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Moscow News
March 13, 2008
Russia's Essence
By Daria Chernyshova

I doubt there is anybody who has never heard the names Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But for the Russian people, they are more than just names: they represent the very essence of our culture. Russians adore their native writers and poets and pay a lot of attention to learning their works at school and reading them in their leisure time.

It is a bit surprising to learn, then, that Russian literature doesn't have deep roots. It began mainly as folklore and ecclesiastical works. As folklore there were lots of tales and verses that were later fixed in writing. Ecclesiastical literature too was an integral part of our cultural inheritance - a set of hagiographies and treatises was the only written word for long time. But the reforms of Peter the Great gave birth to the necessity to use literature not only for the needs of the church, but also for the needs of the government. Literature adopted a productive function and acquired some features from the West. Then, Vasily Trediakovsky introduced Russian poetry, and from there on literature flourished in Russia, boasting a great number of talented writers.

While studying in school Russian pupils often have literature classes, during which they discuss and analyze the characters; what is good and what is bad, historical events. Not bald facts but impressions seen through the prism of the author's personal attitude, I hope that the same happens in the West, but I may definitely say that for Russians literature is very important. Among all classes of Russians it is difficult to find a person who hasn't read War and Peace or Pushkin's poetry.

All the works have their characters, which represent special features of Russian mentality. They set the examples of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. They show how Russian people have lived through the centuries, under different rulers. Thus there are some characters that display typical Russian traits. In school, while reading Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls I was taught that characters such as Plushkin or Sobakevich are significant in terms of representing real Russians. It is common to use these names to describe somebody, pointing out specific features in them. When politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky called his audience at a conference "Gerasims," from Ivan Turgenev's "Mumu," everyone knew what he was talking about. Gerasim, its principal hero, was mute and so (Zhirinovsky thought) was the audience. The point would never be lost on a Russian audience. By the way, literature is something that occupies a truly significant place in the lives of the Russian people. But since writing excites people's sentiments, literature came to be controlled. It became a part of political games, a means of censure.

Though there are numerous popular writers today, Russians still read classics to take pleasure in marvelous examples of literary language, outstanding characters, to feel the spirit of an epoch or to find out about the impact of events. People live with literature, and through it they read and perceive the world.

Finally, the representatives of Russian literature are known around the world. Doesn't this mean that Russian literature is worth reading, and the language worth learning?