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The culture of Russia

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Cultural life of Russia

The development of Russian culture

The rich and distinctive culture of Russia has evolved through a complex fusion of indigenous Slavic elements and diverse external influences. During the formative Kievan era, approximately spanning the 10th to the 13th centuries, Eastern Orthodox Byzantine culture played a significant role in shaping the cultural landscape. Subsequently, in the Muscovite era, from the 14th to the 17th centuries, this Slavic and Byzantine cultural foundation was further augmented and transformed by the introduction of Asian elements, brought forth by the Mongol invasions. Progressing into the modern era, commencing in the 18th century, the cultural tapestry of Russia was further enriched by the assimilation of Western European cultural traditions, contributing to the multifaceted cultural identity that characterizes Russia today.

The Kievan period

Despite the persistence of certain elements of Slavic culture within the territories of Kievan Rus after its conversion to Christianity in 988, as documented in The Russian Primary Chronicle, comprehensively understanding the cultural framework that shaped the lives of the early Slavs remains elusive. Nevertheless, from the 10th century onwards, sufficient evidence has been preserved to construct a relatively detailed depiction of the cultural milieu of Old Russian society. High culture during the Kievan Rus era was predominantly religious in nature. General literacy was limited, and the creation of artistic works was almost solely the domain of monastic scribes. The initial literary productions were translations from Greek into Old Church Slavonic, a South Slavic language sufficiently similar to Old Russian to be intelligible at the time.

By the 11th century, monastic scholars began to create original compositions, drawing inspiration from Byzantine examples. These works included hagiographies, historical accounts, and sermons. Additionally, a significant secular masterpiece emerged: “The Song of Igor’s Campaign,” an epic narrative from the late 12th century chronicling an unsuccessful military venture against the Polovtsy.

There is also evidence, mainly derived from ecclesiastical efforts to suppress them, of a robust vernacular culture rooted in pre-Christian customs associated with agricultural, nuptial, and funerary practices.

However, the most consequential contributions of Kievan culture to the evolution of contemporary Russian culture were not in literature or folklore, but rather in the realms of art and architecture. Early Slavic leaders demonstrated their devotion and flaunted their opulence through the erection of stone churches. Initially, these structures adhered to Byzantine designs, exemplified by the 11th-century St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, which remains intact. Subsequently, a distinct Russian architectural style emerged, with the churches in and near Vladimir, to the east of Moscow, serving as prime examples. The interiors of many of these edifices were lavishly adorned with frescoes and icons, adding to their historical and cultural significance.

The Muscovite period

The early 13th-century Mongol (Tatar) incursions wrought significant devastation upon Kievan Rus, leading to a substantial decline in its vitality. However, by the 14th century, the region witnessed a resurgence in its political and cultural spheres with the emergence of Muscovy (Moscow) as the new epicenter. This revival maintained a link to the traditions of Kiev through the enduring influence of the Orthodox Church. The Church remained a pivotal institution during the Tatar hegemony, preserving a sense of national identity and continuing to shape the essence of Russian culture well into the 17th century.

As a consequence, the cultural evolution of Russia during the Muscovite era diverged markedly from that of Western Europe, which at the time was undergoing a transformation characterized by societal secularization and the Renaissance’s revival of classical antiquity.

Initially, Muscovite literary works were reminiscent of the genres prevalent in the Kievan period. Nonetheless, the literary landscape of Muscovy eventually produced distinctive masterpieces. Among these, the exchange of letters in the 1560s and 70s between Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) and Andrey Mikhaylovich, Prince Kurbsky, stands out as particularly significant. After defecting to Poland, Kurbsky penned a critical letter regarding the Tsar’s governance, to which Ivan IV responded with eloquent and vehement rejoinders. These responses artfully merged the elevated language of Muscovite saintly literature with incisive and sometimes coarse rebukes directed at his adversary.

In a similar vein of robust expression, the first comprehensive Russian autobiography was penned by Avvakum Petrovich. Titled “The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum, by Himself” and composed around 1672–75, it represents another formidable contribution to Muscovite literature.

Notwithstanding these literary achievements, the most profound cultural contributions of the Muscovite period were in the visual arts and architecture, much like in the Kievan era. The Moscow school of iconography gave rise to illustrious masters, including Dionisy and Andrey Rublyov, whose “Old Testament Trinity” is enshrined as one of the most venerated icons, presently housed in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery.

Russian architectural prowess continued to flourish with the construction of monumental churches, epitomized by the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed, situated on Moscow’s Red Square. Erected to celebrate the Russian conquest of Kazan, the Tatar stronghold, the cathedral exemplifies the fusion of Byzantine and Asiatic influences that define Muscovite culture.

The emergence of modern Russian culture

The 17th-century shift of Russian orientation towards Western Europe initiated a profound transformation of Russian interests throughout the rule of Peter I (1682–1725). Peter the Great, despite his lack of interest in cultural affairs, inadvertently fostered a cultural resurgence as Western influences—brought in with the technologies he favored—along with the diminishing influence of the Orthodox Church, permeated the Russian ethos during the tenure of his successors.

This period saw significant literary advancements. Poets Mikhail Lomonosov and Vasily Trediakovsky, in the late 1730s, executed reforms comparable in impact to those of Peter himself. By integrating German syllabotonic versification into Russian, they established the “classical” metrical structures that continue to dominate Russian poetry.

In the 1740s, following the model of French Neoclassicism, Aleksandr Sumarokov penned Russia’s inaugural stage tragedies. Throughout the 18th century, Russian authors absorbed and adapted a variety of European literary forms. Despite the derivative nature of much of their work, the comedies of Denis Fonvizin and the profound, dignified odes of Gavrila Derzhavin stood out for their originality and have been preserved as integral components of Russia’s active cultural legacy.

The emergence of prose fiction towards the century’s end was marked by the sentimental works of Nikolay Karamzin. By the dawn of the 19th century, Russia had emerged from a 75-year period of cultural tutelage under Europe, equipped with a versatile secular literary language, a mastery of contemporary Western literary structures, and the capacity to produce wholly original cultural contributions.

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