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Russian literature: Resurrecting a culture

Lana Kargetta

Russian literature offers a profound glimpse into its cultural essence, embodying the nation's soul through timeless classics like Pushkin's poetry and Tolstoy's novels. From philosophical depths to psychological insights, authors like Dostoyevski delve into the complexities of human nature, shaping Russia's literary identity for generations to come.

Russia’s literature, rich in scope and history, is one of the clearest outlets into its cultural spirit.  

While many factors embody national traditions and beliefs, like religion and folk music, only literature captures the Russian soul through the written word. From folktales to timeless classics such as Anna Karenina, Russian authors represent their culture—and, by extension, the people’s identity—better than any textbook.

 If literature reflects a country’s accomplishment in philosophy and the arts, then Russia is well-versed in both areas. Aleksandr Pushkin, often dubbed “Russia’s Shakespeare,” was one of Russia’s most famous poets whose works are studied and respected as extensively as plays like Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet are in the United States. ​Russians largely credit Pushkin as the father of their modern literature by introducing new literary forms and adding “an unprecedented number of new words.”

Despite the censorship he faced due to exploring radical philosophies and his untimely death at the age of thirty-seven, Pushkin produced some of Russia’s most influential and widely-read literature. His most famous works include the epic poem Ruslan and Lyudmilla and the novel Evgeniy Ogenin (“Alexander Pushkin”).

Another celebrated author who shaped Russia’s vibrant literature is Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, a historical novel that occurs during the War of 1812 (Lohnes, “War and Peace”), and Anna Karenina, a story commenting on the complexities of passion and love, both of which earned the status as one of the world’s greatest novels (“Anna Karenina”). While numerous writers and critics considered that Tolstoy had not won the Nobel Prize in Literature an injustice (“Proclamation to Leo Tolstoy”), his status as a great author is undisputed. Fyodor Dostoyevski explored the deeper, darker side of human nature so accurately that critics recognize him as one of the best psychologists in literature.

For instance, his most famous novels, Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, touch upon themes of morals, wrongdoing, and guilt. Indeed, Dostoyevski once said he writes about “the insulted and the humiliated,” partly because of his own rougher upbringing (Morson, “Fyodor Dostoyevski”). Russian colleges study Dostoyevski’s books along with Pushkin’s and Tolstoy’s works as the cornerstone of the nation’s literature.

Comparable to the likes of Pushkin and the satirist Jonathan Swift, Nikolai Gogol is Russia’s first realist whose devotion to Christianity produced deeply thoughtful work.  His primary books include Dead Souls, The Inspector General, and Taras Bulba. Whereas Gogol often wrote satires that earned him the status of a social reformer, Taras Bulba is a romance that explored the “Russian soul,” or the very cultural essence that best show the Russian nation’s values.  As such, Taras Bulba is an excellent example of literary work providing a deeper glimpse into Russian culture than nonfiction. So successful and well-read were his works that Dostoyevski credited Gogol for his Notes of the Underground and Crime and Punishment: “We all came out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’” (“Nikolai Gogol”).

However, no account of Russia’s literature will be complete without an examination of its folktales. The aforementioned authors lived in the nineteenth century and, therefore, their books offer a glimpse of Imperial Russia; folktales take the reader into the gist of Russia, well before Peter the Great’s reign. Because these stories are intended for children, they lay bare some of Russia’s fundamental traditions and prized characteristics.

For instance, the folktale “Geese-Swans” tells the story of a sister rushing into the forest to find her baby brother, who was kidnapped by Baba Yaga’s servants, the geese-swans.  The well-known antagonist Baba Yaga is a child-eating witch, so the boy’s life depends on his sister’s success. Since Russians prize bravery, they exemplified this trait in their children’s tales, such as when the sister ventured into the deep, dense forest to save her sibling.  Other folktales show traditions common in ancient villages, such as ceremonial tea-drinking and the color red among the privileged upper-class.

Thanks to the nation’s collective respect for its heritage, Russia’s classic literature thrived in the common culture for decades.  For example, the Soviet Union created televised adaptations of many folktales and books, and Pushkin’s and Gogol’s works have been integral parts of the school’s curricula since Soviet days.  In the atmosphere of ancestral homage eclipsing the country, Russians commonly read, study, and reflect on their forefathers’ books. Whether the reader is an American college student minoring in Russian or a native-born Moscovian studying Pushkin’s verses, Russian literature offers profound insight into one of Eastern Europe’s oldest nations.

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