by Alicia Chudo, edited by Andrew Sobesednikov,
with the Devil's Dictionary of Received Ideas
[in fact, by Gary Saul Morson]
The first known work of Russian literature is a piece of broken pottery on which is written the word "mustard." It should forever give the lie to those who say Russian literature did not have an impressive beginning.
The Primary School Chronichle also includes many comic narratives, such as the delightful story of two brothers named Boris and Gleb, which is only the beginning of the humor. These grand strategists know that their brother Sviatopolk means to murder them and claim the throne. Boris and Gleb decide on a plan untried in all the annals of warfare: they do nothing. This became the origin of all of Chekhov's plays.
The first (some say, last) great work of Russian poetry was The Host of the Laying of Igor, or, more literally, The Laying of Igor's Hostess. Its author is known as the Poet of the Igor Tale, but actually it was written by another unknown poet at the same time. [*] In the twentieth century, scholars began to suspect it might be a forgery written by a later poet. They pointed out that an anagram in the prologue reads "This is a forgery!" that a passage once difficult to decipher turned out to mean ''Ford Bronco," and that carbon 14 dating on the oldest surviving manuscript proved it to have been copied last Tuesday. But the prominent scholar Jacob Romanson, the only person in the world who knows the language of the ancient Polovtsy, demonstrated that the poem contains several Polovtsian words that could have been placed there only by someone who knew the language of the Polovtsy. [**]
* More recently, it has been attributed to Bakhtin.
** See Edward Queenan, "Textological Proof That Every Work of Russian Literature Is a Forgery," Journal of Slavonic Philology 434, no. 1: 222-91. The authorship of this article has been challenged.
The Igor Tale inspired many other Russian poems, all of which are lost except for the famous Zadonshchshchshchina. The author of this poem, known as the Poet of the Zadonshchshchshchina, imitates the Poet of the Igor Tale by distinguishing himself from his predecessor:
I am not Igor’s Poet, but another.
If you want him, don't even bother
To read this prologue. But don't wail:
Right here insert the Igor Tale.
And, indeed, the Igor Tale then appears in full.
The most important event of eighteenth-century Russian literature was the birth of Pushkin in 1799.
In ''The Tales of Belkin," Pushkin — or Belkin — presented five short stories, some of which seem to relate to each other in different, overlapping patterns, and so critics have looked for the key to the entire cycle. At last count, there were 827 keys, but almost no reference to a word scrawled in the margins of the original manuscript: "Gotcha!"
Alexander Herzen, like many Russian boys, spent his childhood dreaming of being arrested. [*] His greatest ambition was to be hanged, and so he became a writer. As a young man, he published "Notes of a Young Man," and as an old man, he published his reminiscences, "Notes of a Formerly Young Man." His first great success was his novel Why Did I Write This? which established the Russian tradition of using questions as titles. [**]
* The name Herzen (Of the Heart) was given to this illegitimate child by his father. However, its non-Russian origin has provoked Russian nationalists to attribute Jewish ancestry to the writer — a national sport. Indeed, at one time or another every significant figure of Russian culture has been discovered to have Jewish blood, except Pushkin. In world culture, the only figure in whom nationalists have not discovered Jewish blood is Jesus. See also the debate among Russian theologians about whether the first Jew, Abraham, had Jewish blood.
** As Herzen himself pointed out in "Why Did I Write Why Did I Write This??"
Reactionaries (in Russia, the term meant “a person one disagrees with”)...
It is conventional to distinguish between the so-called Democratic Critics and their opponents, the Bad Guys. Bad Guys praised the tsar, disparaged the rule of law, condemned the bourgeoisie, and hated Jews. The Democrats denounced the tsar, disparaged the rule of law, condemned the bourgeoisie, and hated Jews.
The founder of Russian criticism, Vissarion Belinsky, was famous for having discovered many great writers, including Botkin, Plotkin, Sotkin, and Dostoevsky; but he soon changed his mind about Dostoevsky. He declared that "Russia has no literature," which is why he became a literary critic. With his flair for innovative titles, he wrote "Review of Russian Literature in 1844," "Review of Russian Literature in 1845," "Review of Russian Literature in 1846" and, after considerable deliberation, "Review of Russian Literature in 1847." Each of these articles began with a history of Russia's nonexistent literature, along with a quick course in German philosophy, followed by praise of works characterized by thematic originality, such as Poor People, Wretched People, Suffering People, The Oppressed, The Humiliated, and My Readers.
In 1881, the Populist critic Sophia Krovoliubova, the author of a celebrated study of Russian traditional torture techniques, managed to murder the tsar on her forty-fourth try. [*] Disguising herself as a Cossack guard, she tossed a bomb at the imperial carriage, but only managed to kill the driver. When the tsar alighted to see what was the matter, she threw a second bomb, which killed the head of the Secret Police, but left the ruler unscathed. "I was going to fire him anyway," Alexander remarked, and went up to the Cossack to shake her hand, when, removing a dagger hanging around her neck, she managed to scratch his face. Rushed immediately back to the Imperial Palace, he was treated by Russian physicians and died within three hours. His son, Alexander the Next, intended to suspend the Russian constitution and declare martial law, but Russia had no constitution, and martial law had been in effect since the Temporary Ukase of 1823.
* On her twenty-second attempt, she managed to place a bomb under the dining room of the Winter Palace, but the plan miscarried when, two hours before the bomb was to go off, the dining room collapsed on its own. Attempt twenty-four ended when six terrorists digging a tunnel under the tsar's carriage route hit a water main and drowned. The twenty-fifth attempt, which involved successfully having a member of her organization made the tsar's personal bodyguard, ended when the bodyguard was killed by a terrorist. Attempt forty misfired when the would-be assassin got his instructions confused and took his cyanide tablet before shooting the tsar.