Russian History


Peter and Catherine

The eighteenth century, particularly the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (r. 1762-96), was a period of strong Western cultural influence. Russian literature was dominated briefly by European classicism before shifting to an equally imitative sentimentalism by 1780. Secular prose tales--many picaresque or satirical--grew in popularity with the middle and lower classes, as the nobility read mainly literature from Western Europe. Peter's secularization of the Russian Orthodox Church decisively broke the influence of religious themes on literature. The middle period of the eighteenth century (1725-62) was dominated by the stylistic and genre innovations of four writers: Antiokh Kantemir, Vasiliy Trediakovskiy, Mikhail Lomonosov, and Aleksandr Sumarokov. Their work was a further step in bringing Western literary concepts to Russia.

Under Catherine, the satirical journal was adopted from Britain, and Gavriil Derzhavin advanced the evolution of Russian poetry. Denis Fonvizin, Yakov Knyazhnin, Aleksandr Radishchev, and Nikolay Karamzin wrote controversial and innovative drama and prose works that brought Russian literature closer to its nineteenth-century role as an art form liberally furnished with social and political commentary (see Imperial Expansion and Maturation: Catherine II, ch. 1). The lush, sentimental language of Karamzin's tale Poor Lisa set off a forty-year polemic pitting advocates of innovation against those of "purity" in literary language.