia stabilize, readers can look forward to the development of these new talents and, perhaps, to a Golden Age yet to come.

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