From the moment of the assumption of the Christianity of Byzantium as state religion (988) by Vladimir I, the Slavic Orthodox world has a different and separate historical destiny from the Roman-Germanic one, while remaining within the context of a great European civilization, that Byzantine, of which it collects the inheritance. Christian nuclei existed even before 988 in the territory of Rus´: in 863, at the request of Prince Rostislao of Moravia, the Roman emperor of the East had sent his brothers from Thessaloniki to Great Moravia.Cyril and Methodius to evangelize the Slavs; the liturgical language used in their preaching, for which they created a special alphabet, became the literary language common to all Orthodox Slavs, now known as Church Slavonic or Paleoslav, while Russian was, in Rus´, the language of administration and of law. The Cyril-Methodian tradition was preserved during the reign of Boris of Bulgaria and his son Simeon, and precisely from Bulgaria many texts arrived in Kievan Rus ‘even before 988. ● After the baptism of Rus’ Vladimir I created some schools where Church Slavonic was taught, forming an educated class which in the following years began to produce translations and also an original literature. A considerable part of ancient Russian literature is made up of translations of Greek patristics, Byzantine sacred and liturgical texts, from apocrypha; there were well-known fathers of the Eastern Church and Byzantine ecclesiastical writers such as Basilio di Cesarea, Gregorio Nazianzeno, Giovanni Crisostomo, and there was no lack of secular, historical and scientific writings. Translations of single works are rare, crestomathias more frequent. Among the hagiographic works we should mention the Pateriki (“Lives of the fathers”), translated from Greek or originals, such as the Paterik of the monastery of the Kiev Caves, and the Čet ´ i minei (“Monthly readings” or “Menologists”). The precise dating of the oldest texts is difficult, because almost all of them have come down to us in subsequent editions. In 1073 and 1076 the Izborniki (“Collections”) were copied for Prince Svyatoslav of Kiev, which contained, alongside religious works, also rhetorical writings, aphorisms, didactic anecdotes. The Byzantine chronicle tradition was soon known through the Slavic versions of the chronicles of Giovanni Malala and Giorgio Monaco ; very widespread was the Jewish War of Flavius Joseph. La Pčela (“The bee”), a collection of sayings, proverbs, anecdotes, and the Fiziolog (“Physiologist”) attest to the spread of the encyclopedic taste. Sometimes the translations fill some gaps in the Greek area; thus the story of Akir premudryj (“A. the wise”) has arrived in the Russian version, while the Greek tradition has been lost.
The birth of one’s own literature
The first autonomous document of Rus´ literature is considered to be the Slovo or Zakone i Blagodati (“Sermon on the Law and Grace”, c. 1050), attributed to Hilarion, metropolitan of Kiev, who demonstrates a remarkable mastery of the art of oratory and a wise use of Church Slavonic. Private letters, wills, various documents of the 11th-15th centuries are contained in the inscriptions on Novgorod birch bark, discovered in 1951. The attempts to create one’s own literature, not of pure imitation, are of significant historical and literary interest. and constitute a gesture of political and cultural autonomy from Byzantium. In this respect, the Skazanie or Borise i Glebe is significant («Narration of Boris and Gleb», 12th-13th century), story of the sons of Prince Vladimir, who became the first Russian saints officially recognized by Byzantium. The skazanie, together with the slovo, the letopis ´, the povest ´, the istorija, is one of the numerous forms of historical narration of ancient Russian literature. The chronicles, divided by years, form the important line of local annals and also incorporate texts of different genres; the oldest of those surviving is that of Nestor (12th century), known as Povest ´ vremennych let (“Chronicle of Past Years”), based on earlier chronicles. Of a secular character, although inspired by religious principles, is the Poučenie (“Teaching”), a sort of spiritual testament written by Prince Vladimir II Monomachus for his sons (early 12th century). Another popular literary genre is the ‘pilgrimage’, inaugurated by the Choždenie of the Hegumen Daniil Palomnik in the Holy Land, an account of a journey made between 1106 and 1108, which combines a precise description of Palestine with copious legendary material. One of the very rare texts of a purely secular content from the pre-Mongol period is the Molenie (“Plea”) that Daniil Zatočnik (“the prisoner”) addresses to the prince of Perejaslavl´ Severnyj. The Russkaya pravda (“Russian Justice”) will serve as a model for subsequent collections of laws. ● The most precious, most studied and discussed work of ancient Russian literature is the Slovo or polku Igoreve (“Song of Igor ‘s Host “, late 12th century), the story of the campaign that the prince of Novgorod-Seversky, Igor ‘Svyatoslavič, led in 1185 against the Cumans and the battle in which he was defeated and fell prisoner. For the historical breath, the stylistic wisdom, the oratory force, the poem marks the culmination of the literature of the 12th century. and gloriously closes the period preceding the Mongol conquest.
The Mongol-Tatar rule
During the Tatar domination the prevailing genres are the lives of martyrs of the faith, alongside the stories of battles and defeats, pervaded by the feeling of guilt for the divisions that caused the divine punishment and by the desire for atonement. Such are the numerous tales about the Tatar invasion, such as the Slovo or pogibeli russkoj zemli (“Song about the ruin of the Russian land”) and the Povest ´ o razorenii Rjazani Batyem («Tale of the destruction of Ryazan´ by Batyj»). After the fall of Kiev new political and cultural centers are formed, the importance of Tver ‘grows, the links between the southern Russia and the rest of the country weaken, the principality of Moscow acquires a growing role. Following the battle of Kulikovo, on the Don (1380), the first victory of the Russians led by Dmitry Donskoy against the Golden Horde in a fight that will continue for another century, the isolation is partly broken and a intense work of translation: it is the epoch of the second South Slavic influence, when the subtle and stylistically refined treatises of the Bulgarian and Serbian mystics penetrate Russia. Numerous, in the 14th and 15th centuries, the stories of the battle of Kulikovo; the best known is Zadonščina («The epic of beyond Don», end of the 14th century), of which Sofonija, a religious from Ryazan, is said to be the author, according to some manuscripts. The Zadonščina, besides taking up motifs from the popular epic, imitates images, procedures and situations of the Slovo or polku Igoreve. Epifanij Premudrij, in his life as Stephen of Perm´ and Sergius of Radonezh, provides a high Russian example of the ‘intertwining words’ technique, originally developed in the Bulgarian school of Tărnovo. ● The Choždenie za tri morja Afanasija Nikitina («Journey beyond the three seas of Afanasij Nikitin »), Account of the adventurous journey to Persia and India made between 1466 and 1472 for commercial purposes by a merchant from Tver ‘who died on the way back. It is a sort of lively diary, full of observations, written by a man of no great culture; an exceptional work in a learned literature of almost exclusively religious inspiration.
The 15th and 16th centuries
Only towards the end of the 15th century, under the reign of Ivan III, did Muscovite Rus’ become a strong unitary state and in 1480 it managed to free itself from the dominion of the Golden Horde; the Russian Church detaches itself from the Byzantine one, claiming its autonomy and proclaiming itself heir to the mission of Constantinople after the fall of the city in the hands of the Turks (1453); at the beginning of the following century the monk Filofej elaborated the theory of Moscow Third Rome. In the writings of Nil Sorsky, advocate of a poor monasticism and contrary to the ecclesiastical ownership of material goods, and of Iosif Volockij (both 15th-16th centuries), supporter of the temporal power of the Church and of the right of monasteries to own land and goods, reflect the ideas of the two main currents of Russian monasticism. Maksim Grek (Maximus the Greek, 15th-16th century), monk of Mount Àthos sent to Moscow to provide for the revision of the sacred texts, is one of the mediators of Western influence on Russian literature; fruitful writer, he is the author of a story on the life and death of Savonarola. ● From the West, from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, comes IS Peresvetov, who confers literary dignity on the bureaucratic genre of the čelobitnaja (“Letter of homage”) and introduces artistic fiction into Russian literature. An innovative spirit was also Ermolaj-Erazm (d. 1550 ca.), author of a daring project of economic reforms and of a work of Old Russian fiction far from the stereotypes of hagiography, the Povest ´ or Petre i Fevronii («Legend of Pietro and Fevronia “). Of great linguistic and historical interest is the correspondence of the years 1564-79 between Ivan IV the Terrible and Prince AM Kurbskij, who fled to Lithuania to escape the wrath of the Tsar. Kurbsky accuses Ivan of destroying the flower of the Russian nobility and exhibits his literary culture as an aristocrat; Ivan vigorously supports his right as an autocrat, direct descendant of Caesar Augustus and representative of God on earth, and proves himself to be an instinctive writer, but cultured and skilled in handling Russian and Church Slavonic. ● The 16th century. it is characterized by an effort to unify the country’s political, economic, religious and family life, also conducted through the elaboration of common rules. The Domostroj (” Housekeeping “) proposes rules of family life valid for all classes and indicates rules of behavior for the masters and for the servants: order, cleanliness, extreme parsimony, respect for family hierarchies. Stoglav pursues similar aims in the religious sphere (“One Hundred Chapters”), a collection of provisions issued by the Council of 1551 for the formation of the clergy and the strengthening of the unity of the Church. This work of systematization is crowned by some monumental collections of a historical and hagiographic nature, such as the Licevoj letopisnyj svod (“Illustrated collection of chronicles”), an original summa of Russian history with more than a thousand illustrations; the Stepennaja kniga carskago rodoslovija (“Book of degrees of the genealogy of the tsars”), where the lives of individual tsars are narrated; i Velikie čet ´ i minei (“Great monthly readings”), 12 volumes, one per month, written by the Metropolitan Macarius of Moscow (1482-1563) and containing original and translated texts, lives of saints for each day of the year, according to the liturgical calendar.