Hagiography and Modern Russian Literature

Hagiography and Modern Russian Literature

by Margaret Ziolkowski

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The heritage of medieval hagiography, the diverse and voluminous literature devoted to saints, was much more important in nineteenth-century Russia than is often recognized. Although scholars have treated examples of the influence of hagiographic writing on a few prominent Russian writers, Margaret Ziolkowski is the first to describe the vast extent of its impact.


The heritage of medieval hagiography, the diverse and voluminous literature devoted to saints, was much more important in nineteenth-century Russia than is often recognized. Although scholars have treated examples of the influence of hagiographic writing on a few prominent Russian writers, Margaret Ziolkowski is the first to describe the vast extent of its impact. Some of the authors she discusses are Kondratii Ryleev, Aleksandr Bestuzhev-Marlinskii, Fedor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Leskov, Gleb Uspenskii, Dmitrii Merezhkovskii, and Maksimilian Voloshin. Such writers were often exposed to saints' lives at an early age, and these stories left a deep impression to be dealt with later, whether favorably or otherwise.

Professor Ziolkowski identifies and analyzes the most common usages of hagiographic material by Russian writers, as well as the variety of purposes that inspired this exploitation of their cultural past. Tolstoy, for instance, employed hagiographic sources to attack the organized church and the institution of monasticism. Individual chapters treat the influence of hagiography on the poetry of the Decembrists, reworkings of specific hagiographic legends or tales, and the application of hagiographic conventions and features to contemporary characters and situations.

Originally published in 1988.

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Hagiography and Modern Russian Literature

By Margaret Ziolkowski


Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
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ISBN: 978-0-691-06737-7



Everyone of us has met people sitting reverently lost in thought over some Life of Eustathius and Placidas or Feodosii of the Caves, — and everyone must admit that they could ponder over this more deeply and fruitfully than over much of our contemporary literature.

Vasilii Kliuchevskii

The hem of our Russian caftan shows below the European frockcoat; we have shaved our beards, but have not washed our faces.

Ivan Kireevskii

In 1880 a flood made attendance at Easter services impossible for people in the vicinity of Abramtsevo, then the estate of Sawa Mamontov, a wealthy Moscow industrialist and enthusiastic patron of the arts. This incident gave rise to the idea of building a church on the estate itself. Those involved in the project, members of Mamontov's artists' colony, decided to construct the church in medieval Novgorodian style. Before finishing the designs, they visited laroslavl' and Rostov-the-Great, which were considered to possess some of the finest examples of Old Russian art and architecture. By the time the church was completed in 1882, several of the most prominent artists of the latter part of the nineteenth century had participated in its planning and construction. The result was a building which, though representative of a highly stylized interpretation of Old Russian architecture, pays eloquent tribute to an enthusiasm for medieval art.

Far from being an isolated episode in the history of Russian culture, the church at Abramtsevo is only one illustration of the growing interest throughout the eighteenth and especially the nineteenth centuries in pre-Petrine Russia, its art, architecture, music, religion, and literature. This interest expressed itself in part in an effort to recognize and preserve native cultural artifacts. This was the impetus for many scholarly expeditions throughout Russia which sought to record ancient artistic and architectural monuments. Medieval icons were eventually the beneficiaries of such enthusiastic rediscovery and restoration. This kind of antiquarian approach to medieval culture was evident as well in numerous attempts, like the one at Abramtsevo, to adapt medieval subjects and techniques to contemporary architectural and artistic projects. Buildings constructed in the so-called "Russian style," the Moscow Historical Museum (1873–1883) and city duma building (1890–1892), for example, and paintings like Vasilii Surikov's "Boiarynia Morozova" (1881–1887) and Viktor Vasnetsov's "After the Battle of Igor' Sviatoslavich with the Polovtsy" (1880) all owe their genesis at least in part to the revival of interest in and appreciation of medieval Russia. Many artists turned increasingly to subjects characteristic or evocative of medieval Russia. Apollinarii Vasnetsov devoted himself to pictorial representations of medieval Moscow, while his brother specialized in icons and fairytale scenes. At the end of the century several artists produced paintings of scenes of isolated monastic life. The paintings by Mikhail Nesterov devoted to the life of one of Russia's greatest saints, Sergii of Radonezh (1314–1392), provide an excellent example. Such endeavors often involved an interrelationship between different spheres of cultural activity. Thus the ethnographic novels of Pavel Mel'nikov-Pecherskii to some extent inspired Nesterov, while Il'ia Repin agreed to produce illustrations for Nikolai Leskov's adaptations of medieval hagiographical legends.

In the music world, the Balakirev circle, which included the composers Milii Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Modest Musorgsky, Aleksandr Borodin, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, revealed an enthusiasm for native folk, historical, and religious motifs that helped to introduce a renaissance in Russian music. Here as well their activities included both preservation and adaptation. Balakirev, who is remembered for his collection of folk songs that appeared in 1866, later also transcribed ancient liturgical chants. As in art, in music historical and legendary themes became popular. Examples include operas like Musorgsky's Boris Godunov (1872), which was based on Alexander Pushkin's drama of the same name, Borodin's Prince Igor' (1890), and Rimsky-Korsakov's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1903–1904).

In literature, the second half of the nineteenth century also witnessed a rash of efforts to locate and collect medieval and folk monuments of various kinds, both oral and written. While the ethnographer Aleksandr Afanas'ev sought out popular tales and legends, scholarly and religious groups published new editions of saints' Lives and other types of religious literature. The novels of Mel'nikov-Pecherskii, which described the peculiarities of isolated communities of schismatics, attracted attention, as did historical fiction like Aleksei K. Tolstoy's dramatic trilogy devoted to the Time of Troubles, the violent interregnum at the turn of the seventeenth century. A particular area of interest was literature concerned with saints. In the 1870s and 1880s the adaptation of hagiographical legends and tales from the Middle Ages enjoyed a certain vogue, while throughout the latter half of the century several writers, most notably Fedor Dostoevsky, applied hagiographical techniques to contemporary characters and situations. The variety of ways in which writers throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries exploited hagiographical literature and its conventions in their own writings is the subject of this study.

The background to the exploration of hagiography as an area of literary endeavor is of paramount importance in appreciating its cultural significance. It would be a mistake to regard the widespread enthusiasm for pre-Petrine culture that manifested itself in the late nineteenth century as a spontaneous development. The roots of this minor renaissance can be traced at least to the beginning of that century and involve a variety of complex historical, religious, and ideological considerations. When viewed in this light, the accomplishments at Abramtsevo appear less a beginning than a logical culmination of established trends.

The developing curiosity about medieval Russian literary and artistic productions was to a large extent preceded by an heightened interest in Russian history. As early as the eighteenth century, a gnawing sense of cultural inferiority vis-à-vis the West drove some members of the educated elite to seek inspiration in the past, "to show that Russia, no less than other countries, had produced great men, and that she was no Johnny-come-lately in the family of nations." This purposeful search through the past was in part encouraged by a growing recognition by some upper-class Russians that the reforms introduced by Peter the Great had not been an unmitigated blessing. Increased public demand for a lively, colorful, and suitably flattering account of Russian history was eventually met by the popular author Nikolai Karamzin, whose History of the Russian State (Istoriia gosudarstva Rossiiskogo, 1818–1829) enjoyed an unprecedented success. Karamzin and some of his contemporaries, the publisher Nikolai Novikov, for example, recognized that history could serve a propagandistic function by instilling patriotism. Karamzin's magnum opus contributed to the fulfillment of this end, not only for the early nineteenth-century reading public, but for subsequent generations as well. "I grew up on Karamzin," Dostoevsky wrote to the publicist and literary critic Nikolai Strakhov, who himself had as an adolescent greatly admired the historian's writings. Throughout the century, Karamzin's tendentious views were eagerly embraced by many conservatives.

Karamzin's History did not win the complete approval of all segments of the literate population. Its avowedly pro-autocratic ideological stance provoked the scorn of many liberals. Yet even as it irritated or enraged, it often awakened or intensified an interest in Russian history. The case of Karamzin and his supporters and detractors amply demonstrates that from very early in the century, adherents of political perspectives ranging from the most conservative to the most radical exhibited a desire to analyze the Russian past. One way in which this desire expressed itself was in attempts to amass information and locate ancient literary monuments, like chronicles, tales, or saints' Lives.

Some of these efforts preceded the appearance of Karamzin's History. The activities of the members of the Rumiantsev circle in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century are especially significant. The nobleman Nikolai Rumiantsev (1754–1826) used his vast wealth both to acquire manuscripts, books, and other antiquities and to support the work of several scholars on a variety of topics, many of which related to the Slavic Middle Ages. His collection eventually became an important part of the Lenin Library holdings. From the late eighteenth century on, various other societies, circles, and enterprising individuals also collected and studied chronicles and other literary works, as well as folklore and Old Russian verse. Karamzin himself made use of some previously unexploited sources, including certain saints' Lives. As the century progressed, efforts aimed at locating and examining the literature of the past continued to increase.

It was not only an uneasy sense of inferiority that contributed to the growth of concern for the Russian past, but also a nationalistic spirit fueled by contemporary political events. Like many Europeans, conservative Russians were tremendously worried by the French Revolution and its aftermath. As hostility developed in the early years of the nineteenth century between Napoleon's France and Alexander I's Russia, nationalism found increasing expression in artistic renditions of glorious episodes from Russian history. For example, Vladislav Ozerov's play Dmitrii Donskoi (1807), which deals with the Russian victory over the Mongols in 1380, had a highly successful response when it premiered shortly after the battle of Preussisch-Eylau. Such patriotic literature, which often descended into bathos and crude jingoism, became a regular component of the Russian literary scene. The Russian defeat of Napoleon, the Polish uprising of 1831, and later the Crimean War, as well as periodic outbursts of nationalistic exhortations by the tsarist government, contributed to an atmosphere that fostered this tendency.

In addition to nationalistic sentiments, another factor that stimulated a fascination with the past in the early nineteenth century was the influx of romantic literature, particularly the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott. While a knowledge of English was not common among upper-class Russians, in the 1820s many were exposed to the writer's works through French or Russian translation. Some of the latter were produced by foremost Russian poets, like Vasilii Zhukovskii. These works did much to remedy the low opinion many Russians had of the Middle Ages in general. Moreover, as Peter K. Christoff points out in his discussion of the impact of romanticism on Russian intellectuals, "from thoughts of England, it was but a step to the medieval Slavic world." Scott's captivating descriptions of the medieval period did much to dispel any lingering doubts some liberal Russians may have had about its suitability as an object of admiration. In addition, in the following decades the vogue for native "Waverley" novels, which began with Mikhail Zagoskin's enormously popular Iurii Miloslavskii, or the Russians in 1612 (1829), further enhanced the popularity of the Russian Middle Ages. The enthusiasm for such novels continued for many years; as late as 1862, Aleksei K. Tolstoy produced Prince Serebriannyi, which reflected Scott's strong influence. Not everyone shared the reservations expressed by the critic Vissarion Belinskii, whose attitude towards medieval Russian culture is cuttingly expressed in his comments on Old Russian literature:

Without any doubt, our literature began in 1739 when Lomonosov sent his first ode from abroad ... Is it necessary to try to prove that the "Lay of Igor's Campaign," "The Legend of the Don Battle," the eloquent "Epistle of Vassian to Ivan III," and other historical monuments, folk songs, and scholastic spiritual oratory have exactly the same relation to our literature as the monuments of antediluvian literature, if they were discovered, to Sanskrit, Greek, or Latin literature?

Throughout the early and mid-nineteenth century, many Russians succumbed to a greater or lesser extent to the lure of the past. As a group, none fell so fully under its sway as the Slavophiles, a circle of thinkers who found inspiration in the cultural legacy of Old Russia and the Orthodox Church. They played an important role in bringing various aspects of medieval and traditional Russian culture to the attention of their contemporaries.

The Slavophile conception of medieval Russia was a highly idealized and romanticized one. One of the most astute observations about their attitude was enunciated by the writer Sergei Aksakov regarding his son Konstantin, a Slavophile historian, when he commented that it would be desirable for the latter to "remain his entire life in his pleasant state of error, for enlightenment {would be] impossible without grave and bitter disappointment; so let him go on living and believing in the perfection of Rus'." There was indeed something touchingly naive about the Slavophile devotion to Old Russia and rejection of the westernizing tendencies introduced by Peter the Great. Konstantin Aksakov's fellow Slavophile, the eminent folklorist Petr Kireevskii, is said to have expressed regret that he bore the same name as Peter, while the philosopher and wit Petr Chaadaev observed with tongue in cheek that Aksakov himself wore 'native' clothing, including a sheepskin hat, only to be mistaken on the streets for a Persian. Their personal foibles aside, however, the Slavophiles did much to bring medieval and traditional Russian culture to the attention of the educated public:

They were vociferous and consistent advocates of the need for returning to the original and native sources of Russian life. To effect this goal, many of them took action: Peter Kireevskii collected folk songs, Ivan Kireevskii helped the monks at Optina Pustyn' to edit the works of fathers and monastic reformers of the Eastern Church, Constantine Aksakov and Alexis Khomiakov wrote books or articles concerning Russian history and Orthodox Church theology, Constantine Aksakov studied Russian peasant customs and traditions, and Iurii Samarin participated in the preparatory committees whose work paved the way for the emancipation of the Russian serfs.

In spite of their efforts, the influence of the Slavophiles nonetheless remained limited, and at times their attitudes encountered opposition not only from their more European-oriented contemporaries, the so-called Westernizers, like Alexander Herzen and Belinskii, but from the conservative tsarist government as well. But with the development of the Russian Panslavist movement, which has been called the "ideological heir of Russian Slavophilism," an often chauvinistic attitude towards Slavic culture attracted a widespread following. Stimulated to some extent by the Crimean War, the movement later gained impetus from the events leading up to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878. In Panslavism, which in Russia more often assumed the form of a thinly veiled Panrussianism, nationalism and a romanticized conception of Slavdom coalesced with the expansionist political aims of many conservatives. Given some official recognition, in the late 1850s and 1860s the Panslavists established Slavonic Benevolent Committees, organizations interested in strengthening ties among the Slavs, which sought to promote their efforts largely through various educative efforts. The membership of these organizations drew on university, ecclesiastical, and political circles, as well as on conservative intellectuals like Dostoevsky.


Excerpted from Hagiography and Modern Russian Literature by Margaret Ziolkowski. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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