The picture of written Russian literature would not give us the total vision of the creative possibilities of the Russian people in these long centuries of its history, if it were not accompanied by a hint on the origin and evolution of popular poetry. This popular poetry, handed down orally to the present day, can be divided into two main groups, namely the epic, the so-called biline, the historical songs and the epic-religious songs on the one hand, and the lyric one largely linked to customs and traditions. traditional on the other. The cycles of epic poetry, whose interpretation has given rise to the formation of real different schools (mythological, historical, influences), offer folkloristic, ethnographic, poetic and historical interest. They would roughly correspond to a ‘ epoch prior to the Kiev and Novgorod civilizations; however formal correspondence, since it is not possible to make a precise determination of the interferences, due to the migration of the variations from one region to the other in different eras, in the general motion that goes from south to north. The oldest cycle for the primitiveness of the content, the so-called cycle ofbogatyri (heroes, or even semi- gods according to some) with the central figures of Svyatogor, Volga Vseslavič and Mikula Seljaninovič, in which one could also see the personification of the primordial forces of a people, is chronologically created after both that of Kiev and that of moves around the figure of Prince Vladimir with the three heroes Il′ja Muromec, Dobrynja Nikitič and Aleša Popovič who, belonging to three different classes: the peasant, the princely and the ecclesiastical, indicate the participation of the various classes of the people in the formation of ‘epos; and to that of Novgorod whose characteristic heroes, Sadko and Vasilij Buslaevič show the difference in culture and conception of life between this bourgeois and trafficked city and princely and religious Kiev.
A new type of epic songs refers to the Muscovite period, that is, those that deal with well-determined historical characters and which are therefore generally called historical songs, even if the historical correspondence is very problematic in them. These songs move above all around Ivan the Terrible, Ermak, Sten′ka Razin, Peter the Great and memorable historical events, such as the siege of Kazan ′, the capture of Azov, etc. In the century XVIII this poem rapidly declined. Epic-religious poetry deserves a mention, which in part intertwined and sometimes merged with the epic proper, in part had an independent development as in some famous songs such as the Golubinaja Kniga, the Cry of the earth, etc., and in the so-called duchovnye stichi(spiritual verses) which translated the stories of the Bible and the Apocrypha with a simplicity that was not without beauty, sometimes contrasting with the artistically less successful prose narratives.
Popular lyric poetry, also like historical and religious poetry, and epic proper, today in very rapid decline, was partly linked to the ancient pagan traditions preserved in the uses and customs of the people. In recent times, the songs of the festivals linked to the various phases of the agricultural life of the people, still alive before the Bolshevik revolution, have disappeared. So also those linked with various uses and customs, such as engagement and wedding songs, funeral lamentations, etc. And disappearing is also another very rich popular heritage, largely dating back to an epoch prior to Peter the Great, that of legends and fables;
The XVIII century. – With the ascension to the throne of Peter the Great (1682) the life of the country began to move on new bases, those on which the life of Western Europe had taken place. This new life was basically limited to only a few strata of the population, but, once these were conquered, the further diffusion and penetration could only be a matter of time. True, the fact that the great reformer was more interested in practical culture did not immediately lead to a renewal in literary ways, but, with the desire for culture, he nevertheless prepared the ground to follow the West also in art and above all gave a content proper to what would otherwise have been an exclusively formal appropriation.
The same struggle for and against reforms led to literary manifestations such as the sermons of Feofan Prokopovič (1681-1736) on the one hand and those of Stepan Javorskij (1658-1722) on the other. Starting from the reforms, the self-taught essays Ivan Posoškov (died in 1726) were also born on the causes of poverty and wealth, on the situation of peasants, clergy and merchants and the History of Russia by Vasilij Tatiščev (1686-1750), who he collected and rearranged the ancient Chronicles. From the western spirit, advocated by the reforms, moved the first poets, with whom modern Russian literature is said to begin, AD Kantemir (1708-1744), VK Tred′jakovskij (1703-1769), A. Sumarokov (1718-1777), all three educated in the French spirit. Undoubtedly, the immaturity, if not the naivety, with which these defenders of Peter’s reforms try to seize the conquests that the West has made in centuries of evolution is striking, but it is not without significance that so much a Sumarokov, author of pseudoclassical tragedies, as much as a Tred′jakovskij, author of the long poem La Telemachide, both Russian operas only because they were written in Russian, laid the first foundations of national lyric with poems that only the rapid flourishing of opera in the first half of the following century made us completely forget. But the true representative of Peter’s time also in the literary field was a self-taught, Mikhail V. Lomonosov (1711-65), who gained fame not only in poetry, but also in almost all fields of knowledge of his time: for his Grammar of the Russian language and also for his other theoretical works, Rhetoric and Reasoning on the usefulness of ecclesiastical books in the Russian language, he is to be considered the first writer aware that modern Russian was by now the only tool that literature should use. .
While all three were intent on the same work, the creation of a modern Russian literature, Tred′jakovskij, Lomonosov and Sumarokov were not only personal enemies, but also rivals in the field of art, because they represented opposite and irreconcilable tendencies. Eliminating the weakest, Tred′jakovskij, the struggle between Lomonosov and Sumarokov went on for a long time, with an ever greater accentuation of the majestic, solemn and emphatic style in the first, the search for sobriety and simplicity in the second, qualities however that are not to him. been recognized that recently. Far more than in his own language, Sumarokov was loyal to foreign masters in his tragedies and comedies. In the latter, however, despite the defects and the slavish imitation of the models, one can recognize that orientation towards the satire of costumes which, through Fonvizin, it will reach Gogol ′; the tendency to satire was, moreover, characteristic of the time and it made use not only of satire proper (Kantemir), but also of fable (Sumarokov).
The single names we remember for this era in which the old Russian literature linked to tradition is dying and the new one moves in different ways, in attempts and experiments, represent not so much the various personalities of the writers, but precisely these new ones. attempts of which they are the exponents. And indeed, what matters is the fact that with its literature, as with its scientific aspirations, as with the calling of foreign artists to adorn its capital, Russia has entered the orbit of universal spiritual interests. Only considered from this angle of view all the Russian literature of the century. XVIII acquires its just and real value, ignored for the whole following century by the Russians themselves, and by Europeans unaware of the long and fruitful labor.
In the century XVIII we have a period of ferment, which we could almost say revolutionary, and a period of evolution, also moved by an uncommon rhythm: the change of orientation was not, moreover, an initiative of the new capital, because already in the previous century Moscow had laid the foundations. The process of reciprocal influence between the various strata of the population and therefore between the literary manifestations proper to each one shows that the orientation towards the West is much more than a fad or a whim of the ruling classes; it is a real necessity in the search for new forms for new aspirations, new needs. The fact that among the new writers, not all come from the upper classes, but also directly from the people, and bring with them the original heritage of their land;
Literature, at the same time becoming classical, that is, bending to foreign models, turns to the people and glimpses their nature, even if they do not fully understand them: the development of comedy, satire, fable, journalism they are a symptom: the very forms borrowed from foreigners are aimed at caricaturing, blaming, denying the content they have brought with them. The comedy that comes from France serves to strike the Gallomania of the time; tragedy, rigid in foreign forms, strives to exploit them for a Russian content; the Enlightenment philosophy, which becomes dominant under Catherine II, gives the instrument to a first self-awareness, which, however clumsy and elementary, is a step forward towards a definitive self-awareness,
The center of gravity of literary history thus shifts from the consideration of forms of imitation to that of the possibility that these are overcome, in the awareness of one’s own content. The work of a Nikolai Novikov (1744-1818), with his two satirical magazines Il bumblebee and The painter, in which it is not known whether the picture of the Russian wounds serves to scourge defects and universal evils, or the picture of these rather it is a pretext for descending to those, overcoming the difficulties of censorship; the work of Aleksandr Radiščev (1749-1802) who, starting from a model so far removed from the Russian mentality, such as Steme’s Sentimental Journey, gives in the Journey from Petersburg to Moscowthe thrust of the whole movement that in the century. XIX had to lead to the abolition of serfdom; the poetic work of Gavriil Deržavin (1743-1816), who, through Pushkin, was to mark the way of that philosophical poetry that characterized Russian poetry up to the threshold of the century. XX; the comedies of Catherine II and after them those of Denis Fonvizin (1745-1792) or Vasilj Kapnist (1757-1824), aimed at striking the most radical defects of Russian life, which the fables of Ivan Chemnicer (1745-1784), precursor, alongside Sumarokov, of the great fabulist Ivan Krylov (1768-1844), they put more lightly, but no less effectively, into caricature.