Russian History


The Beginnings

Literature first appeared among the East Slavs after the Christianization of Kievan Rus' in the tenth century (see The Golden Age of Kiev, ch. 1). Seminal events in that process were the development of the Cyrillic (see Glossary) alphabet around A.D. 863 and the development of Old Church Slavonic as a liturgical language for use by the Slavs. The availability of liturgical works in the vernacular language--an advantage not enjoyed in Western Europe--caused Russian literature to develop rapidly. Through the sixteenth century, most literary works had religious themes or were created by religious figures. Among the noteworthy works of the eleventh through fourteenth centuries are the Primary Chronicle , a compilation of historical and legendary events, the Lay of Igor's Campaign , a secular epic poem about battles against the Turkic Pechenegs, and Zadonshchina , an epic poem about the defeat of the Mongols in 1380. Works in secular genres such as the satirical tale began to appear in the sixteenth century, and Byzantine literary traditions began to fade as the Russian vernacular came into greater use and Western influences were felt.

Written in 1670, the Life of the Archpriest Avvakum is a pioneering realistic autobiography that avoids the flowery church style in favor of vernacular Russian. Several novellas and satires of the seventeenth century also used vernacular Russian freely. The first Russian poetic verse was written early in the seventeenth century.